An island walk in Sligo

Many of you fortunate enough to have visited Innismurray Island off the north Sligo coast will have been captivated by the sense of tranquillity around the place. It can be hard to remove ourselves from the noise and activity of daily life, but by spending time on an island, you can get away from any sounds of traffic and people, and the couple of hours you spend there are food for the soul.

One of 14 stone pillars which guide you from the mainland to Coney Island Sligo (photo Micheál Ó Domhnaill)

It’s a pity that the situation has arisen that – for the moment at least – people are unable to visit Innismurray due to the lack of suitable docking facilities there. But for anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours in peace and quiet, a visit to another of Sligo’s islands – Coney Island – is both convenient and rewarding.

Coney Island is probably one of the few islands anywhere in Ireland that can be reached entirely on foot. There are other options – plenty of cars head out across the strand at low tide, and boats cross over from Rosses Point – but the best way of all is to walk there, it’s easy to access, fun for the kids and a great alternative to crowded beaches on a sunny afternoon.

So pack the picnic, bring the suncream and water, and head off for a few hours – if you time it right you might even have the place to yourself.

To get to Coney Island, drive towards Strandhill from Sligo, turning right towards Cummeen Strand, where you’ll see a sign for the island. There are several places along this short stretch of road where you can park with care before crossing the strand and following the line of 14 large stone pillars which line the route to the island itself.

Carty’s strand on Coney Island – one of the most beautiful beaches in Sligo (photo Micheál Ó Domhnaill)

One of the important things to remember about any trip to Coney Island is to be aware of the tide times. The bay fills and empties twice a day – and quicker than you might expect – and there have been many stories down the years of motorists who had cars stuck in the tide or people who had to stay out on the island because they hadn’t taken account of the tide times.

For the past couple of years, a very useful text service provided by the RNLI during Summer months provides up to date information on tide times for people who visit the island. Text the word Coney to 53600 (from Rep of Ireland mobiles) or 81400 (from NI/UK mobiles) to find out the safe crossing times for that day. If all else fails and despite your best efforts you’ve still found yourself caught for time and stranded on the island, contact the emergency services on 999 or 112 and ask for the coast guard.

By now you’ve surely awoken to the fact that while a visit to Coney is more than worthwhile, those couple of safety steps are important too.

After high tide, allow at least 2 hours for the causeway to clear before making your way out along the sand, avoiding any potholes as well as cars which travel along the same route to and from the island.

It’s also worth wearing a pair of walking shoes, not so much for the walk across to the island itself, but that if you decide to walk around the island’s perimeter there are several stretches where you’ll walk across rocks or rough paths and good footwear is essential.

Allow up to 45 minutes to cross the estuary, and you’ll arrive at the roadway onto the island, which is located between 2 gate posts. From here, follow the road towards a cluster of houses which comprises the village and the island’s only pub, owned by the McGowan family, whose family ties with the island go back several centuries.

The pub itself opens Thursday-Sunday during the Summer, though opening hours are a bit vague, so best to head out around the island first and check out the pub if it’s open on the way back. The pub doesn’t provide food, so best to pack a lunch before you leave.

Once on the island, a couple of hours should be enough to take in most of what the island has to offer there before turning to head for home, again allowing sufficient time to make the crossing on foot before the tide fills the bay once again.

The only pub on Coney Island – it keeps creative opening hours! (Photo Micheál Ó Domhnaill)

There isn’t an official looped walk – unless you decide to walk around the island, a mix of roads, tracks and rough terrain. But for anyone who visits the island you can’t but visit the pier, Carty’s Beach – an unspoiled stretch of beach which is suitable for swimming, though unpatrolled – and the Green Road towards Blackrock lighthouse.

From there you’ll double back on the route you’ve come, calling in to McGowan’s for refreshments before heading for home. While in the pub check out the photos of the remains of the sperm whale which was washed up on the island in 1977 and which was subsequently buried on the island.

Also ask John McGowan of the origin of the door of the pub, which reputedly came from a 19thcentury ship which sank off the island as it made its journey from Sligo to America. And don’t forget to ask him whether it’s really true that the famous Coney Island in New York harbour got its name from a small island in Sligo Bay.