History and Archaeology of the Aran Islands

Blog Header Image

The Aran Islands are rich in History and Archaeology.

Seven large stone forts are scattered across the islands. The most popular are Dun Aoghasa, Dún Dúchathair on Inis Mor and Dun Chonchuir on Inis Mean. They may have Bronze Age origins, but according to an ancient belief, it is said the forts were built by the mythical Firbolgs. Dun Eoghanachta, located 2 km west of Dun Aonghasa, was erected in Early Medieval Time.

The most impressive and largest is Dùn Aonghasa, called 'the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe' and nested on the spectacular cliffs on the southern coast of Ins Mòr, one hundred metres above the sea. It was built around 1100-1000BC and has an area of 6 hectares. The site has three enclosures divided by three curvilinear walls : the outer, the middle and the inner. They terminate at the cliff's edge.

Geologists and Archaeologists suppose that, when Dun Aonghasa was built, the outer enclosure wall stopped at the cliff-edge, while the middle and inner walls were curvilinear. Cliff-falls due to winds, waves and rain, caused an extent of land loss and for this reason, some of the inner and middle enclosure disappeared.

The Outer Enclosure Wall

The Outer Wall was a meter or a meter and a half in height and was built along the edge of a terraced drop. It appears formidable at some distance. The section on the left entering the fort is the best preserved and was built around 1000 BC.

The Outer Enclosure

Because the Outer Enclosure is very exposed to Atlantic weather, it has broken sloping ground with little or no soil cover. This area is large, probably too physically segregate the hill fort from the farm landscape.

The Chevaux de Frige.

Climbing up to the middle enclosure it is possible to take a look at the Chevaux de Frige on the right side of the fort.

The Cheveaux de Frige, still largely well-preserved consists of pillars of stone and some of them are 2 metres tall and many weigh over half a ton. They were set up as a barrier to protect the fort and provided an extraordinary defence against intruders.

It is supposed that they were erected in Early Medieval times and represented wealth, power and authority.

The Middle Enclosure

The Middle Enclosure was created with high walls along three sides. The near Inner Enclosure provides shelter from the winds.

The most important feature here is the North Door, which probably was built in the Early Medieval time on an existing prehistoric opening. A paved path of symbolic significance led up to this door crossing three thresholds.

There are also ruins (only a few set stones) of three houses built in the early history of the site under the shelter of the walls, but this area could have accommodated a large number of houses.

The Inner Wall

The Inner Wall is 5 metres wide and 6 metres high and was built by Early Medieval builders on a pre-existing Bronze Age wall, now hidden from view. There is also an interesting doorway, probably originally closed by a wooden door.

The Inner Enclosure

The most important and impressive feature of this area is the Platform. Made of hard limestone, it may have been a stage for sacrifices to the watery gods.

People used to live inside the inner enclosure, which was the most densely occupied area of the fort during all periods of the site's history.

There are ruins of prehistoric houses, unfortunately not well preserved and ruins of early medieval houses including a group of four distinctive sunken-floor buildings.

On the western wall, there is a small chamber. In the Early Medieval period it was used as a gap for bringing in stone and then blocked off from the exterior, but originally its main function was to store foodstuffs such as seeds and dairy goods.

Early Medieval Dun Aonghasa

Scattered across Inis Mor there are some important medieval ruins such as Teampall Benan, a small church built one thousand years ago as a part of the Monastery of Enda and the Stone of 'Tomas Ap', a commemorative stone near the monastery of Seacht dTeampall, 2 km far from Dun Aonghasa.

The Vista

The fort commands spectacular and breathtaking views of Connemara, Galway Bay, Black Head and the Clare coast. On clear days the mountains in Connemara, known as the Twelve Bens, or Twelve Pins (Na Beanna Beola) can be spotted.

Life on the Aran Islands

People, who lived in the fort, were members of the Aran community and all the communal activities took place there: religious ceremonies, seasonal celebrations, rites of passage, political planning, settlement of disputes, distribution of food and gift giving.

The Islanders used to eat cereals. Barley and oats were the main crops grown by the prehistoric island farmers. They used to make bread, porridge, soups and stews. Their diet also included boiled seaweed caught and collected on a seasonal basis, boiled or roasted fish and shellfish, seabirds and their eggs.

They were skilled craftspeople using the clay mould method; the bronze objects cast at the fort included swords, spearheads, knives, bracelets, pins and axes.

Other Things You Might Like