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Ireland's islands uncovered


Tory, Co Donegal

Tory, Co Donegal

Blasket Islands, Co Kerry

Blasket Islands, Co Kerry

Ireland's Eye, Co Dublin

Ireland's Eye, Co Dublin

Bere Island, Co Cork

Bere Island, Co Cork

Gabhla, Co Donegal

Gabhla, Co Donegal

Clare Island, Co Mayo

Clare Island, Co Mayo

Scattery Island, Co Clare

Scattery Island, Co Clare

Árainn Mór, Co Donegal

Árainn Mór, Co Donegal

Dursey, Co Cork

Dursey, Co Cork


Tory, Co Donegal

Find your perfect Irish isle: there’s one for everyone, writes Pól Ó Conghaile

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Most remote inhabited island

Tory, Co Donegal

Around 12km mightn't be much of a distance on the mainland. When it separates Toraigh from the Irish coast, however, it's substantial. The ruins of St Colmcille's 6th-century monastery and fiercely preserved traditions define an island where people still talk of "travelling to Ireland".

Population: 130+.

Getting there: Turasmara (074 953 1320; toryislandferry.com) sails from Bunbeg and Magheroarty, and Toraigh na dTonn (074 913 5920) from Magheroarty.

Did you know? Tory is famous for its school of 'primitive' painters, who were encouraged by the late Derek Hill. Island artists exhibit at Gailearaí Dixon.

Most southerly island

Cape Clear, Co Cork

The Gaeltacht island of Cape Clear has many strings to its bow. Its wild scenery, pretty beaches and megalithic standing stones set the stage for an annual storytelling festival, some of the best bird-watching on the Irish coast, and the opportunity to learn how to dive and speak Irish.

Population: 129.

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Getting there: Cape Clear Ferries (028 39159; capeclearferries.com) and Cailín Óir Ferries (028 41923; cailinoir.com) sail from Baltimore.

Did you know? Oileán Chléire is one of the leading cetacea spotting sites in Europe.

The pirate island

Inishbofin, Co Galway

Fans of Inishbofin return over and again, and with good reason. The Island of the White Cow, as it translates, has been inhabited for more than 6,000 years. Traditional music, white sandy beaches, champion scenery and archaeological sites combine the best of Ireland's islands in one.

Population: 200+.

Getting there: Inishbofin Island Ferry (095 45903) and Inishbofin Island Discovery (091 45819; inishbofinislanddiscovery.com) sail from Cleggan.

Did you know? Pirates Don Bosco and Granuaile had strongholds on the island.

The garden island

Garnish, Co Cork

Garnish is a tiny island with a big reputation. Squirrelled away in Glengarriff harbour, it is home to sub-tropical gardens showcasing an incredible richness of plant form and colour. 'Ilnacullin' was designed 80 years ago by then owner Annan Bryce, and architect and garden designer Harold Peto.

Population: 0.

Getting there: Harbour Queen Ferries (027 631116; www.harbour-queenferry.com) and Blue Pool Ferry (027 63333; bluepool-ferry.com) sail from Glengarriff from March to October.

Did you know? Seals are regular visitors on the southern shore rocks.

The foodie island

Heir Island, Co Cork

Heir Island may not have any pubs, but gastronomes travel from all corners to John Desmond and Ellmary Fenton's Island Cottage restaurant and cookery school (028 38102; islandcottage.com). Between courses, visitors can walk, swim, cycle, dive and sail.

Population: 25.

Getting there: The MV Thresher (086 809 2447) and Miss Josephine (086 888 7799) depart from Baltimore and Cunnamore Pier.

Did you know? The island has an extensive marsh which is home to unusual birds and more than 200 species of wildflower.

The radio island

Rathlin, Co Antrim

Around 12km off the coast at Ballycastle, Rathlin has had its fair share of famous visitors. Robert the Bruce planned his return to Scotland on the island, Richard Branson crash landed there and Marconi transmitted the first commercial radio signals from Rathlin -- all surrounded by majestic cliffs.

Population: 95.

Getting there: Caledonian MacBrayne (0044 282 076 9299; calmac.co.uk/rathlin) sails daily from Ballycastle. Book in advance.

Did you know? Shaped like a boomerang, Rathlin is never more than 1.5km wide.

The filmmakers' island

Inis Mór, Co Galway

The largest of the Aran Islands, Árainn is a fixture on many tourists' itineraries, with Dún Aonghusa, Cill Mhuirbhigh beach, meandering byways and a lively nightlife combining to offer a quintessential Irish experience. Ionad Árann, the heritage centre, ties together times past and present.

Population: 800+.

Getting there: Aer Arann Islands (091 593034; aerarannislands.ie) flies from Indreabhán. Aran Island Ferries (091 568903; aranislandferries.com) and Caol Díreach go hÁrainn (091 506786; aranislandsdirect.com) sail from Ros an Mhíl. There are also sailings from Doolin.

Did you know? It's some 75 years since Robert J Flaherty filmed Man of Aran here.

Aran's middle island

Inis Meáin, Co Galway

The quietest of the Aran Islands was also the one most favoured by JM Synge, and visitors can still see Teach Synge and one of the author's favourite writing spots, Synge's Chair. Diving, a maze of trails, the oval fort of Dún Chonchúir and Irish language courses are the principal activities on this island.

Population: 180+.

Getting there: See Inis Mór, above.

Did you know? Inis Meáin is the least visited of the Aran Islands.

Father Ted's island

Inis Óirr, Co Galway

The most easterly Aran isle, likely inhabited for 5,000 years, is small enough to see almost entirely on foot. Cnoc Raithní, the 16th-century Caisleán Uí Bhríain and the beaches to the north of the island, with their views of Connemara, are amongst the main draws.

Population: 260+.

Getting there: See Inis Mór, above.

Did you know? The Plassey shipwreck features in the opening credits of Father Ted.

The island of the White Cow

Inis Bo Fínne, Co Donegal

Similarly named to Inishbofin in Galway, this tiny Gaeltacht island is a mere 2km long and 1km wide. It punches above its weight, however, with a stunning coastline, endangered corncrake and views that include Mount Errigal and seascapes stretching from Cnoc Fola to Tory Island.

Population: 35 (in main season).

Getting there: Carmel Olivia (074 913 5635) sails, in season, from Magheroarty.

Did you know? Inis Bo Fínne has its own community of hundreds of wild rabbits.

The hidden gem

Oileán an Bhráighe, Co Donegal

If you're looking for a bolthole stashed away from the frenetic pace of modern life, Oileán an Bhráighe could very well be it. So small it doesn't always feature on maps, the Donegal gem is a haven of rocky shores, green fields and views reaching as far as the Fanad Mountains.

Population: Seven.

Getting there: Oileán an Bhráighe (074 915 5535) can be reached by car at low tide.

Did you know? Before its causeway was built, children waded through high tide on stilts.

Most mystical island

Inishmurray, Co Sligo

St Molaise founded a monastery on Inishmurray in the 6th century, and the island remained inhabited until the last of its people moved to the mainland in 1957. Today, it is a wildlife sanctuary for breeding and wintering birds, and one of national importance at that.

Population: 0.

Getting there: Various boats sail from Mullaghmore between April and October, including Lomax (071 916 6124), Excalibur Island Tours (087 667 4522) and the Ellen Louise (071 916 6124).

Did you know? Amongst the remains on the island are mysterious 'cursing' stones.

The island of legend

Inis Gé, Co Mayo

Lying 1km west of the Belmullet Peninsula, Inis Gé was a monastic settlement of note in early Christian Ireland. The last islanders relocated to the mainland in the 1930s, and since then the islands have been all about the scenery, including the ruins of a whaling station.

Population: 0.

Getting there: Various boats sail seasonally, including Fionnuala and the Noirín Bán (097 85741), the Rachel Michelle (097 85669) and the Oisín Óg (097 81586).

Did you know? Legend says the Children of Lír are buried beneath the grassy hills.

Ireland's thinnest island

Long Island, Co Cork

A short hop by boat from Schull, Long Island is a delightful escape from the buzz of West Cork, offering visitors a mix of walks, beaches and scenery. The White Tower lighthouse and ruins of houses, dating from the early 1900s, add to the feeling of splendid isolation.

Population: 10.

Getting there: MV Nordic (086 888 7799) departs from Schull daily.

Did you know? The island is almost 5km long, but only 0.8km wide.

The traditionalists' island

Inis Bigil, Co Mayo

Just 90m from Achill, Inis Bigil is something of a time capsule, having preserved to a great degree the farming and fishing traditions of a bygone age. Walkers, in particular, are in for a treat on a Gaeltacht island renowned for its unspoilt nature and panoramic views.

Population: 39.

Getting there: Leneghan Ferries (098 45513) sails daily from Ballycroy.

Did you know? Inis Bigil was home to one of Ireland's few Protestant Irish-speaking communities.

The heather island

Inishfree, Co Donegal

A tiny 1.6km-squared in size, Inishfree is renowned for its peaceful and spiritual atmosphere. The island combines an ancient mass rock, sheltered landscape and great angling, birding and walking opportunities into one of the best-kept secrets in the northwest.

Population: 30 (in main season).

Getting there: Inishfree Charters (074 9551533; inish.ie) sail from Burtonport.

Did you know? After its last residents left in the 1970s, Inis Fraoigh became home for 20 years to a commune known as 'The Screamers'.

The fuchsia island

Whiddy, Co Cork

Sitting in Bantry Bay, Whiddy Island's climate is blessed by the Gulf Stream, creating a unique ecology and allowing it to cosset a variety of wildlife. Red fuchsia carpet the place in summer and autumn, making a day trip from Bantry particularly appealing at that time of year.

Population: 29.

Getting there: Whiddy Island Ferries (027 50310) departs from Bantry.

Did you know? Whiddy is home to the Butterwort, one of the few insect-eating plants in Ireland.

Island of geese

Inch Island, Co Donegal

Inch boasts a sandy beach on the south-western shore, its castle is connected to the Flight of the Earls and the birdwatching is second to none. Set in Lough Swilly, the island sees flocks of Whooper Swan, Greylag geese and Greenland white-fronted geese make Irish landfall in autumn.

Population: 400+.

Getting there: Inch is connected to the mainland.

Did you know? Inch had more than 400 houses in the 1600s, making it the wealthiest district in Donegal.

The telegraph island

Valentia, Co Kerry

A seafarers' haven marked on the earliest maps of Europe, Valentia is synonymous with communication (the first transatlantic cable was sent from here in 1866), lifeboats and a mild, Kerry climate. From the barren cliffs of Bray Head to stately Knightstown, its identity is cast in slate.

Population: 600.

Getting there: Valentia is linked to the mainland by bridge at Portmagee.

Did you know? Tetrapod footprints on Valentia are thought to be 350 million years old.

The literary islands

Blasket Islands, Co Kerry

The Blaskets have produced a body of Irish literature without compare for a population of their size. From Peig Sayers to Muiris Mac Conghail, tales of island life off the tip of the Dingle Peninsula continue to resonate across a wilderness now populated by cetacea, birdlife and ruins.

Population: 0.

Getting there: The Dún Chaoin Ferry Co (066 915 4864; blasketislands.ie) sails from Dingle. For other ferry services, contact Cahersiveen Tourist Office (066 947 2589).

Did you know? Former Taoiseach Charles Haughey bought Inishvickillane in 1974 for £25,000.

Most easterly island

Ireland's Eye, Co Dublin

Today a bird sanctuary, this Dublin landmark was once home to St Nessan's monastery and still anchors the remains of a 19th-century Martello tower. Guillemots, terns, gannets, razorbills, cormorants and puffins are amongst the birds nesting on its fringes.

Population: 0.

Getting there: MV Little Flower (086 845 9154; islandferries.net) departs Howth's East Pier daily from March to October.

Did you know? The name Ireland's Eye comes from a Viking corruption of Eria's Island. Eria, a woman's name, was confused with Erin, and attached to the Norse word for island (Ey), it became Erin's Ey.

Island of the welcomes

Bere Island, Co Cork

Archaeological sites from the Bronze Age, 19th- and 20th-century military installations, two Martello towers and a holy well; visitors are not stuck for heritage on Bere Island. Added to the history, however, is a friendly community whose hospitality is legendary.

Population: 200+.

Getting there: Bere Island Ferries (027 75009; bereislandferries.com) departs from Castletownbere, and Murphy's Ferries (027 75014; murphysferry.com) from Pontoon.

Did you know? Bere is situated at the entrance to the deepest harbour in Europe.

The UNESCO islands

The Skelligs, Co Kerry

Three rocky pyramids punching out of the Atlantic Ocean, Na Scealga are not just the most spectacular of Ireland's islands, but possibly our most spectacular sight, full stop. Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a 1,000-year-old staircase leading to cliff-edge beehive huts.

Population: 0.

Getting there: Contact Cork-Kerry Tourism (064 31633) or see skelligexperience.com for details of ferries from Portmagee.

Did you know? Sceilg Bheag is home to more than 30,000 pairs of gannets.

The photographer's island

Gabhla, Co Donegal

This oasis is a favourite of photographers, artists, walkers and rock-climbers. Birdlife is plentiful, there's a wonderful sea arch at Scoilt Uí Dhugáin, beaches are sandy and the angling is top notch.

Population: 35 (in main season).

Getting there: Seod Gabhla (087 660 7003) sails from Machaire Gathlán.

Did you know? The cliffs pose some of Europe's best challenges for rock climbers.

The island of dolphins

Sherkin, Co Cork

The ancestral home of the O'Driscoll clan, whose castle lies above the pier, Sherkin is also one of Carberry's Hundred Isles. The island has three sandy beaches, the ruins of a 15th-century Franciscan abbey, and more seals, otters and dolphins than one could count.

Population: 100+.

Getting there: Sherkin Ferry (028 20218) sails from Baltimore.

Did you know? Sherkin runs its own Fine Arts Degree course.

Ireland's largest island

Achill Island, Co Mayo

The most populous of Ireland's islands, Achill's facilities, wealth of sights and excellent beaches never fail to attract the holiday crowds. Surfers are the latest in a long line of visitors -- some of the megalithic tombs and promontory forts date back 5,000 years.

Population: 3,000+.

Getting there: Achill is accessible by bridge near Mulranny.

Did you know? Achill boasts two of Ireland's most evocative deserted villages -- Slievemore and Ailt.

The pirate queen's island

Clare Island, Co Mayo

Clare Island was the stronghold of 16th-century pirate queen Grace O'Malley. Clare has much more to recommend it, however. Try the 45 Bronze Age cooking sites, gorgeous beaches and great dive sites.

Population: 120+.

Getting there: Clare Island Ferry Company (098 25212; www.clareislandferry.com) and O'Malley Ferries (098 25045; www.omalleyferries.com) sail from Roonagh, Louisburgh.

Did you know? Clare has some of the best views of Croagh Patrick.

Island of ruins

Scattery Island, Co Clare

Though uninhabited, Scattery was home to St Senan's monastery in the 6th century, and the remains can still be seen. The last of the islanders, famed for their currach handling, left in the 1970s, but their settlements have lasted too.

Population: 0.

Getting there: Griffins Boat Hire (065 905 1327) sails from Kilrush Creek Marina, April to October.

Did you know? The island's ruins include a 16th-century Elizabethan tower house.

The cave island

Árainn Mór, Co Donegal

Aranmore is the largest of Donegal's islands, and a wonderful compilation of cliffs, historic sites, beaches and wildlife. It has its dark side, however. A group of islanders was once massacred by Cromwellian soldiers at the Cave of Slaughter.

Population: 500+.

Getting there: Aranmore Island Ferries (074 952 0532; arranmoreferry.com) sails from Burtonport.

Did you know? The island's inimitable celebration of music and dance takes place in August.

The island of peace

Dursey, Co Cork

Another of Ireland's islands renowned for its birdwatching and hiking, Dursey lies across a narrow sound in West Cork. The island is part of the Beara Way walking trail, and the ancient church here is said to have been founded by Skellig monks.

Population: Six.

Getting there: A cable car departs Ballaghboy daily, a 10-minute trip.

Did you know? The cable car is the only one in Ireland.

The hikers' island

Inishturk, Co Mayo

Inishturk boasts sheer cliffs, rich archaeological sites, deep-sea diving and Tranaun and Curran beaches, shouldering some of the clearest waters on the west coast. Hill-walkers will reap rich rewards here.

Population: 70+.

Getting there: Clare Island Ferry Co (098 25212; www.clareislandferry.com) and Inishturk Ferries (098 45541) sail from Louisburgh.

Did you know? Inishturk has been inhabited in various guises since 4,000BC.

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