Turkish delight

Irish Times, 21 July, 2012

LENNY ANTONELLI takes a ramble around one of the west’s wildest islands

SHEER ISOLATION SETS Inishturk apart; 14 kilometers by ferry, it’s one of our most remote outposts. Just 53 people live on the island all year round. You’ll find no sweater stores, pony-and-trap tours or interpretive centres.

The island’s western side is an expanse of rocky grassland and cliff-top that can only be explored on foot. Two looped trails leave the harbour, with it’s blue-green waters and cluster of cottages. We followed the signposts up the hill and through a gate, then went up the slope to the right for a quick lookout – sheer cliffs dropped 80 metres to the sea below us. Bring binoculars: the island’s cliffs are home to peregrine falcons, puffins, fulmars and chough.

We followed the purple trail west past lonely Lough Coolaknick (the green trail heads south here), then left it to hike to the old signal tower on the hill above – one of dozens built by the British to warn of any invasion from Napoleon’s armies in the early 19th century. At 191 metres it’s the island’s highest point, with a wide panorama of the mountains and islands of west Mayo and Connemara.

Inishturk has been inhabited on and off since 4,000 BC. After the famine, the island’s landlord, Lord Lucan, sent a gunboat with armed bailiffs to evict the islanders and knock their houses when they couldn’t pay rents. But Mayo MP Ousley Higgins fought for the islanders, and they gradually returned to rebuild their homes.

Descend back to the purple trail – marked by stone slabs across open grassland – and follow it west to a viewing point, where Atlantic waves batter huge cliffs and sharp sea stacks. The sun shone on our backs here as dozens of fulmars circled above the void, almost within touching distance.

Rather than take the purple trail inland we followed the wild cliffs heading southwest.This is the tricky part: the bumpy landscape makes it difficult to see the edge, which cuts in and out sharply. One minute I thought I was safely inland, the next I was right on the precipice.

The rough tracks here run perilously close to the overhanging edge – ignore them and follow the coast from further inland. There are steep sections there too, so be ready for a little scrambling.

We walked out to Dromore Head, then followed a stream inland past marshy Lough Namucka to a stone wall, which we followed left up a hillside. Marshy terrain must be negotiated in places here, but the ground offers a medley of wildflowers. Stay with the wall as it rejoins both marked trails and arrives at the island’s GAA pitch – cut deep into the rocky hillside – then follow the only boreen southwards.

A mining firm found gold on Inishturk in 1990, but the islanders chose not to disturb their quiet home. The Irish Times reported that the company’s geologists were “politely told not to come back to the island again”.

We took a short detour off-trail to Portdoon, a clear lagoon accessed by a steep channel through cliffs to the sea. Folklore says that Danish pirates hid their galleys here, waiting to ambush unsuspecting boats. The pirates were said to be the last people in Ireland who knew the secret of brewing a legendary beer made from heather.

Heading back towards the harbour on the trail, we stopped in the community club for tea. It was sunny enough for one last stop before the harbour: sandy Corraun beach for a quick swim. Then it was back to the ferry for the bumpy hour-long journey home, just ourselves and a couple of islanders sailing under the evening sun towards rainy mainland mountains.

Inishturk, Co Mayo

Map: OSI. Discovery Series. Sheet 37.

Getting there: O’Grady Ferries operates between Inishturk and Roonagh Pier in west Mayo every morning and evening. See clareislandferry.comfor timetables. From Westport take the R335 west to Louisburgh, go through the village and after about a quarter mile take a right turn signposted for Roonagh.

Start and finish: The harbour, Inishturk.

Distance: About 11km.

Time: A leisurely four to five hours

Suitability: Moderate.

Food and services: There is a shop, pub and post office, B&Bs that serve dinner, and self-catering options.

Further information: inishturkisland.com. Information on the marked trails at mayotrails.ie.