From the Clare Island Lighthouse, visitors can see Clare Island salmon farm in the foreground and Croagh Patrick in the distance. The lighthouse is luxury accommodartion. See www.clareislandlighthouse.com for details. Judy Enright photo.
It’s such fun to discover and explore different places in Ireland. No matter how many times you visit, you can always find something new if you just get out and look around.
Every spring for the past 20 years, I’ve rented the same house on Clew Bay in Co. Mayo as my base to travel all over the country. But, in spite of its proximity, I had never been to Clare Island, which, you might say, is a mere stone’s throw away - just three miles off the West Coast. A friend and I changed all that this spring with a two-night stay on this lovely island.
CLARE ISLAND FERRY
We took the Clare Island Ferry from Roonagh Pier, south of Westport and Louisburgh, with fellow travelers who were transporting dogs, bikes, suitcases, bags of supplies, gas cans, and more. We landlubbers tend to forget that life on a small island (only five miles long and three miles wide) can be romantic and fun for tourists but a bit challenging for year-round residents who must travel to the mainland for just about everything from food to fuel for their vehicles.
After a smooth, 25-minute crossing, we reached Clare Island and walked a very short distance to McCabe’s Granuaile B&B, which is very handy at the end of the pier. The B&B is named for the famed 16th Century Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaile in Irish), who terrorized the West Coast and is reportedly buried in the Cistercian Abbey on the island. One of Grace’s tower house castles stands guard over Clare Island’s harbor – similar castles are Rockfleet, outside Newport, and Kildavnet on Achill Island, both in Mayo.
We were welcomed on a perfect, sunny May afternoon by our charming hostess, Cora, who offered a welcome pot of tea that we enjoyed out on the expansive deck overlooking the harbor and adjoining beach. Because it was the beginning of May and chilly on the ferry, we were dressed for winter! We shivered watching several young children dash in and out of the salt water without a care or complaint - except when it was time to go home.
My ensuite bedroom was in the front and overlooked the pier and harbor. My friend’s room was on the side with a great view of Granuaile’s castle. The family-run B&B has been accommodating visitors since 1909 and it was a great place to stay – clean, convenient, comfortable, and an easy walk to the Sailors Restaurant/Bar and the Community Center for meals.
Clare Island only has this one “restaurant,” and it offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s also the Community Center close to the harbor that serves food during high season (it wasn’t open when we were there.)
A small convenience store (the only one we saw on the island) is about a mile from the harbor and is amply stocked with bits of this and that – we bought yogurt, chips (crisps), water, soft drinks, crackers, and ice cream for a quick lunch one day. The store also doubles as Clare Island’s post office.
Most visitors who go to Clare Island don’t want or expect a carnival atmosphere – they’re primarily walkers, hikers, birders, nature lovers, and bikers seeking to savor the unspoiled, beautiful, and largely undeveloped island. Clare, the largest of the 365 islands in Clew Bay, is home to only about 160 residents - farmers, fishermen, their families, those involved in tourism, and small business.
THINGS TO DO
Cora at our B&B was a wealth of information about things to do and places to go on the island – she and her husband also make the perfect “full Irish” breakfasts to get you started on your day.
So how do you get around Clare Island if you don’t bring a bike and are not a walker or hiker? Cora told us to go across the narrow street, knock on the door of a house there, and ask for Bridget, who runs a taxi service and gives informative tours of the island. We got in her van and joined a group of about a dozen musicians who were sightseeing before catching the ferry back to the mainland for a performance in Galway that night. The lively group had played at the Sailors Bar the night before.
Bridget took the musicians up to see the Lighthouse at the top of the island. We had been there the day before, so she let us out at Ballytoughey Loom workshop and showroom where we met the owner Beth Moran, originally from Worcester, who has clearly found her Nirvana on Clare Island. She offers workshops and sells her lovely work and that of others at her showroom. For more information, see clareislandhandweaver.com.
We were stunned to learn how many birds and other critters are found on and around this small island. The bird population includes raven, cormorants, thrush, peregrine falcon, barnacle geese, kittiwakes, kestrels, oystercatchers, puffin and chaffinch. Suitable habitat is also provided on Clare Island for large flocks of the rare chough. Their distinctive high-pitched calls and acrobatic flights distinguish them from other crow species. And three pairs of gannet nest on the sea stack northwest of the island and are the most northerly of five gannet colonies in Ireland.
Keep your eyes peeled as you travel around and you might see other residents on land, too, including the otter and Irish hare, and when you look out to sea, there are grey seals and bottlenose dolphin. (A pod of bottlenose dolphin is often seen patrolling the coast from Clew Bay to Killary Harbor in Connemara.)
Across the landscape, there’s Irish heath, purple loosestrife, sea pinks (also called thrift), fuchsia, and more in the bogs and woodlands. It’s a colorful, lively place to visit.
Do you like history? If so, be sure to stop at the 12th-century medieval church, known as The Abbey, on the south side of the island. The building is said to have the largest selection of rare roof paintings in Ireland. Only four other such paintwork examples still exist in Ireland and Clare Island’s is the best preserved. In the 1990s, conservation work was done that revealed even more images.
The paintings depict mythical human and animal figures including dragons, a cockerel, stags, men on foot and on horseback, a cattle raid scene, a harper, birds, and trees.
The history of Clare Island is very much the history of the O’Malley family - including the infamous Grace. The Abbey contains the O’Malley tomb, supposedly the burial site of Granuaile. The roof paintings are said to originate from two painting phases and thus were probably commissioned by two separate O’Malley chieftains who wanted to leave their mark.
We asked Postmaster Padraic O’Malley if a Heritage Guide about the Abbey was available for purchase at his small store/post office. It wasn’t, but he graciously printed a copy of the six-page guide for us with its fascinating information about the Abbey and the paintings.
Not to be overlooked is the spectacular, luxury accommodation in the Clare Island Lighthouse that hovers above the sea on cliffs at the most northerly point of the island.
The interiors are uncluttered and simple but, according to the brochure, are also, “exceedingly comfortable. Where possible, we have let the landscape do the talking.” And what a landscape it is...it’s breathtaking.
The original lighthouse was built in 1806 by the Marquis of Sligo and functioned for eight years until a fire destroyed the lantern and part of the tower. A new tower was built in 1818 but it was decommissioned in 1965 because the lantern tower was so high it was often shrouded in mist.
The current owners bought and renovated the building in 2008 and now offer six elegant bedrooms with a two-night minimum stay, dinner, and breakfast. Last minute one night stays are also possible, if available.
For more information, see: clareislandlighthouse.com. The lighthouse has a sister accommodation – Killadangan House in Westport. See killadanganhouse.com for more on that.
The Lighthouse is included in the Hidden Ireland collection of elegant, privately owned, and historic Irish country houses where visitors stay as guests. See hiddenireland.com for more information.
Ferries running from Roonagh Pier include: clareislandferry.com and omalleyferries.com. During the summer, Clare Island Ferry operates a direct bus service from Westport to Roonagh Pier. Click on clareislandferry.com for information. You must ring Brian on (086) 8515003 the evening before in order to book a seat on the bus. The bus operates on a “need only” basis. To rent a bike in Westport and ride to Roonagh, contact clewbayoutdoors.ie. Ample parking is available at Roonagh.
Enjoy Ireland whenever and wherever you go.