The local residents living in the Aran Islands are as unique as the topography of this small chain of limestone islands lacing across the top of Ireland’s wind-swept Galway Bay. Known across the country as the cultural heart and soul of the Emerald Isle, the Aran Islands boast not only a prehistoric, but also some of the finest, toe-tapping Irish music around. Having planned three nights on Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, I had ample opportunity to spend my days exploring the craggy landscape and my evenings listening to phenomenal local jam sessions.
Going Local on the Aran Islands
Half of the town’s residents had already materialized around the dance floor of the Kilronan town hall when I arrived—early by my estimation, but clearly the locals were eager to get the party started! Three weathered old men jammed on their instruments in a raised stage to one side, and the melodic strum of the Irish fiddle beat a tune that had me itching to join the dancing. Animated chatter emanated from every corner of the room as locals caught up on gossip, and a smattering of tourists like myself filed in to the chairs lining the room, all of use awkwardly waited for “it” to happen.
So, what is this mysterious “it” you might ask?
The dancing of course!
Saturday nights in Kilronan mean an authentic Irish céilidh (also called céilí dancing); it’s akin to a barn dance in the states. It’s local, partly unscripted, and wildly entertaining. A céilidh is more than a type of dance, it’s code for a social event that contains everything the Irish hold dear: stories, music, singing, and folk dancing. To witness one is person is something worth planning a trip around—it was something I had desperately hoped to find during my three week road-trip of Ireland, and it now remains among my favorite memories.
Hunting Down the Best Music in Inishmore
The hostel owner recommended that we spend out first night on Inishmore at Joe Wattys pub, and he was not mistaken. It was positively hopping. Sadly, there wasn’t a single note of Irish music to be found! Although Joe Watty’s is synonymous with craic and good Irish tunes throughout the tourist season, I had planned my Irish road trip for September, and by the end of the month it was well into the off-season. As such, local musicians played rock inspired modern songs, and every single islander and tourist alike still seemed to have found their way to the pub for the evening.
Regardless, my friend Laura and I managed to locate a lively group of locals our age and we all became fast friends. On our second night on the island, as the night wore on, they warned us to save our energy because the town’s weekly céilidh dance would begin at midnight!
Side-stepping through the crowds of the local céilidh was like stepping into a movie—it was just so typically Irish. It was essentially everything I could want from a visit to the Emerald Isle. Within minutes of entering the small town hall, locals young and old grabbed partners and began whirling people at a rapid pace.
Tourists were welcome to join the fun and I was quickly pulled onto the dance floor by a series of locals seeking nothing more than a dance partner willing to give it a go with the fast-paced and sometimes frenzied traditional dancing.
The céilidh was, in its entirety, my favorite night in Ireland. The experience completely encapsulated the experience of traveling to Ireland and seeking authentic Irish culture. I had visited Ireland during the high-season years ago and the pubs were flooded by tourists—this was another thing altogether.
My sad confession of the night: Even though I was a competitive Irish dance experience a decade ago, that did little to help me keep up with the the rapid pace of the ceili dancing. As I switched partners and kept time with the music, it was pretty obvious that I was terrible.
To give myself a break though, the Guinness didn’t help the situation all that much!
The party lasted well into the night, but as dawn approached it was time to say adieu to our new friends—after all, we had a full day of sightseeing and then another night of music planned before we had to leave the magical experience that had become our time on Ireland’s magical Aran Islands.
Quick Tips: Visiting the Aran Islands
One general note for travelers is that this is fairly remote compared to the rest of Ireland. The ferry ride wouldn’t suffice in a real emergency if you needed medical care, and although there are daily flights to and from the island, it’s the type of place you want to have solid travel insurance (here’s why I recommend World Nomads).
Why Visit the Aran Islands
If a rolicking good and access to the heartbeat of Irish culture is high on your list, then plan to visit Kilronan, an itty-bitty town on Inishmore. All three islands are the purest Irish speaking places in the world; Irish is their first language in school, and while they definitely speak English, random conversations around town are bandied about in full Irish. Although most tourists visit the Aran Islands as a day trip, Laura and I spent three days on the small island—what a wise choice! In addition to the ceili, there are fascinating bike routes to ring forts, towers, and cemeteries, all with a helping of quintessential Irish charm. The Washington Post published a beautiful article about the islands in the 90’s, and nearly 30 years later it’s still as quaint and charming as it was then.
How to Get to the Aran Islands
Seemingly an isolated set of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, they are easily accessible now thanks to modern tourism. Most travelers visit on the ferry from Galway, but there is also a ferry in Doolin. Since I highly recommend travelers stay at least a night in Doolin when visiting the Cliffs of Moher, the harbor there makes an easy launching point (and if you haven’t rented a car, which you would then need to park at the docks, you can actually take your return ferry straight to Galway!).
Several daily ferries depart from both locations during the high season, with more limited schedules as the weather changes and when the water gets rougher. From Rossaveal (an hour outside of Galway) it’s a simple 45-minute ferry ride to Inishmore, and on Doolin Ferries it takes 1 hour and 20 minutes. You can also just book a scenic ferry ride around the closest island if you’re in too much of a time crunch even for the day tours!
Where to Stay
In summer season, book well in advance to secure a spot at any accommodation on the island. Budget travelers should look no further than Kilronan Hostel on Inishmore—it’s phenomenally well-located by the pier, the staff are so friendly, and it offers easy bike rentals. Mid-range travelers couldn’t go wrong with a night or two at Ard Mhuiris B&B or Ard Einne House, which are both walkable to anything you might want to do in town.
Best Things to Do on Inishmore
Because of the island’s popularity with daytrippers, you might think there’s little to see beyond the prehistoric fort. You would be wrong. A trip to the Aran Islands is about so much more than the sights, it’s the entire experience. Here are the four best things to do on Inishmore (besides attending a ceili, of course!).
- Visit Dún Aonghasa Fort. OK, obviously you have to do this! Dun Aengus fort dates to 1100 century BC (holy-schmoly, that’s old), and it features a terrifying sheer cliff face that will test your willpower. I could only look over the edge by commando crawling on my belly to peer over at the water.
- Bike the countryside. Biking the island was both harder and more rewarding than we had anticipated. There are some no-joke hills, but also quaint villages, stone walls, grazing sheep, and gorgeous panoramas of waters and cliffs and so much pretty. It’s also the best way (although a lengthy day) to visit the Seven Churches ruins on the western side of Inishmore.
- Take a good long walk. Locals offer fascinating walking tours, or you can bring along your guidebook (I used and loved the Rick Steves’ Ireland). The Worm Hole is walkable from Kilronan and good craic for anyone fancying a swim (not for casual swimmers though, most travelers just go for a gander at low tide!).
- Reminisce about your day at Joe Watty’s. Even when there’s no traditional music (low season), this is the number one spot to go for a memorable evening in town. This holds doubly true in high season, it’s nigh unforgiveable to skip a night here when the Irish music’s playing!