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Scattered around the coast of Ireland are an array of islands, each with their own character set apart from the rest of Ireland, making for unique places to visit and get away from it all.
Most of the islands can be found off the northern and western coasts of Ireland, many are uninhabited, while those that are inhabited differ as much from the mainland as they do with each other. The isolation of island life has often created individual island nations whose inhabitants keep very much alive the cultures and traditions of their land. Here's a look at what you'll find on Ireland's Islands.
The Aran Islands
The most well known of Ireland's isles are the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, These three islands, Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer, are where you'll find Irish spoken most regularly and in a dialect quite different from that of the mainland. These communities were built on fishing, their inhabitants setting out in treacherous seas in small currachs. The land too provided a harsh environment for survival and early settlers would have to farm the land by dragging seaweed from the coast to fertilise the soil and ridding the fields of the stones with today make up the islands' patchwork of stonewall plots. The rich traditions of the Aran Islands have attracted visitors for many years including Irish playwright J. M. Synge, whose Riders of the Sea and Playboy of the Western World were inspired by life on the islands. The most significant site on the islands is the Iron Age fort of Dun Aonghasa perched on the cliff-face of Inishmor looking out to the vast Atlantic Ocean. Today the Aran Islands are an increasingly popular tourist destination with ferries from Galway and Rossaveal and flights from Connemara Regional Airport.
The largest of Ireland's isles, Achill Island is situated off the coast of Co. Mayo. Measuring approximately 360 square km, Achill Island has around 3,500 inhabitants. Achill's 120km of coastline include some of the country's best beaches at Dugort, Dooega and Keel. In 1888 a bridge was built between Achill and the mainland and the island is perfect for day trips, while there are a huge number of self-catering and B&B accommodation for longer trips to this relaxing holiday isle.
8 miles of the south west coast, Cape Clear is Ireland's most southerly island. Like the Aran Islands, Cape Clear is a Gaeltacht where Irish is the first language of its 150 inhabitants. The island has a sense of timeless beauty, enhanced by its heather and gorse glad hills, narrow winding roads free from cars. Cape Clear's sights include several standing stones dating back some 5,000 years, which are dotted around the island and a 14th century castle that once belonged to the O'Driscoll clan. While the Island's three pubs are renowned for their great craic and traditional music during the summer months. Cape Clear is accessible from Baltimore just outside the town of Skibbereen.
Situated off the Dingle Peninsula, the Blasket Islands were once home to a thriving community. But along with many other smaller isles the Blaskets were deserted at the turn of the century, the hardships of life on the islands left behind in favour of the modern facilities offered on the mainland. The enduring appeal of the Blaskets came from the writings of those inhabitants, such as Peig Sayers and Tomas O Criomhthain, who portrayed the trails and joys of island life and whose writings are curriculum reading for school children learning Irish. Today a visitor centre has been built in Dunquin on the mainland demonstrating life on the Blaskets, while ferry services go out to the islands regularly.
The Skelligs, 8 miles of the coast of Kerry were also once inhabited but are now deserted. These rugged pyramids of rock, jutting out from the Atlantic Ocean were once home to a monastic community in the 4th century. Attracted to the isolation and rugged austerity of Skellig Michael, they built the stone beehive huts that still stand there today. While the smaller isle, Little Skellig is home to one of the largest ganet colonies in Europe. Access to the Skelligs is limited and difficult. You can get a ferry from Portmagee, but only the early ferry is allowed to land in the harbour, and only when weather permits.
There may only be 180 people living on Tory Island today but this tiny isle 11km off the northern coast of Donegal has been inhabited for over 5000 years. The island has its own dialect of Irish and even its own king, Patsy-Dan Rogers, who was elected to the position in 1995 and runs a pub. The island has two main villages, East town and West Town, while in recent years New Town and Middletown have been added. Boat services run from Bunbeg, Magheraroarty and Port-na-Blagh.
Clare Island at the mouth of Clew Bay off the Mayo Coast, may not have a king, but it was once the stronghold of Pirate Queen Grace O'Malley. During the 16th century, O'Malley, known as Granuaile ruled the waves around the west of Ireland. O'Malley's Castle is one of the islands most prominent landmarks and the family also built the Cistercian Abbey in the island.
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