For a small country, the island of Ireland has a large number of offshore islands, with about 80 of them of significant size, hundreds more dotted around the Irish coast and about 20 of them still inhabited.
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Achill Island off the County Mayo coast is the largest of the inhabited offshore islands.
Among the smallest of Ireland's offshore islands is Lettermullan in Co. Galway.
If you get the chance to visit some of the islands below, you’ll be guaranteed a warm welcome, some fantastic scenery, and the chance to experience history, heritage, and Ireland’s unique island culture.
Here are 6 of Ireland’s offshore islands that are worth exploring.
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Rathlin Island, County Antrim
Across the Sea of Moyle made famous by the well-known Irish legend, the Children of Lir is Rathlin Island.
This wild, rugged island located off the coast of County Antrim is the only inhabited island in Northern Ireland and contains an Iron Age fort, a number of standing stones, Robert the Bruce Castle, a tower house, a seal colony, and much more.
In addition, it is one of 43 Special Areas of Conservation in Northern Ireland, being home to tens of thousands of seabirds, including puffins, razorbills, and more.
What also makes a visit to this island memorable are its impressive cliffs, standing at 230 feet (70 meters) that provide a home to all of those seabirds.
From there, you can see the Inishowen peninsula in Co. Donegal to the west, as well as the Mull of Kintyre in mainland Scotland, which is about 11 miles away.
Population: 154 (approx.); Size: 6 square miles; Distance from Mainland: 6 miles (10 km); Nearest Big City: Belfast; Language Spoken: English
Main Attractions on Rathlin Island
Bruce's Cave – while four caves in Ireland and Scotland bear the name, “Bruce’s Cave,” this one is said to be the location where Robert the Bruce met the spider after being defeated at the Battle of Strathfillan.
The story goes that while waiting out the winter of 1306, Robert watched a spider on the cave wall trying to spin its web.
You can only get to this by boat and when the conditions are calm.
Rathlin West Light Seabird Center – witness a thriving seabird colony, including thousands of puffins at this popular attraction that is part of Rathlin’s unusual upside-down lighthouse.
Completed in 1919, the lighthouse lamp was placed at the bottom so that it could better penetrate the dense, low fog that frequently surrounds the island. Admission: £5 for adults, £2.50 for children.
Rathlin Castle – built in the 13th century by John de Courcy, it subsequently passed into the possession of several families in the area. In 1575, English forces attacked the castle, which led to the island’s greatest tragedy, the Rathlin Island Massacre. It sits on top of a cliff, with views of Kintyre and Islay in Scotland on the horizon.
Walking Trails – there are numerous walks you can take on the island. They include the 4-mile circular Roonivoolin Walk, the 1.9-mile circular Keeble Cliff Walk, the 2.1-mile circular Kinramer North Walk, the 1.9-mile circular Kinramer Trail, the 4-mile linear Rathlin Trail, and the 1.8-mile circular Ballyconaghan Trail. Find out more at Outdoor Recreation Northern Ireland.
Walking Tours – Get to know the island with Paul Quinn’s Rathlin Island Walking Tours.
Accommodation: You have quite a few options if you choose to stay overnight on Rathlin Island. Accommodation includes the Druim Apartments, (self-catering), Kinramer Cottage, the Manor House Guest Inn, the Rathlin Glamping Pods, the Rathlin Island Hostel, the Rathlin Venture Self-Catering Beach House, and the Soerneog View Hostel.
How to Get to Rathlin Island
A ferry service is available from Ballycastle in Co. Antrim that is offered by the Rathlin Island Ferry Ltd.
Tory Island, Co. Donegal
Located off the northwest coast of County Donegal, this island is the most remote of Ireland’s inhabited offshore islands and is known for its craggy cliffs, wind-beaten shores, rich folklore, as well as its traditional music and dance.
In the 6th century, a monastery was founded there by St. Colmcille. It dominated island life for several hundred years up until 1595 when it was plundered and destroyed by British troops in their war against local chieftains.
The monastery’s bell tower still remains.
Some other historical events that are associated with the island include the Siege of Tory Island in 1608, which involved a number of rebels from the island who took siege in the island’s castle, only to be defeated by the Crown's forces.
In October 1914, the British battleship, the HMS Audacious sank off the waters of Tory Island, a fact that was kept secret until 3 days after the end of WWI.
The sinking was witnessed and photographed, however, by passengers on the White Star ship, the RMS Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic.
Today, Tory Island is a haven for artists, photographers, and bird watchers.
What makes it even more unusual is the fact that it is the only place in Ireland to have an elected king, who acts as a community spokesperson, welcoming visitors to the island.
The last king of Tory, Patsy Dan Rodgers, died in 2018.
Population: 150 (approx.); Size: 1.38 square miles; Distance from Mainland: 9 miles (14 km); Nearest Big City: Derry/Londonderry; Language Spoken: Irish
Main Attractions on Tory Island
Balor’s Fort – a peninsula surrounded on three sides by 295-foot-high (90 meters) cliffs. This is the highest point on the island and is named after King Balor, a one-eyed giant who is said to have lived here in a tower, where he kept his daughter Eithne imprisoned. The fort, which today includes four massive banks and little else, dates back to at least 700 B.C.
The Big Key – a long, steep-sided spur that juts out from the east side of the peninsula. It ends in a crag that locals call “An Tór Mór,” or in English, “The Big Rock.”
The Round Tower – the only surviving structure to have survived from the monastery.
The Tau Cross – believed to date from the 12th century, is one of only two such crosses in Ireland. The other one is located in County Clare.
The Lighthouse – this stands at the west end of the island. It was built between 1828 and 1832. It wasn’t automated until 1990.
The Torpedo – this was washed ashore during World War II and was taken apart and put up at its present location between two island communities, An Baile Thiar and An Baile Thoir.
The Dixson Gallery – see the work of the island’s artists over the years, many of which have been exhibited in galleries throughout Ireland, Britain, and mainland Europe.
Walking Trails – the 14-meter (8 miles) looped Tory Way walk will take you from one end of the island to the other. A truly spectacular walk that includes the amazing Tor Mór, a blade of rock capped with pinnacles.
Island Tours: Want to do some fat bike touring of Tory Island? Check out Off the Beaten Path tour agency. Boat charters are also available from Slí Mara Thoraí Teo Boat Charters.
Tour guide Anton Meenan is an expert on the fauna and flora of the island.
Accommodation: The Tory Island Harbour View Hotel is a frequent haunt for O’Donnell and Iggy. When they want to stay overnight, they choose this hotel because it also caters to pets. The nearby pub, An Club Tory Island, is also dog-friendly.
How to Get to Tory Island
You can get to Tory Island year-round from Magheroarty on the “Queen of Aran” passenger boat, owned by the Arranmore Ferry. The journey takes about 45 minutes.
Download the Tory Ferry app to check on the ferry schedule.
Arranmore Island, Co. Donegal
In 2019, some of the islanders from Arranmore Island wrote open letters to residents in the United States and Australia asking them to move to their less crowded part of the planet.
The letters generated a lot of interest abroad and perhaps some readers took the call seriously and at least visited this beautiful island that is a mere three miles from the mainland and the town of Burtonport in Co. Donegal.
The clear waters surrounding Arranmore Island mean that it is an ideal place for outdoor activities such as diving, sea angling, sailing, and kayaking.
Sea anglers are also attracted to the area, given the waters’ rich source of brown and rainbow trout.
The island is the perfect place for walking and cycling. Both regular bikes and e-bikes are available. Rock climbing is also a popular activity on the island.
But really, if all you want to do is kick back and enjoy the solitude, Arranmore Island is the perfect place to do so, while taking in the magnificent views as well.
Population: 469 (approx.); Size: 8 square miles; Distance from Mainland: 3 miles (5 km); Nearest Big City/Town: Donegal Town; Language Spoken: Irish
Main Attractions on Arranmore Island
Arranmore Lighthouse – the first lighthouse to be built in Co. Donegal in 1798. Its light was first powered by electricity in the 1970s.
Eire Sign 75 – situated on a hill along the coast, the Eire 75 sign was created to show Ireland’s neutrality during World War II and as a navigational aid for allied planes flying overhead.
Walking Trails – the 14-km (8 miles) circular Sli Arann Mhor walking trail takes you around the island where you can enjoy the superb coastal scenery. There is also a spur walk to the lighthouse.
Tours – during the summer months, be sure to catch the Sea Safari and Marine Heritage Tours. Once you’re out on the open sea, you’ll have a bird's-eye view of the island’s sea cliffs and caves, its nearby sea stacks, and the Arranmore Lighthouse. Diving expeditions are also available, as well as seal watching trips and deep-sea angling excursions.
Accommodation: there are several places to stay on Arranmore Island. They include Teac Jack, Arranmore Lighthouse accommodation, The Glen Hotel, Claire’s B&B, Brú Árainn Mhor, Early’s Bed and Breakfast, Muldowney’s B&B, and the Arranmore Hostel, also dog friendly and frequented as well by Iggy and O'Donnell.
How to Get to Arranmore Island
The Arranmore Ferry car and passenger service depart from Burtonport. The ferry takes about 20 minutes.
Coney Island, Co. Sligo
This 400-acre island can be accessed by boat from Rosses Point or by foot or car over a 5-km (3 miles) stretch of Cummeen Strand guided by 14 pillars at low tide.
The pillars were constructed in the mid-1800s to line up with the Black Rock Lighthouse and as an aid for boats as they traveled across the bay at night.
Coney Island got its name from the many rabbits that inhabit it. Its name in Gaelic means “Island of Rabbits.”
During the 1800s, the merchant ship “Arethusa” sailed regularly between Sligo and New York City. The captain of the ship, as he passed the island, noted the number of rabbits on Coney Island and then apparently gave New York’s Coney Island its now familiar name.
If you choose to visit Coney Island on foot, be sure to check the tide times. A texting service is available during the summer months by texting the word Coney to 53600 (if you have an Irish phone) or 81400 for NI/UK mobile phones.
In an emergency, dial 999 or 112 and ask for the coast guard service.
Population: 1 family permanently living there; Size: 400 acres; Distance from Mainland: 1 mile (1.7 km); Nearest Big City/Town: Sligo Town; Language Spoken: English
Main Attractions on Coney Island
Old stone walls, empty beaches, and the only pub on the island, McGowans Public House, which is open Thursday through Sunday during the summer.
There is no food available on the island, so be sure to pack snacks or a picnic.
How to Get to Coney Island
If not walking or transporting your car across, take the boat from Rosses Point courtesy of Sligo Boat Charters.
Inishturk Island, Co. Mayo
While Clare Island and Achill Island are both familiar places along the Mayo coast, Inisturk Island doesn’t always come to mind.
This small island, located between Clare Island and Inishboffin Island, has been inhabited since 4,000 BC, with more permanent residents living there since the 1700s.
The island is known for its majestic cliffs, with particularly great views from the island's Dromore Head of the Buachaill Mor and Buchaill Beag sea stacks.
Inishturk Island from TF Media on Vimeo.
If you are a bird-watching enthusiast, you’ll be thrilled by the number of bird sanctuaries along the cliffs.
The island is also the home of some rare plants, including the Spotted Rock-Rose.
Population: 51 (approx.); Size: 2.3 square miles; Distance from Mainland: 9 miles (15 km); Nearest Big City/Town: Westport; Language Spoken: English
Read More: County Mayo Author Recalls Granduncle’s Pioneering American Journey
Main Attractions on Inishturk Island
Signal Tower – built between 1805 and 1806 during the Napoleonic wars. This was number 57 out of 82 such towers built all across Ireland by the British to defend the island from an invading French force. The tower is on the highest point on the island, with views of Achill and Connemara from there.
The Sea Cliffs – with views of two stacks.
Beaches – there are two beautiful beaches to explore, protected by coves and offering views across to the Mayo mainland and the mountains of Connemara.
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Portadoon – this is the only natural lagoon on any of Ireland’s offshore islands. Overlooking it are the remains of a 9th-century dun or fort. It was apparently used by Norsemen during raids of the island in their search for gold. This is an excellent spot for swimming and pier jumping at high tide.
Walking Trails – there are two looped walks on Inishturk Island. They include the 5-km (3 miles) Lough Coolaknick Loop, which will take you about 1 to 1.5 hours, and the 8-km Mountain Common Loop along the island’s cliffs, which will take approximately 2 to 2.5-hours.
Tours – experience the pristine waters off the coast of Inishturk Island and catch some fish while you’re at it, thanks to a private sea angling tour.
Accommodation: If you’re looking to stay the night in this glorious place, here are the places you should consider: Ocean View House, Tránaun House, and the Radharc na Réalta, and Inis Toirc glamping sites.
How to Get to Inishturk Island
You can catch the ferry at Roonagh Pier in Louisburgh that will bring you to the island. O’Malley Ferries offers daily service to Inishturk.
Clare Island, Co. Mayo
For centuries Clare Island off the County Mayo coast has been known as a former stronghold of the O’Malley clan, the powerful seafaring family that ruled much of County Mayo. Through the Middle Ages, Clare Island was part of their landholdings.
The most famous member of the O’Malley family is undoubtedly Grace, otherwise known as Grainne Uaille or Granuaile.
The O’Malley tower house, also called Granuaile’s Castle, is located close to the pier in a strategically important location that enabled the pirate queen to control the waters of Clew Bay and the surrounding seas off the Mayo coast.
The island, which has been immortalized by the Irish band The Saw Doctors in their song, “The Green and Red of Mayo,” boasts the most dramatic cliffs in Europe and are home to large numbers of nesting seabirds.
Its flora and fauna have been studied in depth since the early 1900s, so if you’re a nature lover, this is the place to spend some time.
Population: 150 (approx.); Size: 6 square miles; Distance from Mainland: 3.5 miles (5.6 km); Nearest Big City/Town: Westport; Language Spoken: English
Main Attractions on Clare Island
Clare Island Castle – the 16th-century tower house once the home of Grace O’Malley. The castle was converted into a police barracks in the mid-1800s. Today it is a National Monument.
Clare Island Abbey – built in the 12th century, this Cistercian Abbey is reputedly the place where O’Malley is buried. What makes this abbey unique from many others like it in Ireland is the fact that medieval wall paintings still survive on its walls.
The paintings depict mythical, human, and animal figures. It is thought that they were commissioned by the O’Malley chieftains. Flash photography and touching the walls are not allowed.
Archaeological Remains – before the O’Malley’s came to Clare Island, there was a population of people long before them who lived off the land. A large number of Bronze Age mounds revealed the presence of farming tools such as stones and troughs.
The remains of a Megalithic tomb are also located on the island, dating from about 3,000 to 4,000 B.C. A guide to the island’s archaeological sites is available at the Clare Island Heritage Centre.
Clare Island Lighthouse – this is the only two-towered lighthouse in Ireland. It was built in 1806 by the Marquis of Sligo. It was decommissioned in 1965. It now serves as luxury accommodation.
The Napoleonic Tower – constructed in 1804, this tower is similar to the other watchtowers along Ireland's coastline. After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, most of the towers, including this one, were abandoned.
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Walking Trails – there are two looped walks that you can take on Clare Island. They include the 3-km (1.86 miles) Fawnglass Loop, which takes about 1 to 1.5 hours, and the Knocknaveena Loop, also 3 kilometers, which takes about the same amount of time. This is slightly more difficult than the other trail.
Tours – there are several tours and activities to keep you occupied while on the island. They range from angling trips, yoga sessions, as well as a number of outdoor challenges and adventure activities from Clare Island Adventures.
Accommodation: There is plenty of choice on Clare Island that will suit the budget of pretty everyone. Accommodation includes the Clare Island campsite, the Clare Island Lighthouse, Go Explore Hostel, Granuaile House, Macalla Farm, Sea Breeze B&B, McCabes Self-Catering, O’Malley’s Cottage, Red John’s, The Quay Apartment, Dick’s House, The Apartment, The Lodge, Trish’s Holiday Cottage, Cois Abhainn B&B, and Cloch na Scíth B&B.
How to Get to Clare Island
You can get to Clare Island on O'Malley's Ferries from Roonagh Pier in Louisburgh.
Have you visited any of the 6 of Ireland's offshore islands mentioned above? If so, let me know in the comments below.
Thanks to James O'Donnell Photography for allowing Ireland on a Budget to share his photos and providing valuable resources for this post. For additional resources on traveling to Ireland's offshore islands, be sure to contact him by visiting his website or following him on Facebook and Instagram.