So we finally made it. West: where the wild Atlantic roars and the final part of our Ireland Island series concludes. Prepare yourself for a wild ride as we wind down the wonderous, wet, whimsical and wistful west coast of Ireland. For once there is an abundance of islands to choose from and not just a spare few off of one county (yes Cork, I’m talking to you). Expect sub-tropical gardens, notorious pirate queens, daring cliff walks and prehistoric secrets trapped in stone…
1. Inis Mór, The Aran Islands, County Galway
The Aran Islands are an Irish-speaking stronghold of three islands off the coast of Galway. Of these three, Inis Mór is the largest and most popular island of the Aran trio. In fact, it may be one of the most popular tourist destinations in Ireland. Kind of like a Beyonce Island floating amongst her less talented counterparts, Island Kelly and Michele Island. It’s known for its extreme beauty and incredibly ancient history.
- The South of the Island Walk: If you’re an adventurous hiker with an inquisitive mind, then this walk should have more than enough to interest you. Much of the walk does not have a designated path and will lead you past majestic black forts and the island’s famous puffing holes. The walk starts in Kilronan and should take approximately 3-5 hours.
Things to do:
- Visit the lighthouse: Reaching this may warrant a small hike in itself as the lighthouse sits at the highest point of the island, but you will be rewarded by incredible panoramic views of the island, Galway Bay and of course, the Atlantic.
- The Puffing Holes: These naturally made tunnel-like holes lead from the ground above sea-level down to the ocean which, at certain tides, forces its water through like a spouting whale.
- The tiniest church in Ireland: Teampull Bheanáin, one of the smallest churches in the world, is an incredibly romantic spot that looks over the south of the island. It is renowned for having sunk into the hill over its long and weary watch.
How to get there: This Ireland island is accessible by ferry from Rossaveal, Galway Harbour and Doolin village. Get the timetable here.
2. Clare Island, County Mayo
Have you always felt that there was an inner pirate goddess in you? No? Well, me neither, but out of all Ireland’s islands, Clare Island is the one that inspires me into feeling something other than plain ordinary. Home and birthplace to badass pirate-queen, Grace O’Malley (Granuaile), who ruled Clew Bay’s 365 islands for over three decades, Clare Island is a mystical island full of history, folklore and incredible blue beaches.
- Fawnglass Loop – I’m not even going to bother saying anything about how every hike is a loop hike, if you’ve been following this series, you can just fill in the blanks yourself. This hike starts near the pier, is suitable for all fitness levels, 3km long and should take you 1½ -2 hours.
- Knocknaveen Loop: This loop passes the abbey and scales the peak of Knockmore (461m) which makes it the ideal route for committed walkers. This moderate fitness level walk is 3km and should take 2½ -3 hours to complete.
Things to do:
- Stay in the lighthouse: The old lighthouse has been refurbished into a guesthouse and it is just glorious. Check out Clare Island Lighthouse here. Imagine the sunset. Do it for the sunset.
- Granuaile’s Castle – The strategic positioning of Granuaile’s Castle helped her rule the bay for over 30 years. Legend has it that Granuaile’s head is buried somewhere nearby…
- Cistercian Abbey – What makes this 12th-century abbey worth your while, out of allll the abbeys you will come across in Ireland, is that this one contains some of the only surviving and best-preserved medieval wall paintings in Ireland. The abbey also contains the O’Malley tombs.
- Blue Flag Beach – I would say recline on the shore and take a dip in these pristine waters, but this is Ireland. On the Atlantic coast. So may I recommend a trundle along in your windbreaker and some hearty fish and chips?
How to get there: There are daily ferries from Roonagh Pier near Louisburgh. Check out the timetables here.
3. Valentia Island, County Kerry
Alright, we’re travelling west for this one. Well, more west, to Ireland’s most westerly point and home of the first trans-Atlantic cable. If you like peaceful gardens, stones steeped in ancient history and/or are just generally a fan of crossing bridges, this is the ideal Ireland island for you.
- Bray Head Loop Walk – Although there are plenty of walking routes on the island we recommend this one for being family-friendly, its exposed cliffs (though maybe keep your kids away from their edges, for family-friendly reasons) and its spectacular views of the Skellig Islands and Kerry coast. On this walk, you will climb along the coastline to Bray Head. It will take you roughly 2-3 hours and is 7km long.
Things to do:
- Bray Tower- at the summit of Bray Head there is a pretty cool abandoned signal tower and the view is incredible. Take a friend, take a picnic or none of the above, just go. If you’re lucky you may even see some whales passing down below.
- Glanleam House – This house contains a sub-tropical garden full of plants that can usually only be grown in greenhouses. The sheltered positioning of the garden, however, has created a small micro-climate that means these plants grow outdoors here.
- Tetrapod Tracks – Probably one of the most unique things about this Ireland island is a set of tracks made by a four legged amphibian known as a tetrapod, 350 million years ago. It is one of the earliest records of tetrapods in the world, making Valentia a valuable geological heritage site.
- Valentia Lighthouse at Cromwell Point – visit one of the Twelve Great Lighthouses of Ireland and enjoy the spectacular views of the Wild Atlantic Way, the Blasket Islands and the Skelligs.
How to get there: This island is accessible by bridge from Portmagee or there is a five-minute ferry ride which operates every ten minutes, from morning till night, seven days a week. Find out more transport links here.
4. Achill Island, County Mayo
Here’s another one for the gephyrophiles in the house (sorry, I just learned a new word – it’s the term for people who love bridges), because this is another Ireland island you can get to by bridge. There’s an interesting atmosphere on Achill with an even more peculiar history attached to it. And no, I’m not referring to the promontory forts, prehistoric tombs or whispers of Neolithic wanderers all those years ago. No, I’m indulging in my awe of deserted buildings in Ireland. Check out the 80 stone farmhouses that were abandoned during the Great Irish Famine and the strange prophecy fulfilling railway…
Hikes: There are almost fifteen walks for you to choose from here.
- Keem Bay Walk: This circular walk takes you around the cliffs of Keem Bay and offers some of the most spectacular valley views in Ireland. Feast your eyes on the ancient Watch House at Moyteoge Head, Bunowna Booley village and the ruins of Captain Charles Boycott’s estate. The walk is strenuous at first but evens out into a moderate ability hike of 7km that should take you roughly 2½ hours.
Things to do:
- The haunted railway – Okay, well maybe it’s not haunted, but check this out. There was a prophecy attached to Achill that stated that ‘carts on iron wheels’ would carry the souls of the dead on their first and last journey. On the train’s maiden and final journey it carried the victims of two separate and renowned tragedies. The station is now a hostel you can spend the night in. Check out the Railway Hostel here.
- Water sports – The island is known for its breezy shoreline which makes it the ideal destination for water sports. You won’t catch me there because of the 25-foot long basking shark that’s been a daily visitor this October, but you that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check out the windsurfing, sailing, abseiling, diving companies here.
- Keel and Keem beaches – these beautiful beaches are simply unmissable.
How to get there: Achill is only accessible by road and you need to cross the Michael Davitt Bridge to get to the island.
Have you been to one or more of these islands? Which one was your favourite? Let us know in the comments section below!