When you think of Ireland, islands are unlikely to be what spring to mind. Although the country itself is, of course, an island, the smaller landmasses off its coasts don’t tend to get a lot of attention and many people don’t even know they’re there. But if you’ve ever taken the ferry from Ireland to England or vice-versa, your route will have taken you close to several islands just out of view, such as Lambey island to the north and tiny Dalkey Island to the south.
It’s a real shame that Irish islands don’t get a lot of love; there’s so much to do in these ruggedly beautiful destinations that they’re among the top Ireland tourism highlights. From the Skellig Islands to the Aran Islands, here are just a few of the must-see spots scattered around Ireland’s waters.
The Skellig Islands, County Kerry
If you know a little bit about Ireland, islands you’ve heard of might include the Skelligs. These twin rocks tend to make regular appearances in round-ups of Ireland’s top attractions. Deservedly protected by UNESCO, they’re still every bit as beautiful today as they were when they were first settled in the 6th century. The earliest residents here were monks, who were quick to take advantage of the islands’ remote location. Although they had left by the 12th century you can still see many impressive relics of their time on Skellig Michael, the larger Skellig. These include a medieval church, networks of monks’ cells and various stone crosses. Boat tours to the Skelligs from Portmagee depart regularly in the warmer months.
Tory Island, County Donegal
Despite the associations it might conjure up for British visitors, Tory Island’s name is nothing to do with politics. In fact it offers something of a haven from contemporary concerns, being the most remote inhabited island anywhere in Ireland. Perhaps that’s why it’s got a reputation for creativity, with many artists considering it a favourite destination.
The island is steeped in charming traditions, including the regular election of a Rí Thoraí, or King of Tory Island, who aims to greet the island’s visitors. Besides the community spirit, attractions include a lighthouse and an ancient bell tower. Tory Island is also an excellent place for birdwatching. Corn crakes, in particular, have made this a key breeding site.
Cape Clear Island, County Cork
If you’re a bit of a history buff, this one’s for you. Despite having a population of only around 100 people, this southerly island has a high density or archaeological marvels. Ancient sites to look out for as you explore this beautiful place include a Neolithic tomb, a fort, a ruined castle and standing stones galore.
Garnish Island, Co Cork
For something with a more cultivated charm, make your way to Garnish Island. Famed for its beautiful gardens, the island is a well-loved Ireland tourism site. The gardens date back over 100 years and have a romantic past, having originally been designed as a gift from the owner to his wife. The gardens are so beautiful that it’s no surprise that writers such as George Bernard Shaw have been known to find the island to be a bit of a muse.
If wildlife interests you, you’ll also find it here in abundance, most notably in the form of the seal colony which can be easily visited from the island. There’s nothing more quietly reassuring than seeing an entire tribe of seals lazing happily across the rocks – and these ones seem very happy indeed!
Aran Islands, County Galway
They might be up there with the Skellig Islands in terms of name recognition, but the Aran Island couldn’t be more different. A far cry from the remote and inhospitable beauty of the Skelligs, these islands are buzzing with life – well, compared to most other Irish islands, anyway. There’s a thriving community of well over a thousand people based here, and the Irish language is a strong presence in the local culture.
Just as with Cape Clear Island, the past is everywhere you look here. Dun Aengus Fort dates from the Stone Age, which means O’Brien’s Castle is positively new by comparison to some of the island’s other relics, having been built in the 14th century. The Aran Islands also boast the honour of being home to one of the smallest churches anywhere in the world.
For those who enjoy outdoorsy activities, there’s plenty on offer too, with the islands’ cycling and hiking routes offering beautiful views.
Ireland’s Eye, County Dublin
This is one of the most easily accessible islands on this list, and is located close to the route for the ferry from Ireland to England. If you’re staying in Dublin or nearby, it’s well worth planning a daytrip to this little gem of a place. It’s reachable in under an hour from the capital, travelling by bus or car and then catching the ferry from Howth.
The island’s main attraction is its sheer peacefulness, which provides a stark contrast to Dublin’s lively atmosphere. Stroll along the beaches, walk to the ancient ruins of a church, and take in lovely sea views from the islands’ hills. You’ll also find lots of inquisitive seabirds here, from oystercatchers to cormorants.
Saltee Islands, County Wexford
If none of the other islands on the list so far have what you’re looking for in terms of nature, the Saltees could be the answer. This pair of islands has a fantastically diverse seabird population. Head off on one of the bird-spotting boat trips that regularly takes in the islands and you could see everything from gannets to razorbills. The star of the show, however, has to be the charming, clown-like puffin, one of the most beloved bird species in the UK and Ireland. In addition to birds, there’s plenty of mammal life to look out for here too, including an impressive seal colony.