(I wrote this piece for the current issue of the Connemara Journal. I have not had much time to post on this blog since the kids got their summer holidays and I apologise in advance, as I expect this will continue until they return at the end of August.)
An unexpected painting commission provided my family and I with a very good reason to visit Clare Island this month. I am ashamed to say that I had never been to the island in the twenty odd years I have lived in this area although I have been told about it’s charms on many occasions. Suffice to say that we were not disappointed.
A little research told us to get to Roonagh pier just outside Louisburgh, where we had a choice of times and ferry operators to make the short crossing. This was the first surprise as the crossing is indeed short – just fiveteen minutes – a bonus for a feeble land lubber such as myself. The second delight was the harbour which is quite idyllic in it’s picturesque sweep of sand and pier. The water was a clear turquoise blue, right up to the pier wall and we were able to admire some large fish and jellyfish over the side of the boat before we disembarked. I don’t think I have ever seen such clean waters in a harbour.
The approach to Clare island harbour
I had made enquires about accommodation and there are several places to choose from. We chose O’Grady’s Guesthouse over looking the beach. We soon discovered that this was the old family homestead of the well known O’Grady family in Clifden, although the current building is completely new. A three minute walk brought us to the front door of Helen and Alan O’Grady’s beautiful stone clad home which conceals bright, spacious rooms worthy of any four star hotel. Helen greeted us warmly and told us about some of the ‘must see’ spots on the island. Our first port of call was the Sailors bar, not for refreshments ( we had those later ) but where we met with our very own Michael Gibbons who was conducting a archaeological tour of the island. This brought us along the coast, where we were entertained with stories of a lost Spanish ship that found itself on a stony shore and the slaughter and tyranny of a different time – quite difficult to imagine in such a tranquil setting. Michael then led us through an ancient wood, buried for thousands of years beneath the bog and now revealed as the knarled and blackened stumps of trees as old as time itself. We left the group about half way along to make a detour to ‘Anna’s Coffee shop’ in anticipation of her ‘famous chocolate cake’ which had been heartily recommended to us. We enjoyed a feast of home made salads and breads in Anna’s garden before retiring inside to enjoy a coffee and a generous slice of her truly delicious cake.
We continued the afternoon in holiday style with a swim at the harbour beach followed by fresh fish and chips at the Sailors bar.
The next day we made time to visit the Abbey, which is about a twenty minute walk from the harbour. This small rectangular building dates from the 12th century and has been beautifully restored and maintained. Inside, it boasts the best example of rare medieval roof paintings in Ireland. The delicate array of small paintings cover the alter ceiling and depict a variety of mythical, human and animal figures including dragons, stags, birds and trees. There was a professional restorer working on them when we went inside and she pointed out a large relief carving of the O’Malley family crest and the final resting place of the infamous Grace O’Malley which is set into the wall.
12th century Abbey at Clare Island
We left the island feeling revived and also very impressed with this small community of people who have so carefully and successfully managed their heritage, creating an oasis of tranquillity and hospitality that is hard to match.