Thirty miles off the coast of bustling Galway City is Inishmore, an island that has somehow, for better or worse, managed to slow everyone’s greatest enemy– time. This often-overlooked area of Ireland is steeped in all kinds of history, extending far beyond its famous Aran sweaters. Archeological remains prove that people have lived on Inishmore for the past 5,500 to 6,000 years. A Catholic saint shares his quiet graveyard with ancient Romans and the unexploited ruins of two stone churches. There is one bank, and it’s only open on Wednesdays. The local basket maker keeps a stack of rushes and reeds in his front yard down the road. This is one of the last remaining glimpses of accessible Old Ireland — the romanticized version of the culture thought only to be available in movies these days.
Inishmore (from the Irish Inis Mór, meaning “the great island”) is the largest of the three Aran Islands at almost nine miles long and two miles wide. It houses 800 to 900 residents, the majority of whom speak Irish as their first language but would understand English perfectly. Due to its relative isolation, most of its artifacts and customs have been preserved much better than on “the mainland.” Nobody seems to mind that the island didn’t have any kind of electricity until the 1970s – and even then people produced their own electricity through oil generators, coal, and wind power. In August 1996, an electric cable finally linked the Aran Islands to the mainland grid work.
P.J. O’Flaherty has seen all of these changes firsthand. With the exception of a 10-year run as a musician in Salthill, County Galway, O’Flaherty has lived on Inishmore his entire 40-odd years. He remembers being sick as a child and having to go to Galway City to see a doctor. In those days, the ferries from Inishmore only ran a few times a week and were more likely to be cancelled on account of stormy weather. His five minute doctor check-up turned into a week-long stay in the city waiting to get home. Times have changed for Inishmore with the boom in Irish tourism, and now ferries run at least twice a day. Flaherty, like most residents, prefers to take the six-minute flight back and forth.
“You’re always guaranteed a window seat because only two [people] can fit side by side on the plane,” says Flaherty with a smile and a wink. He isn’t really joking – the plane holds eight passengers.
Time may have slowed down for Inishmore, but tourism hasn’t. Each year, 300,000 people visit from all over the world. The islanders are well aware of Inishmore’s pull, and it seems that everyone offers guided tours in either their horse-drawn trap or tour van. O’Flaherty has been in the business for 25 years, running the Aran Fisherman Restaurant. He recently built the Aran Island Hotel, now in its second season. This hotel has the distinction of being the first and only official hotel on the island (other accommodations are B&Bs or hostels). O’Flaherty sits at a table in the hotel bar near the fireplace, his blue eyes looking out through his square-rimmed black glasses. He barely pauses while singing Inishmore’s praises. His family still lives on the island, and he’s raised his three children here.
“I think nature’s been kind to the island geographically,” he says. While Inishmore is unquestionably beautiful and unique, nature was arguably cruel to be kind. The dramatic, jagged cliffs are a result of forceful weathering and erosion, credited with severing the Aran Islands from the mainland to begin with. The island is under a constant three-fold attack from strong winds, rainstorms, and crashing waves; its façade is steadily changing as time goes on. It is, however, too small for snow.
O’Flaherty remembers the last time it snowed on Inishmore: “December 8, 1989, and it didn’t stick.” Many would define the six month incessant onslaught of cold mist and bulleting rain as miserable, but O’Flaherty says, “It’s lovely in winter. I like the storms.” His English is impeccable, but like everyone else raised on Inishmore, Irish is his language.
“I would predominantly think in Irish. I would pray in Irish,” he explains. This comes in contrast to other parts of Ireland, where Irish is taught as a language to school children but not spoken freely at home.
“People see the value of their own culture now, instead of trying to be satellite cities like New York and London,” O’Flaherty says proudly. “One of our greatest treasures is our personality and way of life.”
Just how strong the Irish tradition of community is here can be seen in the Roadside Monuments, a unique man-made feature of the Inishmore landscape. Years ago, it was customary for funeral processions to stop at certain places along the road on the way to the cemetery. They would rest the coffin and create a memorial out of stones. These stones still stand, undisturbed and relatively unnoticed.
The naturally rocky limestone landscape was created out of debris that gathered some 400 million years ago on the then-subtropical, shallow, carboniferous ocean floor. Eventually, the ocean receded and a disturbance in the earth’s crust pushed up thick layers of limestone everywhere.
For the ancient Celts, utilizing the land meant working with the large, omnipresent stones. They did an impressive job, judging by the structures remaining on Inishmore. The 2,000-year-old Dun Aenghus (Dún Aonghasa, in Irish), atop a 300-foot cliff, is the most famous fort on Inishmore and one of the largest in north-western Europe. The lesser visited Black Fort (Dubh Cathair) is estimated to be about 1,000 years older than the rest, built between 100 BC and 400 AD. The ruins of the Seven Churches currently contain two old churches and the remnants of a few 15th-century buildings that likely housed monks. An 11th-century high cross at the Penitential Station is next to an early cross-slab marking Saint Brecan’s grave. The Grave of the Seven Romans, inscribed “VII Romani,” references the seven martyred sons of various saints who were all killed in 120 AD during Hadrian’s reign.
All of these sights are off the main road on Inishmore. Residents from any of the 18 villages pass them every day on their way to the one main store or any of the three primary schools, three graveyards, or six pubs. As with everywhere else in Ireland, times are certainly changing for the island, but in much more moderation. Just recently, the other two Aran Islands (Inisheer and Inishmaan) got their own priest, so the one living on Inishmore no longer has to fly his plane between the three to say mass. A doctor now lives on the island, as well.
When asked if he ever feels cut off from the rest of society, P.J. O’Flaherty laughs and replies, “Isolation is in the mind.” While Inishmore residents realize their unique situation and the amusement it gives outsiders, for the most part they wouldn’t have it any other way. People on Inishmore have everything they need, but they have one option instead of hundreds and that’s fine with them. No matter where in the world you are, you can’t completely stop time – but with a little luck and a lot of determination, you can slow it.
How To Get There:
Island Ferries runs numerous boats from Rossaveal to Inishmore and back each day. A shuttle service from Galway to Rossaveal runs approximately an hour before each departure. Combined tickets can be purchased from the Island Ferries office in Galway City.