History of Clare Island


Clare Island’s Pirate Queen

The ruin of a Tower House dominates the harbour at the eastern edge of the island, reminding visitors of the long reign of the O’Malley Clan as rulers of the island and environs. The most famous occupant of the tower was Grace O’Malley or Grainuaile, Clare Island’s illustrious ‘pirate queen’ who was a 16th century contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I of England. In her book Granuaile: Grace O’Malley – Ireland’s Pirate Queen (March 2009), Anne Chambers describes her as ‘A fearless leader by land and by sea, political pragmatist and tactician, rebel, pirate and matriarch’, the ’most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland’. ‘Grace O’Malley challenges and manipulates the turbulent politics of the 16th century.’ A woman not to be trifled with by all accounts!

St Brigid’s Cistercian Abbey

There is a small, but very significant, Cistercian Abbey near the south coast of the island. It was patronised by the O’Malley Clan in the 13th century. It contains numerous O’Malley tombs, and, according to rumour, is where Grace O’Malley was baptized, married and buried. It is believed that her body was interred within the decorated tomb niche at the Abbey. The Abbey is also distinguished for its rare and well-preserved medieval roof & wall paintings and carved figureheads inserted into the south wall.

Its People & Past

Clare Island has a long history of habitation dating back to before 3500 B.C. The rich archaeological history of Clare Island is evident in its Iron Age huts and field systems, 10 promontory forts, 45 ‘fulachta fiadh’ (or cooking mounds), its megalithic ‘court cairn’ and many holy wells. Its landscape is criss-crossed by the remains of tillage ridges or ‘lazy beds’ from pre-famine times when the population reached its peak at 1,700 people in 1841. Potato blight and subsequent famine reduced the population by over a half. The island population is now around 130 but the number tends to increase during summer months.

The Clew Bay Archaeological Trail has erected signposts to several of the island’s archaeological sites to assist visitor exploration.