I was hoping for rain, and given it was the West of Ireland in mid-October, the odds were pretty much in my favour. This was my second trip to Clare Island, which is located not, as many believe, off the Co. Clare coast, but a twenty minute ferry ride from the County Mayo coast. My first visit was last year on a perfect summer’s day. My reasons for coming back were many, but strongly influenced by two people – The pirate and the weaver. Sounds like the title of an Irish short story, rather than a travel journal, but such is the magic of this island.
Memories of last year’s visit still bring a smile to my face, like memories of a distant holiday romance. I fell in love with the soft undulating landscape, with hikes that are even accessible to those who aren’t born wearing Gore-Tex. If you don’t stop too much you can walk around the island in five hours, but it seemed rude not to stop, so I didn’t quite get round it all. I fell in love with the people I had the chance to meet. First, the owners of the two ferry companies, who compete rather comically for your business. It is refreshing to watch how they manage to overlook modern concepts of supply and demand and insist on sailing at exactly the same times, almost racing across to provide the ‘better’ service. (I chose the Pirate Queen assured by my five year old son that a pirate would always get us there safely). Then there was the jovial ‘blow-in’ County Council Development Officer for the Island, who regaled me with plans to open a multinational IT centre on the Island, but that fell through, so maybe an airstrip, oh and by the way, had I considered visiting for the next Clare Island Singles Weekend, the big annual event organised by himself. He mustn’t have realised that the little boy shouting “Ahoy there, me hearties, and a bottle of grog” was my own little pirate.
The Pirate Queen did indeed bring us safely to shore, and what awaited us was a tiny sandy cove, with a curragh upturned on the beach, and a couple of fishing boats in the harbour. As the other travellers from the boats left the harbour, either to their homes with their weekly shopping from the mainland, or on a hike around the island, my pirate and I sat down to have our picnic on the white sand. We had the beach to ourselves, and the harbour workers had even stopped for lunch. While sand castles and fortresses were built around me, I had time to take in the absolute beauty of this place. White cottages, old and modern, dotted the brown and green hilly landscape. The main road from the harbour forked in two directions, one around the island and the other more or less across it. They begged us to explore further, and protected by my pirate, we hired two bikes and set off on the road following the coast to the lighthouse on the north side of the Island.
We cycled for about two hours in all, up and down hills, but nothing too strenuous, at least not that I was going to admit to someone 30 years my junior. There are only 150 inhabitants on the island and there aren’t many cars about. But a city gal never tires of watching her son cycling freely down country roads, stopping to stroke donkeys, to run up a hill to make a pirate fortress out of a pile of huge stones he found at the top, or to simply watch two horses happily lick the hair off each others backs. I couldn’t quite explain that rather charming ritual. Maybe they were getting ready for the Singles’ weekend.
We stopped en route to the lighthouse at the Ballytoughey Loom, run by an American woman who has lived on the Island for 30 years. She married a local farmer, they have three teenage boys, now the fifth generation to live in their cottage, and she has taught herself the traditional craft of weaving. When you enter the modest workshop and shop you are hit by array of colours delicately woven into handmade rugs, shawls, scarves and one off designer clothing. When he spied the many coloured yarns on display my pirate thought he had found his treasure chest at last. I had to cut my visit short as we were to catch the last boat back at five. The Weaver told me she missed the boat thirty years ago and was still here. The picture of healthy living and smiling from ear to ear, it didn’t look as if she had too many regrets about that one, and taking a last look at her view over Clew Bay back to the mainland, I can see why. Telling her I had instantly fallen in love with this little bit of paradise, she wisely said, “Come back in winter, and see if you still feel the same way. If you do, you are hooked!” Rushing back to jump on his boat, my pirate was upset we never made it to the lighthouse, and I assured him we would come back next year and my mind was made up.
Admittedly I missed the depths of winter, but October was as near as dammit as far as I was concerned. But against all odds the skies are blue and hardly a breeze to bring us into the (still being constructed) harbour. It all looks exactly the same, and the curragh is still upturned but in a slightly different spot. We remove our winter layers and yes, Gore-Tex, and sit on the beach to enjoy what feels like a traditional picnic. The bike hire place is open, with a sign saying to help ourselves and the owner would be back later. So, we head straight for the lighthouse this time vow to stop of at the weaver’s on the way back. My pirate has moved on to a cycling superhero stage, so I had to work hard to keep up. At last, the huge lighthouse spread out before us, a white magnificent piece of architecture, with two cottages attached to it. It is no longer in use, and is privately owned as a holiday home, but it is still worth the trip up there. Looking out to sea feels like you might be on the edge of the world. Feeling rather nervous about the pirate’s plans to absail down the cliff, I direct him back to the bikes and down the hill to the weaver. She is there, remembers us, serves us tea and home made bread, while her youngest son plays superheros in the field with my happy little city boy. But somehow the city feels reassuringly far away for now.
It is impossible to avoid the cliché when describing Clare Island. It is green, hilly, it has sheep, cottages, bogs, beach, fishermen, the people are friendly and hospitable, and it’s hard to leave. Thank goodness this cliché still exists in authentic form and has not just been preserved to keep the tourists happy. Tourism is obviously very important to the island, but let’s hope Mr. Development can help avoid some of the commercial trappings that other tourist destinations have fallen for when marketing themselves. Let the visitor enjoy this Irish cliché for what it is – a rare piece of untouched Ireland. Meanwhile, I am still in love, and I shall keep trying for winter. Honest.
Copyright © 2005 Catherine Mack