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To celebrate St Patrick’s Day, let me introduce you to some of my favourite places in Ireland: Galway’s islands. Having grown up on the Isle of Wight, islands have always had a special fascination for me. So, when I lived in Ireland a while back, I naturally felt drawn to explore the country’s own islands. Like the UK, the majority of Ireland’s islands are off the north and west coasts. And, based in Galway, I was particularly spoiled for choice. The county boasts over 25 islands, hence the Galway bias here. Many of these islands are interesting for their archaeology and natural history. They may not have any snakes, as legend credits St Patrick for clearing the whole of Ireland of them. But there are plenty more wildlife gems to see. Let me introduce to Galway’s island highlights.
The Aran Islands
This group of three islands in the mouth of Galway Bay are perhaps Ireland’s most famous due to the cable-knit jumpers named for them. Geologically, they are actually an extension of the strange lunar landscape of the Burren National Park in County Clare. Like the Burren, limestone dominates the islands. This forms huge pavements of blocks, or ‘clints’, broken up by long fissures, or ‘grykes’. This limestone was formed from sediments laid down approximately 350 million years ago when Ireland was covered by warm, shallow seas. As a result, all three islands are characterised by the many dry-stone walls made up of limestone, built as islanders progressively cleared more land for grazing. Early settlers cleared the islands’ trees for building, fuel and for farming.
Inis Mór is the largest and most northerly island of the group. It is also the busiest, getting the lion’s share of tourists due to the Aran sweater shops near the harbour and incredible Iron Age fort of Dún Aonghasa. It is still easy to get away from the crowds, though, by taking a short walk away from the main village of Kilronan. The middle island in both size and location is Inis Meáin. This is a much more peaceful place, with beautiful walks and seascapes.
Inis Oírr completes the trio. This small island looks towards the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Father Ted fans will recognise it as one of the locations used in the show. A ferry sails from Rossaveal in Connemara to all three islands all year round. There is also a seasonal ferry from Doolin in Clare and a plane from Connemara between January and mid-October. Approximately 1,300 people live across the three islands. Many inhabitants still count Irish as their first language despite the inevitable inroads of globalisation.
Flora and Fauna
Despite the fact the landscape looks barren at first glance, it is home to an incredible array of specialist plants, some found nowhere outside of Alpine environments, such as mountain avens and spring gentian. Able to grow in tiny patches of soil and gravel, they find shelter in the many nooks and crannies the weathered limestone provides. These moist crevices are also good for ferns and lichens. Paradoxically, because the Gulf Steam warms the islands, there are also some plants that usually only live around the Mediterranean, such as bloody cranesbill. Orchids are also plentiful, including common spotted, pyramidal and early marsh orchids. There are many salt-tolerant plants here as well. Sea campion, thrift and kidney vetch are common. Aran islanders have always laid large amounts of seaweed onto the limestone to create soil for their crops and many plants have benefitted from this practice.
The Aran Islands’ are also good for birdwatching at any time of year. Choughs are resident and this red-beaked corvid is one of the highlights of a visit. In the winter, whooper swans, great northern divers and various geese species, including barnacle and brent, visit. The high cliffs of the largest island, Inis Mór, support breeding kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots and razorbills in the summer. Other summer visitors include wheatears, cuckoos, lapwings, plus Arctic, Sandwich and little terns. There is even a small heronry on Inis Mór. Gannets and Manx shearwaters are common offshore in the summer months, too. For those who like rarities, the islands are being increasingly recognised as good for vagrant birds during spring and autumn migration, especially ones from North America. Eastern kingbird, Hudsonian godwit, red-eyed vireo and American Wigeon have all been seen there.
Inishbofin, not to be confused with an island of the same name off Donegal, is further north than the Arans. The name means the ‘Island of the white cow’. This is not a limestone landscape, but one formed of the same metamorphic rocks as the mountains of Connemara a short distance away. Like the Aran Islands, though, Inishbofin is also treeless. Early settlers again cleared trees largely for fuel. The island is only 5.7 by 4km and is easily walked around in a day. Despite this small size, there are a trio of beautiful, looped walks showing off different quarters of the island, including its beaches, blowholes and cliffs. The views can stretch to Croagh Patrick and Achill Island in Mayo on a clear day. Iron Age and Cromwellian forts, a 14th century church and a famine road are just some of the archaeological highlights.
People have probably lived on the island since the Bronze Age. Around 170 people still live on the island, with fishing, farming and tourism providing a living. Tourism is growing as the island markets itself as a peaceful destination away from it all. It also attracts traditional music fans, birdwatchers and has its own walking festival. Sustainable tourism is important to the island and it promotes a ‘Leave No Trace’ ethos. Tourism leaders also encourage visitors to understand why the island is important as a Special Area of Conservation. There is a year-round ferry from Cleggan in Connemara. A connecting bus service links Galway City to Cleggan, making this an easy trip to do by public transport.
Flora and Fauna
Like many western islands, Inishbofin’s flowers have to be fairly salt-tolerant. Thrift, common centaury and wild thyme are all able to cope with the salty breezes. Tormentil is common on the rabbit and sheep-cropped grassland. Damper areas around the island’s loughs support cuckoo flower and yellow, or flag, iris. Various orchids, including early marsh and common spotted, are also common. The island’s hay meadows have yellow rattle, red clover, wild carrot, purple loosestrife and many more species. There is a small area of coastal grassland called machair. Particularly associated with the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides, this unique habitat supports a complex community of plants. The island also has an important grey seal colony, although numbers are declining. There are otters and plenty of rabbits, too.
The island is an important breeding site for the endangered corncrake. This migratory bird once bred across Ireland and the UK. It is now largely restricted to a few islands off Ireland and Scotland. The reason for its demise elsewhere is a switch from hay to silage. Hay is traditionally cut much later than the now more common silage. Corncrakes nesting in the hay fields surviving on Inishbofin have time to rear their young before the mowers move in.
Inishbofin also has breeding lapwings, wheatears, shags, ringed plovers, choughs, ravens and good numbers of skylarks. Interestingly, over the last decade or so, great skuas have begun breeding in small numbers on the adjacent uninhabited island of Inishark. This makes them by far the most southerly breeding bonxies in the world. Inishbofin, like the Aran Islands, is becoming more popular with twitchers as they realise its potential for birds stopping off on migration. The lack of trees means that small birds can be easy to spot as well.
My final Galway highlight is Omey Island. This small, tidal island is also off Connemara and not far from Inishbofin. Before the potato famine of the mid-1800s, over 400 people lived on this tiny island, fishing and farming. The famine almost completely destroyed the community, however. Since 2017, only seasonal inhabitants live there. Some of the land is still privately owned for farming but most is accessible to walkers. A large body of water called Fahy Lough takes up about a third of the island. A walk around the island takes between two and three hours and offers beautiful views of Connemara and Cruagh Island further out to sea. The huge sand flats between the island and mainland usually host an annual horse racing event called the Omey Races. More relaxed, recreational horse riding is also popular on the sands all year.
Historically, the island was an important monastic site, dating back to the 7th century. Saint Féichin, an important figure in early Irish Christianity, supposedly founded the settlement. As well as the monastic settlement, there is a well dedicated to the saint and a later Medieval church, possibly built on the site of the earlier monastic buildings. Sand buried the church until 1981 when locals excavated it. It was built using the island’s granite bedrock. Omey Island is reached by driving or walking across the sands at low tide from Claddaghduff on the mainland. Signs show the route across but it is critical to know tide times to avoid being cut off. The tide comes in quickly so it is easy to be caught out. For those without a car, Claddaghduff is a pleasant walk from Cleggan, connected to Galway City by bus.
Flora and Fauna
Treeless Omey Island’s flora is similar to Inisbofin’s due to its maritime environment. It has one of the best examples of machair in County Galway. Salt-tolerant plants include sea campion, thrift, scurvy-grass, wild thyme and sea sandwort. Orchids, lousewort and birds-foot trefoil are also common. Corncrakes breed from time to time on the island. The Corncrake LIFE project, which works with farmers to improve habitat for the birds, includes Omey as one of its focus sites. Choughs visit the island to feed in varying numbers.
In 2001, researchers discovered a previously unknown colony of Manx shearwaters on nearby Cruagh Island and in the summer, they are common offshore. The island is one of the most important shearwater colonies in Ireland. Although they only come back to their burrows at night to avoid predation by the great black-backed gulls also living on the island, some do get caught. You can sometimes find the evidence of this on Omey; the only part of the bird not eaten, their wings. Gannets, fulmars, terns and auks are also regular offshore in summer. Whooper swans often winter on Fahy Lough. Cruagh is an important winter-feeding ground for barnacle geese, and these will sometimes visit Omey too.
Ireland’s Island Treasures
As a one-time resident of County Galway, I know most about the islands of that western county. Ireland has a wealth of other islands, however, all with their own distinct characters, history and wildlife. The Blaskets and Skellig Michael of Kerry, Tory and Arranmore Islands in Donegal, Achill and Clare Islands in Mayo, Bull Island and Ireland’s Eye in Dublin and Cape Clear and Dursey in Cork are just some of the other highlights. All are worthy of treasure status this St Patrick’s Day.
For a photographic overview of Ireland’s islands, this book ticks all the right boxes. Including the Aran Islands and Inishbofin, stunning photography highlights history, traditional life and wildlife.
One of the highlights of the Aran Islands is its unique flora. From Alpine specialists to Mediterranean outliers, this book covers the plants you can expect to find and is a must for anyone planning to visit.
Tim Robinson was a celebrated landscape writer who wrote extensively about the Aran Islands, his home between 1972 and 1984, and Connemara. The middle book of his Connemara trilogy, The Last Pool of Darkness, includes sections on Omey and Inishbofin.