Visitors to Ireland’s Aran Islands, located off the west coast from Galway, will undoubtedly know that the famous Irish comedy “Father Ted” is based on a fictional island fashioned after the smallest of the Aran Islands, Inis Oir (named Craggy Island in the television series). Likewise, the biggest of the three islands, Inis Mor, attracts the most tourists for its remarkable stone fortress, Dun Aengus, and its relatively large infrastructure of hotels, shops and restaurants. Often overlooked is Inis Meain (also spelled as Inishmaan.)
The big island can become overrun with tourists in high season (it even has a Super Macs – Ireland’s local answer to McDonald’s), which takes away from the biggest delight of visiting the Aran Islands, which have long been home to native Irish speakers and hardy farmers making the most of the windswept, rocky terrain. So it’s the middle island – Inis Meain – which is ideal for a visit to catch a glimpse of quiet island life, bracing seaside walks and real relaxation. Inis Meain’s population is only 160, the smallest of the three islands, and it boasts only one pub – but there are several bed and breakfast options for accommodation, as well as a luxury set of suites with an in-house restaurant that has earned some seriously prestigious awards for itself.
An easy 45-minute ferry from the mainland, Inis Meain gets far fewer crowds than the other islands, and is a perfect place to wander for hours along the limestone-walled lanes (you can, in fact, traverse the entire island in just a few hours; it’s only a 4 kilometers from end to end and 2.5 kilometers across), pick periwinkles down by the beach or look out to the wild Atlantic from the island’s west coast. On a clear day, one can even see across to the Cliffs of Moher, jutting from the mainland.
Inis Meain island’s highlights:
On the biggest rise of the island, this circular stone fort, dating to prehistoric times, has views over the rest of the island and its tight-knit maze of stone walls, as well as the smaller Dun Fearbhaigh, another fort.
The Aran Islands are rightfully famous for their knitted wool sweaters, known as Aran sweaters, handmade and worn for centuries by the locals and made popular by the likes of The Clancy Brothers. The woolen mill on Inis Meain has a sizeable shop with lots of traditional and more modern varieties on sale along with a helpful staff; part of the shop is also an interesting photo exhibit about the history of the island and its population.
The playwright John Millington Synge spent several summers out on Inis Meain between 1898 and 1902, and several of his plays – such as The Playboy of the Western World – are said to have been inspired by the rugged landscape and tales from the islanders. At the northern tip of the island, overlooking the Atlantic and across to Inis Mor, is the spot where Synge most liked to sit and write, now called Sygne’s Chair.
Inis Meain Restaurant & Suites
For a taste of true luxury and style with an island influence, the Inis Meain Restaurant & Suites is a five-star complex that blends seamlessly into the landscape. The award-winning restaurant uses seasonal, locally sourced ingredients thoughtfully fused into a four-course tasting menu (60 euros per person) by chef Ruari de Blacam. His wife, Marie-Therese, is baker, host and interior designer of the suites and restaurant. Each of the five suites has a panoramic view of the island; breakfast is included, as is a packed lunch, and an exploration kit, which includes bicycles, fishing rods, binoculars, beach towels and maps of the island.
The suites and restaurant are open April through September (closed on Sundays), with a minimum two-night stay; rates start at about 450 euros for two persons for two nights.
Teac Osta Inis Meain
The island’s only pub, Teac Osta Inis Meain lives up to the pressure to keep residents and visitors alike warm and well-watered year-round. It might be the bracing sea air, but the freshly tapped Guinness here tastes better somehow than on the mainland. And, the thatched-roofed, classic little pub is sure to have a roaring fire on chilly evenings and, if you’re lucky, an impromptu Gaelige sing-along session. Slainte!
How to get to Innis Mean
Inis Meain is accessible by the same ferries that head on to Inis Mor (Inishmore), which run from Rossaveal just north or Galway or from Doolin, near Shannon. The Rossaveal ferry runs twice daily, takes about 45 minutes and costs 25 euros return; tickets can be purchased online or at the ticket office just off Eyre Square in Galway. A coach for the ferry leaves 1.5 hours before each departure and is free for ticket holders. Aer Arann also runs short flights (15 minutes) between the island and the mainland .
Written by and photos by (unless otherwise noted) Fiona Gaze for EuropeUpClose.com