Thursday 18 January 2018

Walk of the Week: Clare Island, Co Mayo

Christopher Somerville

You know how it is -- you absolutely intend to go and see your dear friend who lives way out yonder for a proper walk and talk, but the months roll by, and suddenly it's five years and where the Sam Hill did they go to?

Some buddies don't change, though, and Olcan Masterson is one of them. It was great to see him on Roonagh Quay on a blustery morning, light and active as ever, collar up and pipe aglow, ready for anything Clare Island might have to offer us.

Quite literally a guide, philosopher and friend to anyone who truly loves Mayo, Olcan's the man to open your eyes to the beauty and strangeness of that bog-and-mountain corner of the West.

Walkers and photographers find their five senses scrubbed and polished out on the hill, and those who love traditional music get their moment of magic when Olcan pulls out his black and silver whistle and sends a haunting air off down the mountainside.

Today we were for a ferry ride across the whitecaps and a good saunter round the lanes and green roads of Clare Island.

It's a perfect sight as you sail into the island jetty -- a tiny curve of pristine sand, a scatter of houses perfumed with turf smoke, a sprinkle of fishing boats and currachs, the lumpy spine of Knocknaveen beyond, and the great whaleback of Knockmore at the back of all, a patriarch waiting for homage. Today the mountain, its head hidden in heavy cloud, looked more like a volcano.

Mairtín Moran was cutting the grass round the diminutive helicopter pad, his collie dog curled up asleep exactly where a chopper would touch down. "You're very welcome to Clare Island, now," offered Mairtín with courtesy. "Have a great day, and please enjoy your walk."

Down on the shore, Grace O'Malley's castle crouched cold and forbidding, a grey, defensive block of stone. Elaborately slated garderobes or long-drop latrines clung to opposite corners, just where the wind would blow cold on a bare posterior. How very practical, how indifferent to everyday discomforts our forebears had to be.

Granuaille herself, Clare Island born and bred, was a tough cookie indeed, a raider and rogue of a leader, a seafarer who wouldn't bow the neck to any queen or potentate.

Stories say that her fleet would lie at anchor off the castle, their cables joined by a silken thread which passed through her bedroom window and was tied round her toe while she slept. But then other stories say that was at the O'Malley stronghold of Carrickildavnet on Achill Island.

It's quite likely that St Brigid's Abbey on the south side of Clare Island was the scene of Grace O'Malley's baptism, her marriage and her funeral. We spent a long time in the lovely old building admiring the splendid O'Malley tomb.

Its crudely cut coat of arms depicts a bristle-backed wild boar in full snarling vigour, dancing with rage on the tips of his trotters while bows and arrows menace him from above. Above him, medieval frescoes in the roof show spiky red dragons, lean and hunting dogs, and a man herding horned beasts along -- a rather remarkable feat, as he has an enormous arrow embedded in his back.

At the crest of the road between Knockmore and Knocknaveen we took to the Green Path, a broad and grassy track ribboning up and down. The views from this exhilarating old road were stunning, all round the compass -- the Nephin Beg mountains hanging darkly in the north, Achill Island's peaks sharply outlined, Clew Bay spread wide with The Reek rising into a bruise of cloud.

All was utterly quiet and still, a green and grey fastness in which Jane's red jacket shone like a beacon.

As it turned out, Olcan had left his black whistle back on the mainland. No spine-tingling airs to make magic along the Green Path and down through the fields to the island pier. But later that night in Westport, whaling through a set of belting reels in the corner seats at McHale's pub, the wild essence of the green island in the white and grey sea seemed to be right there among us.


MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 30; downloadable map/instructions (highly recommended) at

TRAVEL: Rail ( To Westport. Bus ( Service 450 Westport-Louisburgh; then taxi (087 251 5414) to Roonagh Quay. Road: R335 to Louisburgh; Roonagh Quay and ferries are signed from town. From Roonagh Quay, Clare Island Ferry Co. (086 851 5003 or 087 900 4115; winter number 098 25212; clareislandferry. com); O’Malley Ferries (098 25045; 086 600 0204 or 086 887 0814;

WALK DIRECTIONS: From Clare Island pier, turn right and follow ‘All Routes’ along road for 1¾ miles. At ‘Kill’ sign just before Clare Abbey, right up road (purple arrow/PA) for nearly a mile. At top of rise, right (PA) to follow the Green Path across the island below Knocknaveen, through gates (PAs), descending to the pier. LENGTH: 4½ miles — allow 2½ hours.

GRADE: Moderate.

CONDITIONS: Road and field tracks. DON’T MISS: Granuaille’s Castle; frescoes in St Brigid’s Abbey; the chance to talk to the islanders — fascinating stories!

REFRESHMENTS: O’Grady’s Guesthouse near pier (098 22991;

ACCOMMODATION: Consult island website (see below). INFORMATION: Olcan Masterson (086 109 7575; /index.php?country=17) — memorable tours.

Clare Island website:;

Irish Independent

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