Despite the draw of Dublin and a handful of other popular tourist hotspots, much of Ireland’s windswept landscape remains unspoilt and relatively unknown to most holidaymakers. Visit Ireland and explore for yourself one of these the stunning secret islands dotted just off the west and south coast.
From angling and deep-sea fishing, to horse riding on deserted beaches or mountaineering along sheer cliffs; here’s the best of what’s on offer if you decide to venture offshore during your travels around Ireland.
1. Sherkin Island
Sherkin Island, best known for its popular sailing regatta (normally held in late July), is the ancestral home of the O’Driscoll clan. Even though it has a meagre population of approximately 100, it’s the most accessible island in Ireland – only ten minutes by ferry from the small fishing port of Baltimore, County Cork. The island boasts wonderful natural beauty; Atlantic views from the hilltops, fuchsia-scented lanes and some of the finest sandy beaches in this part of the country. Sherkin’s botanical richness is second only to The Burren in County Clare, whilst many birds breed on the island – you’ll be able to spot rare migrants passing through in spring and autumn. There’s good fishing to be had on the rocky headlands and you may be lucky enough to spot seals, otters, dolphins and porpoises swimming just offshore – Sherkin is also a well known base for whale watching. Tour the island aboard the Rural Transport bus, or rent a bicycle during the summer months. For those wishing to spend the night, check-in to The Islander’s Rest hotel. Home to an abbey, an Iron Age fort, a medieval castle and this eclectic music festival (every August) how many more reasons do you need to visit?
Credit: ©Raymond Fogarty
2. Cape Clear
Cape Clear, Ireland’s southernmost inhabited Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) island, lies eight miles off the coast of West Cork. Expect wild, romantic scenery, bustling harbours, cliffs, bogs and heather robed hilltops. Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival, held in early September, offers a truly unique chance to witness this ancient art form and hear some of the world’s most talented tale spinners. Mizen Head, the mainland’s most southerly point, can clearly be seen on a sunny day. There are also many historical attractions, including megalithic standing stones, a 5000 year-old grave, a twelfth century church ruin, and the fourteenth century O’Driscoll Castle. Cape Clear’s remote island location, coupled with its proximity to the continental shelf, makes it the foremost centre for bird watching in Ireland. Out at sea, you should keep your eyes peeled for whales, leatherback turtles, dolphins and sharks. The island can be accessed via a ferry service from Baltimore, while there’s a well maintained glamping site and currently just one pub on the island.
Credit: ©Gerry Clancy
3. Dursey Island
Dursey lies across a narrow sound and is accessed via Ireland’s only cable car, which runs about 250m above the sea – a word of warning, this can be a daunting journey if you’re scared of heights! The island has several walking routes and is part of The Beara Way walking trail, so you’re bound to find a hike to suit your fitness level. Having no shops, pubs or restaurants, Dursey is the perfect place for day-trippers with packed lunches looking to switch off from modern life – although the views of the Beara Peninsula are definitely Instagram-worthy. For some of the best shots, head up the signal tower on the island’s furthest west hill, commanding views north to the Skelligs (see below) and south to Mizen Head – it was built 200 years ago as a line of defence against French attacks. Dursey is part of the unique West Cork Islands Festival, which celebrates the beautiful walks, music and heritage of the islands.
4. Skellig Michael
The Skellig Islands – Skellig Michael and Small Skellig – stand aloof in the Atlantic Ocean, eight miles southwest of Valentia Island, County Kerry, and from any vantage point on the nearby Ring of Kerry, they are striking pinnacles. Skellig Michael is home to a sixth century monastic outpost, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is reached by climbing over five hundred steps on millennia old stone stairway. Stone beehive-shaped huts, where the resident monks once lived and prayed, cling to the cliff edges alongside oratories, stone crosses, holy wells and the Church of St. Michael. Enduring several Viking raids, the monks eventually left the island in the thirteenth century and it subsequently became a place of pilgrimage. A (weather dependent) day tour boat trip to The Skelligs gives you plenty of time to explore the monastery, but if the notoriously volatile Irish weather isn’t playing ball then you can always visit the Skellig Experience Centre on Valentia Island. You’re bound to hear more about Skellig Michael as it features on the big screen in the upcoming Star Wars movie this winter.
Credit: ©Failte Ireland
5. Great Blasket Island
The Blasket Islands lie three miles beyond the most westerly tip of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. The largest of the islands, Great Blasket, was abandoned in 1953 when the last twenty two inhabitants moved to the mainland after suffering from famine and emigration. Despite dwindling into non-existence, no other island community of comparable size played such a significant role in the development of Irish literature, producing world renowned writers, such as Peig Sayers, who documented island life in the Irish language and whose work has been translated into many languages. Great Blasket remains uninhabited but the island is open to visitors – catch the ferry from Ventry Harbour. Explore this historic island on foot along its steep grassy paths and hilly tracks. Discover the prehistoric remains and extraordinary bird life, as well as the large colony of seals who have made Great Blasket island their home. Spend the night in self-catered accommodation on this wild and romantic island. Be warned, the island has no electricity and no internet, so forget Saturday night Strictly! But who needs all that when you can have cosy campfires and fiery sunsets in one of the most westerly points in Europe. Visit the Blasket Islands Visitor Centre in Dingle for more information.
Credit: ©Raymond Fogarty
6. Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island, lying off Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coast, has a rare, untamed beauty. Start wildlife spotting before you’ve even stepped ashore – on the ferry from Ballycastle, across the ‘Sea of Moyle’ to the island’s main port, Church Bay, look out for gannets, porpoises and dolphins, whilst you should expect seals and eider ducks to greet you at the harbour. At the West Light Seabird Centre you’ll encounter Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony, with puffins and other seabirds jostling for space as they congregate in their thousands to breed from May to July. Part of the Commissioners of Irish Lights’ (CIL) Great Lighthouses of Ireland trail, head out on a bracing walk to Rathlin’s lighthouse and discover the island’s bloody connection with Robert the Bruce and the massacre of Scottish refugees in 1575. Want to stick around? Bed down for the night in the Rathlin Island Hostel which offers affordable, comfortable accommodation.
7. Clare Island
Clare Island is situated at the entrance to Clew Bay, Mayo. Its spectacular cliffs are home to large numbers of nesting seabirds, while its hills, bogs, and woodlands make the island ideal for hiking and long leisurely walks – one of the highlights is the gentle peak of Knockmore Mountain (461m). Meet the ‘pirate queen’ Grace O’Malley, buried in the castle grounds, or learn about the island’s complex history – from archaeological remains of the Neolithic and Bronze age, to rare medieval wall paintings in the fourteenth century abbey. Old potato ridges, or ‘lazy beds’ are everywhere, the evening sun reveals them jutting out from the land like the ribs of a dying beast. Offshore, the clear waters surrounding the island are known for their exceptional dive sites. The island has equestrian, adventure, and yoga centres and is also known for its lively nightlife, live music and regular summer festivals.
Credit: ©Failte Ireland
8. Spike Island
Spike Island is easily accessible by ferry from Cobh, just east of Cork City, and has, at one time or another, had a monastery, a fortress, and a prison on its 104 acres. Get yourself on a guided tour to get the most out of your trip, or go it alone and enjoy the tranquility afforded by a stroll along the walkway, admiring Cork Harbour from afar. Other must-sees include Fort Mitchel, the convict cells, and Spike Island Tearooms for a refreshing cup of tea and cake. The island is currently undergoing a lot of redevelopment to make it more inviting to visitors, including restoration work on the pier and the island’s gaol – expect the popularity of this day trip destination to grow over the next few years, so get over there before everyone else finds out about it!.
Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands (accessed via ferry and plane), is an extension of the limestone rocks of The Burren. Gentian violets and orchids sneak out between the cracks in the limestone pavements and the patchwork of fields are hemmed in by solid, dry stone walls. Cycle the lane ways to discover Inishmore’s most celebrated monument, Dún Aonghusa. One of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, this semi circular stone fort sits dramatically on top of a 100 metre sea cliff. Early Christian relics, twelfth century high crosses and medieval churches punctuate the landscape all over the island. Tradition lives on in the currach races (traditional wooden long boats) and nightly music sessions that are held all over Inishmore. Done too much jigging and Guinness swigging? Spend the night at the picture-perfect Man of Aran Cottage with its white-washed walls and thatched roof. Whether you wander the flower strewn lanes, watch the seals or relax on the beach, you’ll undoubtedly be smitten by the people, culture, and heritage of this incredible island.
Credit: ©Chris Hill Photographic 2007
10. Bere Island
The last island on our list brings us back to West Cork, to beautiful Bere Island which has been voted Ireland’s tidiest island for the past five years. Lying at the entrance to the spectacular Bantry Bay, catch the ferry from Castletownbere. The island is rich in archaeological sites dating from the Bronze Age through to medieval times, including ring forts, standing stones, wedge tombs and burial sites. Visit the Martello towers or the military barracks and fortification which hosts two six inch guns. Berehaven Harbour and Lawrence Cove are very safe and sheltered harbours for large and small boats and the marina has full facilities for visiting sailors. Together with its friendly locals, Bere Island’s greatest asset is its unspoiled and unpolluted environment. Looking to stay a little longer? Check out Airbnb for a few decent options owned by local islanders where you can stay for an authentic experience.
Credit: ©Raymond Fogarty
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Written by Janet Newenham for Skyscanner.