A visit to Clare Island is one of the more unique things to do in Mayo.
Immortalised in song by the Saw Doctors and in the Michael Morpurgo book, The Ghost of Grania O’Malley, Clare Island is one of Mayo’s true hidden gems.
There is plenty to see and do on the island and while many people enjoy a visit on a day trip, we recommend a few nights’ stay to take advantage of all that peace, quiet and scenery.
In the guide below, you’ll discover everything from things to do to places to eat, sleep and drink (plus the ferry info, of course!).
Some quick need-to-knows about Clare Island in Mayo
A visit to Clare Island isn’t as straightforward as some of the other Mayo attractions, but it’s well worth the trip over from Roonagh Pier. Here are some need-to-knows.
The island can be found three miles off the west Mayo coastline and it’s accessed via the Clare Island Ferry.
2. Getting to the island
To travel to the island, take the Clare Island Ferry from Roonagh Quay (west of Louisburgh) to the island. The journey takes 15 – 20 minutes and allows you to take in the area’s gorgeous scenery – Achill Island, Croagh Patrick and the Nephin mountain range.
3. A very ‘hidden’ gem
Clare Island is a bit off the beaten path, which means that it doesn’t attract hoards of visitors, like some of Mayo’s other attractions. This just adds to the splendor of the island, as you’ll often feel like you have the whole place to yourself as you explore it on foot.
About Clare Island in Mayo
Clare Island (known as Oileán Chliara in Irish) is a mountainous island that guards the entry to Clew Bay and is well-known for being the home of the 16th century pirate queen Gráinne O’Malley.
Clare Island was part of the O’Malley family’s lands and the remains of an old watch tower can be found close to the pier on the island’s east side. The abbey was founded by the family and may be the site of Grace O’Malley’s tomb.
In the late 16th century, a ship from the Spanish Armada was wrecked on the islands, its soldiers and sailors killed by the O’Malleys. A lighthouse was established on the island in 1806, later taken out of service in 1965.
The Saw Doctors’ track Clare Island from the Same Oul’ Town album refers to the peaceful nature of the island, and it was also the setting for the 1987 Bob Quinn’s film Budawanny. He also shot a documentary there (The Island) in 1966.
Where you get the Clare Island Ferry from
So, as you’ll have probably guessed at this stage, you need to take the Clare Island Ferry to get across to the island. Don’t let this put you off, as it’s nice and straightforward.
How long it takes
The Clare Island Ferry leaves from Roonagh Quay (west of the town of Louisburgh) and is a mere ten-minute journey.
How much it costs
Adults are charged €17 return, 13-18-year-olds and students €12 and children aged 5-12, €8. Under fives and OAPs with an Irish travel pass/NI smart travel card travel for free. There is a 10 percent discount if you book online (prices may change).
When it leaves
There are different timetables for summer/winter. During the busy months of May to September, there are five ferry journeys a day Monday to Friday, and four on a Saturday and Sunday. Journeys start at 8.30am through to 11am, depending on the day of the week (times may change).
Things to do on Clare Island
There’s plenty of things to do on Clare Island that make it well worth a day trip and, as you’ll see when you get down to the pubs section, well worth a stop-over.
Below, you’ll find everything from walks and the Clare Island Lighthouse to a very unique heritage tour and more.
1. Bask in beauty
The island is small and tends to be quiet. A visit here is like stepping back in time to days when traffic and the urban sprawl was not as commonplace as it is now. Revel in the scenery and the sound of the ocean.
2. Try one of the looped walks
Clare Island has a varied terrain, which makes it terrific for walking. There are some spectacular cliffs where you will see large numbers of nestling seabirds, and there are hills, bogs and woodland to explore.
The walks take in all aspects of the island’s rich history – from the archaeological remains of prehistoric times to the medieval paintings that can be seen in the abbey. Old potato ridges that can be seen clearly when the sun sets mark the lives of the former population, as Clare Island was once home to 1,600 people.
3. Soak up some history at the Abbey
The medieval church on Clare Island dates to the 12th century, although it was rebuilt around the mid-15th, and is unique because of how many of its original wall paintings survived to this day.
A visit here provides the opportunity to see what a 12th century medieval church would have looked like from the inside during its heyday. The abbey went through major conservation works in the 1990s, leading to the discovery of more images.
4. Give the Heritage Tour and whiskey tasting a bash
The heritage tour and whiskey tasting is a great way to find out more about the island’s history. Clare Island Sea Aged Whiskey is the first whiskey worldwide to be matured at sea – for three years and a day, no less.
The tour starts at the pier and explores Grace O’Malley’s castle, the 5000-year-old landscape and the Great Famine. You will hear the story of Clare Island Whiskey, and sample three of Ireland’s whiskeys that also use an alternative maturation process.
If you’re looking for things to do on Clare Island with a group of friends, you can’t go wrong with this very unique tour.
5. Ramble along the Archaeological Trail
Before the O’Malleys established their claim to the island, prehistoric populations made it their home, as is shown by the 53 Bronze Age mounds on Clare Island.
Radiocarbon dating techniques have aged two of them to 2000 BCE, and two to about 1000 BCE, indicating a continuous population for centuries. The Archaeological Trail explores these ancient monuments.
6. Step back in time at Granuaile’s Castle
The Ó Máille (O’Malley), Kings of Umaill built Granuaile’s Castle in the 16th century and it became a stronghold for the pirate queen, Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley), as it gave her dominion over the waters of Clew Bay and the seas off the west coast of Mayo.
The structure, which is one of the more unique castles in Ireland history-wise, was converted to a police barracks in the 1820s and was taken over by the coastguard in 1831.
7. And then soak up some more at the Napoleonic Signal Tower
As you might guess from its name the signal tower was built in 1804 to counter the threat from Napoleon’s forces and is part of a network of towers along the Irish coast. It fell out of use after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
8. Hit the water with Clare Island Adventures
Outdoor enthusiasts rejoice! Adventure West offers the Clare Island Adventure for all those who want to embrace kayaking, raft building, a beach challenge, orienteering or hillwalking.
You can also rock climb or abseil. Why not try snorkeling to get a glimpse of the rich marine life that has made the waters surrounding Clare Island their home?
9. Or keep your feet dry and take a saunter along the sand
Clare Island beach is a rural, sandy beach – a lovely place for a stroll, picnic and a paddle. The beach surrounds the main harbour on the east side of the island and is safe to swim in.
10. Grab some fine views from the lighthouse
The Clare Island lighthouse is at the entrance to Clew Bay and offers incredible sea views. The lighthouse is used for private accommodation these days, but a walk to it rewards the eager tourist.
Clare Island accommodation
There’s a decent bit of Clare Island accommodation on offer, from camping and B&Bs to the Clare Island hostel and much more.
Clare Island Lighthouse
Seeing as the lighthouse offers such amazing views, why not stay there? The listed Clare Island Lighthouse has a clean, minimalist interior look and offers the weary traveller a sanctuary from the outside world. You can stay there from Wednesdays to Sundays.
The Go Explore Hostel is located in the House of the O’Donnels, the landlords of the Clew Bay area in the mid-1800s and it sits on top of a small cliff. It has all the modern facilities you would expect of a hostel and there’s an in-house traditional bar.
B&Bs and guesthouses
There are plenty of B&Bs and guesthouses on Clare Island, including the Sea Breeze B&B, and O’Grady’s Guest Accommodation. Expect a warm welcome and a hearty breakfast.
Clare Island campsite is close to the pier and has showers, a drinking water tap and toilets available, and it costs €10 per tent. Enjoy a stay on the island that gets you as close to nature as possible.
Clare Island pubs and places to eat
There’s a handful of places to eat and pubs on Clare Island and, as you can see from the snap above, they look a little bit deadly!
1. Sailor’s Bar & Restaurant
This place is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner options include Sailor’s fish and chips, made using locally caught fresh white fish deep-fried in beer batter, a gourmet beef burger topped with crispy bacon and cheese, and a roast aubergine korma served with rice for vegetarians/vegans.
2. Macalla Farm
This a small, family run yoga and meditation retreat centre and working organic farm. It offers seasonal vegetarian cooking courses and mindful eating retreats. Most of the dishes they make come from ingredients that are locally grown and they specialise in sour dough bread making, which you can learn to do yourself on one of the courses.
3. Clare Island Community Centre
You can also grab a bite to eat and a pint at Clare Island Community Centre. This is a community owned property and all of the profits that are made here go back into the Clare Island community. Now, although we’re struggling to find much info on this place, the Google reviews (4.6/5 from 77 reviews) rave about the chowder, the chips, the coffee and the staff.
FAQs about visiting Clare Island in Mayo
We’ve had a lot of questions over the years asking about everything from how to get to Clare Island to what are the best things to do on Clare Island.
In the section below, we’ve popped in the most FAQs that we’ve received. If you have a question that we haven’t tackled, ask away in the comments section below.
Is Clare Island worth visiting?
Yes. If you like incredible scenery, exploring on food, gorgeous sea food and a unique experience, you’ll love this place.
How long does the Clare Island Ferry take?
It’s takes the Clare Island Ferry just 10 minutes to get from the mainland to the island.
Are there many things to do on Clare Island?
Yes, you can step back in time at Granuaile’s Castle, ramble along the Archaeological Trail, give the Heritage Tour and whiskey tasting a bash, soak up some history at the Abbey, try one of the looped walks and much more.
Emma Baird is a lifestyle editor and novelist. She has worked in the communications industry for more than 25 years, and loves animals, the countryside and lingering in a great pub for the food and the craic.