RTÉ Travel's Deirdre Mullins explores the island of Inishbofin.
The eight kilometre ferry ride from Cleggan, in north Connemara to Inishbofin Island was rough. I was travelling with friends who were seasoned visitors to Bofin, as it’s known. They joked about their nickname for the ferry calling it ‘the Bofin coffin’ as you’d be dead leaving the island because of its lively nightlife.
Despite the ferry bouncing nauseatingly on the waves their excitement about returning to the island was clear. They repeatedly used adjectives such as ‘brilliant’ and ‘amazing’. One friend said: “It’s hard to explain but there is something magical about the place.”
The ferry journey over is an event in itself. There is a nice mix of locals returning home with bag loads of shopping and cargo. The snap happy tourists were easily identifiable. After about a half an hour we approached the port with the ruins of Cromwell‘s Barracks perched on the cliff. His fort dates back to 1656 when it was a symbol of defence, now it welcomes you to the island and invites you to explore.
Leaving the mainland and my car behind me, I had a sense of being far away.
Bofin as has just one main road with few cars. The island is 5km long and 3km wide, small enough to walk or cycle around. There are three looped walking treks which take in stunning views of the Atlantic coast, the island‘s white sandy beaches and its many archaeological sites.
If you want to explore the island the newly opened equestrian centre takes groups out on one or two hour hacks. The owner Mary Ward told us of the island’s history as she guided us around the lake, fields and hills of the Westquarter and the ruins of the Iron Age promontory fort.
The absence of large scale farming has meant that the island is a haven for many species of wildflowers and birds. As I trotted through the meadows I kept an eye out for corncrakes. These birds are rare in much of Ireland but Bofin’s long grass is perfect for them to nest and bring up their young. Further out west the rock formation has made blowholes which spray Atlantic water in rough weather.
Mary led us on our Connemara ponies up a hill of 89 meters, the highest point on the island. The breathtaking panoramic view takes in Clare Island and Achill Island and on the mainland Croagh Patrick and the Twelve Bens standing proudly. The neighbouring island of Inishark with its abandoned houses was a poignant reminder of how tough island life can be. It was inhabited up until 1960 before its aging population resettled to the mainland.
John McCabe of Island West offers boat and harbour dives in what is claimed to be some of the clearest waters in Ireland. The diving is known for having great visibility with a varied marine life. There are kelp gardens with the plants growing up to twenty meters and spectacular walls and pinnacles. As the harbour is sheltered it’s a great place to learn. There I saw plenty of crabs, pollack and plaice. For me the highlight of the experience was post dive hot whiskey in John’s mother's home cum dive centre. The house was originally the island post office and still has two doors (one for the shop and one for the home) and the original sign hanging on the wall.
There are three hotels on the island one of which the Doonmore is owned and managed by the Murray family for three generations. They built the hotel in 1969 and Andrew Murray and his sister currently run it. Accommodation is in a newly built extension out the back and there are a number of rooms in the original building. The decor in the latter hasn't been modernised much which adds to its charm. Doonmore has a warm and homely feel to it and many of its clientele are return visitors who have been coming for generations.
Music is a big part of the stay in Doomore which seems fitting as Andrew formerly sang with the folk group Dé Danann. The bar in the hotel has trad music six nights a week and the sessions usually get going around 10pm and continue until the wee hours. They have a regular group of musicians as well as visiting groups. Some of the local musician casually arrived late in the night after the session has wrapped up in one of the islands two other pubs. These gatherings were open for everyone to participate in and teenagers and adults alike joined in for a song.
The cliché of the Irish pub’s ‘ceol agus craic’ exists for real on Bofin. The locals are genuinely warm and enjoy mixing with tourists. The day after our first night out on the ‘pub crawl’ we felt like we’d being there for months. The island’s roads became social places as everyone seemed to want to stop for a chat.
All of the locals I spoke to were proud of their island and I was asked many times if I was enjoying my stay. They questioned me confidently and were fully sure that my answer would be a positive one.
I left Inishbofin wanting to extend my stay. Before hopping on the ‘Bofin coffin’ I tried to book a return visit to Doonmore House on the pier-side. I’m sure it’s not the first time Andrew has seen visitors reluctant to depart. He laughed at my whinging and simply told me ‘you’ve being Bofinned’.
For information on taking your own exciting adventure break on one of Ireland’s islands visit www.discoverireland.ie/Ireland-s-Islands