The Last Irish Wilderness: the Islands of Ireland


The offshore islands of Ireland represent the last true wilderness in our beautiful country. And a book called Oileáin tells us about nearly all of them.

Irish for Island, Oileáin (pronounced ill-in) is a guide to 573 of the fabulous islands scattered around Ireland. The book includes drop-dead gorgeous pictures of the islands, most of which lie within bays and are close enough to the shore to be accessed by kayak. There is also an online guide which is a treasure trove of information for those 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 about the islands of Ireland? Perhaps because they are a real “getaway.” Outside of August, 90% of our 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 homes 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.

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

Dun Briste in Co Mayo

Dún Briste (broken fort) 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 surrounding 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 insurgents were dealt with as they have typically been dealt with down the ages. Special enthusiasm was shown in dealing with those thought to be ringleaders. 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 medieval, a longhouse of sorts, with some odd add-ons. 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 over six hundred years.

Locals fish from these cliffs in a special way, particularly 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. Otherwise, the beach below, just north of Ballycastle is fairly dependable. Dooclogh Pier is the best launching spot. The paddling is truly fantastic. A cave system links the west-facing shore of Downpatrick Head, entering near the parking area, through the blowhole, and onwards to exit hard by Dún Briste. Narrow in places and shelved in others, the trip is a must, but timing is key for the trickier passages.

Mweenish Island

A large, well-populated Gaeltacht island, 9km south-east of the entrance to Bertraghboy Bay. It is connected to the mainland by a road bridge to the north-east. The passage under the bridge is passable at the higher parts of the tide. A corncrake was heard singing here in 2003.

Man in kayak at sea and yacht in the background

Hooker at MacDaras Island, Connemara

Mweenish is the home place of the Galway Hooker. This is the traditional, wooden, gaff-rigged, tumble-homed sailing boat of the west coast of Ireland. Hookers nearly died out as working boats 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. Sadly, the 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 of these trips, he sailed in ‘Northabout’, a craft specially designed and built for such purposes by Jarlath Cunnane of Dublin.

Church and kayaks at MacDaras Island, Connemara

Church and kayaks at MacDaras Island, Connemara

There are several working piers and quays, but the points of greatest interest to kayakers are the three beaches. The nicest is in the southwest-facing elbow of the island, with good camping in the dunes behind the beach, and good parking. This beach would be the best embarkation point for Mason Island and MacDara’s Island.

More reliably sheltered is the east-facing, smaller beach on the eastern side of the southern tip. Here, you’ll find limited parking but excellent camping beside an old ruined 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 north-east side opposite the bridge.

Ardnacrossan Island

A wee gem with white sandy beaches all-round the north-west side, Ardnacrossan Island has splendid isolated camping on short cropped grass. One word of caution is that cattle can cross from the adjacent Mason Island.

There is a small colony of birds which includes little terns, ring plover and shell ducks. The east and south sides are rocky. The gap with Masons to the north-west is just passable at mid-tide and the gap to Coarse Rock to the east needs watching on passage.

4 kayaks on a beach

Ardnacrossan 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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