The Aran Islands are one of the harshest environments in Ireland. Hardly a tree, little natural soil, plenty of rock, no surface water. But it does have, for Ireland, a relatively benign climate and its greatest resource – a resilient and enterprising people. It once supported 3,500 people in the 1840s but how has around 1,300.
The islands (Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, Inis Oírr) are stunningly beautiful but the feature of the landscape that strikes you most when you visit the islands. are the walls and the limestone pavements so typical of the Burren. The two go hand in hand. There are over 2,000 km of stone walls on the Aran Islands. This is mind boggling considering the total area of the islands is only 46 square kilometres. I doubt that there is such a concentration of stone walls anywhere else in the world.
In fact at ground level staring out over the paddocks often all you can see is stone walls forming a continuous covering of the landscape.
Most of the walls were probably built in modern times (since the 1820s). They are made of limestone gathered from the adjacent fields, Of course in our mindset we tend to think of these walls as boundaries of land holdings. Most are not.
But first. The oldest surviving walls on the Aran Islands are those associated with the famous ring forts. At Dún Aonghasa, one of the most impressive forts in Europe, the earliest of the walls appear to date from 1100 to 1000 BC, that is Late Bronze age though considerable additions and modifications were made in medieval times (c800AD). Extensive further additions and repairs were made in the nineteenth century in the name of conservation. Clear differences in the masonry or these three periods are apparent. Especially obvious are the buttresses which were controversially added in the 1800s to ensure stability of the earlier walls. The stone for the walls here was quarried nearby, as revealed by the regular shapes. The quality of the stonework is amazing, especially the oldest parts of the wall, and much of it has been in place for 3,000 years.
But back to the other stone walls. Up until the 1840s there was a system of shared common land ownership in the west of Ireland, known as the Rundale System. So there was no great need for farm boundaries. However following the abandonment of this system, stone wall, ditches and hedges were used to define land boundaries.
However the farm walls on Aran, as I have already aluded to, are largely not the boundaries to land holdings. The paddocks are too small and irregular. They appear to be a method of handling waste rock gathered from the fields to improve the quality of the pasture and to enable soil improvement by the use of seaweed and to allow the growing of potatos. They define manageable parcels of land and protect the soil from being blown away by the wind. Quite brilliant really.
They are always built without mortar – the ‘dry stone’ technique and require constant maintenance. A number of styles are apparent and these may be a response to the availability of source rock, the type or shape of the source rock, the needs of the site or the skills of the craftsmen.
For me the most striking and beautiful are the Lace Walls. They are essentially see-through and come with lot of variations presumably at the whim of the builder. Some have large gaps and some are tight. All are so called single walls unlike the double walls more characteristic of other parts of Ireland. By the way, there have never been professional stone masons on the islands. The walls are all built by residents who acquire the skills as a normal part of their farming tool kit.
Feiden Walls (from the Irish for ‘family’) are characteristic of Aran and the west of Ireland. They are built with a ‘family’ of stacked stones. Often there will be vertical slabs (mother stones) which act as a frame within which smaller stones (children) are stacked. There are countless variations.
Between the fields are narrow roads know as róidín but access is usually across fields rather than around them. This seems strange as there are very few gates. This didn’t really hit me at first but most fields appear to have no access. A closer look however reveals “phantom gates”. A ‘gap’ roughly filled with stone. These are called bearna, or “Aran gaps”. Many are filled with rounded stones as they are easier to dismantle and roll away. There are many variations and again, they appear to be unique to the west of Ireland.
Each time you visit these islands you see more. It’s like reading a book over and over and seeing something different each time. Initially the sheer scale and quantity of the walls is a little overwhelming. But they are a aesthetic and functional marvel and a wonderful example of man’s ingenuity in adapting to his/her environment.
Stone, earth, land, climate, food; all intricately woven together, driven by remoteness, resilience and the need for self sufficiency has created something truly unique.