Inis Bofin is a strange formation. On maps, its three-pronged shape makes it look like a clutch of sea kelp floating on the ocean. From Cleggan Harbour on the mainland, you can just about make out one of the island’s rocky fingers trailing off into the surf. At the port at Cleggan, jolly red-and-white boats emblazoned with the words ‘Inis Bofin Discovery – Island Adventure’ lay waiting to carry us on a 35-minute journey across the sea. Only after returning home did I learn that these same boats are also used to bring post to and from the island.
I had mused on whether passengers’ face masks might be whipped away by breeze as we chugged along the water, but it was an incredibly calm day. The most dramatic thing about the crossing was the views of the Maol Réidh mountains behind us: with their peaks shrouded in mist, like a sight from Lord of the Rings.
As we approached the island, we were greeted with waves from a group of tourists clambering around some old, dark ruins. It turned out that these were the Cromwellian Barracks, where priest prisoners were interned before being sent across the Atlantic to the Crown’s Carribbean colonies. I’m always fascinated by modern-day interactions with historical remains, and the fact that this former site of captivity was now being used as a picnic spot was quite a nice transformation to reflect on.
Disembarking, there was more esoteric island knowledge to be gleaned from the tourist board signs at the port. Apparently, the name Inis Bó Finne – literally, the ‘island of the white cow’ – comes from a local legend. One evening, after having lost their way in thick fog, a pair of fisherman came ashore and lit a fire. The flames melted the mist away and in front of them they saw an old woman, accompanied by a pale bovine beast. When she hit the cow with a stick, it turned into a stone. What happened after that is anyone’s guess, but it seems the event was so remarkable that it was decided to name the island after the animal, even though it sounds like the woman was the one with the skill in the story.
The tourism board has also designed three different looped walks around Inis Bofin, structured to give visitors a glimpse into the highlights of the history of the place. As we set off on the West Quarter Trail, we first came across the local church, and beside, a little craft shop in a caravan. The sparse furnishings of island life began to build into a little cluster of houses and shops as we neared the snazzy Inis Bofin House Hotel, whose picnic tables are strategically placed to provide views of the craggy sea cliffs.
I visited the tiny Heritage Museum, and felt a sentimental tug at my heartstrings when I saw the hoarder’s paradise of trinkets assembled there: the crochet, the Sacred Heart pictures, the aged kerosene lamps. I had never visited this distant corner of my county before, and yet we were connected by culture, and seeing these trappings of old Irishness reminded me of childhood visits to elderly relatives’ homes.
Stepping back into the sunlight, we passed the ruins of St. Colman’s Abbey – positioned in the middle of a vast patchwork of fields – and made our way to Dumhach Beach. Here the water was so clear that I could see through it all the way down to the colourful crabs creeping around my toes. The tide was out, and so it was an easy swim over to Inis Lyon. Now just an uninhabited hulk of rock in the bay, it seems that this piece of land was also colonized at some stage, as there is evidence of a fulacht fiadh, a Bronze Age cooking pit, perched atop one of its crannies.
One beach led to another, and we strolled over to Cloonamore Bay. Here the shore is populated by shiny holiday homes. Earlier, I had been surprised to learn that the island’s population was only around 170 people, but of course that figure refers just to permanent residents, and not the many vacationers that file in from Dublin in the hotter months. The summer cottages weren’t the only buildings that had been prettily dolled-up as alongside them were old farm outhouses whose doors and windows had been decorated by schoolchildren, in a form of sanctioned graffiti.
Our map lured us into walking up a hillside in search of a spot labelled with a capital ‘C’. From here we would be able to survey not only the bay and the mountains on the mainland beyond it, but also the island’s far side, where the seal colony is located. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a disconnect between the directions our paper map gave us and those offered by Google, and we found ourselves at the bottom of a slope so steep, bikes were banned from using it. Eventually we had to backtrack and realised that, despite appearances, the gate and stile we had passed earlier were actually publicly owned, and we would have to pass through them to reach our promised destination.
The path which led to Viewing Point C was called the ‘Bog Road’ – a name shared by an area near my own house, and indeed Inis Bofin’s marshy region was not unlike the one near where I live, with its gorse and limestone, but it had an extra maritime twist. Standing up on the taller crops of rock, we could see swell break against the cliffs on one side, and the smaller island of Inis Turk on the other.
We walked back via the Middlequarter, cutting through the island’s centre and passing the tiny school, outside of which the pupils had again put their artistic talents on display. Some tourist groups ahead of us were posing for photos in front of the building, a shoot which I assume was triggered by a family connection to the place rather than a niche interest in local education.
We didn’t have a chance to see the seals on this occasion, but we did get to work our way over to the east of the central pier. There, on the side of a hill, we saw Inishark, an even tinier island in the archipelago. Whereas Inis Bofin and Inish Turk are still inhabited, the government had the 24 remaining residents of Inishark evacuated in 1960. It is said that they were not sorry to go, as they were promised housing and state assistance on the mainland. Prior to the island’s abandonment, people had died when medical services were prevented from travelling out in poor weather conditions. I shivered a little as I looked across at Inishark’s green hills and ruins, and thought about how it was silent now, with no more human voices echoing in its fields. In the 1800s there were 200 people recorded living there, more than the population of Inis Bofin today. What a sad ending for a place whose shores didn’t seem so far from where I stood.
We just about made the 5 o’clock ferry back to Cleggan Harbour. As the boat chugged away, I looked at my map through my visor and thought about what it must be like to live in one of the little centres of human contact on the island, or, for that matter, in any of the wilder reaches of Connemara. It seemed so different, so quiet and contemplative, compared with the experience I had at university.
Coming home on visits from England, I used to feel a hint of embarrassment at the chilled, colloquial nature of Galway commerce. Our shopping centre seemed like a 1970s relic compared to the twinkling ode to capitalist endeavour that is Oxford’s Westgate. Now all of a sudden I realised the merits of a non-urban existence. Semi-isolation offers shelter. Not just shelter from danger, but also, I fancied, shelter from the cutthroat competitiveness I’d witnessed in cities. Maybe I should settle down in a little outpost far from the rat race as well! Maybe then I’d find the peace that the incessant lockdown news cycle seems determined to try to snatch from me!
On further reflection I appreciate that this maybe was a bit naïve. The human desire for one-upmanship is unlikely to be absent from islands, and daydreaming about properties on Kilronan at 1am is possibly not the most practical use of one’s time – but it sure is fun.