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Island hopping in Ireland

“Malin to Irish Sea, six to seven, occasional gale eight, rain, good…”

Yes, you don’t visit Ireland’s islands specifically for their sun-drenched beaches. It’s not exactly a case of “Oh island in the sun,” more like, “Oh island occasionally in the sun, but with showers spreading in from the west for most places by the evening.”

However, when the Atlantic performs its riotous party piece and transforms Ireland’s coast into a seething gigantic jacuzzi (without the heat, of course) the view from any of the thousands of isles – like a necklace Ireland’s coast – is truly magnificent.

However, they have been for the most part poorly promoted, with visitors few and far between – which is, of course, can also be part of their attraction.

In attempt to redress that situation, at the end of February it was announced that the populations of the seven inhabited islands off the Cork coast have elected a joint community council in order to promote themselves

The community council, which has two elected representatives each from Cape Clear, Hare, Long, Sherkin, Dursey, Whiddy and Bere islands, have banded together, launching a new website aimed at promoting their respective communities.

John Walsh from Bere Island Projects Group, which helped set up the website, said it would hopefully get more tourists to flock to the seven islands. Translations to a number of languages, including Arabic and Chinese, are also available on the site which will, in addition, provide details about events and local news.

So if you want to visit Ireland’s islands, where should you head for first?

Well, of course, it depends what you’re looking for. Ireland has inhabited islands – the Aran Islands off Galway are the most populated. But around the coast are tiny islands you can visit just for a day trip, like the Copeland Islands off the Co. Down coast, or Skellig Michael, off the Kerry coast, one of Ireland’s three UNESCO sites.

Then there are inland islands such as Ram’s Island in Lough Neagh, or any of the islands in Lough Erne, including Bleanish Island, Dernish Island, Inishcorkish, Inishcrevan, Inishfendra, Inishleague, Inishlught, Inishturk, Killygowan Island, Naan Island and Trannish, to name only a handful.

More the more adventurous there is Europe’s most westerly community on Valentia Island, or Dursey island, which is our only island necessarily accessed by means of cable car.

All have their own unique personality, their own atmosphere. Truly it can be said – islands are the character actors of geography.

Rathlin is Ireland’s most northerly inhabited island. Typical stories in the local press might read: “Before it blew away, the happy couple held a party in the marquee to celebrate their engagement…”

But then visitors don’t come here for lyin’ and fryin’ holidays. The more likely attraction is scuba diving amongst the shipwrecks of the Spanish Armada, lying broken on the seabed, birdwatching or hiking.

Legends and islands are inseparable, and Rathlin has its fair share including the famous arachnid anecdote. Robert the Bruce’s subterranean encounter with a spider which applied itself rigorously to web-building inspired Bruce to redouble his efforts against the English

Rathlin has thrived, but the fate of other islands has been mixed. Some have modernised, a few have become havens for writers and painters, others have emptied.

The unresponsive soil is still farmed on some islands as it has been since time immemorial; others have turned to religion, also along roughly the same timescale, and the weathered ruins of monasteries, abbeys and retreats are now covered in ivy, rowan and birch.

Ireland’s islands are where the Old World finally crumbles into the Atlantic, their mist-shrouded peaks and promontories rise out of the deep like the frail final frontier of Europe.

This is a seascape rich in atmosphere, rich in poignancy, and full of tranquility and beauty.

The island guide

Valentia Island

The monks have long since vacated the Skelligs, leaving the 600 souls who live on Valentia Island, Co. Kerry, with the title of Europe’s most westerly citizens.

This green morsel of land lying half a mile off the Iveragh Peninsula is emphatically not for penitential weekends. Craic levels are high – an ideal locality, in fact, to find out whether pagan abandon allied to a Christian soul really does lie at the root of Irish culture.

Valentia is well-populated with every scrap of land utilised. The fields are divided by slate walls, and the boreens bleed with fuchsia and montbretia. The island is believed to be the first part of Europe washed by the Gulf Stream, and the vegetation is consequently somewhat effusive.

For a real eye-opener on Valentia, visit the ancestors. Or at least their traces. Fossil footprints of tetrapods – the first vertebrates to truly walk on land – on Valentia Island date back some 385 million years ago. 200 prints tracks are clearly visible in the purple siltstone at Dohilla.

Inishmurray Island, Sligo

Inishmurray Island lies at the entrance to Donegal Bay. Once the site of a sixth century monastery, the island was last inhabited in 1957.

Today the island is a haven for birdlife – skuas, Arctic tern, puffins and eider duck.

Evidence of the previous human inhabitants abounds – its ancient Christian heritage is highlighted by the characteristic beehive-shaped cells or clochans.

Nearby are a collection of ‘cursing stones’, a handy enough idea whereby those wanting to lay a curse would do the Stations of the Cross in reverse order, the while turning the cursing stones.

This is evidently a place where the islanders had enough time on their hands to let their imaginations run riot – in the same area is the 14th century (probably) Teach na Teineadh (The Fire House), containing a hearth from which fire was mysteriously kindled.

Until fifty years ago, when the island was abandoned, one of the largest clochans acted as the school house. Teaching in a early Christian building some 1400 years old must have put a certain perspective on history lessons.

In the north west of the island you can still see Teampull na nBan, a burial place for women. The islanders apparently believed that if a man was buried in the woman’s place the corpse would be mysteriously transferred, and vice versa. Like I said, too much time on their hands.

Excursions can be arranged.

Contact Keith at 00 353 71 9142738, or mobile: 00 353 87-2540190

Clare Island, Mayo

Clare Island, Clew Bay, has a population of some 200 people. With dramatic setting, steep hills and plunging coastlines it’s an ideal destination for the adventurous hill walker or climber – the island’s highest point is Knockmore, 1,520ft. On a clear day you can get stunning views of Croagh Patrick. On a not so clear day, when the clouds descend to your shoulder level, well, the views aren’t quite so stunning.

If you do strike lucky with the weather, however, and you’re not of a mind to walk too far, Clare Island boasts several safe, sandy beaches.

The 16th century Cistercian abbey on the island is said to be the last resting place of the famous pirate queen Grace O’Malley. The massive tower castle of Granuaille broods over the harbour – and was used until recently as a coastguard station. She probably would have approved.

www.clareislandferry.com

Tory Island, Donegal

The word Tory is derived from the Irish ‘t—ra’’ meaning a robber or outlaw, and indeed is the derivation of the British political party of the same name. Entirely fitting, you may think.

Situated some nine miles off the coast of Donegal, the remote fastness of Tory gives rise to stories such as in days gone by, late-night poteen drinkers on their way home from the harbour village of Bunbeg were forced to negotiate a hazardous journey back along a rough track in a series of 50 yard hikes. These were timed to coincide with the circling beam of the lighthouse as it illuminated the deepest and most dangerous potholes.

Lying some seven miles off the coast of north Donegal, the island has one pebbly beach and two villages, AN Baile Thair and An Bale Thoir, which between them have a population of 190.

It’s a superb place for birdwatching, with over 100 species of sea bird.

www.toryislandferry.com

Boa Island, Co. Fermanagh

Cadaragh Cemetery on Boa Island is home to two extraordinary stone statues – the seemingly gloating Boa Man, also known as the Lusty Man (because he came from the island of Lusty More), and the Janus Stone. No-one knows if this is a pagan idol or an early Christian statue, although latest guestimates for the stones’ age is around 2000 years. So if they are Christian, somebody must have been very quick with the news from the Middle East. Pop along and see if you can throw some light on it yourself. You might even want to write a poem about it. Seamus Heaney did – called it January God.

“In the wet gap of the year,_

Daubed with fresh lake mud,_

I faltered near his power -_January God.”

www.ni-environment.gov.uk/devenish

Garinish Island, Co. Cork

For a few months every year Garinish Island (sometimes spelt Garnish) in Bantry Bay can lay claim to being one of the most beautiful places in Ireland.  This sheltered island’s formal gardens – including Grecian temple – are home to an extraordinarily exotic display of rhododendron, magnolias, azaleas and various horticultural A-listers.

Hundreds of cultivars of climbing plants, herbaceous perennials and choice shrubs dominate the midsummer period from spring through summer. Autumn colour, particularly on the magnificent heather bank, is rich during the usually mild early autumn months of September and October.

The island is open to visitors each day from March 1 to October 31.  Embarkation point is Glengarriff.

www.harbourqueenferry.com

Coney Island, Lough Neagh

Coney Island is considered to be one of the most westerly outposts of Norman occupation after their arrival in Ulster. The ruins of a Norman keep on Coney Island, with evidence of an attached church, overlook the small Maghery Canal.

History continued unabated over the centuries with numerous seditious incidents. In November 1830, Ribbonmen (Catholic militia men) attacked an Orange band nearby, puncturing their drum.

The Orangemen retaliated by burning the Catholic village of Maghery to the ground. This was no blueprint for good community relations, and skirmishes continued sporadically right up to the modern day Troubles.

Local folklore has it that the famous Coney Island in New York is named after the Armagh island – an honour, it would have to be pointed out, also claimed by County Down’s Coney Island (and a few other Coneys besides).

Sadly, the American Coney Island is most likely to be an English misconstruction of the Dutch name, Konijn Eiland.

The island is owned by the National trust and regular boat trips are available at the weekend from Maghery Country Park or Kinnego Mairna, pre-booking essential. _Tel: 028 3832 7573.

Ten things you never knew about Ireland’s islands

1. Aran sweaters were originally knitted in the 1920s, to be worn by boys for their First Holy Communion. The notion that the corpses of drowned Aran fishermen were identified by their sweaters is a misconception based on a passage in JM Synge’s Riders to the Sea.

2. The unpopulated Fastnet Rock is Ireland’s most southerly point. It’s sometimes called Ireland’s Teardrop because it was the last part of Ireland that departing emigrants ever saw.

3. A slate quarry on Valentia Island opened in 1816, providing slate for the likes of the British House of Commons and the OpŽra in Paris. The Public Record Office in London has 26 miles of shelving made from Valentia slate.

4. During the Vikings raids on Ireland Ireland, Dursey Island was used as a staging post for kidnapped villagers who were then sold into slavery in Scandinavia

5. Because of its northerly position, six miles off the Antrim coast and 16 miles from Scotland, Rathlin Island’s ownership was regularly contested. In 1617 it was settled by a test – if a poisonous serpent survived it was part of Scotland, if it died, Ireland was the owner. The snake, good on it, didn’t survive.

6. Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Clare Island, got her nickname Granuaille from the Irish for ‘Bald Grace’. As a child she stowed away on her father’s boat – cutting her hair off to appear like a boy.

7. Owey Island, just a kilometre from the Donegal coast, is now uninhabited. But in 1927 when it was still a thriving community a local judge decided that its inhabitants did not have to pay taxes, declaring the island an independent republic.

8. The first trans-Atlantic cable was laid from Valentia Island, becoming fully functional in 1866. The story of the men who began to wire up the world is graphically told at the the Valentia Island Heritage Centre and Museum.

9. The name of Lambay Island is probably derived from the Irish for “place of many shipwrecks”. The ancient Greek writers Pliny and Ptolemy knew about the island and referred to it as Limnus or Limni.

10. The Saltee Islands, off the south east coast, were, between 1500 and 1800, a centre of excellence for pirates, wreckers and smugglers.

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