Aran islands are capitalising on recent tourism boom - but still battle basic challenges
Fresh from a visit from the Taoiseach this week, the Aran Islands are capitalising on a recent boom in staycations with a fresh batch of cottage industries, even as islanders battle challenges with access, water supply and that old chestnut - broadband. Caomhan Keane meets them.
'The island brain is way more adaptable than the mainland brain," says Paddy Crowe, former manager of the Co-op in Inis Oírr, who retired two months ago.
As the Celtic phoenix rises from the tiger's ashes, the residents of the three Aran Islands, six miles off the west coast, have proven they have what it takes to move with the times.
The smallest island, Inis Oírr, is going through a baby and business boom, with 10 babies born in the past two years and several families moving onto the island as a new generation picks up on potential for development on their own doorstep.
Island populations around the coast are in decline, but Inis Oírr's has increased by 21 people since the last census was taken in 2016. 281 people currently live along its three miles, and with its panoramic views of the Cliffs of Moher and a rush of stonewalled fields leading up to the 15th-century castle at the island's peak, it's not hard to see why.
"The islanders used to make their income keeping students from Coláiste Laichtín, which was founded in 1960," says Catherine Hernon, a local bean an tí. "Then parents visiting their children saw how scenic and safe the island was and word spread."
The result was a thriving B&B economy with services springing up to facilitate those guests, like the chipper or the Wanderly Wagon (a thatched cottage on wheels) that offered guided tours to the islands points of interest, which include an underground church, a freshwater lake and a variety of ruined churches and holy wells.
The B&B business has slowly been ebbed away by improvements to the boats from Doolin and Ros A Mhil, which can reach the islands now in between 15 and 45 minutes, rather than the 12 hours you could be travelling in the 1980s.
But as the tide turned, the islanders turned with it, providing services for the up to 3,000 day tourists who were drawn by the island's Caribbean-like beach and her shipwreck - featured in the opening credits of the sitcom Father Ted.
Hundreds of bikes can be rented from the shops at the end of the pier, with pony and trap drivers hustling to share their local knowledge. But Inis Oírr has shown particular growth gastronomically. Possessing only one chip shop and three pubs in 2008, since the recession four cafés, a creperie and an ice-cream truck have all popped up along the shore.
Ann Griffin runs Radharc an Chaisleán, a small seafood café, out of her guesthouse at the foot of O'Brien's Castle. "Tourists love being allowed into somebody's home, it makes it feel like they're really having a home-cooked meal."
A butcher from Dublin, she started the café after a downturn in guesthouse trade. She now caters for between 100-120 people a day serving fish sourced locally from the Seoiges, the last family to make their living through fishing on the island.
"Tourism is where the people who used to fish work now," says Áine Seoige.
"They are hobby fishermen, as EU legislation has made it an unviable way to make a living." After years of informally supplying the local cafés and restaurants with fresh seafood, they set up Iasc Inis Oírr in April.
"People were asking us for years, whenever we'd pull up at the pier if we had any product to sell, or where they could get some Aran fish. It eventually felt like a no-brainer."
They sell ready-to-eat crabmeat and live lobsters as well as monkfish, pollock and mackerel, that is boned, filleted, and vacuum-packed for people who want to take a bit of the island with them.
"So far our main issue has been keeping up with the demand and ahead of the seals that have decimated stocks leading to a lower than usual haul this summer."
Her brother Joe and their father Peadar Beag get up at 7am and usually fish until about one, before bringing the product ashore, where the whole family prepares it in the evenings, sometimes cracking shells and cooking right up until 10pm.
"Sometimes we try to catch enough so we don't have to go out the following day. Other days we need to go out and make up the previous day's shortcomings," says Peadar.
In spite of having planning permission for over a decade, Inis Oírr still hasn't got a new pier. Peadar and Joe have to haul the boat ashore each evening, as the current dock can only berth passenger ferries.
Seven ferries work out of the island, providing work for 40 people. With improvements finished on the piers on other islands, Paddy Crowe fears jobs could be in danger.
"It's our road on and off the island and it's prone to be drowned in winter by 30ft waves. The ferrymen are sometimes roused from their beds to move the boats to Galway to safety."
Cork-born Annette Ryan moved here six years ago after marrying a local, setting up a health spa that offers locally sourced seaweed baths, massage and beauty therapies. She also sells oils and lotions to the islanders, who would have had to go to Galway previously to get such protection from the wind and sun. "The islanders thought I was mad," she says. "But now I treat all sorts. The lads on the football team, pensioners with aching joints, women before a wedding."
Caitlín Uí Chonghaile launched Cleas Inis Oírr in 2002. They run a bus service (reducing the import of cars) and offer translation services for government agencies. They also sell island-made crafts, employing pensioners and keeping old skills like knitting, sewing and quilting alive.
"Festivals like Drop Everything and the Stonewall or Bodhran Festivals gift us return visitors, who wouldn't have thought to stay before," says Máire Uí Mhaoláin, manager of the islands' co-op. "They become a part of our community as they're often here for up to a week."
But they constantly have to fight their corner. "An islander said to me the other day 'the birds on the Cliffs of Moher have a better view of the island than the daytrippers, as the ferry services are so focused on getting them on, around and then off the island before they have a chance to take anything in'."
These daytrippers are the island's bread and butter, but also its acid reflux, as the level of refuse threatens the very environment the tourists have come to see. Support has been sought from the OPW to help protect the many forts, castles and ruins, as the tourists who clamber over them in search of the perfect selfie have worn them down.
Those who take the time to take in the island, rather than rushing from one ruin to another, discover the joys of swimming with Sandy - the island's dolphin, stumbling across slumbering seals after a night singing songs in Tigh Ned, or the breathtaking clearness of the starlight.
"The biggest thing we hear from tourists is how much they regret how little time they had on the island," says Eoghan Póil, who has sold locally produced Man of Aran fudge from a cabin next to the pier since 2013. "But, the upside of that is I've noticed an awful lot of repeat visitors."
As Inis Oírr goes with the flow, Inis Mór, the largest Aran island, is trying to stem the tide, by building glamping and self-contained units for tourists who want to experience the tranquility of an overnight stay. The tagline from the website exploreinismor.com, 'Where one day is never enough', makes it clear that the ten-mile island cannot be truly experienced in a few hours.
Inis Mór possesses some of the tallest cliffs and the smallest church, in Europe. Poll na bPéist, a natural rectangular pool attracts some of the best diving talents in the world for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, while the puffing holes see the sea's swell erupt like a geyser, during less picturesque days.
Away from tourism, there has also been an explosion in businesses drawing on the Aran brand. The Inis Meáin Knitting Company's products have been featured in the pages of Vogue. Aran Island Goat's Cheese has had overwhelming success in shops and cafés along the Wild Atlantic Way. Jenny O'Halloran returned from New Zealand to expand her father's hand-harvested wild seaweed farm, Blath Na Mara.
Seaweed has long sustained the islanders. It was sold to soap, glass and iodine companies in the 1960s, or mixed with sand to create soil on the islands' barren surfaces.
"We have no pollutants, no runoffs from heavy agriculture, so our clients - 90pc of whom are in the UK or the US - know this delicious edible seaweed is coming from pristine Atlantic waters."
Jenny's biggest frustration of running a business on an island is with the broadband and mobile coverage. "I can't make a phone call in my own factory. I have to go across the road, where I then have to contend with blaring wind and no one can hear you on the other line.
"And we are dealing with a product that needs to be shipped, so you are constantly thinking of matching up time frames with things like the weather. If the weather is bad, there's no cargo boat, sometimes for up to three days."
On neighbouring Inis Meáin, the middle island with the smallest population, Marie-Thérèse de Blacam, who set up and runs the world-renowned Inis Meáin Restaurant & suites with her husband Ruairi, has similar problems.
"We are limited to a seven-month season by mother nature," she says. "Winter storms can stop the planes and boats going which makes the business unfeasible.
"As we cannot provide year-round jobs we need to find staff elsewhere and accommodate them on the island."
Around 70pc of the vegetables used in the restaurant over the season can be seen growing from where you eat it, while other islanders supply 10pc. Lobster and crab is provided by local fishermen, soft furnishings are made in the island knitting factory while handknit egg-warmers are made by another neighbour. "Inter-island support is crucial when running a business in such a logistically challenging location."
All three communities have had to continually campaign on education, health, water, community services and piers, which takes time away from running their businesses. The islands rely on locums to fill key medical and teaching positions during the winter months.
The announcement this summer that Aer Arann, which operates flights from Connemara to Inis Mór, intends to stop operating just before Christmas has been distressing.
"It could potentially result in a fairly immediate 20pc reduction in the population of Inis Meáin as older people who need to be able to travel comfortably for regular health treatment in Galway, would be inclined to move into a home or with relatives on the mainland," says Jenny O'Halloran who warns the closure will also affect businesses on the other islands.
"If we need to go out for a meeting on the mainland or fly someone in to do a service, we, or they, can leave at 9am and be back by 11.30am.
"If we are relying on the boat, our whole day is gone and we have to splash out on a full day's childcare."
"It affects our decision to continue to live here," concludes Áine. "Without it, you are so isolated. If you had children, would you want to subject them to a rough journey in the depths of winter to get them to a hospital? What about people with cancer, or who are elderly? It will make life very difficult."
Photographs by Gerry Mooney