Everyone loves an island. Ireland may be one itself, but we still love to showcase all of our smaller coastal islands. On our west coast, we have a number of amazing and unique islands which are perfect for coastal hikes, island hopping, watersports, island retreats, bird-watching, swimming and other activities. Islands often harbour tradition too – many islanders are still native Irish speakers and the islands themselves are bastions of Irish heritage and tradition.
Find many of our favourite west coast islands in Connemara and Mayo where the coasts are rugged, the beaches are picture-postcard, and the pints are pouring at the local island pub. Read on to find out about the best islands of Connemara and Mayo on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way west coast.
There are three islands that comprise the Aran Islands, Ireland’s most famous west coast islands after Skellig Michael. The largest is Inishmore, the middle island is Inish Maan, and the final island is Inisheer.
How to get there: Ferry from Rossaveel or Doolin
Island Size: 14 km (8 miles) by 3.8 km (2 miles)
Island Population: 762
The favourite choice for most visitors, Inishmore is the largest of the Aran Islands. There are a number of ancient forts on the island built in the distant past. The most famous fort is Dún Aengus, a semi-circular stone fort from the Bonze Age perched precariously on a 100-meter cliff edge. Another renowned site on Inishmore is the Wormhole (or Poll na bPeist), an impressive natural pool once used for Redbull cliff-diving competitions. Food lovers will love to meet Gabriel and his goats and taste the delicious island goat cheese.
How to get there: Ferry from Rossaveel or Doolin
Island Size: 4 km (2.5 miles) by 2.5 km (1.5 miles)
Island Population: 180-200
The middle island, Inishmaan (Inis Meáin in Irish) is a bastion of Irish tradition. First settled about 7,000 years ago, the Aran Islands have since been home to centuries of settlers, each leaving an imprint of their history, heritage and tradition. While on Inish Maan, hike quiet roads and meandering trails, perhaps picking up some Irish in the local village pubs. The island’s most famous resident was John Millington Synge, an Irish playwright and writer who claimed inspiration from the Aran Islands. Visitors can still visit the Teach Synge or the cottage he stayed in each summer from 1898 to 1902.
How to get there: Ferry from Doolin
Island size: 3 km (1.8 miles) by 2 km (1.2 miles)
Island Population: 280-300
Inisheer is the smallest of the Aran Islands and is also the quietest. Just 15 minutes from Doolin village by ferry, Inisheer is small but charming. Perhaps most famous for the Plassey Shipwreck, a rusting behemoth that washed ashore in 1960, the shipwreck makes for a very cool photo opportunity. A black and white striped lighthouse sits on one end of the island, and like the other two islands, Inisheer is home to a number of ruins from across the centuries.
If you have the time, we recommend that you visit all three islands, particularly staying overnight on at least one of them to get the full island experience. If you’re interested in Irish tradition, music and language, the Aran Islands are the place to immerse yourself in Irish heritage and experience this yourself.
Want to know more about these incredible islands and the people who live here? Watch our Aran Islands video to get the insider’s experience.
How to get there: Ferry from Cleggan
Island Size: 5.5 km (3.5 miles) by 3 km (2 miles)
Island Population: 180
Translating to “Island of the White Cow,” Inishbofin is a pretty extraordinary place. There are some great coastal paths circling the island offering many beautiful ocean panoramas.
Blow-holes, sea arches, sea stacks, and rocky coves inhabited by playful seals make Inisbofin a wild spot. Stand atop the jaw-dropping Dún More Cliffs and marvel at Trá Gheal beach, surely one of Ireland’s most beautiful beaches.
And then of course there is the imposing stone remains of Cromwell’s Barracks, a star-shaped fort built atop the 16th century O’Malley castle. It was intended as an intimidating place – a sort of prison halfway house for captured Catholic clergy after England’s Cromwellian regime outlawed the religion in Ireland. Plenty of great bird-watching opportunities here too for those budding ornithologists.
How to get there: Béal an Daingin Bridge
Islands: Lettermullen, Teeranea and Lettermore
Island Population: 1,055
Like Achill Island, Gorumna Island is connected to the mainland with a bridge. About a thousand people still live on the three islands that make up Gorumna (Lettermullen, Teeranea and Lettermore). Few visitors make their way to this corner of Ireland, meaning that anyone who does visit will likely have Gorumna to themselves.
A gentle trail meanders along a series of local laneways and sandy paths, which eventually winds past Trawbaun Graveyard with its neatly-preserved medieval church. Along Greatman’s Bay, find coral beaches and rocky foreshores, as well the views of Connemara’s Mamturk and Twelve Bens mountain ranges that take your breath away.
Check out all of our island hopping tours for more coastal adventures.
How to get there: Tidal causeway from Claddaghduff
Island Population: No permanent residents
A tidal island, reach Omey Island by a causeway at low tide. To get there, park at Claddaghduff beach and follow the signposts across the wide beach. The walk takes just 15 minutes, with the full island loop up to 3 hours, though be sure to check tide forecasts.
Though small, the act of accessing the island by causeway makes Omey that much more exciting. Perhaps it’s true what they say – it’s about the journey, not the destination. Unlike other listed islands, Omey Island is flat, offering gentle coastal walks.
Don’t let its lack of cliffs put you off – Omey Island is full of bright, sandy beaches inviting you in for a dip! Stumble over shell middens in the sand, and enjoy great coastal panoramas. Find the medieval 7th-century ruins of Feichin’s Church, buried in sand until 1981, and the semi-covered ruins of the village lost to time during the famine.
How to get there: Michael Davitt Bridge between Polranny and Achill Sound
Island Size: Area is 148 km2 (57 sq mi)
Island Population: 2,569
The largest island on Ireland’s west coast (and Ireland in general), Achill is also the only one you can reach via a bridge. About 2,500 people live on this island. In theory, this seems like Achill Island should be the west coast’s most accessible and top-visited island, but in practice, Co Mayo is remote and vast. Many visitors don’t make the journey along Mayo’s wild coastline all the way to Achill Island.
The island is home to arguably Ireland’s highest sea cliffs – the Croaghaun sea cliffs (688 metres or 2,257 ft) are similar in height to Slieve League in Donegal, though hikers should be aware that the Croaghaun cliffs are more challenging to reach.
Achill has a varied history. Once part of the coastline ruled by 16th-century pirate queen Grace O’Malley, one of her many tower house castles still sits on the island’s shores. Achill Island is the perfect combination of wild and cosy. There are a few villages on the island with numerous cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops and their streets are bustling with activity. But drive a short distance away and you suddenly find yourself on a hidden beach or quiet hilltop.
One of the most evocative images of Achill Island is the so-called “deserted village,” a cluster of 80-100 crumbling ruins of simple stone cottages. The vestiges of a traditional agricultural practice known as “booleying,” these cottages were once inhabited by the residents of the nearby village during the summer months to graze the cattle. As that practice has died out, so did the seasonally-inhabited village.
Achill Island is the terminus of Ireland’s best-known greenway – the Great Western Greenway is a 44km car-free path from the town of Westport to Achill Island.
How to get there: Ferries sail from Roonagh Pier in Co Mayo
Island Size: Area is 4,053 acres (1,640 ha)
Island Population: 159
The region’s infamous pirate queen is best associated with Clare Island. Grace O’Malley, or Granuaile, once ruled the seas from Clew bay down to Galway Bay and all coasts in between.
For more than three decades during the 16th century, Granauile ruled the waters with an iron fist, going so far as to meet the English queen – though very different women, they reputably had mutual respect for each other as powerful women in a man’s world.
While on the island, you can still visit one of the pirate queen’s many castles. Clare Island Abbey was founded by the O’Malley family and contains their family tomb – is this the final resting place of Ireland’s most infamous pirate?
But that’s not all Clare Island has to offer. There is some lovely hiking on the island, with plenty of opportunities to spot birds and even whales and dolphins for lucky visitors, not to mention so very pretty beaches.
Looking for something different? Why not stay in a re-purposed lighthouse? Set along Clare’s rugged coast and originally built in 1806 (rebuilt in 1818 after a fire), Clare Island Lighthouse is now an amazing island retreat. It makes the perfect home away from home for those yearning for a break from the bustling world.
How to get there: Ferry from Roonagh Quay
Island Size: 5 km (3 miles) by 2.5 km (1.5 miles)
Island Population: 51
About 15 kilometres (nine miles) off the coast of Mayo, Inisturk is one of Ireland’s most underrated islands. It is tiny – just 5km long and 2.5km wide. It’s only since the 1990s that the island has a ferry service – and only since the 1980s that the island had paved roads, for that matter. A lot has changed in a generation or two.
But tiny though it may be, Inisturk is pretty spectacular. It has wall-like cliffs on the northwest corner that fall sharply into the Atlantic Ocean. At the northern end of the island, a steep slope houses a Napoleonic signal tower almost 700m above sea level. The jaw-dropping view is well worth the walk.
As with other west coast islands, birdwatching opportunities abound on Inisturk. The cliffs are like magnets to seabirds who find sanctuary on the cliffs. There are ruins of an Iron Age promontory fort and a natural lagoon. This is a great island to visit for anyone looking to visit an inhabited island while still getting off the beaten path.
How to get there: Ferry from Blacksod Pier
Island Size: Area is 4,053 acres (1,640 ha)
Island Population: 2-15
The two islands of Inishkea are easily the smallest and most wild of any islands listed here. There are no roads here, no bridges, hardly any human inhabitants. They are wild Irish islands at their finest. Of course, this means that they are harder to access. Legend says Inishkea is named after a saint who once lived there, and the Inishkea islands were notable for a mix of Christain and pagan religious traditions even until the 1900s. Visitors can expect crystal clear waters perfect for swimming, magnificent views, strings of sandy beaches and undulating dunes and hills.
The islands weren’t always uninhabited though. There was a small but thriving community of about 350 people until the 1930s. Visitors can still visit the remnants of their villages on both islands. Walk inside the remains of their cottages and try to imagine what island life was like in the 1800s for those who spent their whole lives in this remote spot.
Explore the islands’ beehive huts, St. Colmcille’s Church and the man-made Bailey Mor hill and ancient stone carvings. On Inishkea South, view some breathtaking sea cliffs, home to a wide variety of rare flora and fauna including one of Ireland’s largest colonies of grey seals.
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