Ireland’s outlying islands
But for real solitude, head instead to the middle island, Inis Meain. Here you can still see the quaint 300-year-old thatched cottage where Irish literary heavyweight J M Synge used to stay on his frequent visits to the island and where he penned the play, The Playboy of the Western World. Inis Meain is also home to the unique Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites. Owned by native islander and chef Ruairi de Blacam and his wife Marie-Thérèse, this architecturally cutting-edge restaurant (built with dry stone walls similar to those found all over the Aran islands) features a brief, seasonal menu, while the three bedrooms and one suite are sparsely decorated, letting the views speak for themselves. The island is also home to the family’s Inis Meain Knitting Company, whose factory shop offers discounts on its garments like the famous Aran sweater re-imagined in luxurious fabrics such as merino and cashmere wool that are stocked in the likes of New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman department store. Get there on the Aran Island Ferry from the village of Ros a Mhil, 38km west of Galway. Or take the 10-minute flight from Connemara Airport, west of Galway City, an option that comes with spectacular views.
Further north, 11km off the coast of the scenic Connemara region, with its dramatic, cloud-shrouded mountains and Atlantic coastline is the diminutive Inishbofin Island, whose name roughly translates from Gaelic as “Island of the White Cow”. Inhabited since ancient times, its treeless, windswept landscape is fringed with stunning, pale sand beaches and water that takes on a distinctly Caribbean-blue hue in the right weather.
The fort at the mouth of the island’s Bofin Harbour, Cromwell’s Barracks, was built by the Cromwellian army in the late 1650s and served as a prison a few years later for exiled Irish Catholic priests and monks when Catholicism was outlawed by the British. A long-time haunt of artists and writers seeking inspiration amid its tranquil surroundings, Inishbofin’s traditional music scene is best experienced during one of its Traditional Music Weekends held during the summer season and which feature the island’s home-grown Inishbofin Ceili Band, which features fiddles, a guitar, an accordion and the traditional Irish bodhran.
Another must-do are the island’s three looped walks, ranging from 3km to 8km in length. Enjoy stunning vistas, wild flowers and the haunting sounds of one of Ireland’s rarest birds, the corncrake, on these bracing Atlantic hikes. Get to the island via the ferry from the village of Cleggan on the Galway mainland, and stay at the Inishbofin House Hotel and Marine Spa, a contemporary hotel that overlooks the bay with its bobbing fishing boats. The hotel’s spa offers therapies derived from seaweed harvested on Ireland’s west coast.
Ireland’s largest island, Achill Island, located off the coast of County Mayo, 130km north of Galway, is a windswept outpost with beguiling charm. Reached from the mainland’s Curran Peninsula via a bridge over Achill Sound, the island has an undeniably special atmosphere fuelled by a magnificent landscape of spectacular beaches, heather-blanketed bogs, lakes and rivers, haunting, deserted villages emptied during the Great Famine in the late 1840s, and some of the highest cliffs in western Europe. The island is also home to one of Ireland’s oldest summer schools, Scoil Acla, established in 1910 to celebrate traditional Irish arts and culture. The school offers workshops and special events from the end of July each year. Cycle or drive the island’s 10km Atlantic route, which skirts the coast like a hem with far-reaching panoramas of the ocean, or spend an afternoon on the secluded sands of Keem Bay on the island’s western tip, one of the most picturesque beaches in the entire country.