Clare Island (Co. Mayo)

Clare Island (Oileán Chliara) (winter pop. 140) is a magical 16km2 / 10mi2 island at the mouth of Clew Bay in Co. Mayo. The bay is famous for its smaller islands.

Clare Island

Robert Lloyd Praeger, in one of several attempts to emulate Charles Darwin’s Galapagos Islands research, organised what was probably the greatest wildlife survey of a particular area ever conducted in Ireland, if not the world. From 1909 to 1911, more than 100 scientists from Ireland, Britain, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland were deployed on Clare Island to make an inventory of flora and fauna. They observed some 9,000 organisms,   ranging from large mammals and trees to microscopic rhizopods and diatoms, and found many previously unknown in Ireland, including no less than 1253 animal species (343 unrecorded anywhere in the British Isles, and 109 new to science) and 585 plants (55 new to the British Isles and 11 new to science). They also investigated the island’s geology, landscape, archaeology, placenames, customs and folklore. (A Symposium to celebrate the centenary of the survey is due to be held in September 2009).

Knockmore (462m / 151 ft) is the highest summit of the quartzite hills in the northwest, with spectacular cliffs plunging abruptly into the Atlantic. The terrain of hills, bogs and small pockets of woodland levels out towards the east and south.

Clare island’s cliffs host large numbers of nesting sea birds, notably great black-backed gulls, guillemots, gannets, and puffins. Bird of prey include peregrine falcons, kestrels, sparrow hawks and choughs. Snipe drum among the rare arctic flora on the heathery hillslopes. Waders include oystercatchers, ringed plower and sandpipers. A colony of tree sparrows complements the population of swifts, lapwings, stonechats, linnets, skylarks, wagtails, reed bunting, sedge and grasshoper warblers and common garden birds. Seasonal visitors include barnacle geese, great northern diver, glaucous gull, common and arctic terns, wheatear and  meadow pipit.

Clare island’s beach, harbour and anchorage. (Photo – St Cronan’s)

Clare island has been inhabited by humans for 5000 years. Archaeological remains include a court-tomb at Lecarrow, Standing Stones,  a promontory fort, and no less than 45 fulachta fiadh (ancient cooking-sites).

The most significant traces of the island’s population explosion in the early C19th, when the number of inhabitants reached 1600, subsequently halved by the Great Famine and further reduced by emigration, are the old potato ridges, or “lazy beds'” revealed by the evening sun, jutting out from the land like the rib cages of some ancient dinosaur.

Nowadays, the islanders economy relies on pisciculture (salmon), lobster pots, fishing in summer, sheep-farming, agriculture (with an emphasis on organic horticulture), a few cattle and Connemara ponies, but above all on tourism.

Grace O’Malley’s Castle (Photo by Pierre Jean Durieu)

The Ui Mhaille / O’ Malley clan were powerful regional chieftains throughout the Middle-Ages. The ruins of one of their Tower Houses, known as Grace O’ Malley’s Castle because of its most notorious resident, dominates the pier landing in the quiet bay on the east side of Clare Island.

Gráinne Mhaol Ní Mháille, commonly called Grace O’Malley, Granuaile or Grania Uale (or even Granny Wales!), the C16th pirate queen “much feared everywhere by sea“, was described by Sir Richard Bingham as “a notable traitress, and the nurse of all the rebellions in the province for forty years.”  She “tolled” every ship that came her way, and famously travelled to London to deal personally with Queen Elizabeth I, with whom she seemingly came to an arrangement to split the loot.

Saint Bridget`s Abbey


Saint Bridget`s Abbey was established in 1189 by the King of Connacht, Cathal Crovedearg (Wine Red Hand) O`Connor, following his Battle of Knockroe victory over the Anglo-Normans. The Cistercian community  was founded by monks ftom Boyle Abbey, (Co. Roscommon).


The ruin is elaborately furnished with a piscina, sedilia, carved figure heads inserted into the south wall, ogee and cusped headed lancet windows.


Remarkable medieval frescoes on the side walls and chancel vault depict animals, dragons, cattleherders and warriors. These colourful wall paintings were crafted in the style of those at the “mother house” at AbbeyKnockmoy (Co. Galway).


It is thought that St Bridget`s may have continued in use many years after King Henry VIII‘s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries. Gradually, it became more a burial place than a working church.


The ruin contains the O’Malley Tomb, bearing the family motto “Terra Mariq Potens“, often translated as “Invincible on Land and on Sea”. This is widely believed to be the last resting place of Grace O’Malley.

Shipwreck on lare Island, with Croagh Patrick in the background. (Photo – North Atlantic Skyline). At least nine wrecks are known to lie on the seabed around Clare Island.

Spanish Armada 1588


On 24th September 1588 a ship from the Spanish Armada, the Basque El Gran Grin, commanded by Don Pedro de Mendoza, foundered on Clare Island with up to 300 men on board.


Don Pedro refused to surrender and the islanders, greedy for the spoils of the shipwreck, killed him and all but one of the crew.


Although the local ruler at the time, Dubbdara Rua Ui Mhaille, was a nephew of Grace O’Malley’s, it is difficult to pin the blame for this terrible slaughter on her, and some suggest that she helped refugee Spaniards elsewhere in the region.

An Tuar Mór / Toormore is the location of a ruined Signal Tower erected to warn of a French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars, one of a linked series on the western  islands that used a system of mirrors as a sort of Morse code.

Clare Island Lighthouse was erected in 1806 by John Denis Browne, 1st Marquess of Sligo. The cylindrical masonry tower is 118m / 387ft tall and 11m / 36ft across. Having survived both fire and lightning in its youth, the lighthouse was decommissioned after 159 years of faithful service on 28th September 1965, and replaced by the modern Achillbeg Island lighthouse on the little island just off the southern tip of nearby Achill Island. The property has since had a succession of private owners, at one stage operating as a delightful B&B, and was recently sold by Lady Georgina Forbes for €1.05 million to a German doctor, who bought it as a birthday present for his wife.

The island is ideal for exploration on foot or by bicycle (There are a couple of marked trails, and maps are available). The limpid waters are highly rated by scuba divers.

Clare island has one permanent grocery shop / post office (O’Malley’s), a church (RC), a community centre and a primary school (older children go to weekday boarding school on the mainland). A number of crafts outlets and cafés operate during the summer, and there are a few holiday homes and  B&Bs dotted around the island.

Clare island houses (Photo – St Cronan’s)

Clare islanders are very welcoming, hospitable – and fun! Despite having all mod cons from radio and satellite TV to broadband internet access, they have kept alive their long tradition of providing their own entertainment in the form of music, singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry and amateur drama.

In recent years the island has also become something of a haven for continentals seeking a alternative lifestyles, more spiritual and less materialistic than any they could find in the mainstream. These newcomers have given Clare Island quite a cosmopolitan air.

The Bay View Hotel is a friendly family-run establishment. As the location of the island’s only public bar, it is a frequent venue for traditional music sessions. The dinig facilities are more than acceptable.

O’Grady’s Guesthouse is an upmarket B&B that also provides evening meals.

Granuaile House is a large family-run B&B overlooking the harbour.

The Clare Island Retreat Centre, run by Ciara Cullen and Christophe Mouze as a yoga and meditation facility, has courses all year round, and also provides B&B accomodation for individuals and groups; it can occasionally be hired on a self-catering basis.

Three farmers on the island welcome volunteer “wwoofers” (Willing Workers on Organic Farms).

The Bard Summer School, devoted to exploring Irish mythology, is held on the island every July.

Clare Island Regatta, featuring yawl and currach races, is held offshore every July, accompanied by games and activities on the beach.

Clare Island Singles’ Weekends are organised for people over 30 in May and September.

The Granuaile Folklore & Traditional Festival, a celebration of Clare Island’s traditions, is due to take place in May 2010.

Clare Island is linked to the mainland by a ferry services to / from Roonagh Pier near Louisburgh. The four mile crossing takes about 20 minutes.

The official Clare Island tourism website is useless, but more information about the island is available here, and an interesting article can be read here.

A New Survey of Clare Island was published by the Royal Irish Academy in several volumes from 1999 onwards.

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