Ireland’s Best Kept Secret: Inishbofin Island
By Kathy Chin Leong

Don’t get into a bar brawl, for there are no police to protect you. And don’t get sick, because no doctor is on call, or on the island for that matter. Don’t wander in the dark because no street lights exist to illlumine your path. Don’t whine about town politics because there are none.

Welcome to Inishbofin (pronounced In-ish-boff-in) Island, Ireland’s best kept secret which proves that less is more. Although you won’t get your Starbuck’s fix on the hilly, green island of the white cow, yes that’s what it means, but you will get a sense of unspoiled and unpretentious Irish rural living.

Inishbofin, for starters, is a harbor island that’s only four-miles across, nestled among a trio of two other uninhabited islands off the west coast of Ireland near Galway. A 15 to 20-minute ferry ride from Cleggan costs just 15 Euro for a round trip.You know you are close to the island for a massive stone fortress greets you as you near the harbor. This a stronghold known as Cromwell’s Barracks built in the 16 th century was used for artillery as well as barracks housing Catholic priests and dissidents. 

The boggy island of Inishbofin is still a relatively new destination for the locals who will slip away for a weekend or a week of relaxation. Barely 200 people live here, and 20 of them are children who attend a small school with two teachers. After fifth grade, they leave the island and go to boarding school for the remainder of their educational years.

Yes, there is electricity, hot and cold running water, working bathrooms, a couple of restaurants, three bars, two hotels, and a handful of bed and breakfast inns.

HISTORICAL APPEAL

What is there to do? Well, that’s its main appeal. Because of its lack of commercialism, visitors are left to their own imaginations. Inishbofin doesn’t exist to entertain. It exists to care and feed its own inhabitants.

And because it has a small harbor, centuries ago ships would often get lost and shipwrecked here. The low-key island has experienced a checkered and colorful past filled with clan skirmishes between the O’Haras and the O’Malleys and Irish pirates who would only help a sinking ship if it’s sailors paid a handsome fee. Up until the nineteenth century, it had it own king. And today, it has no mayor, but operates under the jurisdiction of County Galway.

The Day’s Inn was recently refurbished, and is over 50-years-old. It is the most modern building on the island, with Internet access, simple Scandanavian-style furnishings of light woods and white linens on the beds, and eco-friendly construction, a bar, restaurant and spa. Hotel room lights and heating come on when the visitor inserts a card key in a slot near the door.

To know and understand Inishbofin is to fall in love with a town with no airs. Small dented cars are mired in mud, and the paint jobs are pock-marked by the salt air. Hugh O’Donnell is the island’s one and only tour guide, but don’t ask him for a business card. “I’m not that modern yet,” jokes the tall, lanky resident. His white van is his business limo that can only seat four others comfortably, and other folks in a group have to cram in the back on the floor next to his fishing tackle and thick ropes.


The one-room museum and gift shop is open one hour in the morning, and two hours in the afternoon if you are lucky. Inside there are photos of the old Inishbofin, fishing paraphernalia, current scenic shots mounted on card stock for sale, kid-made trinkets that look as though they were made during art class at school. The one and only church on the island is St. Colman, and on the exterior, the grounds shows off a memorial of names dedicated to those who lost their lives at sea.With no priest on Inishbofin, one is ferried across to parishioners on Sundays and for weddings, funerals, and baptisms.

In the early morning hours on this June day, the town is cloaked beneath a sheet of fog so dense you cannot even see the brightly painted boats in the harbor a few hundred yards away. The dirt trail leads out from the hotel, but offers a splintered path with a road that spirals up to higher elevations. A walk around the still premises of the town reveals a world of life that exists apart from mankind. Perfectly plump red roosters strut about with healthy crowns looking as though they have stepped out of a folkart painting. A palm-sized brown-and-white bellied bird with dark toothpick legs is perched on an ancient stone wall. It sings its warbled song before fleeing. Horses graze in front of an abandoned stone house several hundred years old.
Newer houses are made of stucco; older ones of layered, multi-colored stone with thatched roofs. Laundry lines are draped with children’s clothing, flapping in the wind. A de-commissioned lime green sailboat, minus the sail, rests from its nautical journeys on a resident’s front yard.


HIKING THE WEST

If you are lucky enough to hire Michael Gibbons, an archeologist and college lecturer, ask him to take you on a hike through the western region of Inishbofin where you’ll be treated to several flavors of terrain. This grassy acreage has no name, no real entrance, no marked trails.Getting lost or getting killed is not out of the question. You must have a guide.

For starters, the area is made of bogs-a black swampy material made of dirt, grass, and peat.The spongy area soaks up water. Terrain that is bog dangerous on this hike are surfaces that are bright green. This represents a very wet bog. People not careful are known to have drowned in a bog in a quicksand-like fashion.And because sinking is so dangerous, the locals are warned not to rescue someone drowning in a bog.


Gibbons takes a pack of ten journalists out to the bogs. We learn about bog cutting, the farmer’s art of slicing the mud into bricks for fuel and whatnot. And as we walk gingerly on the bogs, channels of water slice the ground, and Paul, one of our colleagues in the huddle, jumps across to the other side. His foot sinks in.“Never jump on a bog,” warns Gibbons. Disappointed that his new shoes may be ruined, he asks Gibbons how to clean them. “I’m an archeologist, not a dry cleaner,” he smirks. “Let’s keep walking.”

As we move forward, the jig-saw terrain is other worldly. It is so quiet that we hear our steps and chattering heard from several hundred feet away is loud and distinct. Birds such as Arctic terns and gulls dominate the conversation with their cries as they encircle and glide overhead.

We are in bog-land, and we realize we must be careful or we will end up becoming bog people. A national museum has bog people on display- bodies that sunk into bogs and were preserved over 2,000 years ago. Apparently, the bogs preserve so well that you can still see the expressions on their faces.

The walk is so picturesque on this sun-drenched day, the party wants to linger near the moss-covered stone arches and photograph the gargantuan gorges carved by the waves of the Atlantic. “Hurry now. We have much more to see,” Gibbons. Jokingly, he turns to one of the party, “These people are driving me cracked.”

EMERALD WATERS


As the bog groupees continue following Gibbons, it is apparent why he wants everyone to pick up the pace. The next part of thehike is the crowning jewel. He leads us to a spectacular vista of jagged green cliffs so clean cut they look as though they were sawed in stair step fashion by a giant chef’s knife.We admire aquamarine waters from emerald to turquoise. “Now, you can stop,” the teacher says triumphantly.“I want you to see that the main treasures of Ireland are what lie on the outside.”So true.

The successive phase of our hike is one that leads out to views of flour white beaches reminiscent of Hawaii or Fiji. To a visitor from the states, seeing sheep milling near beaches is a strange juxtaposition. Don’t they belong in a petting zoo somewhere?And as we gaze down at the water from thousands of meters up, the ocean is so clear we can see schools of fish swimming among the rocks.

Finally, Gibbons takes us to a field of unmarked graves, reserved years ago for unbaptized babies and those who committed suicide. Regular cemetaries would not permit these souls to dwell there seeing that they were not clean, and thus, the unmarked gravesite became a common occurance in Ireland. On the island, Gibbons points to a ring of stones. The bodies are most likely buried beneath.It is a sobering sight. 

Superstition has it that it would be back luck to bury an unbaptized child in the regular graveyard. It was also forbidden by the Catholic church.Another tradition up until the 1940s, notes Gibbons, was to dress boys in dresses to trick the fairies so they wouldn’t steal their souls and bodies. 

Back around to the Day’s Hotel, our hike is suddenly over and Gibbons must catch his ferry back to Cleggen by 5 p.m. There are three ferry times that go back and forth from the town of Cleggan and Inishbofin and aptly sail morning, noon, and early evening.

We hike the east end of the island upon Gibbon’s recommendation and are charmed to see stone fences stitching the patchwork of emerald green land throughout Inishbofin. On the east side stand the arched ruins of a stone chapel.  A nearby cemetary marking the various patrons who lived here makes for a picturesque burial site with the ocean in the background. Horses and sheep graze nonchalantly, not caring who lies beneath their grassy feeding trough. 



OTHER ACTIVITIES

For those with more active desires, scuba diving and snorkeling is also available off the coast as is biking around the perimeter, and windsurfing. And those who are on the introspective bent, there are painting, sketching, and photographic opportunities at every turn.



Of course, with only 200 people, and 20 of them children in this 300-acre island, you’d think there’d be no night life to speak of. Local musicians, however, are happy to oblige the wandering visitor. At the Day’s Hotel, a trio of evening minstrels plus one singer lifted the spirits of our hike-weary pack, playing one peppy tune after another well past midnight.

All in our group promised they will be back, smitten by the landscape and lore of the past. The unpretentious island of the white cow delivers respite for travelers bored by canned itineraries and contrived tourist trap settings. Inishbofin represents an Ireland of yesteryear. And that’s no bull.

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NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:


www.inishbofin.com - info about the island, history, and actitivies.
www.walkingireland.com - details about Michael Gibbons and his walking tours.
www.discoverireland.com - places to see in Ireland along with other islands.

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