Ireland’s outlying islands
A view of Little Skellig from Skellig Michael, an uninhabited Unesco World Heritage-listed monastic settlement. (SuperStock/Getty)
Ireland’s indented, craggy coast has more than 300 outlying islands, 30 of which are inhabited. Close in distance yet distinctly quieter than the mainland, these bastions of traditional life are places to breathe in the untainted sea air and soak up the spectacular scenery, and many offer a unique window into the country’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage.
Tiny Heir Island -- one of the many isles that are scattered across County Cork’s Roaring Water Bay in Ireland’s southwest -- is one of the country’s go-to gourmet spots. So you will need to book months in advance to dine at Island Cottage, a restaurant run by the husband-and-wife team John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton. Reached by a four-minute ferry ride from Cunnamore Pier on the mainland near Skibbereen, the quaint, whitewashed building is one of the many traditional-style cottages that still outnumber the bungalows blighting much of the Irish countryside.
Desmond, who also worked in the kitchen of the celebrated Ritz Hotel in Paris, crafts a simple menu that changes daily and is dictated by local seasonal produce. For example, locally caught, herb marinated salmon could be followed a duck leg with béarnaise sauce and gratin dauphinois. The couple also runs one-on-one cookery courses at Island Cottage throughout the year.
This June saw the opening of a second cookery school on the island, The Firehouse, which specialises in bread making and was set up by Heir Island native, Patrick Ryan, co-author of the book Bread Revolution. During the one-day courses, students learn the art of making cinnamon swirls, soda bread and pizza -- all cooked in a wood fired oven. Students also get a bag of baked goods to take home.
Further north along the southwestern coast are the Skelligs, two islands that poke dramatically skywards out of the flinty waters of the Atlantic Ocean, nearly 12km off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.
Try not to look down at the crashing waves as you gingerly climb the vertiginous steps that cut into the face of Skellig Michael, an uninhabited Unesco World Heritage-listed monastic settlement that was established sometime between the 6th and 8th Centuries. Three routes – each as vertigo inducing as the next – lead visitors to the top of one of western Europe’s most important early Christian settlements. Its very existence on the twin peaked crag is awe-inspiring, as are the six well-preserved dry-built beehive-shaped cells that were once inhabited by monks. Despite the wind and waves, an otherworldly calm pervades. Local boat companies such as Casey’s offer trips from the town of Portmagee, with a journey time of about an hour each way, depending on the weather.
On the way to and from Skellig Michael, visitors are afforded fine views of the neighbouring Little Skellig, home to some of northern Europe’s most important native and migratory seabird colonies. The island is alive with the constant fluttering and cacophony of cawing, flapping and squabbling of more than 70,000 gannets as well as kittiwakes, Arctic terns, puffins, razorbills and shearwaters.
The Aran Islands off the country’s western coast offer one of Ireland’s most recognisable island landscapes, with towering Atlantic-bashed cliffs and a mosaic of velvety green fields starkly contrasted by dry stonewalls and rugged limestone terrain. These three islands, part of the Gaelic language-speaking region of Gaeltacht, seem stuck in a time warp as a symbol of the Ireland of yesteryear. Most day-trippers head for the largest island of the group, Inis More, with its spectacular Dun Aengus fort, a pre-Christian monument built in the 2nd Century BC.