Inis Bō Finne (English: Inishbofin), Island of the White Cow
A magnificent island off the coast of Connemara, County Galway
Perhaps the most protected harbour along the rugged west coast of Ireland lies inside the confines of Inishbofin. With good holding in hard sand and water as clear as the Caribbean, it provides reliable and delightful shelter once you get in. But getting into Bofin harbour can be a bit nerve wracking. Not only the first time, but just about every time. It is by some accounts, the most popular port of call for yachts circumnavigating Ireland.
Inishbofin has been inhabited continuously for several thousand years. The widespread distribution of ancient stone terraces, dwelling sites and fulachta fiadha (cooking sites) indicate a vast population expansion during the late Bronze Age which may have extended cultivation to marginal soil areas. This in turn may have resulted in the exhaustion of the island’s more fragile soils, and subsequent envelopment in peat bog – still traditionally cut, dried and used as fuel. Any trees were cut down and used for building and heating centuries ago, so the island is treeless.
Prehistoric Celts built a fort at least 1000 years BC and St. Colman founded a monastery here in 668. As everywhere in Ireland, history abounds. Near the harbour is the site where Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of the west had a stronghold in the 16thC. Cromwell’s Barracks” as the locals call it was built circa 1655. This star fort was used as a staging post for convicts being transported to the West Indies and to incarcerate Catholic clergy; one unfortunate prelate was allegedly tied to “Bishop’s Rock” at low tide and drowned as the waters rose.
In the 18thC the islanders revived the age-old practices of ship wrecking and smuggling. In 1741 the Kitty Briggs, homeward bound with a rich cargo from Antigua, was attacked and plundered in Inishbofin harbour by three O’Flaherty brothers, one of whom was a priest!
For a period in the 1830s ownership of the island changed hands from the Marquess of Clanrickard to the Marquess of Sligo and became a part of County Mayo. Irish was still spoken, but was gradually replaced by English by the turn of the century. In 1854 Henry William Wilberforce of London, a brother of the Reverend Robert Wilberforce of Ballynakill parish, bought 5 townlands and islands in the parish of Inishbofin, barony of Ballynahinch, county Mayo, from the 3rd Marquess of Sligo. Inishbofin was listed as part of county Galway by the 1870s.
In the early 19thC the islanders took up fishing for basking sharks and hunting seals, and the population soared to more than 1600. During the Great Famine, although the islands didn’t suffer as greatly as the mainland did, poverty gradually devastated them and emigration continued to deplete the community well into the second half of the 20thC.
Today, the island thrives on a vibrant tourist trade and fishing primarily for lobster and crab. There are numerous retreats, workshops, and music fairs throughout the summer. Inishbofin has a winter population of about 200.
Inishbofin, offshore and south of Killary, is perhaps our favourite island to visit. Bofin Harbour is the most spectacular natural harbour we’ve ever encountered. It’s surrounded almost entirely by steep rocky outcroppings. On the south side sits the lighthouse. The cliffs beyond are topped with a spectacular ruin of a Cromwellian star fort.
At first, the approach into the anchorage is rather daunting as the main channel runs just a few feet from the cliff on which the lighthouse is perched. To port on entry lies a rock lurking somewhere beneath the surface so keeping to the channel is really important. The current running through there can be foul and the winds can be blowing across the entrance heartily. There is a range marker consisting of two towers lined up in improbable positions on shore, and it takes a leap of faith and careful watch of the GPS chart plotter to make it through (not that it is that much help here, as the GPS coordinates do not always match the underlying charts dating to the 1800s). There is also a new sector light (installed in 2012). In conformance with European standards, there are three lights of different colours, each identifying a navigational sector: white - this sector is in the middle of the safe channel, red - indicates the port edge of the channel for vessels approaching the light source, and green - indicates the starboard edge of the channel for vessels approaching the light source.
The best place to tie up a dinghy is inside the old pier, either tied to the shore on the beach or tied to the pier itself. Many boaters leave their dinghies high on the shore along the wall between the two piers where the local punts are berthed as well.
Inishbofin lying 5 miles off the coast of Connemara is 5.5km (3½mi) long and 3km (2mi) wide. The highest point (90m) is Cnoc Mór (“Big Hill”). The island is divided into five areas: West Quarter, Fawnmore, Middle Quarter, Cloonamore and Knock. It’s a delightful escape from modern life. There are hardly any cars, and only a few minivans, but bicycles are available for hire at the harbour when the ferries come in or up the road from King’s.
Most social and commercial activity takes place near the pier, which recently underwent a €2m renovation. A community centre includes a small island library, a health centre, and tourist information bureau. Chances are the person staffing the bureau will know all about you when you get there; if not, they will before you leave. Although internet is available in the community centre, mobile phone coverage is notoriously bad throughout the island. There is one spot at the top of the hill where mobile coverage was better than on the mainland.
There is an airstrip which was built at the same time as the new pier but it’s never been opened as a working airport.
The roads are ideal for cycling or walking and cross country expeditions are worth the effort, rewarded by expansive views of the neighboring islets and coasts of Connemara and County Mayo, stretching northeastwards towards Croagh Patrick.
What to do
First and foremost, a visit to Day’s Bar at the head of the harbour is a prerequisite. It is polite to check in with the bartender there who pulls a great pint and keeps tabs on all the boats in the harbour. There is an outdoor seating area overlooking the harbour which is great fun on a beautiful summer day.
Biking and hiking the island is the way to go. At low tide, you can cross over from the main island to explore Cromwell’s fort and penal colony dating to the 1600s. Or as a boater, you can always visit by dinghy.
At the head of the harbour lies the centre of the village, with Day’s Pub, the tiny but fascinating museum and heritage centre, Day’s Hotel with a world class spa – a perfect rainy day pursuit, the church, and a craft shop. Down the road towards the new pier where the ferry comes in, lies the post office and general store which is open daily. Bike rentals are available when the ferry arrives.
You can ride your bike all over the island. One easy loop heads up the hill and east from Day’s Bar towards East End Bay and Cloonamore. You will find long sandy beaches for swimming and remote villages where restored traditional cottages are rented as summer holiday homes. You can visit the old quay and curing station and stop for a bite to eat at the delightful Galley Restaurant.
The island has splendid cliffs, rocky outcrops and inlets, sea stacks (The Stags), sea caves and arches, and a blowhole (Poll Tolladh). There are several rocky or sandy strands; the best for swimming are the broad horseshoe beach in Rusheen Bay and the nameless one in the southeast corner of the island. Trá Ghael, overlooked by Cnoc Mór, is beautiful but can be dangerous with rip currents. Yet we saw several people swimming there happily while we walked its length. The view over the harbour and Inishark from the road at the top is spectacular. It’s a bit of a climb down to the beach, but not too bad. And there’s a freshwater cascade down the rocky slope to clean off the salt and sand before donning your shoes again.
The last time we visited, we opted to do the western loop by bicycle across the peat bogs to the rugged western shore and the Stags. We continued on down the road until it turned into a dirt path. It was a beautiful Sunday on a bank holiday weekend and there were plenty of exporers making this trip that day. The peat is now a spongy and often soggy surface which doesn’t always lend itself to bicycling but our off road bikes were up to the task. It was starkly beautiful out there. A high plateau for much of the way, punctuated by walking paths sparsely marked. We picked a spot to picnic where we could veer from the path to a natural pool of water surrounded by smooth and comfortable rocks that were dry and above the soggy land. The views out over the water were breathtaking. The sailboats sailing off to the mainland were tiny specks below. We ate our lunch in the warm sun and then continued on to the Stags. We rode on past the blow holes but there wasn’t much activity on this day of settled weather.
After passing by a beach populated by smooth round rocks, we came upon a lake. There are multiple lakes on Inishbofin and ponds with reedbeds providing cover, food and nest sites for a wide variety of birds, including swans. Lough Bó Finne, “the Lake of the White Cow”, is associated with various versions of a legend involving an old woman and a white cow, usually turned to stone, who emerge from the depths every seven years to warn of impending disasters. Animals and birds under threat in other parts of the country still flourish here. The rarest species present are the Corncrakes, which have been nesting and breeding here for many years. Other seabirds abound, and there seem to be an unusually large number of choughs.
As we returned to civilization, we rejoined the road and enjoyed a downhill ride at leisure. It was a most enjoyable sojourn.
The waters around the island are remarkably clear and unpolluted. Dolphins visit regularly, and basking sharks are not unusual. Seals come up onto the rocks and beaches to sunbathe and watch the tourists. Scuba diving and angling are popular pastimes.
Where to eat
First, we’re going to share a secret, but shhh, don’t tell anyone else. If you walk along the main road past the new pier towards Murray’s, you’ll pass by a house with a sign that says crab meat for sale. We stopped in and were greeted by a lovely woman who picks the crabmeat and sells it from her home. It is fresh daily and the most sweet and delicious crab we have ever had. We bought a pound and gorged ourselves silly. We even invited friends onboard for cocktails and crab appetizers.
There are three hotels on the island which offer food as well as accommodation; Day's Inishbofin House Hotel (www.inishbofinhouse.com), Murray's Doonmore Hotel (www.doonmore.com) and the Dolphin Hotel (www.dolphinhotel.ie), as well as a hostel (www.inishbofin-hostel.ie) which offers only a self-catering kitchen.
Murray’s Doonmore Hotel and restaurant is a nice stop for a pint and lunch fare when visiting the western half of the island. In fact, we stopped in after a long ride around the Westquarter across the moors to the Stags and it seems everyone on the island was there absorbing the sun outside or the matches on the telly inside.
We had a wonderful dinner at The Beach/Day’s Bar – we took a chance and splurged on the local lobster as it was my birthday. As we learned that night, the food there is fabulous. The pub is associated with the Hotel (same family) and the chefs supply the meals for both. Both the pub and the hotel restaurant were jammed that day. Highly recommended.
We had a pleasant stay at the Inishbofin House Hotel for a birthday party once. Although it is a lovely upmarket hotel, it does not reflect the rural charm and character of the island. The rooms are nice and there are lovely spaces in which to meet up with friends. The restaurant serves exceptional food in a modern hotel dining room atmosphere that is perfect for families and large gatherings for special celebrations.
The Dolphin Hotel located 10 minutes’ walk out of town on the Cloonamore Looped Walk also has a nice menu with fresh seafood specialties. The dining room is small and intimate but we did not have a chance to sample it. It is a member of the BIM Seafood Circle and has been reviewed by Georgina Campbell’s Ireland and Paolo Tullio’s TasteofIreland.com.
The Galley Restaurant is a delightful daytime restaurant near East End Bay. It is a deli style set up with a beer and wine license and both outdoor and indoor seating in a lovely sheltered spot. Packed lunches are available by special order. Lunch was very tasty: we had a personal sized quiche and a meat pie, just perfect with a cool glass of cider.
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