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Treat yourself to a trip to magical islands, dramatic scenery and unique communities

Dan MacCarthy takes us on a voyage to four island communities, each with its own unique appeal

North: Inishbofin, Co Donegal

Forget the Caribbean if you are looking for turquoise waters and tranquility. There are many places closer to home that are at least as beautiful.

This island makes up in beauty for what it lacks in size. A magnificent sandy sweep of the beach at Toberglassan Bay on its north side is everything a beach lover could ask for: shelter, warmth, silken water ad quiet. It is a lovely place to float or swim and let your thoughts drift away.

Erroonagh beach is just a matter of metres to the west and will eventually meet the beach on the other side when time and sea decide to smash through. This is a stony beach where retreating and advancing waves pull the stones in and out making a sound like a round of applause. Take a bow, Inishbofin.

The north coast of Donegal, with its endless bays and harbours, possesses beaches of outstanding natural beauty, not least the beach at Magheraroarty itself which has accumulated its pristine particles from thousands of years of pummelling waves from the North Atlantic.

Inishbofin is one of a trio of islands lying close to the mainland: the smaller Inishdooey has some spectacular caves and sea arches and is a favourite destination of kayakers. A shipwreck there in 1940 with ten lives lost is testament to the mountainous seas that often bombard the seaboard. Nearby, Inishbeg is smaller again and is inhospitable to all but the teeming birdlife.

Further out than this trio is Tory Island with its once-thriving artist community. Though it is an island denuded of trees, there is something endlessly appealing in its empty open spaces. Like Tory, Inishbofin also has its dramatic cliff formations, like liquid chocolate that has set. And to boost its geological attractions yet more, it has some interesting red and white granite cliffs.

It’s not all beaches and cliffs on this small island, though. Where once it could boast two villages it now has mainly holiday homes often attained through renovating historic properties. To this day, there is a lovely atmosphere among the occupied and unoccupied houses providing a continuity with the past that is not apparent elsewhere. Departure for this dreamy island is from Magheraroarty Pier near to Falcarragh or about 20km northwest of Letterkenny.

Take a stroll around the island past the schoolhouse and church, now both disused, and wonder at the community which once called this place home.

So that’s the island, in brief. However, you can refresh your school geography by looking back to the mainland from Inishbofin and spotting the headland of Bloodyforeland and the extinct volcano of Mount Errigal which looks like a Christmas pudding with its slopes of white quartzite. This makes for a fabulous day trip on a short ferry trip. Or if you are lucky enough to have a longer stay, well!

How to get there: www.boffinferrydonegal.com

South: Sherkin

How could you not love an island with a Horseshoe Harbour? The name itself provides enough curiosity to attract any novelist or any geographer who suspects the reason for its naming. The harbour lies just around the southern exit from Baltimore Harbour in a line with the Beacon at Baltimore and below the lighthouse on the island.

The lighthouse has long since ceased to keep a lighthousekeepers but between it and the beacon a safe passage is easily navigated.

Horseshoe Harbour also forms part of one of the four loop walks on the island and is on a route to the left of the first junction up from the pier. Three other walks stretch to all the corners north south, east and west.

The arrival to the island presents the ferry passenger with a magnificent ruin, if that’s not a contradiction, of a Franciscan abbey which dates from the 15th century. Several islanders of recent vintage are also interred there.

The crossing from Baltimore takes all of ten minutes and must be one of the most delightful ferry crossings in Ireland.

Most summer passengers will aim for one of the best Co Cork beaches in the Silver Strand which looks across a stretch of sea to the hilly Cape Clear.

However, there is much more to Sherkin than the Silver Strand, though its beaches pop up everywhere: the Cow Strand, or the pier, or beyond the church of St Mona’s at Trá Bán. Though not the largest of islands, it still affords plenty of lovely cycling down fuchsia boreens with wonderful views for every degree of the 360. You might need to push your bike to the top of the hill on clambering off the ferry though!

The population of Sherkin is about 110 people currently though pre-Famine it supported over 1,000 people. Some of the old houses now in ruins are still visible in the fields and along the hedgerows though most have been erased. from sight and memory. A walk to Sherkin’s highest point Slievemore at the Cape Clear end affords a fantastic view of a lot of the island including clearly marked old stone fields with ruins of a former village.

The island’s pre-historic treasures include a hard-to-find stone circle, a promontory fort and some rock art. The medieval period as well as the abbey produced the seat of the O’Driscoll clan which was partly destroyed in a raid in 1537. Neither, the archaeology buff, the history buff, or the geography buff will be disappointed with diversions on Sherkin.

The island has an important marine station run by Matt Murphy which has examined almost every living species of flora and fauna that could be found there.

A quarterly newspaper has recorded the lifecycles of a multiplicity of animals and plants and is a shining light in Irish field research.

How to get there: www.sherkinferry.ie