Welcome to the second part of my blog about the islands on the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. In this part, I want to introduce you to Inishturk island, Achill, Great Blasket island, Inisheer and Inishbofin. Again, each one is unique in beauty, culture, tradition, landscape and nature.
Inishturk is a large hilly island off the coast of Mayo, with stunning sea cliffs and beautiful, wild walking trails. It is only a few miles further out to sea than its neighbour, Clare island, yet this island feels like a world away. Even though there is only a small population of 60 people living on Inishturk, this remote community has one of the most scenic and well maintained GAA pitches in all of Ireland. Football here is serious business. Fishing is also important to the islanders. Long gone are the traditional currachs, replaced today by large fishing vessels. The waters around Inishturk are teeming with lobster and huge edible crabs, many of which end up on the dinner plate in the local B&Bs. Savouring the local produce is vital, as energy reserves will need to replenished after walking the island trails, which offer amazing views of the surrounding islands and the mountain scenery along the Mayo coastline. The Lough Coolaknick Loop is a nice relaxing meander around the top of the island. It only takes 1.5 hours but allow for extra time as you will stop so many times to take in the views. The Mountain Common Loop is an hour longer and follows a path over rough ground up past the old Signal tower and down towards the edge of the island where you will be rewarded with beautiful cliff scenery. Watch out for curious fulmars, the guardians of the cliffs, as they glide up from below to check you out, eye to eye. Staying at least one night on Inishturk is an absolute must. You will be rewarded with spectacular scenery, great food, wonderful people and a complete switch off from the stresses of life. For more information, visit the island website at: http://www.inishturkisland.com
Achill – another Mayo island that has stolen my heart, is the largest of all the islands in Ireland. Achills large population of 2,700 people is mainly due to the small bridge that connects the island to the Corraun peninsula on the mainland. It was first built in 1887 and designed for horse drawn traffic. The bridge deteriorated with the introduction of heavy motorised vehicles in the 1900s and had to be demolished and replaced in 1947 and again more recently in 2008, when a new swing bridge was constructed. And lucky the bridge is there because this island makes for a great driving trip. The roads sweep round the coastline offering beautiful views of the Atlantic waves hitting the rocks and coves at sea level. Driving across the island brings you through wild bogland, dotted with neat piles of stacked turf. The mountain scenery on Achill is truly beautiful; there is a beautiful mountain vista at every turn. All roads lead to the west end of the island, where the main hub of the population live. The village of Keel stands well back from the long sweeping strand, which faces the full wrath of the Atlantic, only protected on one side by the massive cliffs on Minaun. The road continues through the village of Dooagh and climbs up and hugs the side of Croaghaun mountain, making the views all the more spectacular. This cul de sac mountain road finishes back down at sea level in a small car park by one of the most beautiful beaches in Ireland, Keem beach. Keem might not be an activity fuelled beach like that at Tramore in Keel, and you will more likely have it all to yourself except for the odd sheep, but it is a special space where you have no choice but to reconnect with nature. This beach leaves its mark on everyone who visits. The main draw on Achill, of course, are the spectacular walking trails. One of the most popular walks leads up above Keem bay towards Moyteoge Head, which shelters the beach below from the Atlantic. The remains of an old British observation post, built during WW1 to prevent Germans landing arms for the Irish republican army, sit on the summit. The post was rebuilt by the Irish Defence Force during the Second World War as a look out, operating from 1939 until 1945. The trail follows this ridge back behind the beach and up towards the cliffs of Croaghaun, the third highest sea cliffs in Europe. These steep cliffs replicate the large Atlantic waves far below, sloping upwards before curling sharply inwards leaving a steep drop. Another place of immense beauty on Achill, is Annagh strand and Lough Nakeeroge East. Only accessible by foot, this one hour trek across the mountains and down towards this remote coastline at the back of the island, is well worth it. Lough Nakeeroge East sits only 16m above sea level behind Annagh beach, creating a natural infinity pool effect. It is the lowest corrie lake in Ireland. Further along the coastline here, heading east, Slievemore mountain dominates the landscape. Standing 672m above sea level, this mountain trail offers beautiful views from the top, looking down over Doogort beach and Golden strand. The famous ‘Deserted village’ on its slopes, is one of the most visited sites on the island. There are over 80 derelict stone cottages stretching along an old road, a mile long. It is thought that the village was abandoned during the Great Famine in 1845. Achill really is beautiful. The fact that many artists have visited and stayed through the years, lays testament to that. Each one felt the need to record the vivid scenery on canvas.
For more information about Achill island, visit – http://achilltourism.com/
Great Blasket island – Although uninhabited since the 1950’s, this remote island is known by every Irish student as the home of Peig Sayers, an islander who recorded her stories in a book that became part of the national school curriculum for learning the Irish language. As a result, this island is more usually associated with exam pressure, but nowadays it is gaining popularity for its unique beauty, walking trails and nature. The steep green hillsides facing the mainland, are scattered with cottage ruins and old village paths. The Irish speaking population rose to a peak of 176 in the 19th century due to evictions on the mainland. Emigration took its toll over the following years, and the declining population was eventually evacuated by the government in 1953. Passing through what remains of the village, one can hardly imagine what life was like on this island. Small, derelict stone cottages, barely the size of one room, housed several generations of families. The tight knit community farmed the land, growing potatoes fertilised with seaweed in long narrow fields, divided by banks of soil. The islanders fished the surrounding seas in traditional currachs, which they also used to row to the mainland for supplies or to fetch a doctor or priest. At night, they gathered in front of the fire in each others houses, telling tales and singing. Although uninhabited today, the island is full of life. Nature has reclaimed the island and the green paths are shared by sheep, donkeys and rabbits. A new inhabitant has also added to this wild population. Since arriving on the Blaskets, the pygmy shrew has thrived and is now a hardy resident on the island, after coming across on one of the visiting boats. The beach below the village is home to one of the largest breeding grey seal colonies in Ireland. These visitors have set down roots here and many stay around all year round. The island cliffs are home to nesting sea birds and the surrounding seas are part of the migratory trails for many whales including the Minke, Humpback, Fin and Orca. In 2008, a sighting of two blue whales was recorded off the Blaskets. There is very little vegetation on the island making the open landscape perfect for rambling. While the history of the Blaskets still draws visitors, the beauty of the island has now become the main attraction.
For a eco tour of the islands during the summer, visit: https://www.marinetours.ie
For ferry information, visit: http://www.blasketisland.com/
Inisheer island – At roughly 4km wide by 2km long, it is the smallest and most eastern of the three Aran islands. Inisheer or Inis Óir, (East island) lies only 10kms from the coastline of County Clare. This small, Gaeltacht island is brimming with unique landscapes, history, tradition and of course wonderful fairy stories. The shimmering turquoise waters and white sand beach by the pier are a wonderful introduction to the island. Tourists arrive mostly by boat although there is a busy airstrip where small planes and helicopters land after their 10 minute flight from the mainland. There are three methods of transport for tourists on the island, walking, cycling or horse and trap. The latter is popular with day trippers who want to relax and listen to stories as they plod along the island roads. The jarveys driving the pony and traps regale their passengers with tales about the island in English, and revert to Irish when they stop and chat to other islanders, who rattle past in old cars, some of which are only fit for the scrapyard. The landscape on Inisheer is unique. Mostly flat, it consists of flat limestone rock, white sand beaches and dunes, more sand and small green fields punctuated by colourful, wild flowers. Narrow roads, lined by beautifully crafted, dry stone walls, meander around the island, never far from the coastline. The island’s rich history, dating back centuries, is evident in the archaeology of the old buildings. O’Brien’s castle, dating from the 15th century, is a reminder of days gone by when the Aran islands were ruled by one clan, namely the O’Briens. Teampall Chaomhain or St. Kevin’s church, a sunken church buried by drifting sand and dating from the 10th century, seems relatively unchanged other than the fact that the roof is missing. Beautiful, celtic crosses hide among the long grasses in the sandy soil surrounding the church, marking the spot where an islander is returned to the ground. Another famous site on the island is the Plassey wreck. In 1960, a cargo ship hit rough seas just off the island. The islanders risked their lives and saved the ship’s crew, ensuring no lives were lost. Afterwards, the ship was washed onto the rocks on the eastern shore, where it remains today as a tourist attraction. The rusted shipwreck has since been featured in the opening credits of the popular sitcom ‘Father Ted’ on Channel 4, thus add to its popularity. The beacon on the black and white striped lighthouse, further along the shore, radiates for over 20 nautical miles. Inisheer might be a small island but there is still so much to see.
For more information on Inisheer, visit: http://discoverinisoirr.com/discover-inis-oirr/com
You can travel to Inisheer by ferry from Doolin in County Clare https://www.doolinferries.com/
or by ferry from Rossaveal in Galway http://www.aranislandferries.com/
Inishbofin island– This beautiful island, just a half hour boat ride off the Connemara coastline in Galway, might seem quiet and unassuming, yet it lures all types of visitor; hillwalkers, nature enthusiasts, people simply looking to escape the mainland, families, festive groups and tourists. All are catered for with ease because Inishbofin is that type of place. The common denominator is that everyone comes here to relax. Visitors arrive at the pier on the ferry from Cleggan, looking to leave everything behind. And they have come to the right place. Inishbofin has around 180 residents all year round, the number increasing during the summer months when holiday homes are filled again. Unlike other Galway islands, there are few cars and there are hardly any stone walls to be seen. The landscape is wide open. Hillwalkers, photographers, birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts follow the three,beautiful looped walking trails on the island. Each one varies in landscape, offering all who tramp along these scenic routes a renewed vigour for life.The Cloonamore loop follows a trail around the east end of the island, taking in the stunning East End beach and St. Colman’s chapel, a small ruin and altar dating from the 14th century. The Westquarter trail follows the green road past beautiful coastal scenery over to Dún Mor cliffs, passing blowholes, sea arches and sea stags along the way. One beautiful part of this trail is Trá Gheal beach, a pristine white sand beach facing Inishark island which has been uninhabited since 1960. The old village on this neighbouring island is now in ruin and the pier has washed away in Atlantic storms. Today, it is a designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) protected by the National parks and wildlife services. Nature enthusiasts come here to birdwatch and are rewarded with sightings of plovers, great skuas, skylarks and of course the rarest of them all, the corncrake. Inishbofin is an important breeding ground for the corncrake because the lack of large farm machinery allows them to nest undisturbed by human interference. Farmers on the island receive government grants to adopt more corncrake-friendly methods of farming in the event of one being found on their land. Inishbofin has plenty to offer the history buff as well, no-one is left out. A star shaped Cromwellian fort, only accessible at low tide, guards the entrance to the harbour, These barracks were used to hold captured Catholic clergy from all over Ireland before shipping them to the West Indies, after the English Statute of 1655 declared them guilty of high treason. At night, the island springs to life when locals and visitors share stories over a drink. Mention Inishbofin to anyone who has been and watch them smile to themselves as they remember their time there.
For more information, visit: http://www.inishbofin.com/