Latest Census Shows Further Decline in Island Population

Inish Lyre harbour, as seen from Crovinish

The 2016 Census figures just released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show a continued decline in the population of Mayo’s offshore islands. However, the good news is that there are now eight inhabited islands in Clew Bay, up from six in 2011.

Census Records 2011 v 2016
Mayo Island Population – Census Records 2011 v 2016

The population of Clare Island, the largest island in Clew Bay, declined to 159, with nine male residents leaving the island. The female population remained at 75, the same number as in 2011.  As for the inner islands of Clew Bay, all five residents of Inishcottle left the island and it is now uninhabited, despite being connected to Inishnakillew. Inishlyre and Clynish retained their respective populations of four inhabitants each, although one male left Inishlyre, leaving three females and one male. Inishnakillew also lost two male residents, but gained one female, leaving a total of five people living on the island.

The previously uninhabited Rosbarnagh island gained one male resident, as did Achill Beg for the first time since 1965. Collan Beg – empty for many years – now has one couple living on it year round. The island that showed the most significant gain was Collan More, which now has seven year-round residents, up from four in 2011.

As for the larger Mayo islands, Achill lost 65 males and 64 females since 2011, leaving populations of 1,201 and 1,239 respectively. Inis Bigil’s male population dropped from 16 to 11, and female inhabitants declined from nine to seven. Despite its efforts to gain residents fleeing the new American administration, Inishturk lost nine male inhabitants, but gained seven females, leaving a population of 51.

Overall, the population of the Mayo islands declined from 2,839 in 2011 to 2,694 in 2016, a drop of 145 people or just over 5%.



The Wrecks of Clew Bay

The Spanish Armada

In 1588, during ‘The Pirate Queen‘ Granuaile’s lifetime, two ships of the Spanish Armada, the San Nicolas Prodaneli and the 1,126 ton El Gran Grin – the latter being one of the largest ships in the entire Armada – sank at the mouth of Clew Bay. These were two of twenty-six Armada ships wrecked along the Irish coast. The Gran Grin, carrying 329 men and 28 guns, drifted onto the rocks at Clare Island. According to English accounts, the captain and about one hundred crew made their way to safety on the island, but were killed on the orders of one of the O’Malley chieftains. The remainder of the crew were said to have drowned.

The Spanish Armada

This story depends solely on one written account. Yet other versions permeated history, including one which suggested that the Spanish were anchored offshore at Clare Island for six days before the ship was wrecked by a massive storm. Another suggests that the men were taken as prisoners on the island, that dozens were killed trying to escape and the remainder handed over to the notorious Richard Bingham. Yet another story led to the belief that the Gran Grin was actually wrecked near the Corraun peninsula, on the north side of the bay, but was mistaken for the 26-gun San Nicolas Prodaneli, and that the ship’s treasures were picked clean by the O’Malley and Bourke clansmen. Whatever the ensuing circumstances, it is agreed by historians that both ships sank in Clew Bay. Oddly enough, there is no mention of Granuaile or her response to any of these events.

The Fancy, a Man O’ War vessel originally belonging to Charles II of the 1694 Spanish expedition from Corunna, but usurped by Henry Everly (Long Ben) and used for piracy, is recorded arriving at Inishlyre in June 1696 with 20 pirates on board. It is not certain what happened to the ship but it is thought to have been abandoned or wrecked.

In 1835, the 91-ton schooner Uxbridge, en route for Inishlyre harbour, ran ashore on the island of Inishgort at the back of the lighthouse. According to the Evening Freeman on Saturday 2nd.March 1835, ‘the weather was so thick that the light could not be seen at the time. Immediately on the circumstance being made known, the boats belonging to the Chance and Hawk, Revenue Cruisers and the Coast Guard boat at Inishlyre proceeded to her assistance, when the former boat with much difficulty, reached the vessel, and succeeded in rescuing the whole of her crew from a watery grave. The vessel was from Glasgow, bound for Westport and laden with coals and metal ware, and neither vessel or cargo was insured’.

In 1860, the Leguan, a Glasgow based 349-ton vessel was en route from Grenada to Greenock with a cargo of rum, sugar and molasses. She was caught in a gale and drifted into Clew bay. She was at risk of going ashore at Lecanvey, near Westport, so the master, William Buchanan, had the masts cut. Three pilot boats went out to the stricken vessel despite the bad weather. The men boarded the vessel but their three boats sank. The Master of Leguan was unable to get ashore until 6 a.m. the following day. While he was ashore trying to get an anchor and a steam tug, a fire broke out on his vessel. The fire spread rapidly so the crew, fearing there was powder on board, left the vessel. She became a total loss. An inquiry ordered at Westport found Master Buchanan at fault for anchoring when he could have gone to Inishgort. He was also blamed for going ashore when the officer left on board was not capable of holding the vessel. The cause of the fire was not discovered. The crew of the three pilot boats were rewarded with £5 by the Merchant Mariner Fund.

In 1886, the Spirit, a 26-ton cutter owned by Patrick Hopkins, sank off Carrowmore Point on Clare Island. The newly built ship had been loaded with herrings, which she was not built to carry. The load subsequently broke the ship’s back.

In June 1894, a vessel carrying about one hundred Achill Island ‘tatie hokers’ – migrant harvesters bound for Scotland – overturned when the young passengers rushed to the side to see the Glasgow-bound steamer SS Elm near Westport Quay. Unable to lower the mainsail in time, the boat foundered and thirty-two people drowned.

In 1899, the 52-year old, 44-ton wooden sloop Flora of Westport was at anchor at Inishlyre with two crew aboard when she was hit by the schooner Kate of Westport in a WSW force 9 wind and she became a total loss.

In 1904, the Pearl, a 36-ton wooden smack, caught fire and burned in Inishlyre harbour.

In 1928, the 200-ton ketch Charles Stewart Parnell, which serviced the lighthouses with coal and other supplies, caught fire and sank near Inishlyre island. It now lies in twelve metres of water between Islandmore and the channel between Inishgort and Collan Beg islands. Local legend has it that there is an enormous lobster living in the ship’s boiler and has been trapped in there for over thirty years, as it is too big to escape.

The Clare Island to Westport ferry Rossend was washed ashore during a storm in 1993. The bow now lies on the northern side of the island.

There are many other wrecks in the Clew Bay area, which despite the protection offered by the massive Clare Island at the head of the bay, is often at the mercy of brutal storms sweeping across the North Atlantic. This, together with the numerous shingle bars, submerged rocks and drowned drumlins around the inner bay, makes navigation around this area fraught with danger.

NEXT POST – The Islands Seen from Croagh Patrick

The Pirate Queen

The Pirate Queen of Clew Bay

The earliest written reference to the O’Malley territory around Murrisk is in the fifth century, when Saint Patrick climbed the mountain then known as Cruachan Aigle, before it was renamed Croagh Patrick. The O’Malleys built Murrisk Abbey for the Augustinian friars in 1457.


Grace O’Malley, otherwise known as Granuaile or Gráinne Mhaol, lived from around 1530 to 1603. She was born into the clan Ó Máille (O’Malley), who were said to be descendants of the eldest son of a former high king of Ireland. The clan were the hereditary lords of a territory which included the baronies of Murrisk* to the south of Clew Bay and Burrishoole to the north, which originally included the island of Achill.

According to Hubert Thomas Knox in ‘The History of County Mayo’, even before Granuaile’s time, Clew Bay was a famous resort for smugglers who did an extensive trade with the continent. Clare Island of old is often described as a ‘pirate’s lair’ and the ‘Mecca of Smugglers’.

The O’Malleys differed from most of the Irish clans in that they were a true seafaring family. According to the ‘Book of Rights’ (Leabhar ne gCeart), the O’Malleys paid the King of Connaught, who resided in Cruachan (now known as Rathcroghan near Tulsk in County Roscommon) handsomely for the right to make a living from the seas around Clew Bay and beyond.

The O’Malleys did not engage in fishing alone. Piracy became a hallmark of the clan, particularly during Granuaile’s time. The sixteenth century saw the old Gaelic world face an onslaught on land from its powerful neighbour. Granuaile built strongholds around the shores of Clew Bay that only skilled local navigators could negotiate by sea, especially as cartographers only began to map the remote and dangerous channels of the west coast after her reign.

Granuaile spend her childhood at the clan residences at Belclare (between Westport and Murrisk) and Clare Island (the tower which still stands today). She was first married at the age of sixteen to Donal O’Flaherty, whose family ruled what is now more or less the boundaries of Connemara in County Galway. During this time, she bore two children, but also began to take an interest in seafaring activities around the Galway City area, where she and her men are said to have exacted tolls or exchange of cargo for safe passage into the busy port before disappearing into the myriad of inlets around the Connemara coast.

Clare Island Lighthouse and Cliffs

It was highly unusual for a woman to command any position of authority in matters of merchanting, much less piracy. In can only be surmised that Granuaile led by example, and was capable of enduring the hardships known to exist on the brutal Atlantic seaboard around the west coast of Ireland.

Around this time, Elizabeth I began her reign as Queen of England. Using a divide and conquer strategy with the Irish lords, she began to disrupt the power base that had long remained undisturbed west of the Shannon River. Granuaile’s husband, whose authority had been diminished, died during this period. However, she successfully defended his island fortress in Lough Corrib against the Joyces, a predominant Galway family.

The O’Flaherty clan would not tolerate a woman as heir to Donal’s title and she looked again to the sea as a means of establishing power. She returned to Clew Bay and the tower castle at Clare Island. From here, she had a commanding view of the entire bay, and no ship could pass without being spotted.

Now in her twenties, Grace used her O’Malley influence to establish a fighting force of two hundred men, including the infamous ‘Gallowglass’ or mercenaries from Scotland. Stories of her exploits spread across the Irish Sea around the time the English queen employed a new strategy of colonisation that was to change the power base in Ireland yet again. Life became a matter of survival against the odds for Granuaile.

Granuaile was in her thirties when she married Richard Bourke. It is believed that her main goal was to acquire Rockfleet (also known as Carrickhowley) Castle and the deeper waters around Burrishoole on the north side of Clew Bay. Here, legend has it that the hawser of her favourite galley was attached to her bedpost at night (which is quite possible when one sees the location of the castle on the shore).

In 1584, Sir Richard Bingham was appointed governor of Connaught province. He believed that the Irish were ‘never tamed with words, but with swords’. His brutal tactics were not unlike those of his predecessors. He captured Granuaile’s sons Tiobóid na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) and Murrough O’Flaherty, and her half-brother, Dónal na Píopa. Granuaile petitioned the queen for their release and was invited to meet her at Greenwich Palace.

Granuaile was a native Irish language speaker. She was not known to have spoken English at all. However, it is also believed that she had been educated in Latin and that language was spoken at her meeting with Queen Elizabeth.

Following the meeting, Bingham was temporarily removed from his post as governor, but many of Granuaile’s other requests were not met, despite her assurances that she would stop supporting the Irish lords’ rebellion. Shortly afterwards, Bingham was restored to his position and Granuaile gave up on the notion that her meeting with the queen had a useful outcome.

Granuaile is believed to have died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth. She may have been buried in the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey on Clare Island.

NEXT POST – Gold Mining on Croagh Patrick

Clew Bay Islands

A short walk to the statue of Saint Patrick on the Reek often reveals stunning views of Clew Bay and the distant Nephin mountains, but (apart from the massive Clare Island to the west) how can you tell one island from another? Here are some clues:

Westport Bay from the Reek
Westport Bay from the Reek
    • The semi-island at the end of the long strip of land reaching from the shore out into the bay is called Bartraw. It is one of the most popular destinations in the Westport area
    • The island just off the tip of Bartraw is called Inishdaugh. Legend has it that Danish treasure is buried there
    • To the left of Inishdaugh is Inishleague, behind which are Inishimmel and Inishlaghan, while to its right is the island of Inisheeny, now uninhabited but once home to several families
    • The connected islands that look like a prehistoric bird with a long tail (furthest west from Bartraw) are Dorinish Beg and Dorinish More, once owned by Beatle John Lennon and once home to a commune of hippies led by Sid Rawle
    • The large island inside Westport Bay with a prominent white house at its eastern tip is Inishraher, now a retreat of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization
    • The tiny island that looks like a hat to the east of Inishraher is called Corillan or ‘The Scotsman’s Bonnet’
    • The island at the end of the Murrisk peninsula (closest to the Reek and just beyond Murrisk Abbey) is called Cahernaran, and once had its own fort
    • Beyond Cahernaran, further down the coast towards Westport, are the three islands of Annagh – East, Middle and West joined by narrow strips of land and shingle – now empty but once home to over thirty people
    • The island that boasts the only working lighthouse in Clew Bay (the white structure visible just beyond the ‘tail’ of Dorinish) is called Inishgort. At last count, this island had one inhabitant
    • The island with a cluster of buildings to the southeast of Inishgort is Inishlyre, whose deep natural harbour used to be used as a dropping off point by larger ships with cargo for Westport Quay. A family still lives on the island.
    • The large islands behind Inishgort are Island More and Knockycahillaun, which once housed several families and are part of a network of islands connected by shingle A new holiday home and the old houses are visible where Island More and Knockycahillaun meet
    • Beyond the Island More chain, the distant shingle bar jutting straight out into the bay is part of Inishbee island, beyond which lies the beautiful island of Inishoo, with its horseshoe harbour
    • Further north and east of Inishoo are the myriad islands of Newport Bay and the Nephin Mountains, one of the wildest and most remote areas in the entire country.
    • Looking further west from the Nephins is the dome of the Corraun Peninsula, and beyond that is the island of Achillbeg and Achill Island itself, the largest offshore island in the country, with its cliffs of Croaghaun on the western end of the island – the third highest sea cliffs in Europe.
    Sunset over Westport Bay
    Sunset over Westport Bay

    NOTE – It is not unusual to see rain sweeping over the Nephin Mountains, while the Reek may be bathed in sunshine, and vice-versa. When the wind swings to the northwest, the impressive form of Clare Island being suddenly obliterated by mist is often a harbinger of a squall heading for Croagh Patrick.

    NEXT POST – Everest Sherpas on the Reek

Exploring the Islands

Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay

Croagh Patrick and Clare Island are the two most recognizable icons in the Clew Bay area. It is also said that there is an island for every day of the year in the bay. Of course, much depends upon the definition of ‘island’, but even at high tide there are certainly more than one hundred distinctive pieces of land – drumlins – surrounded by water within the confines of the bay. Drumlins are the remnants of lateral moraines left behind by the last ice age, boulder clay and gravel covered with soil and grass. There are at least twice as many rock outcrops and drowned drumlins beneath the Atlantic waves.


Old Head and Clare Island Sunset
Old Head and Clare Island Sunset


Several of the islands of Clew Bay are accessible without the need for a boat. There are a few important points to keep in mind should you decide to walk out to an island. Firstly, always check the tide tables before setting off. Attempting to reach the islands that are not connected to the mainland via bridge or causeway when the tide is coming in is never a good idea. Sea levels can rise over ten feet in Clew Bay on a ‘normal’ day. Secondly, it’s not a good idea to set off for the islands in bad weather or if poor weather is forecast, Squalls on Clew Bay can be sudden and dangerous, and hurricane force wind gusts are common, especially in winter. Thirdly, keep to the shoreline of the islands, do not walk across the fields. Although the vast majority are now uninhabited, most of the islands are leased by locals as grazing land for sheep, and sometimes cattle, and it’s always best to stay on the good side of the farmers.


Several of the ‘outer’ islands of Westport Bay are also connected to each other at low tide. It is not unusual to see ‘roads’ across the tidal flats that are used by farmers to get supplies and livestock to and from these seemingly remote places. Although there are now only five or six islands inhabited year round, prior to the famine years the majority of islands larger than a few acres had many occupants.


Westport Bay from the Reek
Westport Bay from the Reek


Most of the large outer islands are inaccessible other than by boat, while those in the shallower waters of Westport and Newport Bays may be reached by foot at low tide. Of course, these include islands that have been connected to the mainland by a causeway or bridge, such as Rosmore, Inishnakillew and Inishcottle, but even islands that looking at a map may appear to be far out in the bay.


One such island is Collan More, which is the largest mass of offshore land in the area, apart from Clare Island. Collan More (Collainn Mhór – formerly Cuileann or Holly Island) is an inhabited island situated in Newport Bay, just northwest of Rosmoney Pier. It can also be seen from the mainland at Roscahill, about nine kilometres from Westport (left off the N59 after about five kilometres and about three kilometres west).


Collan More was inhabited by 218 people in 1841. In 1911, it included Collanmore National School and nine private dwellings occupied by forty people. By 2006, there were just eighteen inhabitants and the school had closed.


Collan More is a long island, stretching from west to east. At its westernmost end is the island of Collan Beg. This too is reachable at low tide, across a narrow channel. Allow at least an hour to walk from the mainland to the western tip of Collan Beg. A stone’s throw away is the island of Inish Gort, home of the only working lighthouse in the area, and the entrance to Westport Bay. At this stage, you are at the most westerly point possible for a hiker in Clew Bay.


Shingle Bar between Inishgort and Island More, with Clare Island in the background
Shingle Bar between Inishgort and Island More, with Clare Island in the background


South of Collan More, on the other side of Rosmoney, are two other islands that are accessible by foot. Crovinish (Croibhinis – formerly Creamh Inis or Garlic Island) is an uninhabited island, southeast of Inishlyre and northwest of Inishgowla South. In 1841, the island had twenty two inhabitants, and by 1911 there were still sixteen people living on the island in three thatched dwellings, each of which had two rooms. Sixty year old Martin Fadden and his thirty-nine year old wife Mary lived in one home with their eight children at that time.


Illanataggart (Oileán an tSagairt – Priest’s Island) is also currently uninhabited. In 1841, however, there were 33 persons living on this island and by 1911 just seven resided there.


Illanroe Island on a misty morning – Westport Bay


Beyond Clynish are the islands of Inishnakillew (Inis na Coille or ‘island of the wood’), Inishcottle (Inish Coitil or ‘Cottle’s Island’) and Moneybeg. Inishnakillew is connected to the mainland by a causeway, and the more remote Inishcottle is connected to Inishnakillew by another causeway. Both of these islands are currently inhabited. An area known as Carrigeenglas to the south of Inishcottle brings the hiker to Moneybeg Island. Here, a channel divides the island from the bigger mass of Clynish, which is one of the islands in Clew Bay currently inhabited. In 1841 there were 87 people living on Clynish. In 1911, twenty three people lived in three dwellings. By 2006, there were just five inhabitants.

North of Collan More, the coastline of Newport Bay is deeply indented. Here there are long, narrow peninsulas of land that in several cases are barely connected to the mainland by bridges or causeways. Although several of these fractured pieces of land are not specifically identified as ‘islands’, they retain a tenuous relationship with the mainland.

Attached to one of the peninsulas is Rosmore. This ‘island’ is divided from the mainland by a 20-foot wide channel, which is crossed by a bridge.



There are other ‘mainland islands’ along the shores of Newport Bay, including Rosbarnagh (to the right of Rossanrubble peninsula), Inishturlin (northwest of Rosbarnagh), Roslaher/Rosbeg (south of Rossanrubble), Roslynagh (north of Inishdaweel), and Rosturk (north, towards Mulranny), which is accessible at low tide.


There are a number of accessible islands near Westport, including Annagh (Oileán an Eanaigh), which is an uninhabited group of three islands situated in Westport Bay, just east of Murrisk. The islands are named Annagh West, Annagh Middle and Annagh East. These are located just off the Murrisk road, about nine kilometres from Westport. In 1841, Annagh East was inhabited by 33 people. Little trace of any dwelling remains today. Another is Cahernaran Island (Oileán Chathair na Reann), which is an uninhabited island situated in Westport Bay, south of Inisheeny. It is located just off the R335 road towards Louisburgh, on the right just before the Great Famine monument in Murrisk, about nine kilometres west of Westport (right at Carrowsallagh). Cahernaran is known for an ancient stone fort, now nearly destroyed. Illanroe (Red Island) is close to Rosbeg, about three miles out of town.


NEXT POST – The Pirate Queen of Clew Bay