The Saw Doctors song was the back-drop to our successful 75th. anniversary outing to Clare Island - the largest in Clew Bay. Having seen John Feehan’s presentation to the Royal Irish Academy about Robert Lloyd Praeger’s exploration of Clare, I suggested a field trip in the steps of one of our founders and our 1st. President, led by John. He is the author of books on every aspect of the natural and cultural heritage of the Irish landscape. Smooth organisation of the trip was undertaken by Annette McCaul, our membership secretary. Most of the 29? travellers went by train to Westport, which is very sociable and scenic. 

Following a bus to Roonagh pier and ferry to the island we got settled in our accommodation. We took over most of the island’s tourist beds!? On the 1st. Evening, John gave us an interesting presentation on the island in the community centre. It doubles up as the bar and restaurant on the island! Later islanders put on a trad music session in our honour in the bar, which was very enjoyable. Our own Annette ventured up and performed 2 fine songs! 

The next day, armed with a picnic lunch and loads of suncream due to the hot weather, we set out on an 8-hour trek around the island led by the indefatigable John. He showed us the geological, biological, farming and cultural aspects of Clare Island. We learned about how life changed after the Great Famine, with the Congested Districts Board reorganising island land use.  Population was 1,600 then – it’s now 161. The 13th.century Cistercian Abbey with medieval wall paintings was a highlight. John showed us how Bird’s Foot Trefoil got its name! The southern cliffs were impressive with good birdwatching. The large internal dry stone wall caught the eye in several places. 

John’s views on the ecology of the island attracted a number of queries from the An Taisce members assembled. Issues raised included the tree history of the island, rewilding, sheep and farming sustainability in the 21st. Century. This later led to good debate in the community bar over a bottle of local craft beer – Mescan (named after brewer to St. Patrick) - brewed near Croagh Patrick.  

We had our picnic near Knocknaveen, one of the hills on the island and had great views all around Clew Bay and up Croagh Patrick. Later, some of us got in a swim in a sheltered beach, by climbing over rocks beside Grace O’Malley’s castle. Presumably she would have used it as her private bathing place! It has a Blue Flag. There was some evidence of jellyfish, but it didn’t spoil the swim. 

In the evening we had a combined vegetarian dinner in Macalla farm. We had 4 courses made with mostly island-sourced produce. John hopped tables to talk to most of the participants. Afterwards, Ciara brought us for a dusk tour of her ancient wood and her tree & hedgerow planting that is augmenting the wood. I hugged the >200-year-old oak tree there! This wood appeared in the RTE Wild Isles series about Ireland’s western islands. On leaving, John came down to the quay to say goodbye which was good of him. On arriving home, I have resolved to continue reading John Feehan’s book – Every Bush Aflame: Science, God and the Natural World. I put it down as it was a bit of a studied read. However, having spent time with him, I am interested in engaging with his philosophy on the living world. 

 My party stayed on for a few extra hours in Westport to see the sights there, before returning to Dublin. Two fine churches, the Carrowbeg river and Westport House are worth exploring. The house was rebuilt in the 18th. century with 3 well-known architects. They were Richard Cassels, who built (1730) the east section of the house facing the town, and later Thomas Ivory and James Wyatt, who built the other three façades to form a quadrangle. There is a fine waxworks room where famous cultural figures, including W.B. Yeats & Lady Gregory are on display. 

 It was agreed by all that we had a great time on Clare Island and got to know our fellow An Taisce members and that we should do more outings like this in the future. Any ideas?

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