My favourite place: Inishbofin, Ireland

Continuing our historical holidays series, John explores a Gaelic gem

Inishbofin, Ireland

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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You cannot get anywhere more remote in the British Isles than Inishbofin, ‘island of the white heiffer’, a 40-minute ferry ride from Cleggan, the westernmost tip of Connemara.

I first went there on my honeymoon in 1968 when there was only one boat a week (the Guinness boat, no explanation needed); when there was just one small hotel (seven rooms, one fewer than the number of beaches!); and the sun shone for seven days consecutively (impossible, I am told, but clear in the memory). Now there are three ferries a day, sailing in all weathers. I visit most years now but prudently stay in a welcoming pub-restaurant in Cleggan, on the mainland, so as to be able to diversify on wet days.

The town is a 70-mile journey by road from Galway, and I always stop off en route at Aughnanure Castle in Oughterard, just off the only road through the wilderness.

The castle was built in the 16th century as a stronghold of the brutal O’Flaherty clan. Few Englishmen ventured into Connemara before the 17th century and lived to tell the tale. The Tower House has six well-preserved storeys, with the remains of a banqueting hall, a watch tower, bastions and a dry harbour. It also has an impressive and unusual double bawn – defensive walls, from the Irish word bábhún, meaning ‘cattle-stronghold’.

Aughnanure stands on what is virtually a rocky island close to the shores of Lough Corrib. On the way back, I often take a detour to Cong Abbey, one of the finest monastic remains in the west of Ireland, a monastery with a continuous history from the seventh century.

But my pilgrimage is to Inishbofin itself, an island around 3.5 x 2.5 miles, with a rugged west side facing the Atlantic, and a sheltered east and north. Sitting on a beach of white sand with crystal-clear sea and the backdrop of the Connemara Mountains (the Twelve Bens), my son-in-law said it was just like Antigua. I replied rather ruefully that for 250 days a year one could not see the mountains for the rain and the low clouds over Inishbofin. But when it isn’t raining, the island is indeed as beautiful as anywhere in the West Indies.

Inishbofin is a rich archaeological site (including a dramatic Iron Age fort), but for me there are two impossibly romantic ruins that have to be seen.

Guarding Inishbofin is Cromwell’s Barracks, a glowering presence on the harbour promontory. In the 16th century, Grace O’Malley (or Granuaile), the only female leader of a Gaelic sept (clan) in early modern Ireland, employed the castle as her base. She was a fearless leader of men in battle – especially as a pirate, with enough galleys for a prudent London government to buy her off.

The pirate stronghold then took on an even darker role. Inishbofin was the last place in the whole of Ireland to surrender to Cromwell’s armies, and Granuaile’s castle became a prison for dozens of priests prior to their deportation to Barbados. As its name suggests, this landmark plays an evocative part in the dark legend of Cromwell and Ireland.

If you turn right from the jetty and up a long hill, you drop down into a sheltered valley and there is the ruin of a 13th-century monastery on the site of an earlier one founded by St Colman in 665. Colman was an Irish monk from Iona who became bishop-abbot of Lindisfarne in Northumbria. England was being Christianised from the north by those in the ‘Irish’ tradition, and from the south by those in the ‘Roman’ tradition. Which would prevail? Representatives of both traditions met in Whitby in 663, the two major issues up for resolution being how to calculate the date of Easter and how monks were to be tonsured (which part of their scalp should be shaved). Colman led for the ‘Irish’; Wilfrid for the ‘Romans’.

The debates are fully and dramatically described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History, written in the 730s. King Oswy came down on the side of Wilfrid and of Rome – and so a humiliated Colman went (literally) to the edge of the known world, to Inishbofin, and built his monastery.

Inishbofin has something for everyone; and on wet days there is plenty to do on the mainland – although the Guinness never runs out on the island!

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John Morrill is professor of British and Irish History at the University of CambridgeRead more about John’s experiences on Inishbofin at historyextra.com/inishbofin