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The Craic with Catherine: Sights at the Aran Islands

By Catherine Kruse | Evergreen columnist abroad

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Kids are cute right up until they start eating your shorts. I’m talking about goats, people.

A short bus and ferry ride away from Galway are the Aran Islands, originally known as “The Islands of Saints and Scholars.” This trio of islands has deep roots in Celtic culture, and ergo has great significance to Irish heritage.

As an excursion with my study abroad group, we took a cycling tour of the island called Inis Mór (Inishmore), the “Big Island.” The island has about 700 residents, in addition to many sheep and cattle farmers.

One of our stops included a trip to a goat farmer. He raised goats mainly for milk and sells the cheese around the island. Many of the local restaurants get their supply of cheese and milk from these farmers.

The landscape of the island is a mix of rock and green. There are large areas of rocky land, and cliffs are prominent. According to the Aran Islands website, Inis Mór has more than 50 different monuments from Christian, pre-Christian and Celtic mythological eras.

One of these monuments I visited was a Bronze-Age fort called Dún Aonghasa. The stone structure had four walls, including its inner building. The core of the fort rests only a couple hundred feet from a cliff edge, dropping 300 feet to the Atlantic below.

The walls of the fort were 15 feet thick, made from 200 tons of stone.

The regality of the fort was a way to show a sign of chiefdom and power, and measures had to be taken to ensure the fort wouldn’t be captured.

Some might think that building a fort next to a cliff would corner it, but surrounding the outer wall of the fort were seemingly random rocks that stuck straight up into the air.

These were actually put there on purpose to stop armies, especially those on horses, from advancing beyond the fort’s first wall.

Within the inner wall was a housing area that could hold an extended family, up to about 30 people. Archeologists have dug up late Bronze-Age items such as rings, tools and beads. Some suggest that the rocky cliff edge overlooking the ocean might have had ritual significance, according to the website.

For tourists and locals alike, the Aran Islands seem to be most famous for their knitwear. The Aran Island jumper (sweater) consists of complex stitch patterns, each one representative of Irish culture, like the Tree of Life, an important Celtic symbol. These sweaters are called “geansai” in Irish Gaelic.

According to the website, traditional Aran jumpers are created from undyed yarn made of sheep’s wool, unwashed so as to hold their water repellency. This was a common item of clothing for the fishermen on the island.

This type of knitting pattern is also seen in socks, headbands, and scarves. While the sweaters can be a little pricy, it is worth it to find a piece of true Irish clothing that keeps one warm in the winter.

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The Craic with Catherine: Sights at the Aran Islands