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The Enterprising Island of Inishcleer

Updated: Jun 18, 2022

As soon as we approached Inishcleer, aka Clare Island, we saw Granuaile’s Castle. It’s most famous for being the stronghold of the Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley, a fierce woman who ruled the O’Malley clan back in the 1500’s. The castle is currently closed due to unsafe conditions, so our local guide told tales of Grace’s exploits while we admired the outside of the building.

The Pirate Queen was a fearless leader who punished any attack against her family. She died in 1603 and is rumored to be buried on the grounds of the Abbey of Clare. The Abbey dates to the 12th century. Its ceiling is decorated with paintings that depict mythical human and animal figures. (Image: Detail of the Abbey ceiling.)

Our local guide for the day was Carl O’Grady, an entrepreneur whose mission is to increase the island’s population of 150 through various enterprise schemes. He runs a bar, restaurant, bed and breakfast, and just started making Clare Island whiskey.

Clare Island is in Mr. O’Grady’s blood. His father, grandfater, and great grandfather ran the small ferry to the island and were the lifeline for supplies regardless of the weather. The old ferry sunk in 2000, but Carl raised and revived the boat and now uses it to age his first batch of whiskey. I learned from Carl that aging whiskey at sea is a thing. However, his “aging boat” is likely the smallest aging vessel on the sea. Don't even think about stealing it as this small boat has big-time security! (Image: The old ferry now a whiskey aging vessel.)

Carl sees a lot of potential for Clare Island farmers to turn from sheep and “dry cattle” to growing barley and oats for his whiskey business. He has been researching soils and barley varieties that would thrive well. Given his ambitious plans, his current businesses, and his tour guide talent, I see a big future for Inishcleer. I certainly want to return.

Besides giving us a personal tour of the island, Carl enlisted his father to tell some fascinating tales of WW2, hosted us in his pub, arranged for some splendid musicians to perform, and conscripted two relatives to show their talents. One girl, about 12 or 13, performed some Irish dances. Another younger girl got her first experience playing accordian for strangers. All the while our group sipped on Grace O’Mally whiskey, Guinness, or Smithwick’s Ale. Carl’s chef (hailing from France) prepared Clare Island delicacies, showing off the local salmon and other tidbits. It was a fabulous time. (Image: The Abbey, behind, and an ancient, carved standing stone in the front. The stone was moved from another location on the property.)

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