Six Irish islands to explore
No need to go to a far-flung destination – the islands around Ireland’s coast are perfect for getting away from it all
Rathlin Island, off Co Antrim’s Causeway Coast, is Ireland’s most northerly inhabited island and home to tens of thousands of sea birds
Travel publisher Lonely Planet has announced that islands, in particular private islands, will be a big travel trend for 2018.
While to many, island life conjures up imagery of warm tropical waters, pineapple and coconut-flavoured ice drinks, hanging around in hammocks and long soaks in the sun, you can explore islands a lot closer to home.
We have hundreds of islands dotted around our coastline – although only a fraction are inhabited – and they offer the perfect escape, as long as you remember to pack your swimming togs, sweaters, windcheaters, warming hot drinks and SPF to cover all weather conditions.
Here’s six to explore:
Rathlin, off Co Antrim’s Causeway Coast, is Ireland’s most northerly inhabited island. Boomerang-shaped and a special area of conservation, it is home to tens of thousands of sea birds that you can see in the relative comfort of the viewing platform of its western lighthouse, an upside-down looking building, where you can shelter from the elements when you tire of the puffins, kittiwakes, razorbills and guillemots.
On the walk back east across the island, you might see Scotland’s Mull of Kintyre, some 15km away, and even the Rathlin golden hare, a local genetic mutation that has blue eyes and a much lighter coat.
Here Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, retreated after being defeated by the English at Perth, hiding out in a sea cave where the tenacity of one industrious spider apparently inspired him to return and vanquish his foe.
The cave, accessible by sea, looks striking from the water, but nearby Uaigh nagColman or Oweynagolman Cave is, many academics believe, a more likely location.
Stay: The refurbished Georgian property Manor House overlooks Church Bay. A double on a weekend night on a B&B basis in April costs from about €125.
Get there: There are eight sailings a day and the 25-minute crossing departs Ballycastle. An adult return costs about €14.
Fourteen pillars guide your way out to Coney Island, Co Sligo, at low tide. Connected to the mainland via a causeway, this isle is accessible by shank’s mare, car or on horseback – the most exciting way to arrive and something you can do as part of a week-long riding holiday through Ireland on Horseback. You gallop out and are back before the tide turns.
There are several Coney Islands off the Irish coast but the Co Sligo one at Cummeen Strand claims to be the original. Locals believe it was a Captain Peter O’Connor, master of the good ship Arethusa that some 250 years ago used to sail between Sligo town and the Big Apple, who christened the New York landmark after his own Coney island because it, too, was swarming with rabbits.
St Patrick was said to have resided here too and visitors are encouraged to make a wish on his wishing stone – a bog boulder you can sit on – if you can find it.
On its windward side there is nothing but Atlantic all the way to America. On the lee side to the south is Knocknarea, with Queen Medb’s tomb atop it. To the north is the battleship prow of bare Benbulben.
Stay: Inishmulclohy Lodge is a two-bedroom, two-storey, self-catering property on the island that can sleep up to six. A cottage-stlye property on the island, on Airbnb, that sleeps six costs €107 per night. A week-long ride around the county course costs €1,200, including accommodation, through Sligo Riding Centre.
Get there: You can check the tide times on gostrandhill.com. When the tide is in you can take a water taxi out. It costs €12 for adults and €8 for kids.
sligoridingcentre.com; irelandonhorseback.com; sligoboarcharters.com
As the crow flies, Inis Bigil is located just 90m off the Co Mayo coast from the county’s best-known island, Achill, itself connected to the mainland by a bridge.
Because of strong currents, access can be uncertain in winter months where it can be an unforgiving place. Exposed to sweeping gales and thick mists, it is a place to contemplate life and the surrounding ocean that has transported past residents on wave after wave of emigration.
From the island, you can look west to Slievemore mountain on Achill, a view that can be seen from the windows of this small three-bedroom bungalow in need of complete modernisation that is for sale through Rona Moran Auctioneers asking €70,000. There are several sandy beaches where you can paddle or take a dip. Whins and heather line its narrow bohereens. So leave the phone behind and keep an eye out for one of Ireland’s only joint Catholic and Protestant churches, now closed, its remaining 16 residents preferring to have the priest who visits every couple of weeks to say mass in the former, warmer schoolhouse.
Get there: Joe O’Malley runs a ferry service in summertime from Bullsmouth, Dooniver, Achill Island. It costs €25 and can take up five passengers at a time. This fare is for up to five people; 086 0612482
Michael Leneghan operates a ferry from Doran’s Point in Ballycroy on the mainland; 087 1269618
Tory and Aranmore Islands
The headline offshore acts in Donegal are Tory and Aranmore Islands. Both are definitely worth exploring. Tory, the most remote of our inhabited islands, rises like a monolith from the north Atlantic, its flat topology making you wonder how in God’s name anyone could be hardy enough to endure its winters.
By comparison, Aranmore in The Rosses feels positively tropical, situated in the county’s southerly waters, and an easy day trip from Burtonport.
Cruit Island is the other inhabited island in The Rosses, and well worth a Sunday drive, being accessed via a wee road bridge that rattles underwheel. Its narrow roads meander past Donegal-style cottages, many of which are holiday homes, rocky outcrops, tourmaline-coloured waters and sand and seaweed-lined coves.
Stay: Donegal Holiday cottages lists several three and four-bed properties that start from about €360 per weekend upwards.
Get there: The best way to get there is to drive – either take McGinley Bus from Donegal to Letterkenny and hire a care through Enterprise to take you the rest of the way or else drive, about a 3½- to four-hour journey from Dublin.
Cape Clear is the country’s most southerly inhabited island. Lying eight miles off the west Cork coast, it has many historical attractions, from standing stones, 12th-century church ruins, and 14th-century castle ruins but by far the most impressive is the lighthouse that teeters atop Fastnet Rock, a landmark that has a sailing race named after it. On a clear day you will wonder what feat of engineering keeps it in position. At night, you can see the pulse of the lighthouse on the rock, to its south-east. It is also a Gaeltacht so as well as wild scenery you can bird-watch or brush up on your blas. Coláiste Pobail Chleire runs an Irish college for teenagers looking to big up their blas and is also toying with the idea of offering classes to adults. Anyone interested can contact the college by phone or via its website.
Stay: Cape Clear Island offers a range of accommodation from hostel standard upwards. Set in the old coastguard station, shared dorm rooms cost from €18.50, four-bed rooms cost €78. Holiday homes are listed on Cape Clear Island’s website and on Airbnb.
Get there: The Cailín Óir sails from Baltimore morning and evening. Adult return costs €16, children €8.
Cailinoir.com; Colaistephobalchleire.ie; Capeclearisland.ie
While the Saltees, off the Wexford coast, are privately owned by the O’Neill family, the clan allows daytrippers to access to the Great Saltee during certain hours. Tiny grassy pedestrian paths lead through bluebells and rock flowers while the din of the seabirds, who outnumber humans by at least a ratio of 100 to one, can sometimes be deafening. There are gannets, gulls, puffins and manx shearwaters as well as grey seals that can be seen slumped on rocks, sunbathing.
There are also caves aplenty too – one associated with two of its leaders, John Henry Colclough and Bagenal Harvey.
Don’t forget to sit in the throne chair erected by Michael the First in the 1950s, making good on a promise he made to his mother to become the first prince of the isles.
You will need to bring food and water with you and are expected to take your rubbish home with you when you depart.
Stay: You can’t camp on the island. A weekend overnight in a double room on a B&B basis costs €129 at The Coast Hotel. Make a weekend of it and learn how to fish aboard Kilmore Quay Angling’s fleet. An three-hour evening trip aboard a boat that fits up to 12 costs €200. Rods are €10 per person.
Get there: Declan Bates runs a daily ferry service from Kilmore Quay from April to September. The family is in residence when the flag is flying at its home and ask that daytrippers do not arrive before 11.30am and depart by 4.30pm. It costs €25 return; 087 252 9736
Salteeislands.info; Coastkilmorequay.com; Kilmorequayangling.com
Ireland’s lake isles are also much storied, most notably Yeats’ Lake Isle of Innisfree on the south coast of Lough Gill on the Sligo / Leitrim border. The Erne and Shannon rivers also boast several lakes and loughs. On Lough Key, just east of Boyle, Co Roscommon, there are several islands, the most prominent being Castle Island, a privately-owned islet where the Instagrammably picturesque ruins of the 14th-century McDermott’s Castle went viral about two years ago. More accessible to the public is nearby Trinity Island, once home to white cannon monks – white-robe-wearing Cistercians that left Boyle Abbey and made the Lough Key islands their home. It was here and on nearby Church Island that they scribed the Annals of Lough Cé. In mayfly season you’ll see lots of trout and pike rising out of the water too.
Stay: At Lough Key House where rates are from €45 per person or camp at Lough Key Caravan and Camping Park, open from Easter to September with pitches for tents, campervans and caravans.
Get there: A private speedboat trip to Trinity Island, the safest of the lake’s islands to access, starts from €80 for a minimum of two people. Lough Key Boats runs boat trips from Easter to the end of September. A boat tour of the lake costs €12 for adults and €6 for kids but doesn’t stop at any islands.
During the summer months, it also rents rowboats at a cost of €25 for a boat that can carry four or five – but Peter Donegan of Donegan Landscaping says it is a distance to row.
A daytrip from Dublin: Dalkey Island
Dubliners keen on a day trip with a difference can visit Dalkey Island – a suburban setting that feels miles away from the frenetic pace of the city. You can view it from the Vico Road and take a boat across from Collimore Harbour.
It was believed to have been a Viking slave base and an outpost of Christianity in the 7th century, as evidenced from the ruins of St Begnet’s Church.
When you land, keep an eye out for the feral goats and when exploring the island watch out for nesting boxes underfoot that have been set up by Birdwatch Ireland for roseate terns.
Get there: You can ferry out but it is far more fun to kayak there where you get much closer to the seal colony than you ever would aboard a vessel.
A boat ride with Ken the ferryman from Colimore costs €8 for adults and €5 for children. A three-hour sea kayak return trip from the same harbour costs €55. Trips run all year, weather permitting, but are most active from February to November.
Kayaking.ie; Birdwatchireland.ie; Kentheferryman.com