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.”
Concannon met his own wife, Nikola Jones, on the ferry, when she came on holidays to the island from Wicklow with her family. “I put my eye on her, and that was that!” he laughs.
Orla Smithwick lives in Oranmore, Co Galway, and has had a house on the island for seven years. “When you get on the ferry at Cleggan and put your back to the mainland and look towards the island, it’s symbolic,” she says. “You’re no longer in control. You leave your car behind, and you’re operating at a different pace.”
Niall Coffey, general manager of the Inishbofin House Hotel, is leaving the island for a few days. “Travelling on the ferry is the first experience you will have of the island as a tourist,” he says. “The way the lads take your bags, and how you’re welcomed on board, it all makes an impression. In that way, the ferry is like the foyer of a hotel for tourists. But for the people who live here, the ferry is the lifeline of the island.”
Kevin McNamee is a first-time visitor to Bofin with his wife, Margaret. They are off to see friends who have a house there. He is standing by the rail, grinning out at the view, with the slightly dreamy-looking expression by which I come to recognise first-time visitors. “People just love getting on boats, don’t they?” he says.
“Getting on the ferry is the beginning of the holiday,” Margaret says. “Even if you’re not going on holiday, being on a boat gives you the illusion of being on holiday.”
It’s my third run of the day, and as we’re nearing Bofin’s storybook harbour, with its ruined castle clinging to the rocks, Concannon’s phone rings. It’s a tourist who missed the sailing from Cleggan some 20 minutes previously and is short on sightseeing time.
She and her party of two other people and one dog are so short on time that they agree to pay €100 for the rib to come from Bofin to collect them rather than wait for the next scheduled ferry. By the time the rib collects them and lands them on the island, they will have less than an hour to explore the island before taking the 5pm ferry back. It may be the shortest visit to Bofin of the summer. “If that’s what they want, that’s what they want,” says Concannon, dispatching the rib.
When the wind reaches a certain gale force, the Island Discovery doesn’t put to sea. Last winter, for the first time in 20 years, the boat didn’t sail for three consecutive days due to adverse weather. What about occasions when Concannon is already at sea? He doesn’t have to think for long.
“About five years ago, when I only had locals on board, we met three rogue waves that came right up like a wall of water. That was scary. I’ve never seen that before,” he says.
“The waves were higher than the window here. And you’re thinking: if the glass breaks and saltwater gets in the controls, then you have a problem. That was stressful, but the day you get afraid is the day you’re finished as a skipper.”
Connemara’s coast: bays, Bens and islands
The rocks are granite from Galway to Roundstone, but this area of the Connemara coastline is all about the peninsulas and islands. If you follow the coastline along Rossaveel, Kilkieran and Cashel, and then up by Cleggan, Renvyle and Killary, you’ll be taking a longer route, but one that rewards with every bend in the road. Killary (below) is Ireland’s only fjord.
Wherever you go in Connemara, you’re not far from the Twelve Bens, a sandstone mountain range that runs along the area like a spine.
A quarry near Recess produces the mottled green marble streaked with spidery black, known the world over as Connemara marble. Small pieces wash up along the shoreline, including at Renvyle beach.
Aside from Inishbofin, there are several other inhabited islands off the Connemara coast. Most famous are the three Aran Islands. Others include Inishturk and Omey Island. The latter can be reached at low tide on foot or by car.
Inishark, which is next to Inishbofin, was abandoned in 1960. A little farther south, High Island was once owned by the poet Richard Murphy, who has written extensively about it.
Attractions and activities
Inisbofin was winner of the Best Island Holiday in this year’s Irish Times Best Place to Holiday competition. It’s a beautiful island, with safe, sandy beaches, rocky inlets, a ruined castle, a weekly market in summertime, a charming museum of island life and a range of places to stay, from hotels to hostels.
Much- loved beaches on the Connemara mainland include Dog’s Bay and Gurteen, both near Roundstone. Rossaveel is the departure point for ferries to the Aran Islands, and there are also daily sightseeing flights at noon over the Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands at Inverin with Aer Arann (weather permitting).
Clifden (above) and Roundstone are both popular places to stop off for lunch, or to explore some of their many craft shops. Take the Sky Road loop drive from Clifden for yet more gorgeous views, this time from a height. The church in Tully Cross village boasts Harry Clarke windows.
Kylemore Abbey (kylemoreabbey.com), a former girls’ boarding school, located beneath a mountain and beside a lake, includes a lovely walled garden and a shop that sells jam, soap and chocolate made by the remaining Benedictine nuns.
Central to the area is the Connemara National Park (connemaranationalpark.ie), with almost 3,000 hectares of stunning landscape and a visitor centre. For an easy climb in the park, try Diamond Hill.