The boat to Inishbofin: across the water to an island state of mind
Our Going Coastal series around Ireland’s shores continues by ferry to the Galway island
The Island Discovery approaches Inishbofin. ‘When you get on the ferry at Cleggan and put your back to the mainland and look towards the island; it’s symbolic. You’re no longer in control.’ Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
‘I have a great view from my office,” jokes Pat Concannon, gesturing at the indigo Atlantic Ocean that is dashing up spray at his “office” window. Concannon represents the third generation of his family to skipper the passenger ferry from Cleggan in north Connemara to Inishbofin Island, or Bofin as everyone around here calls it.
Depending on the time of year, the boat to Bofin goes at least twice a day, with extra trips during the summer months. The journey takes about half an hour, depending on wind direction. It’s a beautifully scenic journey, at first alongside a rocky coastline with a backdrop of mountains, then plying towards the island, which appears to float like a lush green meadow on the horizon.
Concannon, who is from the island, spent his days in secondary school “drawing boats”. He first skippered a boat without an adult on board when he was 13, accompanied only by his 12-year-old brother, on a 34ft fishing trawler. His own son, Harry (now 14), was even younger.
“He started going out with me in the boat when he was a toddler. When he was eight, he took a rib [rigid inflatable boat] out by himself. He’s had more trips on his own now than most islanders have had in their lifetimes.”
The Island Discovery is a 75ft steel passenger ferry, purpose-built in 1991 as an Aran Islands ferry. It has been at Bofin since 1998, and carries a maximum of 100 passengers. The fare is €20 return, €10 for locals.
The ferry takes light cargo: boxes of groceries for residents and for the island’s shop and hotels; bikes; dogs; and sometimes chickens. A cargo boat takes the heavy items when needed, such as building materials and pretty much everything else some 150 people require to live on an island year-round.
Concannon’s most unusual cargo to date was 15,000 bees, for a local who wanted to establish some hives. But his trickiest load is invariably passengers.
“People are a very contrary load,” he says, with the perspective of a skipper whose chief priority is the safety of his passengers. “They’ll have their hands hanging over the rails, they’ll be running on a slippery deck or getting tangled up in the ropes. Sometimes, they’ll never have been on a boat before. I have the boys keeping an eye on them all the time.”
It’s high season, towards the end of July, and the ratio of locals to tourists on the ferry is about one to seven. As I make the trip over and back four times in 24 hours, I quickly identify the locals on each journey – they are the only ones not taking photographs. One such local is Mary Burke, who says her most memorable trip on the ferry was on the morning of her wedding.
“I nearly left the dress behind me on the pier. The boat was just about to pull out. It was my mother who remembered it,” she recalls. “It was the last ferry that went out that day, because it got too wild afterwards: there were people supposed to come from Cleggan for the party in the evening, and they didn’t make it.”