Clew Bay—Quite Possibly Ireland’s Most Beautiful Coastline
British novelist and illustrator William Thackeray, wrote of Clew Bay after he visited in 1842: “The bay, with the Reek, which sweeps down to the sea, and a hundred islands in it, were dressed up in gold and purple, and crimson, with the whole cloudy west in a flame,” (Clew Bay Archaeological Trail, 2003, p 14).
Where is Clew Bay? And how did it come to be?
When nearing the end of the Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail, just above the base of Croagh Patrick, Clew Bay will be seen vividly below. Traditionally, it is said that Clew Bay houses 365 islands—one for each day of the year—however one can only count 117 islands, in actuality. Clew Bay is the inlet enclosed by Achill Island to the north, Louisburgh to the south, and by Westport to the west. Clare Island is situated right in the mouth of Clew Bay (Michigan State University, 2009). Experts say that these islands were caused by glaciation during the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. They contest that these islands were drumlins or smoothed over hills which ice sheets rounded over time. Presumably rising sea levels then submerged the base of these hills, and they became islands over time (Michigan State University, 2009). In modern times, individuals have become owners of some of these islands, although most of the islands remain uninhabited. For example, John Lennon of the Beatles bought an island called Dorinish More situated in Clew Bay, which can be visited to this day (Michigan State University, 2009).
Clew Bay in antiquity and the O’ Malley clan
Clew Bay was synonymous with the O’Malley clan during the Middle Ages. The most famous member of the clan was Grace O’Malley who was known as the ‘pirate queen.’ Her fortress, known as Rockfleet Castle, was situated near Newport in Co. Mayo (Mayo-Ireland, Rockfleet Castle, 2023). “Terra Marique Putens” was the O’ Malley clan’s motto which translates to “Valiant by sea and land.” (Mayo-Ireland, Clew Bay, 2023) Legend has it that West Mayo’s old Irish name “Umhall” could have been related to the Irish word for apples—which is ‘ull’ or ‘ubhall.’ This possibility is due to the fact that the islands of Clew Bay seem to resemble apples floating in water when viewed from on high (Mayo-Ireland, Clew Bay, 2023).
Clew Bay: A sunken graveyard for more than one ship
Clew Bay holds the dubious distinction of being, over the years, a hub for shipwrecks. Although Clare Island appears to shelter Clew Bay, frequent storms roll in from the Atlantic causing hazardous conditions. Sunken drumlins, submerged rockiness, and shingle bars make Clew Bay even more dangerous than it appears at first glance (Destination Westport, 2023). Some notable ship wrecks include two Spanish Armada ships—the El Gran Grin and the San Nicolas Prodaneli which sank in 1588. A pirate ship was wrecked in 1696 and a cargo ship on its way from the Caribbean sank in 1860. However, probably one of the most tragic stories is that of a hooker ship named ‘The Victory.’ It was carrying around 100 Achill Island potato harvesters, travelling to a steamship bound for Scotland in 1894. Sadly, the boat overturned and 30 people were drowned when its passengers hurried to one side of the hooker to catch a view of the Scotland bound steam ship in Westport Quay (Destination Westport, 2023).
Clew Bay Archaeological Trail, (2003). County Mayo: South West Mayo Development Company Ltd.
Destination Westport (2023). Six Clew Bay Secrets. Available at: https://www.destinationwestport.com/explore-westport/six-clew-bay-secrets. Accessed: 9th of March, 2023.
Mayo-Ireland (2023). Clew Bay. Available at: https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/wild-atlantic-way/clew-bay.html. Accessed: 9th of March, 2023.
Mayo-Ireland (2023). Rockfleet Castle, Newport in Co. Mayo. Available at: https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/newport/history/rockfleet-castle.html. Accessed 9th of March, 2023.
Michigan State University, Study Abroad Programme. (2009). Clew Bay. Internal Report: Folder 4, Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail—Clogher Environmental Group Ltd. Unpublished.