Visitors to Killarney usually ask some variant of the “what it is that I should see when in Killarney?” question. There are dozens of answers, but a trip to Innisfallen Island is not always included in the “must see” list. It should be. Innisfallen is a magical, special place that needs only a couple of hours of your time. In return, you will be rewarded with an enchanting experience that will linger long after you leave the island.
It was a very early summer’s morning many years ago when the magic of Innisfallen was marked indelibly in my mind. We were on a boat heading out from Ross Castle with the morning chill still in the air. The early sun had not yet burnt away the mist that clung to the surface of the lake. As we passed Library Point on Ross Island and set the boat facing towards the McGillycuddy Reeks, we were greeted with the sight of a group of deer swimming towards Innisfallen. We cut the engines immediately to observe the wondrous animals making their way across Lough Leane. With only their heads and antlers protruding from the water, they made their way smoothly through the water. The only sound was of the water rippling and the occasional great snort from the deer as they controlled their breathing with ease on their morning dip. Within minutes, they reached the shore of Innisfallen and nimbly plucked themselves from the chilly water. They paused to shake themselves dry, gave one last look at us and disappeared into the quite woods of the island. Ever since that day, I’ve been drawn to the island. It’s a magical place that never loses its charm.
Innisfallen is the largest island on Lough Leane, which is the largest of the three Lakes of Killarney. One translation of Lough Leane is “the lake of learning”. It is thought that the scholarly history of Innisfallen gave the lake its name. Although the island is situated only a short boat ride from the nearby Ross Castle, it feels like you are a million miles away once you step on to the shores of Innisfallen.
One of the reasons that make the island such a great place to visit is the variety of attractions the island provides. Innisfallen ticks many of the boxes for those interested in beautiful scenery, nature, history, folklore and a plentiful dose of fresh air in a peaceful, secluded location. The short boat trip to and from the island also provides an opportunity to hear some tall tales about the island from your driver.
How Do I Get There?
For most people, a trip to Innisfallen Island starts from Ross Castle. The Castle is just over 2km from the centre of Killarney town. You can get there on the main road (Ross Road) or alternatively via Killarney National Park. The route through the National Park is for non-motorised vehicles so you can walk, cycle or perhaps take a jaunting car ride from the town centre. During the summer months there are a couple of shuttle bus services that will take you there or you can get a taxi from the rank in the town centre. The route through Killarney National Park is a fantastic way to go to Ross Castle and it is recommended to go this way if you can. You could combine it with a lap of the Circular Walk in Knockreer if you have some more time.
Once you arrive at Ross Castle, there a couple of ways to get to Innisfallen. Swimming to the island is not recommended – this is best left to the fish and deer! (If you’re lucky, you might get to spot some of the deer swimming to the island when the lake is calm) It is possible to hire a row boat and make your way across on your own muscle power. If you prefer kayaking, then you can also book a kayak trip where you will be accompanied to Innisfallen by a tour guide. The open motorised boats at Ross and Reen pier will take you to the island in less than 10 minutes. The covered waterbus tours that operate from Ross Castle do not land on the island but you’ll get a glimpse of the ruins of the Abbey as you pass the island.
Innisfallen Island has no facilities so bring anything you may need with you before you depart. There are toilet facilities in Ross Castle as well as a small snack and coffee shop during the summer months. The weather can change quickly on the lake so be prepared for this before you set off. There is a rough trail around the island that varies from grassy to muddy in parts so bring appropriate footwear. It’s pretty smooth in most areas and flat for the most part. If it’s summer time when you visit, be prepared for some of the local midge population to accompany you at times!
Innisfallen is a special place at any time but maybe the desolation of a wet and windy winter’s day is not the best time to visit. (Unless you want to really get a feel for what it was like in times gone by….). The boats typically travel from early Spring to late Autumn and weather permitting. I always find that early in the morning is the best time of day to go. The lake is quieter, the animals are more active and there’s a special beauty in the morning light as it climbs over Ross Castle on the shore.
On the Water
Whatever craft you choose to get you to Innisfallen make sure to enjoy the actual trip out to the island. The journey from Ross Castle across Lough Leane to the island is part of the magic of a visit to Innisfallen. The scenery is beautiful and you get a wonderful perspective of the surrounding mountains and islands when you are on the water. During the spring, you will pass many nesting sites for the swans that inhabit Lough Leane on your way to Innisfallen.
Look out too for cormorants perched on the rocks or one of the white tailed eagles that now reside in Killarney National Park.
“Will I get wet?” is a common question that is asked by those considering a boat trip to Innisfallen. You are travelling across a lake after all, so you may get a few splashes over the edge of the boat. Generally speaking, there is no reason to expect any soaking! Unless of course it comes from the skies above…. There is a solid pier at the island so you don’t have to wade through the water or anything like that. If you are rowing yourself, the splash count will be completely down to your own rowing skills! Remember that it will be a bit cooler on the lake than on land so even on the warmest of days, it is advisable to bring something warm for the boat trip. For the open boat trip, life jackets are mandatory and will be provided for you.
As you approach the island and exit Ross Bay, the expanse of Lough Leane becomes visible as it stretches to meet the McGillycuddy Reeks range to the south-west and the low hills of Aghadoe and beyond to the north. The pier on the island where you will come ashore edges closer. Behind the pier lies the ruins of the Abbey. At this point, you may also catch a glimpse of some of the deer that reside on the island. The deer that inhabit Innisfallen are quite numerous so if you are quiet, there is a good chance you will spot them as you explore the island.
Saints & Scholars (& Lepers)
Ireland was known as the island of saints and scholars in the past, and Inis Faithleann (The island of Faithleann) played its part in establishing this reputation for learning, teaching and religious devotion. A monastery was established here by Faithleann in the 7th century and the famed ‘Annals of Innisfallen’ were compiled and completed by the resident monks over the course of a few hundred years. It is reputed that Brian Boru, a famous high king of Ireland, received his education here.
The original 7th century buildings no longer remain. The ruins you see on the island now are from a more recent 12th century Augustinian priory. The central cloister area has similarities to that in Muckross Abbey and the present day Franciscan Friary in Killarney town. During these times, the island also served as a leper colony. In more recent times, Innisfallen was used as a venue for banquets and entertaining guests visiting the Kenmare estate. A wonderful book that goes into great detail about the history of Innisfallen and much, much more is Killarney – History & Heritage by Jim Larner. It is a great reference book and entertaining coffee table book that you can dive into over and over again.
Once you land on the island, you should take plenty of time to explore. If you have arrived by boat, you will probably be given approximately one hour on the island before you are picked up for the return journey. If you have the time, try and get some more time on the island. If you agree this up front with the boatman, there should be no issue. Bring a picnic or some snacks and get the most out of your time on the island. The trail on the island takes less than half an hour to walk. However, head off the beaten track as you go – remember, you’re on a small island so it should be difficult to get lost!
There are some beautiful secluded little bays and stony beaches on the western side of the island. On the northern shore, there is a makeshift landing spot. This sheltered area is often used to land when the prevailing southerly and western winds are high. It is believed that this was the original landing spot used by the monks.
Tip: If you are being collected by boat and they are not too busy, you might be able to get the boatman to do a quick lap of the island if you ask them nicely….
As you make your way around the island, you may catch glimpses of the deer that inhabit the island. Their camouflage can make them hard to spot but the lack of any predators makes them relatively comfortable in the presence of humans. Be sure to keep your distance if you are visiting during the annual rutting season in late September / October.
There are three main ruins of interest on Innisfallen Island: The main abbey structure that greets you when you disembark on the pier, and two other smaller oratories close by (one right near the pier). Let yourself wander through the ruins and get a feel for life on the island in years gone by. It is a lovely place to amble around with only the distant hum of the motors on the boats reminding you of the 21st century you left behind at the mainland.
A lovely circuit of the island will tempt you away from the ruins once you have finished exploring.
A grassy path leads away from the back of the ruins – or you can head off to the left as you come up from the pier. It is a looped trail so it doesn’t matter which way you go. The path hugs the shoreline for a while but also veers inland into the woods where the island is at its most peaceful. Take some time to wander down some of the stony beaches at the back of the island. There are some spurs off the trail to some of the inlets where you can maybe take a break and listen to the waves lapping on to the shore.
Tip: Bring your picnic/snack with you and stop off along the trail. If you are with others on the island, you may not have sole access to the picnic table at the Abbey! There are plenty of suitable spots for a picnic along the way.
The Gift of Innisfallen
I remember hearing at some stage that Innisfallen Island was given as a 21st birthday gift to one of the daughters of the previous owners of what is now Killarney National Park. I don’t know whether this is true or not or if it has been mixed up with the story of Muckross Estate being purchased by Mr Bourne as a wedding gift to his daughter. Either way, this story was in my head as I cycled back to Killarney town that sunny day when we saw the deer swimming to Inisfallen. I had just turned 21 and the bicycle underneath me was the present I got for reaching that milestone. Not quite the same as getting an enchanted island in beautiful Lough Leane. But the sight of those deer gliding across the lake to Innisfallen in the morning mist was a gift that has stayed with me ever since.
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