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The three Aran Islands - Inishmor, Inishmaan and Inisheer - are long, low limestone moonscapes of bleak but rare beauty. They are home to some of the most ancient Christian and pre-Christian remains in Ireland; the massive Iron Age stone forts at Dun Aengus on Inishmor and Dun Conchuir on Inishmaan are of particular note. Almost nothing is known about the people who built these structures. Some of the earliest monastic settlements were founded here by St Eanna in the late 4th and 5th centuries; the remains surviving today date from the 8th century. The islands' isolation allowed Irish culture to survive when it had all but disappeared elsewhere. Irish is still the native tongue, and until recently people still wore traditional Aran dress.The islands are criss-crossed by intricate stone walls, built over thousands of years and creating tranquil avenues of much-needed shelter from the wind. Inishmaan is the least visited island, while Inishmor is the most popular with day trippers. Inisheer lies closest to land, just 8km (5mi) from Doolin in County Clare. Ferries to the islands operate from Galway City, Rossaveal and Doolin.
Situated in County Offaly, this is Ireland's most important monastic site. It's superbly placed, overlooking the River Shannon from atop a ridge. It consists of a walled field containing numerous early churches, high crosses, round towers and graves. Many of the remains are in remarkably good condition and give a real sense of what monasteries were like in their heyday. The site is surrounded by low marshy ground which is home to many wild plants and bird life. The museum at the site exhibits graveslabs, original crosses and other artefacts uncovered during excavation. Clonmacnois is not serviced by public transport; the nearest town is Shannonbridge, 7km (4.3mi) to the south, from which you can hitch or take a taxi.
The wild and barren region north-west of Galway City is known as Connemara. It's a stunning patchwork of bogs, lonely valleys, mountains and lakes, with only the odd remote cottage or castle hideaway for company. There's tremendous hill walking over the peaks of the Twelve Bens, which offer views over to the sea and its maze of rocky islands, tortuous inlets and sparkling white beaches. The coast road from the settlement of Spiddal meanders through the maze, but more unforgettable still is the journey through the Lough Inagh Valley and around Kylemore Lake - it would be hard to surpass the beauty of this landscape. Spiddal is only 17km (10.5mi) from Galway City, and is the gateway to these open landscapes and wild coastlines.
In northern County Clare, the Burren region is an extraordinary place. Miles of polished limestone karst stretch in every direction, and settlements along the coast are few; they include the popular Irish music centre of Doolin and the attractive coastal village of Ballyvaughan. Underground caverns, cracks, springs and chasms are the major features of the Burren, which is ringed by caves. Flora includes a bizarre mix of Mediterranean, Arctic and Alpine plants, and the region is the last bastion of the rare pine marten. In Stone Age times, the Burren was covered in soil and trees and supported quite large numbers of people. At least 65 megalithic tombs remain from this time; however, the vegetation was destroyed in this early version of land clearing, resulting in today's eroded limestone mass. Iron Age stone forts (known as ring forts) dot the Burren in prodigious numbers, and castle ruins add a touch of medieval mystery. Unpaved, green roads crisscross the region, reaching the most remote places; they date back many thousands of years.Buses run to the Burren area from Limerick, Galway City and Ennis. Services in summer are fairly regular, but in winter you'd do well to plan your journey carefully to avoid getting stuck in a timetabling black hole.
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