The Inishkea Islands, off the Mullet, in North Mayo, are among the most rarely visited of County Mayo’s many island outposts. During the summer months from June to August, depending on weather conditions, there are organised boat trips to Inishkea South, a few times a week.
Once supporting thriving fishing and farming communities, the two islands – Inishkea North and Inishkea South – are now uninhabited except for seabirds and grey seals that can be seen in its many stunning coves and inlets.
Trips from Blacksod
The beautiful Inishkea islands saw their final evacuation in 1934/35, less than a decade after 10 young islanders were drowned in the devastating hurricane of October 1927. The sudden storm brought death and misery to fishing communities all along the West coast of Ireland.
Up until recently, boat trips to Inishkea were erratic and, despite the best efforts of Erris boatmen, depended entirely on the weather. But now, thankfully, investment in more modern craft means that there is a service to the Inishkea Islands regularly throughout the summer.
The trip to Inishkea South takes about 35 minutes from Blacksod Pier and, as the boat glides out into the wide expanse of Blacksod Bay, Achill’s magnificent mountain cliffs tumbling into the wild Atlantic, come into view.
The boat takes you to Inishkea South where there are a pretty sheltered harbour and pier, leading to what can only be described as a tropical-like white, sandy beach, overlooked by the ruins of the islanders’ cottages.
This sheltered harbour where most of the island’s population once lived in relative comfort is a picture postcard scene on a sunny summer’s day.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, to be told by our guide that some people who have family connections to the Island have renovated a few of the old houses. The dwellings are now used as pretty holiday homes that would make anyone who desires solitude while on holiday very envious indeed.
One of the old cottages has been renovated into a pretty holiday home by a descendant of an Inishkea islander. Scientists who study the islands’ seabirds, marine, and fish life, have also rebuilt some of the dwellings which they use throughout the year.
There are some very obvious signs that the Inishkea islands were inhabited as far back as megalithic times.
Archaeological excavations have revealed burial grounds like the mound near the harbour where you can also see a slab of stone with early Celtic designs, evidence that monks of early Christian times once lived on the islands.
Other such burial places had been found on the nearby island of Inishkea North where you can see the ruins of the Church of St. Colmcille, perched on the highest point of the north island.
Excavations on Inishkea North, carried out in the 1930s by Françoise Henry (1902–1982), an Irish art scholar and archaeologist, have revealed that there were settlements on the Inishkea islands, dating as far back as the sixth century.
It is also likely that the islands were invaded by Vikings, probably in the 9th century.
By the eighth century, a small monastic community and a place of pilgrimage had developed in Inishkea North. We have no record in any of the annals of Viking plundering of the Inishkeas. However, it is reasonable to assume that they did attack the islands as we know that the Norsemen sacked Inishmurray, off the nearby coast of Co. Sligo, in 806.
Unaffected by the Famine
It was fascinating to learn that over the ages islanders lived quite comfortable lives, mainly by fishing and the sale of kelp and lobsters, and were largely unaffected by the Famine because the dreaded blight did not reach their extensive potato beds. The potato ridges are still clearly visible on the western side of the island.
Our earliest account of life on the Inishkeas comes from WH Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West, published in 1832.
Writing about his visit to Inishkea South, Maxwell reported that food and fuel were never scarce on the islands, but he also alluded to the hardships caused by isolation, particularly in winter.
“Frequent and valuable wrecks furnish the inhabitants with many articles of domestic utility. The drift timber from the Atlantic gives them an abundant supply for the building and repairs of boats and houses; and immense quantities of sea-fowl feathers are annually collected upon the Black Rock, which is contiguous to Inniskea. The island affords excellent pasturage for sheep; and thus timber, feathers, and wool, enable the inhabitants to have domestic comforts in abundance. In winter, the take of cod, hake, and ling, is inexhaustible; peats are excellent and plenty, and food and fuel are consequently never scarce in Inniskea.
“These are, doubtless, great advantages over the interior districts, but they are barely necessary to compensate the other local inconveniences. Throughout the greater portion of the winter, all communication with the main is interrupted. The sick must die without relief, and the sinner pass to his account without the consolations of religion. Should any thing beyond the produce of the island be requisite in the stormy months, it must be procured with imminent danger; and constant loss of life and property, forms the unhappy theme of the tales and traditions of this insulated people.”
You can read the full account of WH Maxwell’s visit to Inishkea South at this link.
In his book about the Inishkea islanders, Amongst Our Own, Tomás O’ Raghallaigh, tells us that the islanders sourced most of their provisions from Belmullet from the early 19th century, and, later in Blacksod when the Heneghan, Gallagher, Kavanagh and Bourke families opened shops supplying most of their requirements.
“..things that could not be sourced closer to home such as pots and pans, delph and utensils for farming, such as spades, graips and shovels. There was also a demand for items they used in their principle trade, fishing things like rope, twine tar, pitch, cork, copper nails, calico/canvass and sally rods etc. They also needed ash branches or willow for currach ribs along with cotton nets and trammels. Later, they would buy paraffin (kerosene) by the barrel and divide it out back on the island. They were mostly self-sufficient for food with one of their main purchases from Belmullet coarse salt for salting fish or bacon and later on in the late 1890s Heneghans in Blacksod also began doing some salt-panning. Come the early 1900’s, Ann Reily (aka Naneen Thomais) used to buy cans of sweets in Belmullet and sell them off on the North Island in ones and twos to the children and maybe to some of the seet-toothed adults also.”
A visit to Inishkea includes a leisurely tour around the island which takes about two hours and during which time our friendly and knowledgeable guide answered questions about everything from the history of the island to the fascinating migration habits of its many birds.
Heading north out of the harbour village, we came across the old schoolhouse where to the delight of our friendly group, which comprised Swizz, Italian and Irish holidaymakers, we discovered a young Oystercatcher hiding in a corner, obviously disturbed by us as he was learning how to fly.
The school opened in 1886 and for eight years the children from the north island were ferried to school each day in currachs until a school was opened on Inishkea North in 1894 where the children were taught by the famous Erris teacher, Martin Caldwell, who married an island woman, Bríd de Burca.
Some people believe that the islands take their name from the Gaelic Inis Gé, meaning Goose Islands, so it’s hardly surprising that the islands are the home of some very interesting geese, including the Barnacle Geese from far away Greenland that spend their winters on Inishkea and nearby Duvillaun Island.
However, in his book, Amongst Our Own, Tomás O’ Raghallaigh contends that the correct name is Inis Cé (Saint Kay’s Island) which, he says, is often carelessly translated to Goose Island.
Flora and fauna
From the minute you set foot on Inishkea you will be constantly reminded of the fact that the island’s rulers are birds and no longer humans.
Oystercatchers fly and swoop excitedly overhead, quite obviously fascinated by the human visitors to their remote home. As you move around the island you will see Gannets, eye-catching Terns, and many other species.
Our walk takes us first along the banks of the channel separating the two islands where you are no more than a couple of hundred yards from Inishkea North, but the treacherous channel can only be navigated by the most experienced boatmen from Erris.
The Western face of the island has spectacular cliffs where you can watch Fulmars glide and if you are not afraid of heights to lean out on a rocky ledge – that looks like it was created by nature as a viewing platform. Looking down at the crashing waves, many terrifying hundreds of feet below is an exciting experience.
And if that was exciting enough, one of the truly memorable moments of our visit to Inishkea was still to come.
Strolling along, and taking in the magnificent views of Achill and towering Slievemore and Croaghan to our South, we came to one of the many pretty coves where you can watch the Grey Seals at play.
Sitting on the rocks watching the seals swimming and frolicking in a sheltered cove on the south of the island is one of the truly great pleasures of a visit to Inishkea that no Disneyland seal show could ever compete with.
The Inishkeas and the islands nearby are the largest breeding colonies for Atlantic Grey Seals in Ireland. Over 300 pups are born annually on the islands.
The history of the Inishkea Islands is full of many interesting events. One of the most unique in an Irish context must be the whaling station in Inishkea South.
The remains of the old whaling station, which was built by Norwegians in the early part of the 20th century, are still to be seen.
However, the enterprise did not last too long and in all about 120 whales, mainly Blue Whales and Fin Whales were caught before it was closed down.
Nowadays, in more enlightened times, you can often see these glorious creatures and their relatives, the dolphin, swimming in the waters around Inishkea.
Scuba divers’ paradise
The return leg of the walk on the way back to the harbour brought us along a shoreline dotted with lovely sandy coves and rocky inlets where seabirds perched majestically, surveying their beautiful home.
The sheltered aquamarine coves with their crystal clear water are perfect for swimming – and for scuba divers, a paradise equalled only by the waters of the more tropical places.
Before our departure, we enjoyed a tasty picnic and then said farewell to lovely Inishkea where we will definitely return.
I regularly get requests about how to get to the Inishkea Islands. I travelled with Sean Lavelle of Belmullet Boat Charter who can be contacted on 086 836 5983 (International +353868365983)
27 replies on “A visit to beautiful Inishkea South”
My late father, John Lavelle, was from Inishkea
Thanks for sharing that Margaret.
My Great Grandmother was born on South Inishkea. Katherine Walsh, born 1864, Father Padrig, Mother Ellen Lavelle (from North Inishkea). My Grandmother was born in the Belmullet workhouse. I have been researching for 20 some years (began by my Father.) Katherine Walsh came to America with only her little girl, Mary Magdalen. They used the last name Padden. I believe John Padden was the father. He was found dead in the bog, after being hit with a blunt instrument in 1888, found in The Ballina Journal…I have written a book on their life. IRELAND’S MAGDALEN. Hoping to find a publisher. Would love to come to Inishkea and make a movie.
Thanks for telling us about your family connections with Inishkea, Teresa.
You have a very interesting family history story to tell.
It’s a family history that is typical of many thousands of West of Ireland families from the 19th century who were forced to emigrate to the US for a better life.
I’m sure there would be lots of interest in seeing your story published, particularly here in Co Mayo.
Have you considered self-publishing on the web. There are lots of tools available for online publishing.
I also note that your husband, Jason Goodman, is an accomplished artist with his own website.
His artistic interpretation of the island’s landscape and history would be worth seeing.
And it seems you have much of the research done already for a movie about the Inishkea Islands.
My heritage is also from the South Island and Padden was on the maternal side. I’d love to read your research.
My name is Cathy Gallagher and have just started to research my grandparents.
My grandfather, Patrick Cawley, was born in 1888 in Inishkea North. Patrick Cawley came to USA in 1909. He sent for my grandmother Catherine Monaghan from Belmullet a year later
Hi Cathy. Thanks for sharing your family connections with the Inishkea islands. Inishkea North is a very interesting island with many early medieveal remains to be seen.
Hi, I just found this webpage. My grandmother, Mary Padden, was born on the islands in 1922 and was probably one of the youngest residents when everyone left. She emigrated to Australia in 1948. I’m so glad to hear that regular tours to the islands take place because I would love to visit. I have ordered the Mayo’s Lost Islands book and can’t wait to discover more.
I’d love to know if there are any other Padden descendants and where everyone ended up!
Nice to hear from you Colleen.
If you would like to find out any further information about the Inishkea Islands and the families who lived there, you should contact Ionad Deirbhile – Eachléim Heritage and Visitor Centre, in Eachléim, Co Mayo.
You will find the contact info for the centre by clicking on the following link: Eachléim Heritage and Visitor Centre.
My grandmother, Sadie Lavelle, was born on Inishkea North.
I just had the most amazing weekend camping out on Inishkea South and I now have a burning desire to trace more of my family roots
Audrena, thanks for letting us know about your trip to Inishkea.
Delighted to hear you enjoyed your stay on Inishkea South. You will find helpful information on tracing your County Mayo roots by cliking on this link.
In April of 2015, I met a fisherman who agreed to take me to Inishkea. All of the charter boats were in dry-dock at the time waiting to be inspected. Plus, the charters do not operate until they feel the weather will permit.
But a young man was brave enough to get me there. My ancestors must have been by my side as the ocean was calm and so were the winds. We arrived on South Inishkea; and I had the Island to myself. Of course, I had my camera.
I wrote once before on this site, June 2, 2014 about my story. My Great Grandmother was born on South Inishkea.
I got to stand on the beautiful Island she called home. This last trip inspired the intro to my book, which should be available on Amazon by December of this year.
I have not yet met any relatives, but I’ll be back!
My family were the Walsh family who inhabited Inishkea south for generations. My great grandfather was Martin Walsh and my great grandmother was Mary Gaughan (who was from the mainland). They had 7 children but only 2 were born on Inishkea south Island – Paddy Walsh and my Grandad Martin Walsh, the other 5 children were born on the mainland.
Hi my name is James McNulty and I live near Lincoln in England. I have also lived in Sligo and Dublin. My Grandad, Michael McNulty, was Sligo-born and he used to cycle to Glosh to court my Nan, Mary Monaghan, who was born on Inis Ce South.
I have been to the island some twenty odd years ago as a child. I now have three children of my own and while currently of limited means I would like to take my kids there camping next year, hopefully.
My question is, is this possible? Do I need permission? Are there any fees payable?
Nice to hear from you James.
As far as I am aware, there is no fee to camp on the Inishkeas – and if there is the country is gone to pot entirely.
Boat trips usually take place from June to September, depending on the weather.
Contact Eachléim Heritage and Visitor Centre who arrange boat trips to the Inishkea islands.
Click this link for Visitor Centre contact details.
I hope you have a lovely trip.
My grandfather was Pat Rua,… he was a survivor of the drowning .
There will be a new book launched in the coming weeks about the Inishkea Islands. The book is written by Tomas Reilly and entitled Amongst Our Own. The book launch will take place in St. Brendan’s Hall, Aughleam, on the 9th of July.
The launch of my book on the Inishkea people called AMONGST OUR OWN has had to be postponed. This was due to unavoidable and unseen delays and I am very sorry for this.
The launch should now take place in early September. The book indeed covers all of the families who lived on Inishkea down through the years and any one who wants to contact me can at
I lived in Glenamoy until 1970 and visited Inishkea as a 10-year-old in 1968. It was the kickstart of a lifelong interest in offshore islands and island life. Peig Sayers didn’t even put me off in secondary school.
Wonderful to read the accounts and memories of visitors and ancestors of these beautiful Islands. If we can learn anything from experiences of some other Western Islands it should be the importance of non-development and control of visitor numbers.
Islands are places of absolute charm and due reverence should be given to them. The more people and development that are allowed the greater the destruction.
There is a great case for treating the once inhabited accessible Islands of Ireland as National Parks and in so doing we may ensure their integrity and future for our forthcoming generations.
My grandfather, Patrick Cawley ( son of Roger Cawley and Bridget Lavelle ) was born here and lived on the islands with his family.
I took a trip many years ago to the Island with Martin McGuinness, the politician who sadly is no longer with us.
It was a memorable trip to this island which can only be described as a piece of heaven. It’s pure white sandy beaches and ultra clean blue waters are amazing. We met a group of students there – not sure where they came from – who were staying on the Island.
I stayed with my friends and had some tea and sandwiches which can only be described as one of the most beautiful and idyllic places in the world. I will return one day to this magical place as it is on my bucket list to visit once more and experience a little bit of heaven.
My great-grandfather, Patrick Lavelle (The Admiral),came from Inishkea North Island.
My father, Anthony Barrett, married to Mary Crean, was teaching on Iniskea North until they moved to Ballycroy in the 1930s. He then taught as Principal at Drumgallagh National School until he moved to Dublin in the late 1930s. He died in Dublin on 23rd July 1952.
My name is Caitlin Reilly Flanagan – my great grandmother Mary Reilly is the oldest of the Reilly (Rua) clan that lived on Inishkea south. She is the oldest of 7 and was the only one to immigrate to the US in the early 1900’s. Her brother Pat (Rua) Reilly passed in 2008 and was the last living survivor of the fishing tragedy of 1927 when the island lost 10+ young men in the storm – the remaining inhabitants of the island, including my family, were moved to the mainland a decade later to County Mayo.
I would love to know more about how inhabitants came to be on this island – why did people move here? Where did they come from? I am working on researching my family’s history and would love to know more about the pre-Christian people that lived on these islands.
Also, I am planning a trip to Ireland with my family and would love to know where I can go to access public records and do research on the islands – I’ve heard that Pat recorded much of the history of Inishkea south and I am eager to learn more.
I’d appreciate any resources you can share any thoughts you might have!
Thank you so much,
– Caity Reilly
Anthony Hickey replies
There are three excellent books about the Inishkeas that I can refer you to.
Amongst Our Own by a namesake of yours, Tomás Bán O’Raghallaigh is a wonderful account of the history of the islands by the son of an islander. It gives a unique and personal account of the people and what happened to them after they had to abandon the Inishkeas. I reviewed the book at this link.
Mayo’s Lost Islands The Inishkeas by Brian Dornan who made the islands the focus of his doctoral research at NUI Maynooth is a must-read book for anyone interested in the Inishkeas covering such topics as Physical Landscape, People, Economy and much more.
The Inishkea Journals by French art historian Françoise Henry is drawn from her personal diaries of living and working with the people of the Inishkeas and nearby Blacksod from the 1930s to the 1950s.
When you visit Mayo, you could also call into Ionad Deirbhile – Eachleim Heritage Centre to discover more about the Mullet and arrange a boat trip to the Inishkeas (usually only from June to August).
I hope this is helpful.
I paddled out to both Islands from Glosh on Aug 25, and found what I suspect is an old lance buried on the shoreline at the whaling station.
It has a pointed tip, and a triangular cross-section further down. I left it where I found it and took a shot of it.
There are multiple names written on the “plaster” of the gables of the old houses, similar to, but much older than those on Inishmurray (Sligo). Some were dated 2nd Aug ’84, but surely there wasn’t fresh plaster applied in 1984. On a roofless derelict house.. could it be 1884? They were very worn.
It’s an excellent sea kayak day-trip, well worth it. I wish I’d had a lot more time, but will be back and back.
I met a porpoise on the way back, they’re distinctive in having a small size, a blunt fin, And yes, whales are relatively commonplace especially in late Autumn through to February. Pilot whales in transit, resident Minke whales, common and bottlenose dolphins as well as the marvellous massive fin whale and sperm whales out offshore a bit more.
I’d hope to see more fin wales sightings form shore. Fishermen tell me more South off Achill is a better location.
Brendan, thanks for that wonderful account of your visit to the Inishkeas. It’s heartening to know that there is still a good population of whales and dolphins in the waters off The Mullet. It would be a different situation had the whaling station on Inishkea South become established long-term
Hi there, i enjoyed reading this article and I am fascinated by the stunning island pictures.
Could you tell me how to make contact with the families renting the holiday homes.
Paddy, I’m sorry I cannot help you with that. Contact the North Mayo Tourist Office in Pearse Street, Ballina, who may be able to help you.
(096) 72 800 and International +3539672 800.