Ireland's islands

Keem Bay, Achill Island
Keem Bay, Achill Island

From ancient ruins to thumping traditional music sessions, hidden beaches to wild walking loops, Ireland’s islands are the last word in refreshment

Ireland doesn’t stop at its coastline or waterfront. In fact, the ends of the earth are only the beginning of the adventure – the springboard from which you cross the Atlantic Ocean or Irish Sea to some of the country’s best-kept secrets. Nor are these romantic rocks as remote as they seem. Some can be reached by bridge; others are within 20 minutes by ferry.

Ireland’s islands have fired the imagination for centuries. It was on Skellig Michael that early Christian monks braved wild winter storms in beehive huts. It was from Clare Island that Grace O’Malley, the 16th-century pirate queen, staged her expeditions.

And the islands have inspired countless artists, too – Sherkin Island even offers its very own visual arts degree.

Whether you take a short kayak ride to the religious carvings of Fermanagh’s White Island, or a longer ferry crossing to the Aran Islands, the effect is the same. Ireland’s islands throw up deserted villages, monastic ruins, thunderous cliffs, wintering birds.

They are repositories of the Irish language. And despite appearances, thanks to modern Wifi and 3G, you can stay as connected as ever in splendid isolation.

Man of Aran

When the world’s best cliff divers plummeted off the cliffs of Inis Mór into the Serpent’s Lair recently – a near-perfect rectangle hole in the limestone cliffs – you could have been forgiven for finding the sight surreal.

But the Aran Islands have a knack for getting themselves on the map. This was where Robert O’Flaherty filmed Man of Aran, after all. It’s where the UK broadcaster Channel 4’s sitcom Father Ted was filmed, and it’s also home to the prehistoric stone fort of Dún Aonghusa.

The cable guy

Though many of Ireland’s islands are easy to access (Achill and Valentia can be reached in seconds by bridge), some involve more charismatic crossings.

None more so than Dursey Island, the tiny home to just a handful of people – and a 200-year-old signal tower built as a first line of defence against the threat of French invasion – off the tip of Cork’s Beara Peninsula.

Lying across a narrow but treacherous sound, Dursey is reached by Ireland’s only cable car. Running 250 metres above the sea, it takes about 10 minutes to cross from mainland to island escape.

Rathlin to the north

At Ireland’s head lies its most northerly island – Rathlin. Speckled with bright yellow gorse and fringed with chubby seals, it’s quite a spread.

Ferries trot out to the rock from the pretty village of Ballycastle, and the approach towards the naturally stepped cliffs is an eyeful. Special mention goes to the modest but pretty church, set into a lush spot of greenery for an extra dose of serenity.

And isn’t that what you need from an island visit? A dose of serenity: something that can be pretty rare these days.

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