The unique landscape of the Aran Islands fashioned a distinctive way of life that has only really slipped from view in relatively recent years with the coming of electricity to the islands (in 1974), and the building of an air strip. That way of life was celebrated by artists such as J.M. Synge, who stayed on the island, absorbing its idiom, to produce his masterpiece of Irish theatre "The Playboy of the Western World". The islands are no longer largely self-sufficient but cater for a flourishing tourist trade. Aran Island sweaters, some hand-knitted on the island (the most expensive), some machine-knitted, some ("in the style of") imported from elsewhere in Ireland or even further afield, are prominently displayed. The first language of the island group remains Gaelic, and a significant number of visitors come to the islands to learn the language, notably large contingents of Irish schoolchildren from the mainland. The new economy supports some eight hundred permanent residents.
Using our Zodiacs in the early morning, we were able to dock at Kilronan, the principal town on the largest of the islands, Inishmor, before the first ferry arrived from Galway. Using a fleet of minivans we were taken directly to one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in Western Europe, the fortifications of Dun Aengus. This site on the western edge of the island faces directly into the open Atlantic Ocean where Atlantic rollers pound the 300-foot cliffs. The site dates back to the Bronze Age, was at its height during the Iron Age, and continued in use into the early medieval period. Like other hill forts in Britain, it is a defensive structure with a series of walls protecting an inner enclosure. Additionally this fort has an outer line of defense that archaeologists call chevaux de frise, a kind of prehistoric anti-tank line, intended to stop cavalry attacks: the Iron Age Celts were a warrior society, masters of iron and of the horse. Who this tribe was protecting itself from is a puzzle that archaeologists are unable to answer with certainty. From predatory attackers from the mainland, possibly, since this island redoubt would have been highly coveted for its security. It could also be that the fortification was constructed ostentatiously by some high king to demonstrate his unrivalled powers. Certainly, whoever directed its construction in its various phases was able to summon up considerable social resources. Most of us walked up to the hill fort, through rock strewn fields, with remarkable views over the island, the limestone fields glistening in the sunlight to the evocative call of the cuckoo. Others took up the option of an island tour by bus. We all returned by the end of the morning to the quayside at Kilronan where our Zodiacs were waiting for the return journey to the Endeavour for lunch.