8 Irish islands for every kind of adventure
Hundreds of islands dot the coastline of Ireland, each one offering something very unique. From the wild adventures of pirate queens and one-eyed warrior kings to surprising appearances of wild wallabies or a tropical lagoon in Irish waters, these islands can give you an otherworldly experience.
For sea dives, mythology and kings…
Tory Island, Donegal
Tory Island is the most remote of all the islands of Ireland. With a population of roughly 150 people, one hotel and a handful of B&Bs, the buzz of city life will fade away quickly here, with the feeling of bygone days taking its place. As part of Donegal’s Gaeltacht region, Irish is the first language here but English is also spoken.
Tory is a swimmer's and diver's dream. It's highly recommended you go for a dip at the harbour or book in a diving session with Mevagh Dive Centre to investigate the wreck of the HMS Wasp, a Royal Navy gunboat whose crew was en route to evict poor tenant families in 1884. It’s said that the island’s Neolithic cursing stone, Cloch na Mallacht, was used to steer the ship off course and meet its untimely end.
Tory Island is rich in folklore, with Balor, the one-eyed warrior king of the Irish mythological superrace, the Fomorians, ruling there. On the east coast of the island, the ruins of his fort (Dún Balor) look out across the Atlantic Ocean and from here, you can see An Eochair Mhór (the big key), a long spur that juts out from a peninsula, forming An Tor Mór (the big rock), where Balor imprisoned his daughter to prevent her from getting pregnant. The locals also have a long-standing tradition of choosing a king to represent them; the last King of Tory passed away in October 2018.
Get there: Ferries for Tory Island depart every day from Magheraroarty Pier, Co. Donegal. The journey takes roughly 45 minutes and you can book tickets online.
For Irish literary history and scenic seascapes…
Inis Meáin, Galway
With 200 people living on the island, Inis Meáin has the smallest population of the three Aran Islands. Predominantly Irish speaking, you can immerse yourself in traditional culture while getting back to nature. It’s the least visited of the Aran Islands but with beach swims, scenic diving spots, ancient ruins and traditional music sessions in the Teach Ósta pub, you’ll find plenty to do.
Small in size, you can take in the sights by foot, stopping off to admire wildflowers or going for a swim by the old port, but if you really want to get to know the island, you can rent a bike. Close to the prehistoric stone fort of Dún Chonchúir is the holiday cottage of the playwright JM Synge, who is said to have drawn inspiration for The Playboy of the Western World here. The 300-year-old Teach Synge is now open to the public as a library and a museum. Synge’s Chair was a cherished writing spot of the author and with views that overlook the island’s “puffing holes”, where sea water rushes in through a series of natural channels in the cliffs to create a spray, it’s no surprise as to why.
Elsewhere on the island, you can view stained glass windows from the studio of renowned artist Harry Clarke in the Mary Immaculate Church or pick up a traditional Aran sweater from Inis Meain Knitwear.
Get there: You can fly with Aer Arann by a 10-seater plane from Connemara Airport or take the ferry from Ros a' Mhil with Aran Island Ferries or from Doolin with Doolin Ferry. Both ferry journeys take roughly 45 minutes.
For pirate tales, mountain hiking and mindfulness…
Clare Island, Mayo
Mayo’s Clew Bay is said to have 365 islands - one for each day of the year - but, in reality, it has 117 and Clare Island is the largest. With hills and mountains filled with historical sites and a Blue Flag beach, it’s perfect for outdoor activities.
Macalla Farm is a family-run retreat centre that combines yoga, horses, food and mindfulness. Taking place on a working farm, most of the food is produced on site, with vegetarian meals available to guests throughout their stay. Across the island, there’s a number of walking and hiking routes that will knock the cobwebs out of your head. Two of the most popular are Clew Bay Archaeological Trail, which includes stop offs at the 13-15th century abbey and a megalithic court tomb, and the Knocknaveena Loop, taking you up and around the Knocknaveen Mountain.
But it wasn’t always so peaceful here. Clare Island is the ancestral home of Gráinne Mhaoil, Ireland’s most fearsome and legendary Pirate Queen. Notorious for wreaking havoc at sea for most of the 16th century, her castle here was used to control the waters of Clew Bay and you can still visit it today.
Today there’s plenty to do at nighttime, with the two pubs regularly putting on trad nights as entertainment, balancing the calm of the retreat with the storm of the session.
For sustainable tourism, food festivals and historical walking tours…
One of the most popular islands to visit in Ireland, Inishbofin is steeped in history while promoting sustainable tourism. As the the first Leave No Trace island in the country, a number of its beaches - including East End and Dumhach - have already been awarded the Green Coast Award for environmental excellence thanks to their crystal clear waters.
Walking tours are a huge draw for visitors. On its three official walking loops, you can take in sights like the Dún More Cliffs, one of the island’s two seal colonies, the 14th century chapel of St. Colman’s and get panoramic views of Croagh Patrick, Inishturk and Clare Island. Alternatively, you can walk with local historians and archaeologists on Cultúr na nOileáin Tours where you can learn more about the island’s history, including its involvement with a certain Pirate Queen.
Gráinne Mhaol built another castle for herself here, aptly named Dún Gráinne, when her family took ownership of the island. Her Spanish pirate pal, Alonzo Bosco, built a castle opposite hers and with these prime viewing spots, they prevented unwanted ships from entering the island by stretching an iron chain castle to castle, looting whatever cargo they had onboard.
Inishbofin is also famous for its locally produced organic food and the annual food festival Bia Bó Finne, which draws in hundreds of visitors each October, is testament to that.
Get there: To get to Inishbofin, you must get a ferry from Cleggan pier, which is just an hour and a half away from Galway city. The crossing time is roughly 30 minutes and you can book tickets for your trip online.
For the best crab in the world, lagoons and to feel like a local…
Inishturk is the island less travelled and with a population of 54 people, you can easily end up feeling like a local rather than a tourist. The beating heart of Turk is the community centre - also the island’s pub, shop and restaurant - where you can eat freshly caught lobster, pollock, mackerel and the best crab in the world.
But beyond the people, the hills are begging to be explored. The island’s ring road is exactly 5km long, perfect for runners. Further down the beaten track is the island’s GAA sports pitch, the most westerly one in Europe and, framed by rugged hills, the most scenic one in the world. Not far from this is another breathtaking view; Port Dún. This beautiful lagoon harbour is said to be the hiding spot of Gráinne Mhaol’s gold and makes for an idyllic spot for a swim.
Fishing is one of the island’s main draws and private angling trips can be arranged but if you’d rather see the pros in action, Turk’s annual Seafest is a great excuse for a visit. Blending music, wellness, eating and observing, you can do beach yoga and learn the art of sean nós dancing, foraging or filleting a fish all in one weekend.
Get there: Inishturk is just 50 minutes by ferry from Roonagh Pier, which is not far from the gorgeous Westport. To book tickets for your journey, click here.
For peace and quiet in an artist’s haven…
Sherkin Island, Cork
The green hills, sandy beaches and jagged shorelines of Sherkin Island has a population of 111 people and as the ferry pulls into the pier, you are immediately greeted by the ruins of Mainster Inis Arcain, the island’s 15th century friary, and it’s all uphill from there. Literally.
Taking the many twists on the main road to North Shore, every turn shows a different side of the island, from leafy green canopies of the woodland trees to the dramatic coastline of Cow Strand Beach. With four walkways weaved throughout the island, each one catering to different walking abilities, you can take in the sights before settling into The Jolly Roger for a deserved evening pint. Home to artists, writers and musicians, the island crackles with creativity and locally-made knitwear, silverwork, jewellery, wrought iron, candlesticks and decorative silk scarves are available to buy.
Located at one of the most southerly points in Ireland, the people of Sherkin Island sometimes boast they have their own warn microclimate. During the summer months, the island is a hub of activity with events like the Sherkin Island Regatta for rowing and the music festival Open Ear, which specialises in contemporary art and alternative music. Even though things quieten down during winter, it remains a perfect retreat from the fast pace of life elsewhere.
Get there: A ferry from Baltimore, Co. Cork takes 10 minutes and you can book your journey online.
For a nature-filled day trip in a birdwatcher’s paradise…
Saltee Islands, Wexford
Located just off the southern coast of Co. Wexford lie the two privately owned islands of Great Saltee and Little Saltee. Day visits to Great Saltee are permitted by the island’s residents, the Neale family, though Little Saltee is inaccessible due to the dangerous conditions around it.
The Saltees are home to Ireland’s most famous bird sanctuary, with birds from all over the world stopping off on this busy migratory route, and it’s also one of the few breeding locations for grey seals in eastern Ireland. When visiting the Saltees, you are asked to fully respect the island’s inhabitants, bringing home your own rubbish and not to approach the private home of the Neale family.
Perfect for picnics and rambling, the island has a rich history that will send your imagination into overdrive. Nicknamed the 'Graveyard of a Thousand Ships', a number of ships from both World Wars are shipwrecked here. The island also has a regal past with Michael Neale, who bought the island in 1943, declaring himself Prince Michael of the Saltees. “Coronated” in 1956, he built a throne, which you can still sit on, and erected an obelisk in his likeness. A mildly eccentric man, he learned to fly a plane and it’s rumored that he once flew in 46 cats to deal with the island’s rat problem. Sadly, the cats are no longer there, which is probably a blessing for the birds.
Get there: The island is accessible by the Saltee Ferry from Kilmore Quay, Wexford. If the family is in residence, daytrippers are only allowed between 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. only. Any visitors that land a boat outside of designated hours will be asked to leave. No overnight camping is permitted.
For a private retreat with some unusual wildlife …
Lambay Island, Dublin
Located just four kilometres off the coast of Co. Dublin, Lambay Island is privately owned with a population of seven people, 100 red-necked wallabies, 200 fallow deer and thousands of seabirds. Owned by the Barings family since 1904, there’s an air of luxury due to the restricted accommodation that’s available throughout the year.
With 23 rooms in total on the island, only guests who have an existing connection to Lambay can stay in the renovated 15th century castle or the White House. The rest of us can request to stay in O’Connell’s Cottage, which sits at the end of a row of 18th century coastguard cottages and sleeps six people. If you fail to nab a bed, day tours are available, with options to go on walking and historical tours or simply to visit for lunch.
Throughout the year, various retreats are on offer including yoga, writing, foraging and cooking. The water from the island’s natural spring is not only used for drinking, washing, cooking and bathing but it’s also used to create the island’s own Lambay Whiskey.