The geography of the Aran Islands is very simple, yet it may need a
word to itself. There are three islands: Aranmor, the north island,
about nine miles long; Inishmaan, the middle island, about three
miles and a half across, and nearly round in form; and the south
island, Inishere - in Irish, east island, - like the middle island but
slightly smaller. They lie about thirty miles from Galway, up the
centre of the bay, but they are not far from the cliffs of County
Clare, on the south, or the corner of Connemara on the north.
Kilronan, the principal village on Aranmor, has been so much changed
by the fishing industry, developed there by the Congested Districts
Board, that it has now very little to distinguish it from any
fishing village on the west coast of Ireland. The other islands are
more primitive, but even on them many changes are being made, that
it was not worth while to deal with in the text.
In the pages that follow I have given a direct account of my life on
the islands, and of what I met with among them, inventing nothing,
and changing nothing that is essential. As far as possible, however,
I have disguised the identity of the people I speak of, by making
changes in their names, and in the letters I quote, and by altering
some local and family relationships. I have had nothing to say about
them that was not wholly in their favour, but I have made this
disguise to keep them from ever feeling that a too direct use had
been made of their kindness, and friendship, for which I am more
grateful than it is easy to say.
I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of
Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room.
The steamer which comes to Aran sails according to the tide, and it
was six o'clock this morning when we left the quay of Galway in a
dense shroud of mist.
A low line of shore was visible at first on the right between the
movement of the waves and fog, but when we came further it was lost
sight of, and nothing could be seen but the mist curling in the
rigging, and a small circle of foam.
There were few passengers; a couple of men going out with young pigs
tied loosely in sacking, three or four young girls who sat in the
cabin with their heads completely twisted in their shawls, and a
builder, on his way to repair the pier at Kilronan, who walked up
and down and talked with me.
In about three hours Aran came in sight. A dreary rock appeared at
first sloping up from the sea into the fog; then, as we drew nearer,
a coast-guard station and the village.
A little later I was wandering out along the one good roadway of the
island, looking over low walls on either side into small flat fields
of naked rock. I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water
were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at limes a wild
torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and
cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields of
potatoes or grass hidden away in corners that had shelter. Whenever
the cloud lifted I could see the edge of the sea below me on the
right, and the naked ridge of the island above me on the other side.
Occasionally I passed a lonely chapel or schoolhouse, or a line of
stone pillars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a
prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated.
I met few people; but here and there a band of tall girls passed me
on their way to Kilronan, and called out to me with humorous wonder,
speaking English with a slight foreign intonation that differed a
good deal from the brogue of Galway. The rain and cold seemed to
have no influence on their vitality and as they hurried past me with
eager laughter and great talking in Gaelic, they left the wet masses
of rock more desolate than before.
A little after midday when I was coming back one old half-blind man
spoke to me in Gaelic, but, in general, I was surprised at the
abundance and fluency of the foreign tongue.
In the afternoon the rain continued, so I sat here in the inn
looking out through the mist at a few men who were unlading hookers
that had come in with turf from Connemara, and at the long-legged
pigs that were playing in the surf. As the fishermen came in and out
of the public-house underneath my room, I could hear through the
broken panes that a number of them still used the Gaelic, though it
seems to be falling out of use among the younger people of this
The old woman of the house had promised to get me a teacher of the
language, and after a while I heard a shuffling on the stairs, and
the old dark man I had spoken to in the morning groped his way into
I brought him over to the fire, and we talked for many hours. He
told me that he had known Petrie and Sir William Wilde, and many
living antiquarians, and had taught Irish to Dr. Finck and Dr.
Pedersen, and given stories to Mr. Curtin of America. A little after
middle age he had fallen over a cliff, and since then he had had
little eyesight, and a trembling of his hands and head.
As we talked he sat huddled together over the fire, shaking and
blind, yet his face was indescribably pliant, lighting up with an
ecstasy of humour when he told me anything that had a point of wit
or malice, and growing sombre and desolate again when he spoke of
religion or the fairies.