East: Ireland’s Eye
There are very few islands on the east coast from Co Louth down to Co Wexford, though Strangford Lough in Co Down has dozens.
Of those that are there there are plenty of interesting observations to make. The inhabited Lambay Island, Co Dublin, has a house designed by Edward Lutyens who also designed a memorial at the Somme to the missing of World War I. And a resident population of wallabies mark the island out as quite a novelty.
Then there are the trio of islands off Lusk, Co Dublin: Colt, Shenick, and St Patrick’s which legend relays was the first place in Ireland where the saint set foot. Probably the best known of the east coast islands is Ireland’s Eye, which is not named for the ocular organ of some mythological hero but instead is derived from the Norse word for island ‘ey’. It is an island that is very popular with daytrippers from Dublin who depart from the lively fishing port of Howth.
The island is unpopulated today but a small community of monks lived there in the seventh century with the Church of St McNessan’s as their place of worship. On nearing the island from the vantage point of the boat, it looks like a miniature version of An Fear Marbh in the Blasket Islands with a pronounced outcrop of cliffs where the ‘head’ lies. At the ‘feet’ is a Martello tower built in the early 19th century as a watchtower for an invasion by Napoleon which of course never materialised.
The cliffs are home to several species of birds including gannets and cormorants while the island as a whole attracts legions of gulls, oystercatchers, guillemots, kittiwakes and several other species.
It is a sight to behold the often fierce rivalry between the birds to hold on to their patch of ground. The gannet numbers represent an important colony in the country and was only established in the last few decades. The utmost care must be taken however, not to disturb the birds’ nests when walking about the island.
Ireland’s Eye did have a notorious crime that propelled it into international headlines. In 1852 the artist William Burke Kirwan and his wife Maria decided to spend an afternoon on Ireland’s Eye.
He would paint while she bathed in the waters off the beach. Later on, she was found dead in the water in a bloody state. Kirwan denied knowledge of the incident. A high-profile trial ensued with the MP Isaac Butt part of his defence team. He was found guilty but the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He was incarcerated for 24 years on Spike Island in Cork Harbour and freed in 1879.
It’s a case of small is beautiful for Ireland’s Eye. It’s accessible by a short ferry trip and is well worth checking out.
West: Clare Island, Co Mayo
There is no other island in the country that can boast of medieval frescoes of a knight on horseback, dragons, deer, cockerels and other animals real and imagined. The depictions which were painted over 500 years ago lend artistic majesty to this island for which nature had already supplied her share. It is an unusual claim to fame for this huge island, but one which enriches our heritage.
The abbey in which the paintings are located is also reputedly the site of the baptism and burial of the famous pirate queen Granuaile who ruled the roost in these waters for decades in the 16th century.
Clare Island today has a population of about 160 people which multiplies in the summer as visitors arrive to enjoy the tranquility. To the west is the merciless Atlantic which can bring storms of ferocious magnitude, while to the east is the famous Clew Bay with its ‘365 islands’ dotted around and which provide shelter for the lively and lovely town of Westport.
One road winds north to the old old lighthouse which is no longer used for its original function but is now a guesthouse. It is located at the top of a cliff-face and commands an astonishing view of Achill Island to the north as well as the Nephin Beg Mountains which stretch alike a slumbering beast across the coast of southern Mayo.
To fully appreciated its amazing vantage point it must be seen from the sea, though from the island itself it is still dramatic.
There are two beautiful waymarked trails on the trail to follow.
The Fawnglass trail is a 3km route which starts at the pier, just follow the finger posts. As you stroll along gentle country roads the route takes in Granuaile’s tower house on the pier as well as a megalithic tomb along the way.
A trail leading westwards brings you past a pair of glistening lakes in Lough Creggan and Lough Merrignagh. This Knocknaveen walk, also starts at the pier and takes in the Abbey, so any art history buffs can appreciate the frescoes.
The more adventurous hillwalker can tackle the 462m summit of Knockmore which is very steep on its western flank. It is well worth it as the views from the top are equal to anything on this island. And that is saying something.
It is best to approach this mountain from the western side on a long road that leads from the pier.
The ruins of a signal station is your marker to ascend where sometimes a couple of wild horses can be seen cavorting among the ruins like something out of Wuthering Heights.
Majestic cliffs fall away from the base of the mountain but again these are best appreciated from the sea if a boat trip can be arranged
Clare island has plenty of B&Bs, Airbnbs, a campsite and a hostel and is a simply fantastic place for a break.