Islands of Ireland: Unique access to Golam, Co Galway

Napoleonic era signal tower on Golam, Co Galway. Pictures: Dan MacCarthy

Dan MacCarthy visits Golam, Co Galway

To get to Golam in the mostly treeless, rock-strewn Connemara, is a unique experience in accessing Ireland’s islands. Yes, Dursey Island in Co Cork has the country’s only cable car and it is a singular experience to travel, teeth-clenched perhaps, above the waves to get there. Golam’s uniqueness stems from the fact that you must cross four causeways and then take a boat, or wade at low tide, to reach it.

The causeways link the islands of Eanach Mheain, Lettermore, Gorumna and finally Lettermullan. If you can navigate all that, the island of Golam lies 250m off Lettermullan. In this huge archipelago, known as Ceantar na nOileán, some of the other islands are themselves interconnected, to wit, Lettermullan is itself connected to Furnish and An Crappagh.

It has been suggested that the ruins of Lettermullan Castle was used to construct the causeways and even the 19th century signal tower itself. Many castles around the country were similarly dismantled for local construction projects. Ringarogy Castle in west Cork was used in the construction of Skibbereen cathedral, for instance.

This is a meeting point of tides and currents where huge Atlantic rollers mercilessly pound the outlying islands while the inner islands up towards Kilkieran Bay are sheltered. The natural breakwater is a sight to behold. Outside is a watery chaos while inside, can be a millpond. It is possible to walk across to Golam Island at low tide across rock pools, drenched sands and small mountains of seaweed. Watches at the ready, you have about two hours to explore this small but lovely island.

Golam has a striking landmark which marks it off from its neighbouring islands.

A signal tower sits atop its earthless summit. It was built in 1804 by the English to ward off the threat of a French invasion; it is one of about 80 around the coast. It is a superbly constructed building, roofless sadly, with intricately combined stone blocks.

Lobster fishing off the island
Lobster fishing off the island

A striking feature is a pair of bartizans which protrude from the sides like ears. The tower commands an astonishing ocean view westwards to the open ocean and south to the Aran islands and a watchman would have observed any French ship on the horizon faster than you could say ‘sacré bleu’.

The floors have long since gone but this signal tower is in pretty good condition compared to many others. A huge bird’s nest has been built in the fireplace.

West Cork rightly has a huge reputation for whale- and dolphin-watching, but if the spectacle on view when the Irish Examiner visited was anything to go by then Galway isn’t far behind. A large pod of common dolphins broke the surface near the unpopulated Freaghillaun More and with great rapidity travelled south arcing out of the sea with their backs glimmering in the sun.

South Galway had a sad part in the second world war when the bodies of two German airmen were washed ashore from a stricken aircraft in October 1940. Theophil Schuldt and Johannes Sturm died when their Focke-Wulf Kurier ditched into the sea.

The planes were used as long-range reconnaissance and maritime bombers. One of the men washed up on Golam with an open parachute — suggesting the plane lost altitude too swiftly for the parachute to be deployed correctly. The body of the other airman was found near Clifden. Four other bodies were never found and an inflatable raft was found on the Aran Islands. The recovered bodies were buried at the German war cemetery in Glencree, Co Wicklow. Around 170 aircraft crashed or had emergency landings in Ireland during the war.

The importance of this part of Ireland for navigation is indicated by a huge Éire sign marked onto rocks nearby. There were around 83 such markers around the country to aid US pilots during the second world war.

The only other feature of note on Golam is a holy well — one of many that are indicated on the ordnance survey maps around the islands there. Golam’s holy well is known as Tobar Cholmcille, and the saint’s footprints are said to be imprinted on the surrounding rock —a pilgrimage stop en route to the Aran islands.

How to get there: About an hour’s drive west of Galway on the R336. At Costelloe take the R374.

Other: irishsignalstations.wordpress.com; militaryarchives.ie; ww2irishaviation.com

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