Garinish and Inisheer, Ireland: Ireland's most intriguing islands

As an automated safety briefing plays over the speakers of Harbour Queen II, the Irish ferryman glances up to the heavens and makes a sign of the cross. Then he looks at us, his serious face cracks into a grin as if to say, "I'm only messing with you, so I am", and, with the boat's engine droning away, we leave the tiny village harbour of Glengarriff and buzz out into Bantry Bay, a sheltered inlet of the Atlantic Ocean in County Cork, south-west Ireland.

Peeking out of our blue-painted vessel, we spot a colony of seals, clambering and slobbing about on rocky outcrops. Also catching the eye, lacing the verdant, rolling hills overlooking the bay, are white cottages with grey sloping roofs and chunky chimneys. One house, we're told, belonged to Maureen O'Hara, the late Irish-born Hollywood star who spent her twilight years back in her homeland.

Ireland is always a beguiling place to visit, but May is particularly uplifting. The weather, granted, can be patchy (on our nine-day Countryside of the Emerald Isle tour, we're treated to a mix of drizzle, cloud and sunshine). But the spring blooms make the already lush, lovely landscapes even lovelier, and today Bantry Bay is brightened by flashes of purple from the rhododendrons that carpet its banks and islets.

We're treated to more vivid floral displays on Garinish Island, where our ferry docks after a 10-minute crossing. Also called Garnish Island – or Ilnacullin, its Gaelic name – it's one of hundreds of islands anchored off the Irish mainland. When Belfast politician John Annan Bryce acquired it from the British War Office in 1910, it was a mostly barren 15-hectare island. Over the following decades, the Bryces, eminent English architect and landscape gardener Harold Peto and Scottish horticulturalist Murdo Mackenzie transformed Garinish into the idyll it is today.

We mosey around the sublime, serene grounds, which stretch out from the old stone Bryce family home and gardener's cottage. There's birdsong in the air, damp, leafy aromas and sweet floral scents. Thanks to a humid microclimate, helped by the warming currents of the Gulf Stream, Garinish, like other parts of western Ireland and Britain, sustains plants that would usually struggle to flourish at this latitude (we're level with Newfoundland and southern Siberia).

Creeping through a shaded "jungle", I pass prehistoric ferns from Tasmania and New Zealand. A Huon Pine endemic to Tassie, a Black Pine from Japan, a Chilean flame tree, and azalea, magnolia, camellia and rhododendron, are among the shrubs and plants lining "happy valley", a glade book-ended by a Martello Tower – built in the early 19th century to thwart a potential Napoleonic invasion – and a Grecian temple. Both have glorious vantage points over Bantry Bay and you might spot white-tailed sea eagles, an endangered bird reintroduced here in recent years.

The most photogenic pocket of this island, whose gardens change appearance with the seasons, and are forever at the mercy of Atlantic storms, is the wisteria-clad Casita, an Italian-style teahouse with colonnades of Bath stone and a floor of green Connemara marble. The building is flanked on one side by a walled garden and a lawn for tennis and croquet; on the other there's a sunken garden with a pond and a statue of a flying Mercury. When the sun comes out, it almost feels like we're in the Mediterranean. Or Brazil. One of the mountains looming in the distance is a 574 metre peak nicknamed Sugarloaf.

Bequeathed to the Irish people in 1953, Garinish Island will long stay in the memory. And so, too, will Inisheer (or Inis Oirr), where we spend the penultimate night of our tour. It's the smallest of the three Aran Islands off Galway Bay, about eight kilometres from the fabled Cliffs of Moher. We gaze at those spectacular, wave-lashed cliffs on the choppy 30-minute ferry ride to Inisheer, where we're greeted by Una McDonagh, one of the warm, engaging characters of this one-village island, whose 280-strong population speaks Gaelic first, English second.

Una, fluent in both languages, grew up on Inisheer and, with husband John, runs Cafe Una, one of a handful of eateries and watering holes within stumbling distance of the harbour. Una also leads tours of this eight-square-kilometre island, which has few cars, but plenty of bikes and horses for visitors to get around on. We hop in a trailer pulled by a tractor driven by Una's friend Aine, who is a teacher.

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"We all multi-task here," says Una, as we pass the island's school, airstrip and Caribbean-esque beach, a white-sand cove kissed by deceptive turquoise waters (you'll probably want to swim in a wetsuit). Chugging inland, and uphill, we pass an extraordinary labyrinth of ancient dry limestone walls. They're a feature of the Aran islands. The boulders piled on top of each other divide small enclosures that hide vegetable plots and grazing cows and horses. Some walls are strangled by vegetation while others can be disassembled to allow entry or exit and are then rebuilt.

Aine stops the tractor near the ghostly wreck of MV Plassy, a rusting trawler that ran aground in 1960 and stars in the opening credits of Father Ted, an Irish comedy series set on fictional Craggy Island. This shipwreck is one of the newer relics on Inisheer, which was first settled by humans about 4000 years ago and has only had electricity and television for the past 50.

In early Christian times, Inisheer was a centre of learning known as the Island of Saints and Scholars. Una leads us to the tomb of the island's patron saint, Caomhan (Kevin), by the sunken ruins of a church that's seemingly been swallowed by the earth. Each St Kevin's Day, June 14, an open-air mass is held here.

We carry on to a ruined hilltop medieval castle from which one family, the O'Briens, once ruled the island. There are spellbinding views over Inisheer's colourful cluster of houses, green-grey landscapes and the neighbouring Arans where, like this island, traditional fishing and farming industries have now been supplemented by tourism.

Pausing at Inisheer's arts centre, Una tells us about famous Aran crafts, like the patterned woollen sweaters that you see in shops across Ireland. Those are mostly machine-produced on the mainland, but the original skills endure here as Una proves later with a knitting class.

A hapless knitter, I instead walk on Inisheer's wilder, windswept western coast, passing eerie, sprawling slabs of limestone and squawking seabirds. Then I head to Tigh Ruairi (Rory's House), a cosy inn where we stay overnight and enjoy pints of Guinness and Sunday roast beef at the adjoining bar, whose walls are lined with photographs of Gaelic sports teams and bygone snaps of Inisheer.

The next morning, some of our group have spa treatments – from back massages to seaweed therapies. Una shows us how to make a St Brigid's Cross. Islanders would put these four-armed crosses, woven with plant rushes, outside their homes to ward off danger and evil spirits. With help from my fellow weavers, I cobble one together and carefully place it in my backpack to take home. I figure my 93-year-old, mass-going grandma might appreciate it.

She'd like Inisheer, too. It has a rugged beauty, friendly aura and a timeless charm. Crime is virtually non-existent and there are no Gardai (police) stationed here. But it's not stuck in the past. Everyone dresses as they would on the mainland, there's good Wi-Fi (including in Rory's House), and the Gaggia coffee machine at Una's means you can even get a flat white.

FIVE MORE ISLANDS TO VISIT IN IRELAND

SKELLIG MICHAEL

An ancient pilgrimage site for monks, this UNESCO World Heritage site came to wider public attention in 2015 when Luke Skywalker re-appeared here in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

INNISFALLEN

Sika deer roam around a ruined abbey on this tranquil island in the lakes of Killarney National Park, nicknamed "Ireland's Lake District".

ACHILL ISLAND

Surfers flock to catch waves off Ireland's largest island, which is linked to the mainland's County Mayo by bridge and is etched with mountains, beaches and peat bogs.

GREAT BLASKET ISLANDS

Dolphins and minke, humpback and killer whales are spotted in the waters off this archipelago near the Dingle Peninsula.

RATHLIN ISLAND

Seabirds, including puffins, gather on the cliffs off Northern Ireland's northernmost point, an island with striking lighthouses and Viking graves.

TRIP NOTES

Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette.

MORE

traveller.com.au/ireland

ireland.com

TOUR

Collette's nine-day Countryside of the Emerald Isle begins in Dublin and ends in Ennis (Shannon), with stops in destinations including Kinsale, Killarney and Inisheer. It's priced from $3349 a person. See gocollette.com.au

FLY

Emirates and Qantas fly to Dublin from Sydney and Melbourne via Dubai. See emirates.com/au/english; qantas.com/au

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