Readers, there’s something in the water. In the sea and the lakes. Ireland’s glittering portfolio of islands, from isolated outposts in a stormy ocean to near-tropical isles of golden beaches and unique culture, is certainly something. These islands harbour astounding landscapes, unmatched tranquility, distinctive communities and ancient traces of former settlers.
So I tried to pick Ireland’s best islands, the ones that demanded a visit in your lifetime, images of which burn a memory instantly, stories of which border on the too extraordinary. And I quickly learned there’s way too many to squeeze into one blog. So whether you’re a bird-watcher, swimmer, history buff or just know there’s nothing better than a deep-blue sea view, here’s just part one of our prettiest, liveliest, most something islands.
Rathlin Island, County Antrim
Rathlin is Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island, and it is the inhabitants that hold such interest, including seals (seen rather briefly by Richard Branson when he crash landed his hot air balloon here) and the stars of the show; the 100,000 birds. Colonies of kittiwakes, puffins, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, ravens and peregrines crowd the limestone and basalt cliffs of the island, turning the rock face into a live, fluttering entity.
Rathlin is a 12km ferry trip from Ballycastle, and don’t dare pass through Ballycastle without tasting its world-famous fish and chips.
Skellig Michael, County Kerry
The two pyramids of sandstone piercing the choppy Atlantic off the South Kerry coast are the formidable Skellig Islands. A fascinating slice of early Christian history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an island-wide bird sanctuary await anyone brave enough to take the rough 45-minute open boat journey.
Hopping, literally, onto Skellig Michael, pant your way up the same 700 steps that hardy monks were scaling 1,000 years ago to one of the most magnificent monastic sites in Europe. Walk around the neatly preserved stone beehive huts, chapel, cemetery and stone crosses and imagine the spartan life these monks had on the edge of such an inhospitable storm-lashed rock.
An Sceilg Bheag (Little Skellig) is the whitened smaller rock in the distance. This seabird sanctuary is home to more than 30,000 pairs of gannets, so boats cannot land here. Ask your boatman nicely, though, and they can sidle up close enough for you to hear the mighty din of the birds.
Aran Islands, County Galway
So simply named are the three Aran Islands; Inis Mór (Big Island), Inis Meáin (Middle island) and Inis Oírr (East island), I can’t help but imagine Goldilocks herself trying the three of them for size.
And she’d have a tough choice choosing between them! All have a heritage-rich population of native Irish-speakers, landscapes of heart-stopping, Burren-like beauty, and enough wildlife, fauna and archaeological sites to keep the eagle-eyed visitor transfixed for days.
I can picture Goldilocks on Inis Mór (Inishmore), walking along the blue-flag beaches, trying her hand at basket-making and being awestruck by Dún Aonghusa, the ancient ring fort backing onto 300-foot cliffs and spectacular views.
Inis Oírr (Inisheer) would have charmed with its lunar-landscape, castle ruins and rusty shipwreck, and she might even have recognised it from the opening credits of the beloved TV series Father Ted.
I’d say Inis Meáin (Inishmaan) is where she lingered. Literally an island of tranquility, it’s where J.M. Synge found the peace to write Playboy of the Western World (his clifftop seat is still there). Between the slow pace of life, walks of enchanting ocean views and picking up cúpla focal (a few words) from the locals in the island’s only pub, I’d say she found the middle island just right.
White Island, County Fermanagh
As you explore the ruins of the 12th century church on White Island in Lower Lough Erne, you’ll suddenly realise that you’re being watched. Seven pairs of wide, stony eyes are staring at you, and once you see their ancient, frozen expressions, you’ll stare back.
The eight figures, which include a face or ‘mask’ and a ghostly uncarved figure, actually predate the church and have been around since the 9th century, probably from an earlier monastic church. The figures look almost eerie, from the lewd, grinning female form at the end, probably a warning to monks on the sins of the flesh; to the frowning, peering mask, with argued versions of Christ, saints, abbot and missionary. See them for yourself and decide, but I reckon the middle one resembles my old English teacher.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, pop into another Lough Erne treat, Devenish Island, to see its perfect round tower and exquisite high cross.
Inish Turk Beg, County Mayo
Some islands are so serene and isolated you almost feel you have the whole place to yourself. Well on Inish Turk Beg, you actually can. This private island in Clew Bay is available to rent at the wolf-whistle rate of €9,000 a night, for you and 35 of your new best friends. You’ll be in good company, too, as the island is crawling with creatives including the Lord of the Rings lead fluter player, Alan Doherty, who produced a CD of flute music with other musicians on the island, and the talented folk who come onshore for the annual artists’ residence.
Don’t worry if none of these were enough to set you sailing, stay tuned for Part II of our blog – another amazing five Islands of Ireland.
You can find out more about every one of our islands on the dedicated website of Ireland’s Islands.