Welcome to the first part of my introduction to the islands on the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. Mention Irish islands and the first thing that springs to mind in most peoples’ minds are the Aran islands. There are, however, hundreds of islands along the West Coast alone. Most are uninhabited but many once held healthy populations before they were abandoned for one reason or another. Some of these are even re-populating today with island descendants. Cottage ruins are being renovated and brought back to life, providing homes during the summer months. According to the 2011 census, there were over 50 inhabited islands on the West coast. I have visited 22 islands so far, both inhabited and uninhabited. Each one is absolutely unique in character, even those with close neighbours. However one common denominator prevails, and that is the beauty of each one.
Cape Clear – Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island, lies 8 miles off the coast of West Cork. With its own weather system, this island is a gem. It can be pouring rain on the mainland, yet the sun is splitting here. Cape Clear is a large island with stunning walking trails that curve around the headlands and rolling hills. If you are interested in nature, then this is the one to visit. There has been a bird observatory on the island since 1959, run by Birdwatch Ireland and manned by a bird warden. The island is overrun with international birdwatchers during the migration season in October, when all types of bird species land on the island for a rest before moving on. Cape Clear is also a fantastic location to watch basking sharks and whales idle their way around the island far below the cliffs. The island also hosts a rich variety of wild flower species. There is something here for every nature enthusiast. If that isn’t your thing, simply visit and walk the trails, you won’t be long losing yourself in the beautiful scenery. Ferries run daily from Baltimore. See here for ferry times – http://www.cailinoir.com/Home
Inishkea South island – The island lies 6kms off the Erris peninsula in Mayo. It was abandoned in the 1930’s after 10 men lost their lives during a tragic night fishing expedition. Today it is a sanctuary for Ireland’s largest breeding colony of grey seal population with over 300 pups born between here and the neighbouring islands each year. It also hosts over 300 Barnacle geese from Greenland who winter here on the rich grasslands, as well as a variety of other seabird species including oystercatchers, terns and the fulmar. The empty village now consumed by sand, reminds visitors of what once was. Islanders lived on a diet of fish, shellfish, lobster, kelp, barley and potatoes, the latter of which survived the dreaded potato blight during the Great Famine in 1845. They were also known to dabble in a bit of piracy, making off with whatever they could find from passing cargo vessels. The barley crop also contributed to the brewing of poitín, one of their most prized exports for which the islanders were deemed to be skilled craftsmen. Inishkea South is largely flat, rising to a central peak of 72m marked by a large white beacon, offering protection to the village below from the Wild Atlantic. The 360 degree views take in the mainland, the neighbouring islands and the high cliffs over on Achill. A looped walking trail follows the island coastline over to the cliffs at the back of the island and back round to the pier. If you are looking for escape and solitude, then Inishkea South is worth the visit.
Heir island – Heir island, only a hop and a skip from the mainland in West Cork, has a small population of 25, growing to over 100 in the summer months. While it is a small island, it contends quite easily with the others on this list. It is quite flat so it is ideal for a leisurely walk and the beautiful beaches and crystal, clear waters would entice anyone in for a quick dip. Follow the narrow roads lined by colourful wild flower hedgerows around the island and enjoy the views across the bay of neighbouring islands. Heir island is a haven where visitors can switch off, if only to walk, take a yoga retreat, learn how to bake in the famous Firehouse Bakery, paint or learn how to sail. If you don’t get a sense of the relaxed West Cork vibe on the mainland, you certainly will here. For ferry details, visit http://www.heirislandferries.com/
The Skelligs – a towering pyramid of rock at sea, this island is truly magical. It is incredible to imagine that a group of monks reached this island in a small rowing boat, let alone build a small community at the summit. It is only when one stands at the top looking at the view across to its neighbouring island, Little Skellig, and notes the solitude and beauty of this island, that you begin to understand why they did so. Today, it provides sanctuary for thousands of sea birds, who come here to breed. The famous one everyone comes to see, is the puffin, who arrives in April and leaves again at the end of July. It is well worth the visit just to watch these beautiful, clown like birds calling to each other as they waddle around from burrow to burrow. A staggering climb up the ancient stone slab steps and into the monastery at the summit, is all part of the Skellig experience. The drystone beehive huts that housed the monks in the 8th century sit untouched, shielded from the force of the Atlantic, behind stone walls. A small cemetery of carved stone crosses lies on the outer edge facing Little Skellig. There is no place else like it which is testament to it being chosen as a movie location for the Hollywood franchise, ‘Star wars’. Several ferry companies operate from Portmagee during the summer months. It is probably best to book early.
Dursey – another West Cork island but this one is a real adventure. Accessed by the only cable car in Ireland, the journey across says it all. Although Dursey is extremely close to the mainland, the narrow channel that separates the two is too dangerous at the best of times to travel to by boat. It is safer to journey high above the thundering waves below. Dursey is a large mountainous island, unique in beauty. With only 10 full time residents, what strikes every visitor on arrival, is the vast open space and the breath-taking views. A walking trail begins at the set down point on the island where you can choose to walk up over the peak of the island or follow the low road below. Both offer stunning views due to the height of the island. While the cross-mountain route is more about the wild beauty of the island, the low road is more about the people who live here. It guides you gently through two tiny villages before climbing upwards and hugging the cliffs round to the back end of Dursey. Watching the odd car tumble along this unsealed road with the steep drop on one side is an experience in itself. At the far end of the island, past the last farmhouse, the trail leads down to a flat headland where you can sit and watch whales and dolphins passing by. For information on the cable car timetable, visit https://www.durseyisland.ie/cable-car-timetable.html
This is just a short introduction to the islands. Next time, I will introduce you to Achill, Inishbofin, Insheer, the Blaskets and Inishturk.