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Clare Island, home of Granuaile (Grace O’Malley) Ireland's “Pirate Queen”

Clare Island is a small island that lies off Co Mayo on the West Coast of Ireland. Roughly five miles x three miles in size, it was once population with around 1700 people. Now, sadly, around 140 live on the island. A hilly landscape of fertile farmland and bracken but devoid of trees, it is a wonderful island on which to relax, walk and enjoy the peace and quiet with only the sounds of nature, the wind and the sea to contend with.


The main commercial activities are sheep farming, fishing and tourism, crafts and the Arts. Just off the northern coast is a salmon farm which was established some 30 years ago and lies in the clean Atlantic waters that surround the island. The salmon produced here are recognized in Europe as the highest quality farm salmon, the nearest you will get to wild salmon.


Driving down from Westport, through Louisburgh town and on to Roonagh Pier, I left my car in the car park and boarded the Island Ferry, the “Clew Bay Queen” for the short 20 minute crossing to Clare Island. The Clare Island Ferry Company is owned and operated by the O’Grady family who are themselves islanders and live in the Harbour on the Island.

Passangers alighting from the Ferry, "Clew Bay Queen" onto Clare IslandIreland's pirate queen's castle, Granuail, on Clare Island. Co Mayo, Ireland

Approaching the harbour on Clare Island, you can see Granuaile’s (Grace O’Malley) castle built on the promontory of the harbour with a backdrop of hundreds of sheep grazing away happily on green hills. The square castle is not particularly large but there are some attractive features, such as the two balconies overlooking the white sandy beach that is the harbour.


This island is for relaxing, getting away from the rush and fantastic walking suited to all the family as well as the toughened walker. Good quality guesthouses, a good hostel, a community center two bars and a friendly people make up the social life. At the north end of the island is the old decommissioned Clare Island Lighthouse that has been delightfully restored and now provides all inclusive, luxury accommodation.


Northern End of Clare IslandBut, for me, this island is about walking, the people and time, lots of time! During my stay on the island, I walked every road and a number of trails.


Navigating the island is easy. All roads lead from the Harbour, one heads north, the other heads south. They are linked in the middle by a road traversing the center of the island. The walks are generally easy going but if you want a bit more of a challenge, climb Knockmore Mountain, 462 meters high but very steep. From the top you get a 360 degree view of the island with Achill Island, Inishturk, West Port, Connemara in the distance, if the low cloud allows.


There is a short “Loop Walk” developed by Mayo County Council and is not a particularly challenging walk. The trail is clearly marked and begins in the harbour, goes over the Knocknaveen Mountain (227meters) into the center of the island, down to the south road and back to the harbour. A very picturesque walk and well worth doing.


The north end of the island has steep cliffs and attracts many nesting sea birds. Skylarks, crows, blackbirds and a hovering Kestrel, the calling of the lambs playing in the stone walled green fields accompanied me on the walk.


People are friendly and generous; time to chat, tell you a few tales, have a laugh and help you enjoy your stay and leave behind the stresses of the mainland.


Berni WintersBerni Winters is a farmer and basket maker living in Kill, a village about an hours walk from the harbour on the south road. Berni farms organically growing oats, spuds and veggies in “Lazy Beds”, has three Angus Cows and sheep and is self sufficient. On the day I called, one of the cows had given birth that morning to a huge, beautiful bull calf. The oats are grown, “stoked” and dried, as feed for the cows, and store in his old stone shed. Some of the oaten straw is then used for his basket making. Once the potatoes are harvested they are stored outside in a “potato pit”, covered in rushes or straw and topped with earth for safe keeping. A wonderful, intriguing man, Berni has a great view of simple living and to spend a little time with him was most fascinating.


13th Century Cistercian Abbey at Kill Right beside Berni Winters in Kill is the 13th Century Cistercian Abbey. Bernie holds the key and will happily tell you all about its frescoes, the building and its history. This is where Grainne Uaile’s (Grace O’Malley) the Pirate Queen is buried and her tomb is located in the church at the alter,


A further twenty minute walk along the lower road, still heading west towards the 1800 century Napoleonic Signal Tower, I visited the O’Grady family farm. Set on the hill side, looking south to Inishturk and Caha Island and beyond that Connemara and the Sleiverue mountains, and backed by Knockmore Mountain, the highest peak on Clare Island.


Sean and Margaret O'Grady Family, Clare IslandSean and Margaret O’Grady live here with their family. Margaret, who hails from Galway, is one of the two nurses on the island and in her spare time teaches “Sean-nós dance, an older style of traditional solo Irish dancing” and is actively reviving this tradition on the island. Sean, an Islander, is a farmer and uses many traditional farming methods for cultivation on the farm, and is also a fisherman.


I walked back to Kill, this time on the upper road. What a stunning walk! The landscape was undulating, small mountain streams, a few stone ruins of homes, their occupants long gone, scattered homesteads and “lazy beds” made visible with the help of the low angled sun, proof of the intense farming activities that sustained the population before the “Great Famine” of about 1700 people. Beyond the shore line and over the blue Atlantic waters, romantic, misty views of Connemara, the hills of Inishturk glowing in the setting sun and the flat shape of Caher Island lifting out of the water like a giant whale. Your mind gets carried away at the panorama and confirms how beautiful our Irish West Coast is.


Charles O'Malley, Clare Island, Co Mayo, IrelandOn the way I ran into Charles O’Malley doing some work in his garden. Charles lives on the island with his wife Pauline and comes from generations of seafarers and is a direct descendant of the Grainne Uaile’s (Grace O’Malley) “Pirate Queen”. His family has operated ferries in the area for generations and Charles learnt the business of seamanship from his father before him. In the early days they would row Currachs to and from the mainland transporting people, bring provisions or take the sick to and from the Island.. Nowadays they have fine ferries and Charles operates the route in and out of Inishturk.


Back in Kill, I dropped into Padrac O’Malley’s shop for some refreshments. Robert runs the only shop on the island. It was well stocked with everyday provisions, as well as some treats. It also doubles up as the post office.


Pierce and Sarah O'Malley with Racial and Anna, friends visiting the islandA group of teenagers were sitting outside enjoying an ice cream and laughing. I approached them to have a chat and see what they were at. There are no secondary school on the island, and like most island children, they leave the island at 12 years old to do secondary school on the mainland, living with families over there. Two of the children, Pearce and Sarah O’Malley, were from Kill, and the other two girls, Racial and Anna, were visiting them. They were a happy bunch, we chatted for some time and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. They had a beautiful Jack Russell terrier, named Toffee, with them that had the most amazing coloring.


As I strolled back to the harbor, the sun was going down, the landscape was changing continuously and the cool sea breeze prompted you to put on your fleece.


The next morning I took the North road out of the harbour. An easy walk through the rolling hills with the north coast shoreline in view most of the time. About half an hour from the harbour there is a small coffee shop, but, being off season, it was closed to me.


Myles and Tess Ruddy of Clare Island, Co Mayo, IrelandI got as far as Maum and called into Myles and Tess Ruddy, a retired couple to say hi. Myles, originally from Clare Island and Tess, originally from Inishturk Island, are now in their young 80’s. What a fantastic couple, full of life and enthusiasm for living. I phoned them the day before to check out a good time to call in…”not to early” says Tess, “but would love to meet you”. I ask, about what time? “Lunch time, we like to lie in a bit” That is the pace of the island. I got to them about 1.30pm and was welcomed in. The fire was roaring, we did the introes and sat down. Tess enquired if I would like a cup of tea which I accepted. Then “would you have a small tot with us…Jameson or Powers?” I said Powers and emphasized “small”. Tess returned with a tumbler full!! Needless to say my interview flowed! They told me about their life experiences, we chatted and Myles sang a couple of ballads. An amazing voice. He decided to sing a song about Wexford especially for me. That was a great honor and I enjoyed it. A few photos and I was on my way, a little rocky and full of spirit!. Most enjoyable.


Clare Island Lighthouse, now decommissioned but beautifully restored and now a All Inclusive Accommodation.I could see the old Clare Island Lighthouse over on the northern cliffs. The buildings and lighthouse has been beautifully restored and is now an all inclusive accommodation with all the trappings of luxury. Décor is minimalistic in keeping with the original building; the décor and furnishing have been selected to enhance the atmosphere and experience of the holiday maker…a job of love indeed. The managers of this Lighthouse Experience are Jerry Boyle and Maeve O’Sullivan.



Further Information

Clare Island Development Office: Tel: 098 26525 Michelle O'MagoneyMahon or Kathy Gallagher
Web Site: www.clareisland.ie

Getting there:
Ferry departs from Roonagh Pier, about 10min drive from Louisburg in Co Mayo.
Crossing time +/- 20 minutes
Clare Island Ferry Company, 098 23737 / 086 6515003 www.clareislandferry.com

Accommodations available.
See Website or contact Development Office

  • Bed & Breakfast
  • Hostel: “Go Explore”
  • Camping area attached to the Community Center
  • All inclusive accommodation: Clare Island Lighthouse
  • Self Catering

North end of Clare Island, Co Mayo, IrelandKeith Moran, Clare Island, Co Mayo, IrelandHarbour John and Moran with family, Seabreeze B&B, Clare Island, Co Mayo, Ireland
Lisa and Kayla Moran, Clare Island, Co Mayo, IrelandConnamara Ponies on Clare Island
Chris O'Grady, owner operator of Clare Island Ferry Company and opperates to and from Roonagh Pier on the mainland into Clare Island, Co Mayo, Ireland

About Author

John Ironside FRGS
Photographer, Travel Writer, Author

Having spent many years as a professional photographer, I have been privileged to be witness to so many wonderful happenings, meeting so many amazing people all over the world and enjoying their cultures, hospitality and experiences.

Through my travel business, I traveled extensively into Africa, South America, Caribbean and Europe bringing clients into these regions so they could experience the cultures and traditions of the communities, understand better the environment, the value of conservation and the caring of nature through adventure and environmental travel.

Through my photography and travel writing I convey these experiences to others so that they too can enjoy and understand the moments that travel brings with it.

Please feel free to pass on my blog to others that may gain from them.
Thank you.

Comments (6)

  1. Geraldine Winters: May 28, 2014 at 04:17 AM -

    Truly enjoyed your article and beautiful pictures of lovely Clare Island...and so impressed that you were able to capture a photo of Bernie!


    1. John Ironside Photographer: Jan 09, 2015 at 08:50 AM -

      Good morning Geraldine. How I would love to be waking up at tje O'Grady's home today with that stunning view of the Islands and coast of Connemara coastline and the Maumturk Mountains in the distance with their ever changing colours of blue. As for the O'Gradies, a wonderful family. Sean is so interesting when we talked about the traditional farm methods on the islane, a very hard and difficult way of life in the past, and Margaret, now a nurse on the island, is devoted to teaching the youngsters the art of the free style, exciting, "Sean-nos" dancing. As for Beirney, what a wonderful person. So welcoming and an absolute joy to talk to. He has a small farm but everything is done in the old methods. He is also producing goods, such as woven straw baskets woven in a traditional method utilising the straw from the corn harvest on hid farm.


  2. Margaret Sean O Grady: Jun 28, 2014 at 10:36 PM -

    We really liked the photos and what you wrote about the Island.


    1. Bouwe-Jan: Jan 08, 2015 at 04:45 PM -

      I also really liked the photos - long time not seen the O'Gradys!! Just contact m when you read this Margaret


  3. Dennis J. Newman: Jul 23, 2014 at 10:28 PM -

    July 23,, 2014.
    It was 44 years ago, and I was a young man of 24, when I made my first visit to that magical place, Clare Island. After almost 6 weeks of traveling 'round Europe, I'd saved the best for last: a trip to the ancestral home where my Mother's Mother had been born. She was but a young girl in her teens, when Ann Barrett bade farewell to her parents for the long trip to America--perhaps not realizing that that would be the last time she'd ever see them. Now I, her eldest grandchild, had come back, to meet for the first time the family she'd left behind. And what a meeting it was: warm embraces, excited questions, and of course the mandatory shot of fine Irish whiskey. And to know that I was standing in the very house where my Grandmother had been born, now the home of her younger brother John: for me, the veil of history had been pulled aside, and I began to understand something of the marvelous people who'd given me life. When John's son Michael, just a dozen years older than myself, walked me back to the hotel that night, I knew I'd carry the memory of that visit with me ever after. And the hope that one day, I might be able to return.
    That return took place two years ago this fall. Great Uncle John had long since past on, but his son Michael still lived on the family land, but now in a lovely new home, with a view of the Atlantic outside his parlor window that took my breath away. As if no time at all had passed, Michael welcomed my wife and I into his home for a bite of lunch and conversation, then showed us on our way to the ancient Cistercian chapel with its adjoining cemetery--but not before extending the invitation to meet back at his home later that evening, where his niece Mary would stop by to "collect" us for a short drive to her home further up the road. And after an eye-opening tour of the chapel with is medieval ceiling-art, and a visit to St. Patrick's School--where Schoolmaster Noel took the time to find the Attendance Book from 1900, listing my Grandmother's name as a first-grader!--we gathered that evening 'round Mary's table and partook of a mouth-watering supper and much conversation with her and her husband Joe, one of the crewmen braving the Atlantic each day to bring passengers & cargo back and forth between the mainland and the island. When the next morning came and we finished the last of our tasty breakfast at O'Grady's Guesthouse, we looked out the window at the nearby harbor and our waiting ferry--and promised ourselves that somehow, someday we'd be back again. Perhaps this time with some of our grown children and grandsons --so that they too might know firsthand the spirit, the values, the family love they shared with their Irish cousins.
    Thanks, John Ironside, for reminding me of one of the loveliest places on the face of the earth, Clare Island, County Mayo, Ireland.


  4. Sytske de Waart: Sep 15, 2014 at 07:00 AM -

    Thank you for having a picture of Margaret O'Grady and her family on your website. I worked with Margaret in Kenya many years ago but lost touch, and 'googling' her led me to your website.


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