The islands are renowned for their writers. One of Ireland’s foremost Irish language poets of the 20th century Máirtín Ó Direáin was born and raised in the village of Sruthán on Inis Mór. Liam O Flaherty the world renowned bi-lingual novelist and short story writer was from the village of Gort na gCapall in Inis Mór. The present day modern Irish writer Darach Ó Chonghaile was born on Inis Meáin and now lives in Inis Oírr.
The islands have had an influence on world literature and arts disproportionate to their size. The unusual cultural and physical history of the islands has made them the object of visits by a variety of writers and travellers who recorded their experiences.
Beginning around the late 19th Century, many Irish writers travelled to the Aran Islands; Lady Gregory, for example, came to Aran in the late nineteenth century to learn Irish.
Many wrote down their experiences in a personal vein, alternately casting them as narratives about finding, or failing to find, some essential aspect of Irish culture that had been lost to the more urban regions of Ireland. A second, related kind of visitor were those who attempted to collect and cataloge the stories and folklore of the island, treating it as a kind of societal “time capsule” of an earlier stage of Irish culture. Visitors of this kind differed in their desires to integrate with the island culture, and most were content to be considered observers. The culmination of this mode of interacting with the island might well be Robert J. Flaherty’s 1934 classic documentary Man of Aran.
One might consider John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands as a work that straddles these first two modes, it being both a personal account and also an attempt at preserving information about the pre- (or a-) literate Aran culture in literary form. The motivations of these visitors are best exemplified by W. B. Yeats’ advice to Synge: “Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature.” In the second half of the twentieth century, up until perhaps the early 1970s, one sees a third kind of visitor to the islands. These visitors came not necessarily because of the uniquely “Irish” nature of the island community, but simply because the accidents of geography and history conspired to produce a society that some found intriguing or even beguiling and that they wished to participate in directly. It should be emphasized that at no time was there a single “Aran” culture: any description must be necessarily incomplete and can be said to apply completely only to parts of the island at certain points in time. However, those visitors of this third kind that came and stayed were attracted to the aspects of Aran culture that were:
Isolated from mainstream print and electronic media, and thus reliant primarily on local oral tradition for both entertainment and news.
Rarely visited or understood by outsiders.
Strongly influenced in its traditions and attitudes by the unusually savage weather of Galway Bay.
In many parts characterized by subsistence, or near-subsistence, farming and fishing.
Adapted to the absence of luxuries that many parts of the Western world had enjoyed for decades and in some cases, centuries.
For these reasons, the Aran Islands were “decoupled” from cultural developments that were at the same time radically changing other parts of Ireland and Western Europe. Though visitors of this third kind understood that the culture they encountered was intimately connected to that of Ireland, they were not particularly inclined to interpret their experience as that of “Irishness.”
Instead, they looked directly towards ways in which their time on the islands put them in touch with more general truths about life and human relations, and they often took pains to live “as an islander,” eschewing help from friends and family at home. Indeed, because of the difficult conditions they found — dangerous weather, scarce food — they sometimes had little time to investigate the culture in the more detached manner of earlier visitors. Their writings are often of a much more personal nature, being concerned with understanding the author’s self as much as the culture around him.
This third mode of being in Aran died out in the late 1970s due in part to the increased tourist traffic and in part to technological improvements made to the island, that relegated the above aspects to history. Perhaps the best literary product of this third kind of visitor is An Aran Keening, by Andrew McNeillie, who spent a year on Aran in 1968. Another, Pádraig Ó Síocháin, a Dublin author and lawyer, learning to speak Gaelic to the fluency of an islander became inextricably linked to the Aran handknitters and their Aran Sweaters, extensively promoting their popularity and sale around the world for nearly forty years. A fourth kind of visitor to the islands, still prominent today, comes for spiritual reasons often connected to an appreciation for Celtic Christianity or more modern New Age beliefs, the former of which finds sites and landscapes of importance on the islands. Finally, there are many thousands of visitors who come for broadly touristic reasons: to see the ruins, hear Irish spoken (and Irish music played) in the few pubs on the island, and to experience the often awe-inspiring geology of cliffs. Tourists today far outnumber visitors of the four kinds discussed above. Tourists and visitors of the fourth kind, however, are under-represented as creators of literature or art directly connected to the island; there are few ordinary “travelogues” of note, perhaps because of the small size of the islands, and there are no personal accounts written about Aran that are primarily concerned with spirituality. Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran: LabyrinthStones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1989), and his accompanying detailed map of the islands is another resource on the Aran Islands. It is an exhaustive, but not exhausting, survey of the Aran geography and its influence on Aran culture from the iron age up to recent times.
Wikipedia contributors (2006). Visiting Artists. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. August 7, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aran_Islands
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