For several years, I’ve heard Clare Island, a mountainous island guarding the entrance to Clew Bay, described with glowing superlatives. It was often referred to as a place where you can breathe in the fresh air, connect to the natural world and forget about your day to day duties.
So when our well-planned and well-anticipated hiking adventure to reach the top of Ireland’s Holy mountain known as Croagh Patrick was abandoned due to the sudden weather changes, we opted to catch a ferry to the Clare island to see if such accolades were accurate.
We joined a handful of daytrippers boarding the ferry and meandered across the glistening ocean towards the island at a leisurely pace giving us enough time to genuinely appreciate the journey that we were on.
We spent the majority of our time on the island walking through the sparsely beautiful land and I can safely say that the islands towering cliffs, seascapes and white sand beaches will awe any adult and kid.
It’s harsh in places, treeless yet there’s a strange allure to Clare Island as it’s a place of space and peace.
How to get to and around Clare Island
Clare Island is located 3.5 miles off the west coast of County Mayo, and to get there you must take a ferry. In the summer month, there are a number of ferry sailings from Roonagh Pier to Clare Island. As the sea voyage doesn’t take longer than 20 minutes it won’t churn the stomach.
The Clare Island Ferry, run by Alan & Brian O’ Grady, operates daily from Roonagh Quay, near a quaint town on the Bunowen River, Louisburgh. The ferry sails all year round so you can visit in high season or experience the more remote side of island life by visiting during the winter months.
Keep in mind that the Clare Island Ferry is a passenger ferry only and it is not possible to bring your car, so you must plan accordingly on how you are going to get around the island. If you are arriving by car, you can leave it at the Roonagh car park, which is free of charge.
There are no buses or any other public transport to Roonagh Query but you can always get in touch with the boat operators to see if they can arrange a lift from Westport or Louisburg.
If you plan on bringing your own bike, be prepared to pay around EUR 6. You can also rent one on the Clare Island
Clare Island Ferry tickets: An Adult – EUR 17 return, Kids – EUR 12 return, Under 5’s – free
Things to do on Clare Island
At 8km long and 5km wide, Clare Island is easy to get around. There are very few cars on the island, making it easier to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. If you’d prefer to cycle, pre-book a bike in advance or bring your own.
Much of the island is intensely beautiful and unspoiled with most of the attractions located near the harbour which shelters a Blue Flag beach. In a nutshell, you can see rare sea birds nesting on sea cliffs, visit a lighthouse located high on the Northern Cliffs, and enjoy a relaxing yoga retreat run by Christophe Mouze and Ciara Cullen.
On the most westerly point, you’ll find the 19th Century Napoleonic Signal Tower. Also, there is a megalithic tomb dating back to 4,000 to 3,000 and Clare Island Heritage Centre where in addition to items and stories of days gone by you can find valuable advice on what to do and see on the island.
Engage in walking and biking acctivities
Clare Islands remarkably varied terrain makes it a haven for the serious hill walker and the casual stroller alike. Depending on how much time you’ve got, you can either cycle or walk around the island.
Fawnglass Loop – a 3-kilometre easy loop walk that follows surfaced roadways & green tracks. It is waymarked with a green arrow and takes around 1 hr – 1hr30mins to complete, depending on your fitness level and on how many times you stop to take in the scenery. Starting and ending point for the walk is Clare Island Pier.
The walk circles the valley of the townland of Fawnglass between the pier at the beach and Knocknaveen Hill on the surfaced roadway and grassy track, venturing onto the lower slopes of Knocknaveen with fine views of Clew Bay.
Knocknaveen Loop – an 8-kilometre moderate walk that pursuits surfaced roadways & green tracks. The duration of the walk is around 2 hr – 2hr30mins. Waymarked with a purple arrow it starts and ends in Clare Island Pier.
The loop brings you past the small Loughs of Creggan and Leinnapollbruty. There are fine views towards Achill Island, the Corraun Peninsula and the Mayo mainland.
Always plan ahead and prepare before heading out by bringing the correct equipment for the terrain – hiking boots, rain gear, plenty of snacks & fluid. Check the weather forecast and always be prepared for changing weather conditions. Leave details of your plans with somebody and don’t forget to contact that person later to say that you have returned safely.
Please adhere to leave no trace principles when exploring the island:
- Respect wildlife and farm stock:
- Be considerate of others: respect the people who live and work on the island
- Dispose of waste properly: ‘Pack it in, pack it out. Bring home all litter and leftover food including biodegradable waste.
Enjoy Bird Watching
If you are a keen ornithologist, you’ll be pleased to discover large numbers of nesting sea birds along the spectacular cliffs to the north of the island. You can see Puffins, Razorbills, Herring Gulls, See Gannets, Manx Shearwaters and many other species.
To learn more about waterbirds, seabirds and land birds on the island you can look up ”New Survey of Clare Island, Volume 9: Birds” which features a systematic list comprised of records of bird sightings that stretch from 1887 to 2018.
The most ambitious natural history project ever undertaken in Ireland and the first major biological survey of a specific area carried out in the world was the first Clare Island Survey of 1909–1911. The survey was written by Richard J. Ussher and was based on fieldwork conducted on the island.
Go Wild Swimming
Why not enjoy refreshing Atlantic water and go for a dip on one of the islands beautiful bathing spots? There is really nothing as glorious as topping off a visit to the island by slipping into tranquil waters! Clare Island Beach is a lovely sandy beach, safe for swimming and as close to the perfect beach as you could ever hope to find. The added bonus here is the nearby Harbour overlooked by Granuaile’s castle.
Ireland’s wild swimming spots are nothing short of spectacular and the rush of adrenaline and the shock of the cold makes the whole experience something truly special. The vasodilation in the extremities also pumps out toxins, and the cold water starts a process of cold adaptation, which quickly builds your cold tolerance, make cold water feel more comfortable, and your body more healthy.
So, ditch your wetsuit, join the locals and, well, just go for it – dolphins, seabirds and spectacular views will keep you good company. If it is your first cold water dip without a wetsuit, arrive feeling really warm. Plan a brisk walk to get you there, and put on lots of warm clothes before you arrive. Once you’re in the water it takes a few minutes before the cold feeling goes away, so persevere and you’ll feel great.
Tips for staying safe:
- Remember, if you’re swimming outdoors, be mindful of potential hazards. Don’t leap into a river after a long period of rainfall as currents can be unpredictable.
- Never swim alone and keep a constant watch on weak swimmers
- Never jump into water you have not thoroughly checked for depth and obstructions
- Don’t get too cold – warm up with exercise and warm clothes before and after a swim
- Wear footwear if you can
Visit Clare Island Abbey
One of the unique places to visit on the island is the 12th Century Cistercian Abbey containing Grace O’ Malleys resting place – an ornate stone plaque in the abbey is believed to mark her burial place – and original medieval paintings on the walls and ceiling of the vaulted chancel dating back to the 14th century.
Some of the paintings include a fire-breathing serpent, animals, musicians and a double-headed eagle. Due to the deteriorating condition of the paintings, a lot of conservation work has been ongoing over the past 20 years.
It is an interesting piece of history on this beautiful island that makes you pause for a moment and reflect on the history and timelessness.
The abbey is located about 1 kilometre west of Clare Island Pier, along the coast road. It’s a very easy and enjoyable walk with breathtaking panoramic views.
Keep in mind that flash photography for obvious reasons is not allowed. It was only after I had taken a few photos that I saw a notice, on the back wall of the chancel, prohibiting any kind of photography. The sign would be better placed just inside the entrance.
Good to know – You need to get the key from the shop, which is the building just in front of the abbey as you walk up towards it, to be able to visit the abbey.
Walk to Clare Island Lighthouse
Ireland’s coastline is dotted with dozens of lighthouses which have helped seafarers find their way for hundreds of years.
Thanks to the EU-funded Great Lighthouses of Ireland project, launched in 2015, they’ve become a tourist attraction – and several you can even stay in overnight including Clare Island Lighthouse.
After 159 years of continued service, Clare Island Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1965. Nowadays, perched on top of cliffs at the northern end of the island, the lighthouse operates as a luxury guesthouse featuring dramatic clifftop views and endless coastal walks. The property offers a wide range of accommodation from tower house and a detached cottage-like building with high timber ceilings to sauna suites.
See the Granuaile’s castle
One of the first things you’ll see as you arrive at the little harbour on Clare Island is the large stone tower known to be the property of the famous Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley in the 16th century. The Island was the stronghold of this remarkable 16th century O’ Malley clan chieftain who lived by her family trade of piracy and plunder.
In 1546 Grainne, who was 15 years old, married Donal O’Flaherty, son of the Clan O’Flaherty chieftain in Connemara and ally of the O’Malley. They lived at Bunowen castle on the coast near Ballyconneely, Co. Galway. When her husband was killed fighting ashore, Granuaile, aged 23 at the time, took over his castle and fighting ships. Then she returned to Mayo with many followers.
It is said that she maintained her authority on the island into old age, passed away in her seventies in 1603 and was laid to rest in the abbey on Clare Island.
Despite the passage of time, the square tower, built on 3 floors, still seems intact today.
Where to stay on Clare Island
While most visitors come for the day, if it is possible, make sure to stay overnight.
Go Explore Hostel | a family-run hostel offering en-suite bedrooms with open sea views. The hostel is located about seven minutes’ walk from the ferry from it you can see fantastic views across Clew Bay to Croagh Patrick and the Twelve Bens mountain range in Connemara.
The back room has a large fire dating from the 1840s and there’s also Sailor’s Bar & Restaurant connected to the hostel on-site offering a wide variety of excellent food on the menu.
To book your accommodation, contact Carl O’Grady:
Tel: +353 (0)98 263 07
Clare Island Lighthouse | the beautiful Clare Island lighthouse, a distinctive landmark, is now restored into a luxurious guesthouse located high on the Northern Cliffs. The only two-towered lighthouse in the country, it is also the only one to provide B&B accommodation and a six-course set evening meal to guests.
To book your accommodation, contact the lighthouse:
Tel: +353 (0)87 66 897 58
Camping | a wallet-friendly option is Clare Island campsite which costs just €10 per night and is located right beside the pier and Sailor’s Bar. While the facilities are basic, the location and the views make up for it. Also, there are showers, a drinking water tap and toilets available.
… … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … … …
Now, over to you!
Have you been to Clare Island in County Mayo? Let us know in the comments below!
Let us know if you are plotting a visit to Mayo and have travel-related questions.