Reading old stories about life on Clare island, one would be forgiven for mistaking these tales for mythical folklore. It was once home to the great pirate queen, Grace O’ Malley, who dominated the west coast of Ireland in the late 1500’s. Clare island was an important stronghold for the O’Malley clan. Born in 1530, Grace was educated by the Cistercian monks in the island abbey where she was taught English and Latin. This was a huge advantage to her later on when communicating her demands with foreign vessels at sea.
It was my first day on Clare island. I had walked out the long road past the abbey, which dates from the 12th century. It houses the O’Malley crest and is said to be the burial site of Grace O’ Malley. The walls and ceiling feature medieval drawings by the monks, depicting mythical, human and animal figures including dragons, men on horseback, stags, cattle, birds and trees.
After spending the late afternoon on the cliffs on the west side of the island, beside the green slopes of Knockmore, it was time to head back. There was a long slog ahead of me and I had just returned to the road when suddenly a car pulled in and a very kind woman offered me a lift. Luckily for me, she had seen my big bag and felt sorry for me. We had a great discussion about Irish islands as she drove me the long straight road back to the harbour. As we pulled in, a golden light lit up Grace’s castle above the pier. I thanked her profusely and raced off. I spent the next hour taking pictures around the beach before the light disappeared. Just before the sun set, the mountains on the mainland joined in the spectacular light show when they turned a deep pink hue.
The next morning, I set off at 3.30 am and started the long walk out to the lighthouse. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and an orange glow was starting to appear on the horizon. A deep silence filled the air, broken only by sheep bolting off the road over ditches, when they heard me huffing and puffing up the hill with all my gear. After 3 km, I decided to up the pace if I was going to reach the cliffs on time. On the final stretch I almost burst a lung, hauling my gear up the steep, grassy slopes of the cliffs above the lighthouse. In my rush to get there, I managed to get myself entangled in a barbed wire fence at the top. I really hoped no-one in the lighthouse happened to look out the window and see me caught in its spikes like a helpless sheep. After what seemed like an eternity, I wrestled myself free and had to lie down on the grass for a minute. If any passing aircraft had seen my lifeless body lying there at 4.30 in the morning, I’m sure a call would have been made to the emergency services. Before long, I hopped up and jumped into action.
Clare island lighthouse was originally established in 1806, the tower and lantern were destroyed in a fire 7 years later. The light was re-built in 1818, only for the tower to be struck by lightning in 1834. It provided many years of continued service, and was finally decommissioned and replaced by the more modern lighthouse on the nearby island of Achillbeg in 1965. Today the lighthouse is available to rent and a wedding party had availed of this unique opportunity while I was there.
I captured a few different shots I was happy with, before the sun rose over the mountains and drowned the scene in harsh light. Afterwards. I wandered further up the cliff top path and watched the loud colony of seabirds far below on the cliffs. Fulmars glided gracefully in circles while guillemots and razorbills waddled together on narrow rock ledges. The noise was deafening. I startled a few hares, who were standing together in a circle as if they were in a meeting and they bounded away down the rolling green hills. Then, instead of turning back the way I came, I stupidly took a shortcut. I figured if I headed straight down through the hills and fields, I would eventually reach the road. By the third field, I was running away from imaginary horses and wishing for any sign of tarmac. Sanity resumed as I flung myself over a big gate onto the road.
I walked back to the pier very slowly, taking in my surroundings, now in daylight. Passing by a small area of bog on the side of the road, I noticed a large amount of tree stumps sticking out of the peat. Nearby, a sign solved the riddle. These were the remains of an ancient pine forest lying half submerged in the island bog. Carbon dating shows them to have lived 7500 years ago. On top of Knockmore, the highest mountain on the island, peat deposits of up to 5 metres include pine stumps meaning that after the glacial era, there was nowhere on Clare island that was below the treeline.
On the final stretch down to the pier, I was taken aback at the amount of wild flowers growing in the verges and hedgerows. Every shade of colour was on display, including one unusual orange flower which I suspect had escaped from a nearby garden. Clare island might have been a place of swashbuckling piracy back in olden times but today it is a haven for nature.