Known as the Emerald Isle itself, Ireland has no shortage of islands sitting just off the coast. While Irish islands lack palm trees and tropical temperatures, they do have a special kind of rugged beauty which makes for a unique day trip from the mainland. Here is how to explore some of the best islands in Ireland, no matter if you are searching for a tourist-free paradise for hiking and wildlife spotting, or you want to sit down for a few pints at a seaside pub.
This small archipelago of three rocky islands lies at the mouth of Galway Bay off the west coast of Ireland. The Aran Islands are best known for the prehistoric ruins found there, including the remains of ancient forts like Dún Chonchúir on Inishmaan (the largest island in the chain). The archaeological sites here are some of the oldest in Ireland, but there is also a 14th-century castle and great natural beauty as well. About 1,200 people live on the Aran Islands and the area is Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) region. Want to visit? Ferries leave from Rossaveal, Doolin and Galway Harbor.
The Skelligs are two uninhabited islands off the Iveragh Peninsula in southwest County Kerry. Found about eight miles out to sea, the isolated location has an incredibly well preserved, early Christian monastery which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins are located on Great Skellig, also known as Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichíl in Irish). The smaller island, Little Skellig, is closed to the public, but it is possible to visit the monastery on Great Skellig by booking a boat tour from Portmagee between May and October. The monastery was built in the 6th century and eventually abandoned in the 12th century, however it has achieved more recent fame in the modern Star Wars movies which filmed the Skellig ruins for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
Considered the westernmost point of Europe, the Blasket Islands lie off the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. The islands are uninhabited, but they were once home to an Irish-speaking population. The last 22 residents were evacuated off the island by the Irish government in 1953 due to the harsh living conditions. Although no one lives there now, it is still possible to visit Great Blasket, the largest of the six islands, which are all visible from the mainland. The wild island makes a great day trip for hikes and beach walks, as well as bird and whale watching. Ferries leave from Dingle town or Dunquin Harbor during spring, summer, and autumn.
Garnish Island (or Ilnacullin)
Located in Glengarriff Harbor in Bantry Bay in County Cork, Garnish is a small, sheltered island that was once privately owned. Sometimes known by the name Ilnacullin, Garnish Island is famous for its beautiful landscaped gardens. The island was once owned by John Annan Bryce, a member of Parliament from Belfast. After buying Garish in 1910, the British politician worked with garden designer Harold Peto to create manicured Edwardian gardens on the Irish island paradise. Bryce’s son donated the manicured island to the Irish people in 1953. You can explore the extensive gardens by catching the ferry that leaves for Garnish Island from Glengarriff from March to October.
Achill is the largest island off the coast of Ireland and one of the easiest to visit because it is attached to the mainland by the Michael Davitt Bridge. The bridge connects the villages of Achill Sound and Polranny in County Mayo. Achill Island has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age (about 4,000 BC) and still has a population of around 2,700 people. One of the most popular attractions on the island is Carrickkildavnet Castle, a fortified tower house from the 15th century that was once owned by the power O’Malley family. In addition to villages and ruins, the island is known for its rugged natural beauty and have five Blue Flag beaches. The cliffs of Croaghaun on the western side of the island are some of highest in Europe, and Slievemore mountain offers sweeping views out to sea.
Rathlin Island is the only inhabited island off of Northern Ireland and happens to be the island that lies the furthest north as well. The L-shaped isle is just six miles long and one mile wide, which is more than enough space for the 150 residents who call Rathlin home. A ferry leaves from Ballycastle in County Antrim to take daytrippers six miles across the Straits of Moyle to explore the island. Rathlin is a popular spot for seabirds and one of the best places in Ireland to catch a glimpse of Puffin colonies between April and July.
Isle of Innisfree
Most of the best islands in Ireland are found in the sea, but the Isle of Innisfree is a small island on Lough Gill in County Sligo. The tiny island was immortalized by the writer WB Yeats, who waxed poetic about the isle in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” While it is not possible to actually walk along the uninhabited island, it is possible to take a boat tour of the waters and around the shores in order to imagine the solitary life that Yeats’ dreamed of when he wrote: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade." The tours leave from Parke's Castle.
Sherkin Island (also known by its Irish name Inis Arcain) can be found in Roaringwater Bay in County Cork. The southern island has become an artist colony of sorts and many of its residents create and sell everything from fine art to local handicrafts. The island is best seen on foot and one major destination is Franciscan Abbey near the pier which dates back to 1460. To explore the less populated areas, rent a bicycle during the summer months and set out for the Silver Strand beach. Sherkin Island can be reached in about 10 minutes via ferry from the fishing port of Baltimore in southwest Cork.
There are no carnival rides or hot dog stands on Ireland’s Coney Island in County Sligo, but arriving at the small offshore outpost is an adventure in itself. At low tide, the island is accessible by car or horseback when Cummeen Strand is exposed. However, when the tide is in you will have to pay for a water taxi from the pier at Rosses Point in order to make the crossing. Local legend says that a sea captain who used to sail between Sligo and America dubbed New York’s Coney Island after his hometown island because both were teeming with wild rabbits. There is still plenty of open space on Coney Island that is perfect for picnics, or you can stop for a pint at the island’s single pub before making your way back to Sligo ahead of the tide.
Sitting three miles off the coast of County Donegal, Arranmore is a popular sea destination in Ulster. The clear Atlantic waters around the island are ideal for fishing and diving, but Arranmore also has a lake for freshwater fishing as well. The island is located in a Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area) and of the 511 people living on Arranmore in 2011, more than half were native Irish speakers. During the summer, students flock to the island for intensive Irish language courses. Arranmore is most popular from June to August, but the ferry from Burtonport runs year-round. The journey is short but scenic, passing several smaller but uninhabited Irish islands before arriving in Arranmore.
Sitting off the shore of County Mayo in Clew Bay, Clare Island is the birthplace of Grace O’Malley, Ireland’s famous pirate queen. When not attacking ships at sea, Grace was home at Granuaile's Castle, a fortified tower house that can be visited today. The fearsome O’Malley clan ruled the area in Middle Ages and founded an Abbey on the island where their family tomb is also located. The other main sight on Clare island, which has a small full-time population, is the historic lighthouse that has been converted into a B&B. Ferries leave from Roonagh Pier near the town Louisburgh on Clew Bay.
Southwest of Clare Island, Inishturk lies nine miles out to sea off the coast of County Mayo. The first settlers probably arrived on this Atlantic island in 4,000 BC and a number of Beehive hut sites dating back to 1500 BC have been discovered. The island boasts beautiful cliff walks and a single community center that doubles as a pub and a library. Inishturk is also believed to have the smallest elementary school in Ireland where just three students enrolled in 2016. A daily ferry leaves from Roonagh Pier, and it is possible to hire private boats for fishing expeditions if you hope to spend more time on the water.