My friend Jes and I are planning a trip to Ireland this year. Her dream is to visit the Aran Islands, a stone’s throw away from either Doolin, County Clare or Rossaveal, County Galway–depending on where you want to catch a ferry. Having visited both the big island and the small island on previous trips, I welcome the chance to show her around and also cross off Inishmaan, the middle island, from my Ireland bucket list.
It got me thinking, though, I never gave the small island, Inisheer, the attention it deserved on my blog. I circled the big island, Inishmore, on a bicycle in 2015 and meticulously captured every last detail in writing. But, what happened to Inisheer?
Have you ever loved a place so much that it’s just hard to describe? Words couldn’t do it justice, and you fear sounding like a travel brochure if you tried? That was my problem–which isn’t fair to Inisheer, an island which gazes back at the Cliffs of Moher through the rusted hull of a shipwreck, patiently waiting for more visitors to discover her.
Like many places in Ireland, I think Inisheer is best suited for writers, musicians, and visual artists, people whose imaginations thrive in quiet places, who can perch themselves high on a hill and draw inspiration from the ocean, a sunset, or a sliver of land off in the distance. People who can see the beauty in ruins.
I spent my time there circling the island on foot so I could stop and photograph the flora, the cows, the never-ending limestone walls that zigzag across the island. The village, though modestly sized, somehow manages to feel like a maze as it slopes down to the beach. As you navigate the streets, you’ll find a cozy tea room or a pub in which to enjoy the scent of a fine whiskey and listen to traditional music.
The real danger with traveling in Ireland is that you leave your heart in so many different places. I certainly left a piece of mine on Inisheer.
I love ghost stories. From the haunted vaults of Edinburgh to the castles of Ireland, and from New England battlefields to the streets of New Orleans, I’ve taken every opportunity to scare myself silly. I even went through a phase in which I watched Ghost Hunters every week on the SyFy channel just to get travel ideas.
Years ago, before I’d ever set foot on Irish soil, Ghost Hunters investigated Leap Castle in County Offaly. With a gruesome history dating back to the 1500’s, it’s supposedly the most haunted castle in Ireland, if not all of Europe! So, I added it to my mental itinerary of terrifying places to go.
One of the reasons Leap (pronounced Lep not Leep) Castle is so haunted is because of the Bloody Chapel. The original owners, the O’Carroll family, once invited a rival clan to dinner and murdered the whole lot of them in the chapel. The O’Carolls tossed their bodies down an oubliette to rot. This was a fate that befell many unfortunate souls over the years; hundreds of skeletons were discovered in the 1920’s. (You can read the complete history on Leap Castle’s website.) Because of this, it’s believed that many spirits now haunt the castle, including something called The Elemental, the granddaddy of all big bad evil entities. (Some of you are now probably thinking, oh hell no! I’m never going in there!)
I finally gathered up the courage to visit last year. I called Sean Ryan, the castle’s current owner, and asked for a private tour. Tours are by appointment only; he keeps the gates closed to control access to the property. Otherwise, I imagine he’d have wanna-be ghost hunters and curious people like me wandering around at all hours of the day and night.
Sean Ryan is exactly the kind of person you’d expect to live in Leap Castle. A musician, he has long white hair that falls to his shoulders and full white beard. He’s a friendly man with a serious disposition who seems mentally formidable enough to take on a towerhouse full of ghosts. He invited me inside to sit by the fireplace, and as the wood cracked and hissed, he regaled me with stories about the castle. Then, he lead me to the stairway and gave me a flashlight.
“You’ll have to go up on your own,” he said. “I’ve had a little trouble with my knee.”
“But, the ghosts…” I said, joking. “They might get me!”
With an eerie, deadpan look he said, “There are no ghosts.”
Ghosts or no ghosts, walking up a narrow staircase with a flashlight by yourself can be a little unsettling. Especially when Sean closes the door behind you to “keep out the drafts.” And especially when the flashlight batteries start to fail, producing a strobe light effect in the darkness. After wending the stairs in the photo above, there was no electricity. I couldn’t imagine climbing those stairs at night like all those crazy people from numerous ghost-hunting shows. It was better than any makeshift haunted house experience back home!
The Bloody Chapel was at the top of the stairs. You’d think that with a name like “bloody chapel”, it’d be a bit scarier–that the air would be heavier and you’d feel a sense of foreboding or sadness. Maybe in the middle of the night when imaginations get the best of you, but during the day it felt…peaceful. With the sun shining, there was plenty of light in the chapel and a beautiful view of the Irish countryside.
Sean continues to work on renovations, and I hope to return some day to see how they progress. In the meantime, I hope he continues to welcome visitors and that people will consider donating to help with maintenance. (Castles are an expensive investment. I’ve looked into it!) Regardless of what ghosts may or may not haunt the place, Sean owns an interesting piece of Irish history, and I’m happy he’s chosen to open his home and share it with so many.
What’s the spookiest place you’ve ever visited? Tell me in the comments below!
I returned home from Ireland in June with 742 new pictures. Some of them will become part of future blog posts, some will end up on Facebook or in my online gallery. Most of them will never leave my computer. One of the challenges I have after each trip is to decide what photo to edit first. This was especially difficult this time as there weren’t any once-in-a-lifetime-photos, nothing that will probably ever grace the pages of a magazine. But, as a complete unit, the pictures tell the story of my trip. Altogether, they capture Ireland. Here is a sample of some of the photos I’ve managed to edit so far. There are still many more to come. Enjoy!
I’ve been fascinated with abandoned monastic sites, famine villages, and other ruins ever since I first visited Ireland seven years ago. As their bones slowly crumble into the earth, ancient buildings leave you wondering about what life would have been like anywhere from 50 to 1,500 years ago.
Achill Island has its deserted village, tucked away on the southern slopes of Slievemore Mountain. Skellig Michael has its beehive huts, found ten miles off the coast of County Kerry. And Glendalough has a monastic city, complete with round tower, in the middle of the Wicklow Mountains. Just to name a few. There are literally hundreds of ruins scattered across Ireland. I’ve seen quite a few of them over the years. So, when I landed at Shannon airport last May, I was surprised to find that I’d actually missed a major site!
Mixed in with the various travel brochures that I sometimes peruse for ideas, I found an advertisement for Scattery Island while waiting for my rental car. Located in the Shannon Estuary and less than an hour from the airport, the uninhabited island boasted a monastic settlement, abandoned village and a lighthouse–a trifecta of deserted Irish treasure!
Scattery Island Tours is a family run business that started operating in May, ferrying passengers to the island several times a day. The staff is outstanding. From the moment you pick up your ticket and board the ferry until the moment you’re back at the marina, you feel like a welcomed guest. Part of the reason for that is the small group sizes—there were only seven people on my tour, although (I think) they could fit up to twelve on the boat—so you don’t feel like just a number.
Plus, I love traveling by boat; it feels especially adventurous, like you’re really going somewhere. Leaving Kilrush Marina, the ferry actually passes through a lock. This was a first for me. The tide was out, so it took a few minutes for the water level to fall so we could exit into the estuary. Once out, it only took about ten minutes to get to the island.
Our guide was already waiting for us on shore. He led our humble group of seven down the ecclesiastical path (the easier of two walking trails), regaling us with tales of angels and of venerated saints who drove monsters from the island. Legends were mixed with the history of St. Senan, Vikings, and, most recently, fisher-farmers who occupied the island until about 1970.
After an hour-long tour, we were free to explore at our own pace. A second path led to a lighthouse and artillery battery. A few people walked the twenty minutes or so to get there while I explored the old main street and enjoyed the silence. I think that was one of my favorite things about the island–how quiet it was. I remember walking behind the village, surrounded by trees and tall grasses, and hearing nothing except the rustling of leaves and a few bees chasing each other down the path. It was just good for the soul.
Don’t let this tour escape you. If you’re in the area, it’s worth adding to your vacation itinerary.
Near the village of Glenbeigh on the Ring of Kerry, Ireland
I have never counted all the pictures I took while living in Ireland. There are probably thousands. I keep them in folders labeled by County and by month, and whenever I need to visit Ireland, I just open Kerry or Clare or Galway and rediscover what made my summer there so special. This shot of Rossbeigh Beach caught my eye the other day. With all of my thousands of photos of Ireland, I’d missed it and never edited it. I hope that keeps happening – that some previously undiscovered image will randomly capture my attention on a day when I need it the most.
Last summer I read an article about a tiny Irish island that would welcome American refugees if Donald Trump is elected President of the United States. It was a joke, of course, probably meant to drum up some tourism.
During every election season stretching as far back as I can remember, Americans threaten to leave the country if their candidate loses. And on the Wednesday morning following every election night, those same people get ready for work and carry on as usual. However, this being an especially contentious election, I thought some voters might finally make good on those threats. Would that tiny Irish island be a good place for American “refugees”? I thought it might be prudent to check it out and report back. (Or, more truthfully, I was just looking for another excuse to return to Ireland…)
Anyway, two weeks after reading the article I was standing on Roonagh Pier, waiting to catch a passenger-only ferry to Inishturk, an island 14 km off the coast of County Mayo. The wind whipped my hair as I listened to stories about a storm that had blown through two days earlier. The ferry operators warned that the waters were still a little choppy, so we should all be careful and hold on. I have never been seasick but worried about the hour-long journey nonetheless.
A dozen passengers and a few crew members boarded the ferry. Some stayed inside the cabin. I chose to stand on deck and keep my eyes on the horizon. The waves were a little rough at first, but by the time we arrived on Inishturk, the waters were much smoother.
And you know what? I’m glad (kind of, not really) Donald Trump ran for President because if not, I’d have never heard of Inishturk! I don’t know that I’d ever live there (it’s very remote), but I’d definitely go back for a week just to disconnect from all the daily noise that can make life so exhausting sometimes.
If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, whether to escape politics or just for fun, there are several great reasons to choose Inishturk island.
Reason 1: Peace and Quiet
Approximately 58 residents live on Inishturk. You could probably meet each one in an afternoon on your 5 km walk around the island. And forget theaters, fancy eateries, and shopping centers. There is a beautiful community center that functions as a restaurant, pub, and library and there are only a few B&B’s from which to choose. It’s the simple life at its best. Writers, photographers, and artists will love a visit.
Reason 2: The People I stayed at Tranaun Beach House, strategically located next to the community center/restaurant/pub. It’s a bit of a hike from the pier, so my host, Phylomena Heaney, drove down to pick me up.
The aroma of freshly baked bread greeted me at the front door of the B&B. Phylomena ushered me into the dining room, serving me tea and scones as I enjoyed a view of the Ireland’s west coast. She was so hospitable and kind – like everyone else I met during my stay. Islanders and other tourists simply wanted to stop and chat, and even though I’d traveled there alone, I never once felt lonely.
Reason 3: Sheep! I met Farmer Heaney (Phylomena’s brother-in-law, I believe) on my walk around the island. He’d herded his sheep into a pen because some of them needed a fresh coat of paint. Farmers spray paint sheep with their mark as a means of identification. I’d never seen this done before, so he let me observe and take some pictures.
Reason 4: The Scenery Fresh air and a decent view. I couldn’t ask for much more…
Reason 5: Hiking As I’ve mentioned, it’s a 5 km walk around the island. The first part is all uphill from the pier, and it’s a great workout after spending so much time in airplanes, rental cars, and ferries to get there.
During my hike, I witnessed the islanders setting up for a festival that would expand their population from 58 to 150 over the weekend. I was tempted to stay on for that, but, as you can imagine, all of the B&B’s were booked and tents filled.
BONUS Reason: On my way back to the mainland the next morning, several dolphins swam towards the ferry! They stayed alongside us for a few moments before diving below the surface and disappearing. Even the seasoned ferry captain was excited to see them!
Some tips before you go:
Ask your hosts if they need anything from the mainland. It’s expensive and time-consuming to go off-island. They’ll appreciate the offer.
Bring your Wellies! This goes for Ireland in general, but it’s especially helpful here. Your hike around the island will take you off road and through some soggy hillsides. Totally worth it for the view, though!
Inishbofin is a small island off the coast of County Galway, Ireland. With a population of 170 and accessible only by ferry, it’s a quiet retreat away from the mainland. My favorite part about visiting was renting a bicycle and exploring the beaches…and having them all to myself!
Thanks to Bellingham-based Southside Living for publishing my first article about travel photography!
If you were in a position to sell your home, car, and other possessions to finance a dream, where would you go? Last year, I quit my corporate job and booked a one-way ticket to Ireland. My dream was to rent a cottage by the sea and explore the rugged Wild Atlantic Way with my camera, building a portfolio that could one day lead to freelance opportunities. Giving up a steady paycheck to take pictures may seem foolish, but I contend that travel is an investment in the soul, gold in your life’s vault of experience.
Seeing the world through a viewfinder also taught me valuable lessons about travel photography. There is an art to it, and whether you’re a seasoned photographer trying to catch the eye of a National Geographic editor or a casual tourist with a selfie stick, there are several ways to make your travel photos more memorable.
First of all, you are not at a disadvantage without an expensive DSLR and a bag full of lenses. A friend of mine used to say, “The best camera is the one you have on you.” I wouldn’t trade the quality and clarity of the photos produced on my DSLR for landscapes, but I could go without the inconvenience of lugging that beast through the streets of big cities. Not only did it attract attention, it was heavy and I got tired of carrying it around. A good point-and-shoot or cellphone camera would have been a viable alternative, something I could have easily slipped in and out of a purse to snap stealthy pictures of buskers and Dublin street scenes.
Whatever your camera choice, I recommend taking a walk through your destination before the first shutter actuation. Explore, gather a sense of the local ethos. What emotion do you want to evoke with a photograph?
I lived in Sneem last summer, a village in southwest Ireland along the popular Ring of Kerry. Say it out loud: Sneem. It sounds like a fictitious place, a hobbit stop on the way to Mordor. Pastel buildings line what passes for a main street, the corner store sells duck eggs that bulge out of repurposed cartons, and tourists wander in and out of ice cream shops in a trance. A river thunders down from Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, bisecting the village with waters the color of a freshly poured Guinness. I could have taken pictures of everything! But, I wanted to photograph the right subjects at the right time.
This meant getting up early and staying up late. For example, a castle I was particularly fond of filled with tourists during the day, and the sun cast harsh shadows on it—elements unfavorable for a good travel photograph. Instead, I woke up early before the tourists and caught the gentle morning light. The same castle was far more dramatic with fog rolling through its hollow shells, peaceful in a sleepy meadow.
For serious photographers, I recommend taking a tripod and capturing the same scene in the evening. The magic begins when the sun drops, bathing the earth in gold. The sky following a storm is also quite dramatic as rainbows push back the darkness.
Understandably, there are times when you will be taking pictures during the harsh light of day. In this case, use your flash. This will fill out the shadows in the faces of your families and friends, capturing a far more flattering image.
Consider the composition of your photograph. Don’t just stand there—move! Try out different angles or put an object in the foreground to show scale.
Get off the beaten path! When going to Ireland, everyone wants to visit the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, and the Guinness Storehouse. The Ring of Kerry is often so clogged with tour busses you can hardly make your way through Killarney during the daytime. And while there is value in going to those places, ask the locals for advice. One of the best pieces of advice I got was to visit the Beara Peninsula. It’s one of the well-guarded secrets in southwest Ireland. Between megalithic sites, sandy beaches, and passes, it’s heaven on earth for the budding travel photographer…and none of the tourists seem to have discovered it yet!
Above all, don’t be afraid to put the camera down and savor the moment. Talk to the locals and listen to the lilt of an accent. Enjoy the fragrance of a peat fire lacing the air with its earthy sweetness. Feel the way your nose tingles after a few sips of Guinness. There’s so much that can’t be captured on camera.
Of all the lessons I learned in Ireland, the most important was this: dare to dream beyond the borders of your hometown. Travel, if you can. Have adventures, big and small. Fall in love with the world and your one precious life. That’s the real ticket we should all purchase.
I was lost. Fog had rolled into Achill Island, obscuring any familiar landmarks that may have helped guide me back to Achill Sound and the bridge to the mainland. I’d lost cellphone signal and couldn’t use GPS. There were no County Mayo maps in the rental car either. I had this sense that maybe I’d passed from one life to the next, and my fate was to drive aimlessly around the island for all eternity. It was at this point, when I’d resolved myself to an afterlife of driving in circles, that I saw a sign pointing to a Deserted Village. Sounds like the opening scene in a horror movie, doesn’t it?
Well, I had seen The Deserted Village on maps and knew it was to the north of the island, and this helped reorient me. So, with a few hours of daylight remaining, I decided to explore it. At first I couldn’t pick out the village on southern slope of Slievemore Mountain, but as I drew near, rows of crumbling stone cottages became visible.
When driving around County Mayo, the ruins of Famine-era cottages can be seen dotting the hillsides. They blend into sloping pasture lands and are easy to miss and impossible to get to because they’re on private property or off dangerous roads. Needless to say, I was thrilled to finally find some that were accessible and to examine them up close through the lens of my camera. Nearly 100 cottages stand in various levels of decay along the base of the mountain, stretching out across a quiet mile.
After parking next to a modern cemetery, I walked up a gravel road that wended through time. A village full of ghosts rose before me, and I stood there, unsettled, to be the only living soul. Normally, I liked exploring attractions on my own, but on this occasion, I wouldn’t have minded another tourist or two… The fog didn’t help matters. It was a damp blanket over my head and shoulders, so I decided not go very far on the cold that day (I returned a few days later in the sunshine). When I left the road to explore the first set of ruins, the spongy ground soaked my shoes almost immediately.
The terrain was uneven due to falling stones and also because of the lazy-bed fields, systems that redirect rainwater coursing downhill into deep furrows that—at one time—separated potato beds. Some of the furrows were too wide to jump across, and I had return to the path to climb up another section of the village.
As I wandered from one cottage to the next, I tried to imagine what life would have been like 150 years ago—peat fire smoke hanging in the air, sheep bleating, children running barefoot through the hills while their fathers gathered the potato crop and mothers tended the kitchens. To walk through The Deserted Village is to fall into the past, to commune with yesterday’s ghosts and to think about how, from one generation to the next, our basic needs always stay the same: food and water, shelter, love. A sense of purpose.
I came to the conclusion that there are those destined to circle Achill Island for eternity, and they occupy Slievemore Mountain. Why not visit Achill Island and see them (the cottages or the ghosts…) for yourself? Just cache your Google map before heading out. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a pair of Wellies!