Hollywood’s love affair with Ireland’s western isles

Hollywood’s love affair with Ireland’s western isles

The Oscar-nominated The Banshees of Inisherin is just the latest film to tap into the rugged beauty and timeless atmosphere of Ireland’s western isles. For decades, moviemakers from David Lean (Ryan’s Daughter) to J.J. Abrams (Star Wars) have been drawn to their haunting landscapes, ancient forts, abandoned stone villages, and seabird colonies. 

Caught between myth and reality, these dozens of islands—just 20 of them occupied—also possess uncommonly cinematic weather. “We’re far north, so the sun moves fast across the sky, and light and shadow become very compelling for filmmakers,” says cinematographer Cian de Buitléar, who has worked on movies such as Islandman (2003), shot around the Aran Islands. 

Here’s what travelers need to to know to get their own close-up with the region.

Pubs and pirates on Achill Island

Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s Banshees is set on a fictional Atlantic island with a Gaelic name that translates as “the island of Ireland.” Amid green mountains, rushing seas, and bucolic villages, the movie’s estranged best friends—Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell) and Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson)—have pints at a pub, farm their land, and experience the joys and despairs of island life. One of Inisherin’s real-life stand-ins was Achill Island.

Ireland’s largest island, Achill is connected to the northern mainland of County Mayo by a bridge. Its 57 square miles hold verdant peaks, rocky beaches, and lots of sheep. Hikers and cyclists come for its challenging trails and country lanes, including the clifftop road winding from the village of Keel to Keem Beach. The latter, a mountain-framed horseshoe cove with a sandy beach, was a major filming location for Banshees.

Though the atmospheric local pub in the movie was a set erected above Keem Beach, watering holes with a similar feel (turf-burning fireplaces, fine fiddle music) include Lynotts in Cashel and McLoughlin’s Bar near the village of Achill Sound.

Other spots worth visiting while in Achill include the Deserted Village on Slievemore on the north part of the island. It has dozens of crumbling stone “boolies”—huts used by shepherds following their flocks. Nearby is the Tower at Kildavnet, the remains of a 16th-century stone structure that was used by the legendary pirate queen Granuaile (Grace O’Malley).

(Ireland’s new tourist trail follows a 16th-century female pirate.)

A Celtic mermaid on the Blasket Islands

Lying off the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, the six Blasket Islands resemble a school of whales. Until they were abandoned in the 1950s, the Blaskets were inhabited by hardy islanders who raised sheep, gathered seaweed, and told stories. The most famous was the Celtic legend of the selkie, a shape-shifting mermaid that may have been inspired by the grey seal colonies that still fill the Blaskets rocky shores each summer.

This mythical half woman/half seal shows up in multiple Irish movies including The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) and Ondine (2009); the latter starring Colin Farrell as a fisherman who catches a selkie in his nets. While both were filmed in other coastal areas of Ireland, the animated feature Song of the Sea (2014) sets its tale of selkies and fairies amid islands that are ringers for the Blaskets.

Although no people (or mythical beings) live on the Blaskets today, visitors can catch a ferry or take a private boat tour from the mainland to Great Blasket, the largest of the islands. There’s a single café, and an eco tour operator can set up overnight stays in self-catering cottages.

Ancient ruins and Gaelic on the Arans

Sparse and treeless, the three Aran Islands—Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, and Inishmaan—rise out of the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of Galway Bay. These wind-blasted isles contain Gaelic-speaking villages and ancient ruins. Some of the bleaker scenes in The Banshees of Inisherin were filmed here amid shallow fields and rustic cottages. 

To reach the Arans, take a ferry from Doolin on the mainland. On Inis Mór, you can hike or bike around the stonewall-lined fields or visit the cliff-top fort of Dún Aengus, a filming site from Banshees. Playwright J.M. Synge lived in a cottage on Inishmaan that’s now open for tours. Shops on Inis Meáin sell the region’s trademark white cable sweaters.

Lodgings on the Arans used to mean sleeping over a local pub or bunking at a simple B&B. But since 2007, the sleek Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites has offered minimalist-chic guest rooms in a stone-covered, modernist building plus a restaurant serving multi-course dinners using local fish and grown-on-site vegetables.

Star Wars and the Skelligs 

The Skellig Islands rise out of the wild Atlantic Ocean like two sandstone cathedrals, their weather-sharpened spires pointing heavenward. About an hour’s boat ride off County Kerry, the remote pair of isles holds the ruins of a medieval monastery, the summer nesting grounds for puffins and gannets, and two defunct lighthouses.

Skellig Michael, the largest of the two islands, was cast as a remote planet with a Jedi temple in two Star Wars movies, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). Since then, a May the 4th Be With You (May 4) festival for Star Wars fans has been held on a nearby Kerry beach with vistas of the islands.

(Eight places to visit if you love Star Wars.)

Popular, weather-dependent boat tours to Skellig Michael take off in summer months from a visitors center on nearby Valentia Island. Boats deposit visitors not far from the steep, 618-step shale stairway to the ruins of the sixth-century St. Fionan monastery with beehive-like rock huts where monks once dwelled.

Jack Kavanagh is the author of the new National Geographic travel book Always Ireland. He frequently leads National Geographic Expeditions’ Tales and Treasures of the Emerald Isle tours.