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
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
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
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.