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The Top 15 Islands of Ireland

Posted on Apr 27, 2017 by Dawn Rainbolt

Though Ireland is an island itself, sometimes we forget that. We also forget that there are hundreds of other islands off its shores. The Aran Islands are well-known, as are the Skellig Islands (largely thanks to Star Wars, which used it as a filming location). But what about the other islands of Ireland?

From south to north, here’s our list of coolest islands of Ireland!

  1. Cape Clear Island, Co Cork
    • Referred to as Cléire by locals, this island is the southernmost inhabited part of Ireland, maintaining a population of a 100. On Cléire, rub shoulders with the Gaeltacht community or dig into its rich ancient archeology – Cléire includes a prehistoric cup-marked stone (a Megalithic art form), a fulacht fiadh (a water-filled pit used for boiling water), an impressive neolithic passage tomb at Cill Leire Forabhain, standing stones scattered across the island, the promontory fort at Dún an Óir alongside the ruined O’Driscoll castle. Accessible by ferry. An even better to visit is with our exciting Hiking & Island Hopping in Cork and Kerry trip!
  2. Sherkin Island, Co Cork
    • With a population of roughly 100 people, the simple lifestyle on Sherkin Island feels like a step back in time. A short ferry ride from Baltimore on Sheep’s Head, Sherkin sports the remains of an old friary, a locally-maintained lighthouse, and the Sherkin Regatta Festival, a rowing event held at the end of July (weather permitting). Best visited on our Hiking & Island Hopping in Cork and Kerry!
    • Islands of Ireland - Skerkin Island

      Hiking on the rugged Sherkin Island

  3. Garnish Island, Co Cork
    • Garnish Island is known for two things: its gardens, and its nearby seal colony. Bought by a man from Belfast in the early 1900s, he built elaborate gardens on the island for his wife – even planning a beautiful mansion, though it was never built. The island has long been an inspiration to visitors, including writers George Bernard Shaw and George William Russell. Bequeathed to the Office of Public Works in the 1950s, the island has been publicly ever since. There is also a nearby colony of seals. Get the ferry from Glencariff to Garnish Island.
  4. The Skellig Islands, Co Kerry
    • Most likely the most famous islands of Ireland on this list, the Skelligs are two scraggy rocks 13km off the Iveragh Peninsula. Considered a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Skelligs may be familiar as they are an important filming location for both the 2014 and  2017 Star Wars films. Skellig Michael (the Great Skellig) was the chosen location for a group of 6th century monks looking for isolation. There are still several impressive ruins of six beehive cells, two oratories, several stone crosses and slabs, as well as a later medieval church. The islands were abandoned as a monastery in the 12th century. If you see any islands of Ireland, it should be Skellig Michael! Boat tours depart from Portmagee May – October, weather permitting. Visit it the less-travelled way on our Hiking & Island Hopping in Cork and Kerry.
    • Islands of Ireland - Skellig Island

      Approaching the craggy Skelligs

  5. Valentia Island, Co Kerry
    • Just off the coast of the Iveargh Peninsula (also known as the Ring of Kerry) and accessible by bridge, Valentia Island features the celebrated Valentia Lighthouse at Cromwell Point – one of The Twelve Great Lighthouses of Ireland. From the viewing point, you’ll get great views of the Wild Atlantic Way as well as other islands if Ireland, like the Blasket Islands and even the Skelligs. With a modern population of 665, Valentia Island once had a very different population some 385 million years ago! Fossilised footprints of a tetrapod (a primitive vertebrate) record the creature’s march across what was once swampland.
  6. Blasket Islands, Co Kerry
    • The six islands of the archipelego are easily visible from the coast of the Dingle Peninsula. Until the 1950’s, they were inhabited entirely by an Irish-speaking community who was evacuated in 1953 due to the harsh island conditions. Located just off the coast of Slea Head, the mainland Ireland’s westernmost point, the Blaskett Islands mark the final stop across the Atlantic before reaching Newfoundland, Canada (N. America’s easternmost point). The largest of the island, the Great Blaskett, can be reached by ferry from Dingle town. Get out to the Blasket Islands on our Hiking & Island Hopping in Cork and Kerry.
    • Islands of Ireland - Blasket Islands

      Overlooking the Blasket Islands from Slea Head, Dingle

  7. Aran Islands, Co Galway
    • Of all the islands of Ireland on this list, the Aran Islands in Galway Bay are one of the most famous names on this list. With about 1,200 inhabitants, the Aran Islands are the most populated islands on this list. The Aran Islands are a strong Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region, and also have some of the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland. The islands feature Dun Aengus fort (Stone Age), Teampull Bheanáin (one of the world’s smallest churches), and the 14th century O’Brien’s Castle. Accessible by ferry from Rossaveal, Galway Harbour and Doolin village. Visit it with our hiking trip, Hiking in the Burren, Aran Islands, and Cliffs of Moher. Alternatively, bike the Aran Islands on our Bike Tour of Connemara and the Aran Islands.
    • Aran Islands - Dun Aengus fort

      Aran Islands – the Dun Aengus clifftop fort

  8. Clare Island, Co Mayo
    • At the mouth of Clew Bay, Clare Island is the birthplace of the feared and respected pirate queen Granuiale (Grace O’Malley in English), who ruled the waters of Clew Bay and Galway Bay for 30-odd years in the 16th century. The island was long owned by the O’Malley family, and the island features a tower house built by them. There is also a church founded by the O’Malleys – the nearby O’Malley tombs are a possible burial site of Grace O’Malley. There is also an old lighthouse that has been refurbished into a guesthouse. There are daily ferries from Roonagh Pier near Louisburgh. Check it out on our exciting family adventure, Paddling and Pirates.
    • Clare Island lighthouse

      Marvel at the beautiful Clare Island lighthouse

  9. Achill Island, Co Mayo
    • Achill Island is also the largest island off Ireland’s coast, and is accessible by bridge. Today, it has a population of 2,500, and its history goes back to Neolithic times, when the island had 500-1,000 inhabitants – promotory forts and Megalithic tombs are scattered over the island. Achill Island was once the terminus for the railway, which provided a positive impact on the local economy. But – get ready for the goosebumps – it also fulfilled an old prophecy: that ‘carts on iron wheels’ would carry the souls of dead Achill Islanders on their first and last journey. In 1894, when the railway was about to open, its first service carried the bodies of the victims of the Clew Bay Drowning who had been en route to meet an emigrant ship. Its final service in 1937 carried the bodies of the Kirkintilloch Fire, a terrible tragedy in which 10 Achill Islanders who had landed on the mainland were killed. The train service ended that day. The station is now a hostel… There is also the eerie ruins of 80 stone farmhouses on Achill – called the Deserted Village – which were abandoned en masse in 1845 due to the Irish Famine. Islands of Ireland - Achill Island
    • Hiking the wild landscapes of Achill Island
  10. Inishmurray Island, Co Sligo
    • The first uninhabited island on this list, Inishmurray is a place of rugged solitude. There are the ruins of an ancient monastery founded in the 6th centuray – an impressive, 15ft high and up to 10ft thick wall still protects the holy site, which includes an oratory with a stone roof, two churches, a structure called a clochán (a dry-stone hut with a rounded roof), a beehive cell, and a well. There are also the remains of an island village that was abandoned in 1948. Due to its religious significance, it remains a pilgrimage site. It is also a great place for bird-watching. No ferries; to get here, charter a boat trip out of Mullaghmore. Check out our Introduction to Sea Kayaking in Sligo!
  11. The Isle of Innisfree & Lough Gill Islands, Co Sligo
    • The smallest and only inland island on this list, the Isle of Innisfree is a small, uninhabited island in the Lough Gill, just outside Sligo town. Despite its size, the island has been made famous by Sligo’s most famous resident, W.B. Yeats, who was ‘suddenly inspired’ to write his poem about Innisfree where he spent his childhood summers while walking down a London street (Read the full poem here). Though the island he romanticised is nothing more than small isle, there are several other islands in Lough Gill worth exploring, such as Cottage Island (nicknamed Beezy’s Island for its famous resident), and Church Island, where a ruined church still stands.  To experience Yeats’ inspiration up close, check out our Cycling & Yoga Escape bike tour in Sligo and Donegal, or kayak the lake on our Intro to Hiking & Kayaking.
    • Lough Gill - Inishfree

      Lough Gill – kayaking to the lake isle of Inishfree

  12. Gola Island, Co Donegal
    • A small island in Ireland’s already little-known northwest, Gola is part of Co Donegal, National Geographic Traveller’s #1 pick for Coolest Place in 2017. To get here, a ferry service operates from Machaire Gathlán
      in July and August and on request for the rest of the year. Today, the island is habited only by animals such as wild goats and fowl.
  13. Tory Island, Co Donegal
    • The most remote yet inhabited of the islands of Ireland, Tory Island tends to attract artists and writers to it. As per a long-standing tradition, the islanders choose a Rí Thoraí – the King of Tory Island, who is currently the painter, Patsy Dan Rodgers. While the King has no formal power, he is the island’s spokesperson, and he personally greets every arrival to the island. There is a bell tower on the island, the only part of the monastery to survive the siege of the English troops in the 16th century. Tory Island is accessible daily from April to October and five times a week the rest of the year.
    • Donegal coolest place on earth

      Ireland’s most remote inhabited island, Tory Island is also home to Irish ‘royalty’

  14. Rathlin Island, Co Antrim, Northern Ireland
    • Continuing with extremes, Rathlin is the northernmost part of Northern Ireland, and the only inhabited island off the shores of Northern Ireland. Of prehistoric volcanic origin, Rathlin is today home to tens of thousands of seabirds – a total of roughly thirty bird species, and popular with birdwatchers. For Viking fans, Rathlin was the site of the first Viking raid in Ireland, in 795 (according to the Annals of Ulster), and Robert the Bruce once sought sanctuary on the island. Today’s population is about 125, though up it was over a thousand people until about a hundred years ago. It is accessible by ferry via the port of Ballycastle.
    • Islands of Ireland - Rathlin Island

      East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island. Picture by Bernie Brown.

  15. Saltee Islands, Co Wexford – King + throne & birds
    • The only pair of islands on this list on the east coast, the Saltee Islands are privately owned and famous for their eccentric proprietors. The Saltee Islands are also home to one of Ireland’s largest, and least-visited seabird colonies. Join a local boatman to spot puffins, gannets and razorbills. Visit a local seal colony before spending the afternoon exploring the islands. Explore the Saltee Islands on our Ancient East Self Drive.

This list may seem long, but it’s actually just an appetizer of the islands of Ireland! Though the islands of Ireland may sometimes be a challenge to visit, the reward is worth it!

Check out our list below where you can visit some of these islands of Ireland!

Hiking Connemara to the Cliffs of Moher

hiking Connemara and the Burren
Location: West – Connemara, Burren & Aran Islands
  • Stand at the edge of the world atop the Cliffs of Moher
  • Island hopping adventure to Irish-speaking Aran Islands
  • Explore Connemara's wild mountains, bogs and and windswept vistas
  • Hike the Burren National Park to explore its exposed limestone landscape

Price: from €1,795

View Trip Details

Family Adventure - Paddling and Pirates

Family Tour on the Wild Atlantic Way - Connemara -
Location: West – Connemara, Burren & Aran Islands
  • Enjoy a privately guided trip, with each activity tailored to match your family's preferences
  • Island hop to the Pirate Queen's stronghold & try your hand at stand-up-paddling
  • Learn bushcraft and seashore foraging skills
  • Follow a pilgrimage path on horseback in St Patrick's footsteps

Price: from €1,850

View Trip Details

Sea Kayaking & Hiking Adventure - Sligo

Introduction to Hiking & Sea Kayaking Adventure
Location: North West – Donegal & Sligo
  • Enjoy an introduction to a new way of experiencing the world, a new sport and a new way to travel; sea kayaking
  • Explore the coves, estuaries and lakes of Ireland's wild hidden gem, Sligo
  • Hike local mountain trails and coastal routes with your expert Wilderness Ireland Guide

Price: from €1,795

View Trip Details

Family Adventure - Legends of the Southwest

Family tour of Southwest Ireland Cork and Kerry Kayaking
Location: South West – Cork & Kerry
  • Your own private guided trip, each activity tailored to match your family's preferences
  • Create hand-made toys & learn about the past on a ghost tour
  • Climb Skellig Michael, ancient home to monks and Star Wars Jedi
  • Hike and kayak in the shadow of smugglers and pirates

Price: from €1,950

View Trip Details

Hiking and Island Hopping Cork and Kerry

Skellig Islands tours, Kerry, hiking and island hopping in Cork and Kerry
Location: South West – Cork & Kerry
  • Guided gentle hikes & island hopping along the spectacular coastline and islands of southwest Ireland
  • Climb Skellig Michael, UNESCO World Heritage, and now a Star Wars filming location
  • Explore remote islands where the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) culture & tradition is still strong

Price: from €1,795

View Trip Details

See more exciting Wilderness Ireland hiking trips here! Or, browse our other active trips in Ireland. If nothing suits your needs, submit a tailor-made query to have a trip custom-built for you.

About the author

Dawn Rainbolt

American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture, intriguing history, ancient castles, cheery locals and sweeping landscapes of Ireland.

Read more articles by Dawn


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