Ireland’s many islands remain as popular as ever. The unspoiled, beautiful islands are dotted around the country’s coast from Mizen Hean in the south to Malin Head in the north. Here’s the best of what to see if you decide to go offshore on your trip to the Emerald Isle.
Cape Clear Island
Cape Clear Island, located just off the beautiful southwest coast of Ireland, is one of the 15 Gaeltacht islands where Irish remains the main spoken language of the local population. Ferries are available from the coastal towns of Schull and Baltimore. The Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival takes place on the island on the first Friday each September, and an annual Walking Talking Festival began in 2010. Most islanders eke out a modest living engaging in traditional methods of farming. Like many Irish islands, the island has a deep-rooted connection with Irish literature. An extensive program of tours and guided lectures takes place there during the summer.
While traveling the south coast, nearby Sherkin Island also warrants a visit. The island is the ancestral home of the O’Donovan clan, but nowadays is best known for its popular sailing regatta, usually held on the third weekend in July. The island was once one of the more populated islands, with a population once numbering close to 1,000, but numbers have steadily dwindled ever since the Great Hunger. The island boasts many excellent tourist amenities, including camping spaces.
Further west is Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastic settlement which has since been opened to tourists. Despite some recently voiced safety concerns, the island remains a popular destination for tourists and affords magnificent vistas out to sea. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is accessible by boat only. It has also been in the press recently due to the fact it was used as a movie location for the latest “Star Wars” movies.
The Aran Islands
Undoubtedly the most famous of Ireland’s islands are the three Aran Islands located off the country’s west coast, accessible by ferry from Ros a’Mhil, a port 23 miles west of the city of Galway. There are three islands in the chain: Inis Mor (the largest of the three), Inis Meain, and Inis Beag. All three islands are serviced by small airfields and Aer Arann. The islands are steeped in a rich cultural and literary tradition and have left an indelible mark on the Irish psyche. All three islands are Gaeltachts. Popular tourist activities involve visiting the islands’ many pubs, enjoying the spectacular scenery, and buying a traditionally-made Aran sweater.
Tory Island, located off the Donegal coast, is Ireland’s most remote Ireland, situated 7½ miles off the mainland. Its population numbers about 130, making it one of the larger islands by population. It features an impressive array of facilities – from cafes to B&Bs, to restaurants – there’s something for every tourist on the island. Interesting historical sites include a round tower that once protected monks from Viking raids, the ruins of St. Colmcille’s sixth century monastery and the intriguing Tau Cross that suggests early seafaring links to the Coptic Christians of Egypt. The island also boasts an abundance of rare bird life and wild flower species as well as a rich submarine landscape that can be explored through the local dive center.
Rathlin Island, off the northeast coast, was one of the country’s first inhabited islands. A popular writers’ weekend takes place there in September. The island is wild, extremely rugged, and boasts an Iron Age fort, standing stones, Robert the Bruce’s Castle, Mc Donnell’s tower house, Manor House, heritage center, lighthouses, bird sanctuary and a seal colony among its attractions.
An early Christian monastic site, now uninhabited, Ireland’s Eye lies just off the Dublin coastline. St. Nessan founded a monastery here in the sixth century and today the remains of an eight-century church can still be seen. In the early 19th century a Martello Tower was built to defend against attack from France. It’s now best known for bird-watching, with bird-watchers flocking in droves to the island between late spring and late summer.