Feature Travel Archives

Ireland: Escape to Clare Island

A Small Package of Inspiring Ireland in County Mayo

By Patricia Keegan

To really understand the booming economy of Ireland and the burden attached to being dubbed the Celtic Tiger, one only has to land at Dublin’s Airport -- take a stroll through the newspaper kiosk and stop for a coffee. New energy abounds, and the suddenness of its impact is having its effect. Perusing the book shop in search of an Irish author, I was bemused by the titles of hot new paperbacks. Titles such as “The Marriage Bed,” “Hello Laziness -- Why Hard Work Doesn’t Pay,” and “Back from the Brink -- Coping with Stress.”

I was chagrinned; my native land is obviously feeling the pain that accompanies progress. Ireland is the fastest growing economy in all Europe with the highest per capita GNP and second highest income level in Europe. Changes are visible everywhere. Some make you stop to rub your eyes and ask, “Is this the Ireland that was so relaxed for so long?” In a restaurant at the airport I observed a small boy sitting in front of a computer, plugged in with ear phones, sucking his thumb, his bleary eyes glued to the screen. I asked his mother how old he was. Three years old, she said with a proud smile.

Clare Island -- Here We Come!

Setting out to discover Clare Island, my husband and I eagerly anticipate a giant step back in time. The closer one drives to the West Coast of Ireland, the more the serenity becomes palpable. The scenery begins to open up with a long range of mountains, horses grazing and sheep stretching across the landscape for miles. We pass through peaceful villages with small brightly painted row houses lining the narrow streets. We can’t resist the roadside calling us to stop for a cone of whipped ice cream.

To reach Clare Island, we will pass through the lovely town of Westport in County Mayo, and continue westbound some 23 km. to Louisburg and another 7 km. to Roonagh Quay, where the ferry will take us to Clare Island.

As an introduction to Ireland’s friendly towns, Westport is one of Ireland’s prettiest and liveliest on the West Coast. Here we stopped for breakfast at a busy little café with home baked buns, Irish bread, and the irresistible, full Irish (the cholesterol special) breakfast: sausages, black pudding, eggs, bacon, fried tomatoes and rashers. This morning gorge is said to “build fortitude” for the entire day, which, being economical in time and money, gives us every reason to indulge. This modern café also served deliciously frothy cappuccino.

Relaxing for awhile we watched people coming and going, all busy with life, smiling greetings to each other. The café kept filling up and emptying -- men folding up the morning paper and hurrying off to work. Women appeared more relaxed, in groups, toting beautiful, rosy-cheeked children. Outside the sun is shining and the weather looks very promising for the ferry ride. Not expecting to find any bakeries on Clare Island, we purchased some scones and pastries and continued our journey.

We relished our short drive between Westport and Louisburg with the bay on one side and the famousCroagh Patrick pilgrimage mountain on the other. Even though it is still early morning, people are already hiking the mountain. Ireland’s west coast is one of the world’s favored places for hiking and trekking on horseback.

We reach Roonagh Pier, park the car, and find two ferry services leaving around the same time, competing for our business. We picked the Island Princess, the O’Malley ferry, for no other reason than it held the name of the historic kingdom of Clare Island.

It is September, the ocean is a bit choppy, and the deck sways from side to side. I watch my husband standing at the controls talking with the ferry operator, Charles O’Malley, while balancing himself against the rise and fall of the deck. In the distance I can see the outline of Granuaile’s Castle overlooking the harbor. It is named for the island’s heroine; Grace O’Malley, the formidable, female warrior pirate who ruled the area around Clew Bay during the second half of the 16th century.

There was something about the approach to Clare Island that reminded me of the poem Forgotton Ireland, by Martin Howard.

Still south I went and west and south again
Through Wicklow from the morning ‘til the night.
And far from the cities and
The sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine and
The moon’s delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers
And the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of
Many glens,
And did but half remember
Human words In converse with the mountains,
Moors and ferns.

The ferry ride takes about 20 minutes. The majestic Knockmore Mountain overlooking Clew Bay is clouded in a mist, the walls of Granuaile’s castle become clearer, I see a long, sandy beach and some white houses near the dock, but otherwise the island appears as an idyllic picture of tranquility.

Within a two minute walk from the dock, we find our B&B, the Granuaile, which turns out to be a good choice with a quiet, homelike room, and a friendly family, for 40 euros per night. Along a wall adjacent to the white, two story house, a little girl is dancing, singing her heart out. She appears to be totally in tune with the freedom evoked by this island environment. She stops a moment to tell us her name is Laura, daughter of the McCabe family, owners of the Granuaile; then she promptly continues her game. Later, in getting to know Laura, we find the makings of one of Clare Island’s next, great personalities of the 21st century.

Exploring the Island

Clare Island is truly blessed by the Gods. Within its 16 square kilometers is a package that envelops all that makes the larger island of Ireland so dramatically inspiring. In our many walks, we feast our eyes on panoramic pieces of what makes Kerry, Donegal and even the Burren so spectacular -- its uninterrupted terrain that lies open, wild, and unspoiled. This is an island living in the past with a population of 140 and just a few stranded cars, (the small ferries don’t transport autos). The island has three advertised B&B’s, two taxicabs, and a shop that rents bikes. While somehow keeping their island jalopies pieced together and running, (no tags or inspections needed on the island), most have private, modern cars parked at the mainland quay.

There is one small, general store on the west side of the island about a two mile walk from the port. Knowing Ireland’s weather, we didn’t dream of packing sunscreen, and the store was taken unawares also; consequently, I developed a rare Irish sunburn.

The island has one church, but no priest at present. While awaiting the arrival of a new priest, lay people celebrate Sunday mass.

One of the most extraordinary sights on Clare Island is the old Lighthouse which stands at the western tip, 387 feet above the Atlantic. This is no ordinary lighthouse, but a group of white buildings, resembling a hotel, straddling the edge of the steep cliffs at the northwest end of the island. Besides its role as a lighthouse, it was for many years a B&B extraordinaire. Now it stands majestically looking out across the Atlantic, awaiting a new owner. The undulating hills around the lighthouse are blanketed with soft, green grass inviting hiking, picnicking or just lying among the daisies looking at the sky.

Near the Lighthouse, along the northern coastline, is Ballytoughey Loom, a small cottage industry which produces high quality, hand woven goods of natural fibers. The business was founded by Beth Moran, a warm and energetic American woman, married to an Irishman. She has a small shop and a room for spinning and weaving where magnificent rugs, scarves and other items are created. As we visit with Beth, we watch a young woman from France busily weaving a rug. She is an apprentice and says she plans to bring her new skills back to France. When I asked Beth why she liked living on Clare Island, she answered with one word, “Freedom!”

If one can ever literally sense that abstraction called freedom, this area of Clare Island is where it reigns supreme. It’s in the deserted hills, in the soft fragrant breeze, and it rides on the waves of the sea. On this island surrounded by the swirling Atlantic, with the intermittent sound of seagulls, where the winters are rugged and summers unpredictable, one feels released and far from the noise and clamor of a restless world.

Also on this side of the island is the lovely, modern Yoga Center. It is built in wood and owned by a couple, Ciara and Christophe. She is an American woman of Irish descent, and he is French. They have a blonde, three-year-old boy who takes the utmost delight in his freedom; clambering up hills and rolling down with his smudged, sunburned cheeks close to the earth. Visitors to the Yoga Center stay at the Center’s own B& B which serves vegetarian cuisine.

In the evening, after exploring miles of scenic beauty, promontory forts and standing stones, we found our way to the island’s one hotel, the Bayview, the liveliest spot on the island. The Bayview has just 12 guest rooms but is planning on renovation and additions. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed and casual. During the busy season, or during one of the many festivals held on the island, the bar is crowded. We were surprised on our first evening to find a bagpiper clad in tartan kilt, standing on the hill in front of the hotel heralding visitors. We were even more surprised to learn that he was American.

Clare Island’s festivals range from Irish poets gathering to discuss the ongoing wealth of Ireland’s poetry, to the renowned Match Making Festival in September where singles from Ireland and beyond come to the island to find their “soul mate.”

The festival opens with a cocktail party and lasts from Friday until Sunday, during which time singles meet with each other, first in a structured 4-minute session where they rate the intensity of the attraction on a card. Singles mix and rotate all weekend, marking their cards as they go along. If all goes well, it should be fool-proof. They hand in their cards, which are sorted and matched by the Match Maker, and held in secret until the evening of the Romance Ball. A woman will be matched with the man she was most attracted to, and if he is lucky, it will be the same person that attracted him. According to Donal O’Shea, festival coordinator, and Director of Clare Island Development, there have been a number of successful matches. While strolling down the Champs D’Elyses in Paris, he met a married couple who recognized him and thanked him for helping them find each other.

A Visit to the 14th-Century Cistercian Abbey

Of course the island has its own interesting bachelors. One unique character is Bernie Winters, keeper of the keys to the Abbey. Bernie is tall and lanky with a weathered face, bright eyes and a sharp wit, and he has lived all his life on the island with ancestors going “way back.” He is committed to organic farming without pesticides and without machinery. Bernie tills the soil, mows, and gathers hay by hand. He takes care of his sheep and milks his cows, and as a member of WWOOF, the World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers, Bernie lives a life of ingrained self-sufficiency.

Taking a large key from the pocket of his jean, he unlocks the old wooden door of Ireland’s first Cistercian Abbey built in the 14th century. Standing within the stone walls, it is silent, still, and freezing, but the architecture is spectacular in its grandeur. The abbey was founded by monks from Abbeyknockmoy in Galway. You can see the remains of the nave and the chancel vault. An extensive preservation program has just ended and a few of the medieval wall frescos have been restored.

The frescos strike me as heroic, I can’t even imagine what the island was like in the 14th century, but these markers of time point to the human desire for creating transcendent meaning through artistic symbols. On this tiny island it is amazing to find this treasure that spans centuries.

Bernie invites us back to his house, the oldest cottage on the island, where there is the aromatic and tantalizing fragrance of a stew drifting from the bubbling pot on the stove. This bachelor’s house is clean and neat. He pushes a button on his CD player and we hear the voice of Bob Dylan wailing “the times are a changing.” Bernie’s favorite singers are Dylan and Nancy Griffiths. Over the fireplace hangs a light touch of romance; the Dream Weaver, he tells us, was left by a friend who “came and stayed awhile.”

After a short visit, we leave Bernie to his work. He has to “hop on a spade to survive the winter and prepare for spring.”

The weather outside has quickly changed to gale force winds. Bracing ourselves against the blast, we are literally blown into Mrs. McCabe’s class at St. Patrick’s parish school. Mrs. McCabe, our hostess at the Granuille B&B, is also headmistress of the school. She has invited us to visit her classroom. Ranging from 5 to 8 years of age, they are sitting in a circle on the floor. Looking at their eager little faces is like visiting a radiant flower garden in the sunshine. Laura is waving a welcoming “Hello.”

Flopping down in the circle, I ask them what they want to be when they grow up. They are excited, some are shy, they all talk at once. Under the direction of Mrs. McCabe, they raise their hands. Declan, with shining, large brown eyes, tells us of his dreams of being a fisherman. The girls want to be nurses or teachers. Nobody talks about ever leaving the island. They tell us the news about the new baby sisters and brothers that have recently arrived, bringing new excitement to island families. Exuding innocence and happiness, these children are a joy to behold. They play the penny whistle and take turns reading to us.

We also visit Grade 2 classroom, where students are in the midst of studying the Irish Famine. Their writings on the subject are pinned to the board. They tell us about the findings of archeological digs on the island.

Hats off to headmistress, Mrs. McCabe!

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According to Donal O’Shea, director of Clare Island Development, Clare Island may soon undergo a giant step forward in time. They are currently working on plans for infrastructure development after receiving a 250,000 euro government grant. Some islanders oppose the changes that would affect their quality of life, as it would likely increase tourism beyond 10,000 per year. Islanders commented on one young hooligan who came to the island, stole a car, and crashed it into a tree.

This cherished, little package of spectacular Ireland may be better served by either being allowed to slumber peacefully in the past, or by instituting some kind of screening of everybody who comes aboard the ferry. Perhaps erecting a large sign declaring Clare Island is:

Only for those who respect and revere the island’s beauty, starting with each blade of grass.

At this moment, Clare Island appears vulnerable to invasion by the 21st century. It will take a high degree of sensitivity to the wishes of the islanders to advance, without destroying what is unique and precious about this island.

For more on Clare Island visit www.clareisland.ie .

For car rental, check out Dooley Car Rentals, a friendly, service-oriented company, with all-inclusive weekly rates, including tax and insurance, priced in dollars! They have 15 Irish locations, a wide selection and competitive rates. Tel: 800-331-9301.

For a free vacation planning kit or for more information, contact Tourism Ireland at 800-223-6470, or visit TourismIreland.com.