When you think of Ireland, you might conjure up images of rolling green hills, imposing castles, and lively pubs filled with traditional music. As an island itself, it’s easy to overlook Ireland’s stunning smaller islands. The Skelligs are icons of Ireland, but many of these other islands barely make the guidebooks.
Most are very small, most require the use of a boat, some are inhabited by island communities while others are home to no more than nesting birds. All are fascinating. These islands offer a unique blend of culture, history, and stunning landscapes that will leave you yearning for an island-hopping adventure.
How to get there: Ferry from Portmagee
Island Size: 44 acres
Island Population: 0 (unless you count puffins)
Imagine standing on a rugged rocky island, surrounded by the swirling Atlantic Ocean, with the wind in your hair and history at your feet. Skellig Michael and its sibling, Little Skellig, offer just that. The islands boast an incredible history, from ancient monastic settlements to their more recent Star Wars fame.
Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can explore the beehive huts and walk in the footsteps of early Christian monks. Little Skellig, on the other hand, is a haven for seabirds, such as pairs of gannets and the lovable puffins (read more about spotting puffins here), though you’ll spot the clownish puffins on Skellig Michael too.
Located 11km/ 7 miles off the coast and with limited boat availability, the best way to truly appreciate these islands is to join a group tour that can provide access as well as insightful information on their historical, geological, cultural and natural wonders.
Read more about the Skelligs in our guide to the islands here.
Visit Skellig Michael and other islands on our Island Hopping – Cork and Kerry hiking trip.
How to get there: Boat from Dunquin Pier
Island Size: 1,124 acres
Island Population: 0
The Blasket Islands are a haven for those who appreciate Ireland’s rich storytelling and literary heritage. Once home to a thriving island community, storytelling was deeply embedded in island culture, and those living here whiled away the time by telling and retelling stories, passing them down through generations. Sadly, harsh conditions and a high immigration rate led to their abandonment in 1952.
Today, a visit to the Blasket Islands allows you to step back in time. You can explore a couple of renovated cottages, providing a glimpse into the island life of yesteryears. Wander the windblown grassy hills, listen to the call of gulls and keep an eye out for seals who often bask on the island’s beaches.
Learn more about the Blasket’s literary heritage here.
How to get there: Bridge from Portmagee
Island Size: 25.7 km²
Island Population: 600
Valentia Island is a place where the past and present merge seamlessly. Here, you can very nearly walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs. Valentia Island proudly boasts the well-preserved dinosaur footprints of a tetrapod left behind some 385 million years ago. While the dinosaur trackway is difficult to reach and not always accessible, the island itself is easy to get to as there is a bridge connecting it to Portmagee on the Iveragh Peninsula.
The island itself offers great views of the surrounding seascape and rugged landscapes, and the road to reach it is along the Skellig Ring Drive, so be sure to cast your eyes out to sea, searching for the iconic triangular shape of the Skellig islands.
How to get there: Ferry from Baltimore or Schull
Island Size: 6.7 km2
Island Population: 125
Often the last glimpse of land seen by European emigrants departing for America by ship, Cape Clear has a complex history. This little island is also home to a small but thriving Gaeltacht community, sandy beaches and windswept pastures.
Walk the shores, take a dip in the blue Atlantic waves, have a taste of the local delicacy, goat’s cheese ice cream, and immerse yourself in the Irish language and culture.
Visit Cape Clear when island hopping in Cork and Kerry.
How to get there: Ferry from Baltimore
Island Size: 5 km2
Island Population: 110
With a pub, church, B&B and public library, what more does a tiny but thriving island community need? On Sherkin Island, just off the coast of the wee town of Baltimore in West Cork, expect sun-splashed beaches with gorgeous sandy strands, rock-strewn coastlines and emerald-tinted grasses dancing in the salty wind.
The shriek of gulls overhead and perhaps even a sighting of a whale or dolphin off the coast. Crumbling monasteries, towering lighthouses, and views to die for. Meandering laneways, a cosy cafe and a vibrant pub. Long fingers of land, pebble beaches, picture-perfect cottages, and turquoise waters.
Welcome to Sherkin Island.
Visit Baltimore and its harbour, sailing the turquoise waters and island coasts of Roaringwater Bay while island hopping in Cork and Kerry.
How to get there: Ferry from Kennedy Pier in Cobh
Island Size: 103 acres
Island Population: 0
Spike Island is a bit different from the other islands on this list. Situated near Cork city, it’s relatively small and is often nicknamed “Ireland’s Alcatraz.” A notorious star-shaped fort and prison once leered over the island, used largely for convicts awaiting transportation to the colonies. It was opened in 1847 to deal with rising criminality, largely petty crimes committed by desperate souls during the Famine of the 1840s and 50s. Later, Spike Island held political prisoners during the War of Independence with IRA ties. It was used as a young offenders correctional facility until its closure in 2004.
Open to the public since 2016, the award-winning tour of Spike Island will take you through the old prison, the punishment block, an exhibit on the 1985 Riot and notable prisoners once incarcerated here, and even the hull of a transportation ship.
How to get there: Cable car from Derreenavurrig
Island Size: 5.6 km²
Island Population: 0
A visit to Dursey Island is a rugged and untamed experience. Accessible by a small cable car, the only one in Ireland, this island is an escape into the wild. The barren beauty of the island, with its rocky cliffs and eerie shores, makes it an ideal destination for those looking to escape the world.
As you wander the tiny laneways and fields of Dursey Island, you’ll feel like you’ve embarked on a remote adventure, far from the hustle and bustle of daily life. (Learn more about the cable car here).
How to get there: Two ferry options – Harbour Queen and Blue Pool, both near Glengarrif
Island Size: 57 acres
Island Population: 0
Garinish Island is a unique Irish gem. Unlike other wilder islands, Garinish boasts meticulously maintained gardens that are a far cry from the windswept landscapes you might expect.
The island’s Italian Gardens are an absolute delight for botany enthusiasts. Contouring the landscape and built heritage, Garinish is renowned for its richness of plant form, patterns, vibrant colour and floral bouquet, which change continuously with the seasons. A number of architectural designs stand out against the gardens, such as a Martello tower, a Grecian temple, and an original family home.
Garinish Island provides a harmonious blend of culture and nature, offering a peaceful escape within its carefully cultivated gardens.
How to get there: Not accessible
Island Population: 0
Fastnet Lighthouse Island is more of a rocky outcrop than an actual island, jutting dramatically from the ocean. You can’t land on it, and the lighthouse itself is now unmanned. However, you can still see it from afar, standing as a beacon for seafarers.
The story of Fastnet Lighthouse Island is one of our eternal fight to tame the wild seas. Built during a time when ships were the prevalent method of travel, lighthouses were required to reduce accidental collisions. The first lighthouse was erected in 1854, later replaced by a stronger tower and brighter light in 1891. This tiny outcrop has witnessed countless tales of ships braving treacherous seas. Though you can’t climb up the island’s weather-beaten stairs, the mere sight of it is a reminder of Ireland’s maritime legacy.