Off the western edge of Ireland’s Connemara District, the land gives way to the mighty Atlantic Ocean, but only begrudgingly, as there are several islands dotting the coast that continue to resist the incessant will of the waves. Being remote, they are mostly devoid of touristy trappings, meaning visitors looking for a true in-country, outdoor Irish experience are in luck.
Three islands in particular – Inishbofin, Inishturk and Clare Island – are inhabited (although barely) and accessible by ferries. And whether for a day, a weekend or longer, a trip to this out-of-the-way part of the Emerald Isle is a step back from the complications of modern life and a chance to explore the rugged beauty of the western Irish coast.
Just five square miles in size, Inishbofin still seems roomy – perhaps because its population is only about 200 people (though there are many, many more sheep). Located seven miles off Ireland’s mainland, it is distant yet inviting – humans have been calling Inishbofin home since at least 4000 BC.
Its wide open, rolling tundra makes Inishbofin a magnet for hikers. I took a typical “stretch ’o the legs,” heading west from the island’s harbor, which is guarded by the remains of a stone fort built on Oliver Cromwell’s orders in 1657. Paved and gravel roads quickly gave way to grassy paths that can be followed, or not. However, the curve of the island naturally led me to the northern shore, where the ocean has created a stark, beautiful landscape of steep cliffs, rocky grottos and majestic sea arches. This track also brings hikers to the remains of Dun Mor, an Iron Age fort strategically situated on a promontory jutting out from Inishbofin’s highest cliff.
The island has more trails to explore and other things to do. Bird watching is a popular pastime, but charter fishing and even scuba services are also offered.
Inishbofin is a favorite destination for day-trippers, but overnight stays are worth considering with three hotels as well as B&Bs on the island.
I spent a night at the Doonmore Hotel and found my room comfortable, as expected, but was pleasantly surprised by the range of the small hotel’s dinner menu: creamy garlic mussel pots, roast leg of Connemara lamb, grilled filet of hake and other tasty temptations. As a bonus, deep into the evening, at the hotel’s pub, I was able to enjoy traditional Irish music skillfully played by locals, and, of course, a few select libations.
Rising over the Atlantic a few miles northeast of Inishbofin, this island, while smaller, still offers plenty of outdoor adventure for visitors. And solitude. Only about 70 hardy Irishmen call Inishturk home.
As on Inishbofin, offshore fishing and scuba diving services are available, but hiking is the primary activity for visitors. There are two marked trails, with the Lough Coolaknick Loop being the easiest. This 90-minute walk takes hikers into the sloped, sheep-dotted hills of the island’s interior and out to the open spaces of its eastern shore. The Mountain Common Loop is an hour longer, and much steeper. In addition to enjoying stunning views from the cliffs on the western end of Inishturk, you can explore the remains of a stone signal tower. Located 722 feet above sea level – the highest point on the island – it was built in the early 1800s to watch for signs of activity from Napoleon’s navy.
As this island is easy to enjoy – making it hard to leave after just one day – for lingerers, there are B&Bs to extend the experience. I spent a night at the Teach Abhainn B&B, and although a fierce, late-night rainstorm hissed outside my window, this cozy retreat made sleep effortless.
Just to the northeast of Inishturk, Clare Island is one of the largest isles off the Connemara coast, but, again, sparsely populated – only about 130 people call it home.
History runs deep on Clare Island, as I discovered as soon as my ferry ride pulled into the harbor. Overlooking the dock is a towering sentinel, the stone ghost of a castle that was once the stronghold of Ireland’s famed “pirate queen” Grace O’Malley in the 16th century.
And a little more than a mile to the west on the island’s southern hiking trail, my time trek continued, as I explored the well-preserved Cistercian Abbey, which dates to the 15th century. Although faded, mysterious paintings of animals, warriors, dragons and other symbols can still be seen on the walls and ceiling.
On this trail, where the Atlantic pounds against Clare’s steep western cliffs, are the ruins of yet another signal tower from the Napoleonic era, which stands in the shadow of Knockmore Mountain. At 1,516 feet above sea level, Knockmore is the island’s highest point, making it a climbing challenge that rewards the determined with outstanding views of Clare, the Atlantic and the Irish mainland.
Remains of several ancient promontory forts scattered across the island take some searching to find, but one other historical feature is much easier to spot – the Clare Island Lighthouse. Built in 1818, the 387-foot-tall structure prominently stands out on the island’s northern coast.
The lighthouse was taken out of service in 1965, but the complex that surrounds it has just recently found a new purpose as a unique, upscale guesthouse.
There are other guesthouses as well as a few B&Bs on Clare Island, any of which can accommodate visitors looking for extended outdoor adventures in the outback of western Ireland’s land’s end.