The Last Irish Wilderness – Irish Islands


Offshore islands are the last wilderness in Ireland. And a book called Oileáin tells us about nearly all of them.


Irish for Island, Oileáin is the title of a book that is a guide to 573 of the fabulous islands scattered around the Ireland. These islands are mostly in bays and close enough to the shore that you can reach by kayak. You can buy it as a hard-copy book with drop-dead gorgeous pictures of the islands that act as muse. Or you can log on here for an online treasure trove of information for those of you who like to take a kayak into the cold Irish waters.

Dalkey island, Dublin

Dalkey island, Dublin

So why would someone write an entire book on the islands of Ireland? Because they are the real “getaway.” Outside of August, 90% of offshore islands are uninhabited. You won’t meet many other people, if any at all, out beyond an Irish surf line. Soon however we can expect holiday home to start appearing on these islands. So now is the time to explore this pristine part of Ireland’s landscape.  It is a golden era for exploration.

The book, Oileáin, gives readers details about landing on the islands, camping spots, availability of drinking water, tidal streams, history, plants and wildlife, and general information. It is intended to be similar in purpose to a nautical pilot or sailing directions, but dedicated to sea kayaks and other very small craft.

Here is an extract for Old Moore’s Almanac readers.

Dún Briste


Dun Briste in Co Mayo

Meaning “Broken Fort”, Dún Briste is well named. It consists of a sea stack broken away from the massive cliffs at Downpatrick Head. It is said there were people in residence when in 1393 it broke away. The rescue operation must have been something, though the gap will not have been as intimidating as now. The stack measures about 20m by 60m, and about 100m separates it from the mainland. Dún Briste rises absolutely vertically on all sides, and though it appears very sharp from the headland, it is more squat when seen from the side.

The general area is well worth the visit. Parking may be had 1km from the headland. A pleasant walk leads up to the headland past the infamous Poll na Seantoine, a blowhole of huge proportions, dropping down into a cave system that opens up under the main cliff just inside Dún Briste. A plaque commemorates those locals who sided with the French when they landed nearby at Kilcummin just outside Killala in the invasion of 1798. The invasion force was at first successful, and took all before it, including Castlebar, capital of Mayo. Heading eastwards, it ran out of steam and was finally defeated in Roscommon a few weeks later. The French soldiers were treated as prisoners of war and sent home, but the local civilian insurgents were dealt with as unsuccessful civilian insurgents have typically been dealt with down the ages. Special enthusiasm was shown in dealing with the locals at the epicentre of the whole business who were thought to have sided with the enemy. Herded towards Downpatrick Head, they were forced over the edge into the blowhole and a gruesome death in the waves far below.

A scientific party visited the summit by helicopter for a few short hours in 1980, the first human intrusion in almost 600 years. At first they felt the buildings much older than 1393 and probably of mixed monastic/agricultural type. After some study they thought they were in fact mediaeval, a longhouse of sorts, with some odd bolt-ons. They would love to go back to make sure. A quernstone was found on top of a perimeter wall. Also of interest was a colony of wood lice which would have grown independently of the wood lice on the mainland for 600+ years.

Locals fish from these cliffs in a special way, especially in the horseshoe bay just east of the headland. A long line is uncoiled and arranged to run free on the ground. A baited hook, a weight, and a big slab of timber several metres up the line is swung by hand in ever-increasing arcs above the head. Finally the throw is made, and the business end finishes up floating way below. Huge Pollack are caught this way, and hauling them up is very hard work.

In calm conditions a launch may be had on rock shelves below the parking space at G125-424. Otherwise, the beach below (just N of) Ballycastle is fairly dependable G104-394. Dooclogh Pier G096-401 is the most dependable. The paddling is truly fantastic. A cave system links the W facing shore of Downpatrick Head, entering near the parking area, through the blowhole Poll na Seantoin, and onwards to exit hard by Dún Briste. Narrow in places and shelved in others, the trip is a must, but timing is the key to the trickier passages.


Mweenish Island

A large, well-populated Gaeltacht island, 9km SE of the entrance to Bertraghboy Bay and attached to the mainland by a road bridge to the NE. The passage under the bridge is passable at the higher parts of the tide. One Corncrake was heard singing here in 2003.

Hooker at MacDaras Island, Connemara

Mweenish is the home place of the Galway Hooker, the traditional wooden, gaff-rigged, tumble-homed sailing boat of the W coast of Ireland. Hookers very nearly went extinct as a working boat a century ago, but have enjoyed a considerable revival since about 1970 as a leisure craft. There are now 15 or 16 of them on the water. One such hooker, the Saint Patrick, built on Mweenish in 1906 and skippered by Paddy Barry, crossed the Atlantic in 1986, and has since gone to Greenland. She also sailed to other Arctic destinations including beyond the 80 degree latitude parallel off Spitzbergen in 1990. Saint Patrick slipped her mooring and sunk at Glandore in 2003… may she rest in peace.

Paddy Barry went on to achieve even more fame by negotiating Canada’s North West Passage in 2003 and in 2004/2005 Siberia’s North East Passage, in each case in ‘Northabout’, the sailing craft specially designed and built for such purposes by Jarlath Cunnane of Dublin.

There are several working piers and quays, but the points of greatest interest to kayakers are the three beaches. The nicest is at L764-294 in the SW-facing elbow of the island, with good camping on machair in the dunes behind the beach, and good parking. This beach would be the best embarkation point for Oileán Máisean or MacDara’s Island. More reliably sheltered is the E-facing, smaller beach at L774-284, on the eastern side of the southern tip. Here, there is limited parking but excellent camping beside the ruin of a house at the southern end of the beach. Otherwise camping is impractical as the fields are stocked. There is a tide-dependent beach and a good flat grass area at the NE side opposite the bridge at L768-299.


Ardnacrossan Island, Connemara

A wee gem, Masons in miniature, white sandy beaches all-round the NW side, splendid isolated camping on short cropped grass. One word of caution is that cattle can cross from Masons at LW.

Colony of 45+ Little Tern, Ring Plover, Shell Duck. The E/S sides are rocky/boulder. The gap with Masons to the NW is just passable at mid-tide and the gap to Coarse Rock L750-293 to the E needs watching on passage.


Church and kayaks at MacDaras Island, Connemara


OILEAINcoverHRAbout the author: 

David Walsh is a 63-year-old Dublin solicitor and Notary Public, living and working in Ranelagh with his wife Sheila. He has four children and one grandson. David has legally represented many outdoor pursuits national organisations – Irish Canoe Union, Mountaineering Council of Ireland, BirdWatch Ireland, Underwater Ireland, AFAS, IASTT. Originally a keen walker, then climber, he has always also had a wide general interest in outdoor pursuits, including cycling, birding, canoeing and some SCUBA. On a sailing/climbing trip to Spitzbergen in 1990 he saw sea kayaks glide between icebergs in remote frozen Magdalena Fjord. He was blown away. The next part of his life began immediately. Islands became David’s focus.

To buy a copy of the book, click here.


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