Clew Bay in County Mayo is regarded by many as the most beautiful bay in Ireland. As a local who grew up in the area, I’m delighted to tell you everything you need to know about this Wild Atlantic Way gem.
Clew bay is located along the magnificent Wild Atlantic Way and is one of the more unique locations on the route. It’s known for being a sheltered bay, but more so for its hundreds of islands dating back to the last ice age.
People will also be aware of the almighty view you get of the bay and its islands from the summit of perhaps Ireland’s most famous mountain – Croagh Patrick. The holy peak is one of many stunning natural features to be found in the Clew Bay area.
Then, there’s the fascinating history of Grace O’Malley (Grainne Mhaol), the fierce Irish pirate, whose castles still stand proudly along the shores of the bay. All these factors, along with many more make Clew Bay a must-visit on your trip to the west coast of Ireland. So let’s dive in!
Clew Bay’s Location
Clew Bay is located on the west coast of County Mayo in the province of Connaught. On the south-eastern shore lies the town of Westport and the bay is guarded to the east by Clare Island. The southern and northern shores are marked by hills/mountains, such as Croagh Patrick.
How do I get to Clew Bay?
The nearest airport is Knock International, a 45 minute drive from Westport. Shannon Airport is a 2 hour drive. From Dublin Airport, expect a 3hr.15 min. drive.
- If travelling from Dublin city to Westport (the main base in the Clew Bay area) expect a drive of 3 hr. 15 min. A new bypass road (2023) at Castlebar has cut this journey by 15 minutes.
- From Galway, it’s a 1 hr. 20 min. drive
- By train from Dublin, the journey takes 3 hr. 11 min.
- By bus from Dublin, expect a journey time of anything between 4.5 to 6 hours
- From Galway, the bus trip takes between 1 hr. 45 and 2 hr. 30 mins. (depending on route)
If coming from Dublin, we highly recommend the train option. Booking in advance is not a whole lot more expensive than by bus. Tickets can be bought here.
Facts about Clew Bay
Here, we are going to give you an overview of some fascinating facts related to Clew Bay, its history and its people.
- The name Clew Bay first appeared in a map in the 18th century and the origins of this name are unclear.
- The Irish name is Cuan Mó, which translates as ‘Mod Pool’, which may be linked to Modh, a member of the Tuatha de Danann.
- It is claimed there are 365 islands in Clew Bay, one for every day of the year. Although it’s hard to define exactly what counts as an island, the more realistic number lies around 120.
- The islands of Clew Bay were formed towards the end of the last ice age, approximately 12,000 years ago. They are regarded as the best example of sunken drumlins in Ireland.
- Up to the end of the last ice-age this area would have been covered in a huge sheet of ice. After this melted, the sea-level rose and flooded the land, leading to the bay we know today.
- In 1967, John Lennon purchased one of these islands, Dorinish. Following his death, it was resold by Yoko Ono and the money donated to charity
- Clew Bay has a maximum depth of 41 metres. This point can be found under the stretch of water between Achill Beg and Clare Island, on the north-western entrance to the bay.
- NASA brought Clew Bay to the world’s attention in 2016 with some stunning images
- Clew Bay is 24 km in length (from Westport House to Roonagh Point) and at its widest measures a distance of almost 14 km.
- On the southern shores of Clew Bay, you’ll find Ireland’s holy mountain – Croagh Patrick (764 metres)
- Clew Bay is well known for its marine life, with seals and sea otters to be found in abundance. Other common species include common and bottlenose dolphin, porpoise and porbeagle shark.
- In the deeper waters off the coast of Achill, basking sharks are a very common sight, along with minke and humpback whales. There has also been sighting of Orca.
- Grainne Mhaol ruled the lands and seas around Clew Bay in the 16th century and built several castles along its shores.
- In the year 1588, the Spanish Armada lost 23 ships along the coast of Ireland, leading to a loss of over 5,000 men. At least 5 of these ran aground in Clew Bay, to which there is a memorial on the Atlantic Drive.
Clew Bay’s History: The Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Mhaol)
The Pirate Queen of Ireland! Picture a fierce and daring woman, born in the 16th century, who sailed the seas off the coast of Mayo.
Known as Gráinne Mhaol in Irish, Grace was a force to be reckoned with. Her Irish name translates as ‘Bald Grace’, a nickname she earned after cutting her hair so as not to get it caught on the ship’s ropes!
She ruled the seas with her fleet of ships, raiding and plundering as she pleased. But what really makes her story fascinating is her connection to Clew Bay.
Clew Bay was Grace’s home turf. She knew every hidden cove and treacherous reef, making her practically untouchable. She even built a fortress on Clare Island to watch over her beloved bay. She’d use Clew Bay as her base of operations, launching raids on unsuspecting English and rival Irish lords.
But Grace wasn’t just a ruthless pirate. She was also a shrewd diplomat. She negotiated with queens and kings, demanding respect and fighting for the rights of her people. She even met with Queen Elizabeth I herself, famously refusing to bow before her!
A very fitting description of Grace O’Malley can be found in the lyrics of the song Granuaile by J. Hardiman. The 4th verse states:
‘She had strongholds on her headlands
And brave galleys on the sea
And no warlike chief or Viking
E’er had bolder heart than she.’
Her castles still stand today, dotted around strategic places along Clew Bay, mainly in sheltered coves with the best views out over the bay. My personal favourite is located in Kildavnet, Achill Island. Upon arrival at Clare Island, you’ll spot her ‘HQ’,
Today, you’ll find many descendants of Grace O’Malley in the Clew Bay area. Just keep and eye out for the family names above the doors of pubs, restaurants and businesses in the towns.
The Islands of Clew Bay
At the entrance to Clew Bay, you’ll find its largest island, Clare Island; a place immortalized in song by the Irish band The Saw Doctors. The island itself is spectacular, being one of the most mountainous off the Irish coast.
The island is 8 km in length and 5 km wide and has a population of around 150.
The highest peak is Knockmore, at 462 metres. The mountain drops off dramatically on its northern slopes, where you’ll find vast sea cliffs. These can be clearly seen from the Atlantic Drive on Achill Island.
Clare Island is an excellent island to spend on a nice summer’s day, with some brilliant hikes and walks, along with a good selection of places to stay in.
The Drumlins of Clew Bay
As you’ll hear the locals claim, there are 365 of these drowned drumlins in Clew Bay. The correct number is thought to be around 120, but trying to count them all is no easy task!
Often referred to as a ‘basket of eggs’ topography, the best view of these islands is from the summit of Croagh Patrick. Here, you’ll notice the oval shape of these hills, along with the intense green grass on the upper surface.
The drumlins were formed during the last ice age. The glacier which moved through this region would have scoured and scraped sediment from the ground, and as the glacier moved onwards it shaped the sediment into these perfectly shaped oval hills.
Does anyone want to island hop with us? It's said that there are 365 islands in Clew Bay. One for every day of the year!— Discover Ireland (@DiscoverIreland) July 26, 2021
? Clew Bay, County Mayo
? MT @irldronephoto pic.twitter.com/3S97Ey1frX
As the ice melted, these drumlins were left standing and as the sea level rose, they were engulfed in water, but not completely. You’ll see the green tops of these islands during high-tide, and that’s exactly what makes Clew Bay such a uniquely beautiful bay.
Some of the most well-known drumlin islands in Clew Bay are Collanmore Island, now home to an adventure centre, Dorinish, which was once owned by John Lennon and Inishgort, home to a lighthouse.
On close inspection, you may notice white dots speckled on some of these islands. These are indeed sheep and during low tide, the local farmers will escort the local hardy bucks over the sandbanks, where they’ll graze happily on the fertile pastures of the drumlins.
The Wonderful Beaches of Clew Bay
Because of its sheltered location, Clew Bay offers visitors a great selection of safe beaches. Being close to Westport means they are within a half hour/hour’s drive of the town. Here is a rundown of our favourite beaches in the Clew Bay area:
Bertra Beach (blue flag)
Located near the village of Leckanvy at the foot of Croagh Patrick, this beautiful sandspit is within 15 minutes of Westport, making it the closest beach to the town. Bertra offers stunning views over Clew Bay and its drumlins, with Croagh Patrick providing a dramatic backdrop.
We have Bertra beach covered in detail here.
Old Head Beach (blue flag)
One of the best beaches in Mayo, Old Head is a popular family choice, because of its beautiful sheltered location. It’s also home to a stand-up-paddle school, a sauna and there’s a stunning forest walk along the headland. This beach is a real cracker.
We have Old Head beach covered in detail here.
Mulranny Beaches (main beach is blue flag)
One of my favourite villages on the west coast of Ireland, there are 2 beaches to choose from here. The main beach has blue flag status and the other (my personal favourite) is Murrivaugh Beach. This beach offers white sands and brilliant views over the whole of Clew Bay.
We have Mulranny village and beaches covered in detail here.
Located on the south-western shores of Clew Bay, Carrowmore has a little more of a ‘wild’ feeling to it than the previous beaches. It faces more towards the Atlantic, so it’s popular with surfers when the conditions are right. Carrowmore is a wide, expansive beach and perfect for ball sports.
We have Carrowmore listed on our best beaches in Mayo guide. Click here for more details.
Things to do
Clew Bay is best explored during fine weather as you get to experience the area at its very best. If you visit in the summer months, the possibilities to explore are endless. Here are some ideas we have put together.
Explore Clew Bay by Bicycle
Let’s start off with the healthiest, greenest way of exploring Clew Bay! If you happen to be in the Clew Bay area during a spell of fine weather, an absolute must is to cycle The Great Western Greenway.
This recently extended (2023) cycle lane starts in Westport and finishes on Achill Island, a total distance of 49 km. In our humble opinion, the section from Newport to Mulranny is the most picturesque, offers incredible panoramic views over Clew Bay, Croagh Patrick, Clare Island and beyond.
You’ll also pass by some old farmsteads, vast open bogland, rolling drumlin hills and a part of the Nephin Beg mountain range. A truly brilliant experience on a fine day. There are various companies who offer bike rental in Westport, Mulranny and Newport.
Why not go all out and do the Clew Bay bike trail? An epic adventure which will take you along the bay, onto Clare Island, across to Achill again by boat and back via the northern shores to Westport. Details of that adventure are here.
Or Discover its Beauty by Boat
Clew Bay Cruises offer great trips out on the western shores of the bay, where you’ll get a wonderful perspective of Croagh Patrick, pass by John Lennon’s island, see a seal colony and witness the drumlins first hand. A trip we highly recommend and one we have done several times.
We did this trip in August of 2022 and witnessed a ‘decent’ sunset. During the high summer season, we highly recommend booking in advance. More details here.
Other ways to experience Clew Bay by sea is by getting the ferry to Clare Island. The ferry departs from Roonagh pier, west of Louisburgh. If you don’t have a car, the ferry company O’Malley’s run a shuttle bus from Westport to meet the ferry. Details are here.
Always wanted to learn sailing? Bellacragher Boat club offer a beginner’s course in sailing, or if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can try powerboating. Details are here.
A more exciting option to the laid back cruise is on a 12-person passenger rib, which will take you out to explore the magic of Clew Bay. More details are here.
Go for a Wander or Conquer Croagh Patrick
There are countless possibilities for walkers in the Clew Bay area, from stunning Clare Island trails to the Great Western Greenway. For those of you who like casual, informative walks, why not check out Westport Walking Tours.
This one-hour guided tour will give a great insight into the town, and they promise it won’t be a boring history lesson!
If you are keen on some moderate walks that don’t involve too much exertion, but provide some beautiful landscapes, here are some other ideas:
Our Favourite Clew Bay Walks
- Murrisk Loop Walk: Located at the foot of Croagh Patrick, there are 4 to choose from, my personal favourite being the red loop. You’ll walk up the very first section of ‘The Reek’ and the views are stunning of the islands and the whole bay. Then head down to Murrisk Abbey for some more brilliant views westwards. Length: 4.5 km/elevation Gain: 114 m
- Furnace Loop: One of the best walks I’ve done in the Clew Bay region is the Furnace Loop, located in Derrada, between Newport and Mulranny. This walk takes you through some wonderful wilderness, rolling green hills and scenic lakes. You’ll also pass by the Marine Institute, who have been tracking and researching salmon for 50 years. Length: 10 km
For those more actively inclined, Croagh Patrick is an absolute must. It’s a challenging climb, but the views from the summit over Clew Bay and the western coast of Mayo will leave you with incredible memories.
We have a full hiking guide to Croagh Patrick here.
For those based in Mulranny, we have the local walks covered in detail here.
Go on a West of Ireland Road Trip to remember
One of the best ways to experience the beauty of Clew Bay is by car. There are a couple of different routes you can follow, from short and scenic routes, to full on trips of an epic scale. Why not throw in Achill Island why you’re at it and make a proper road trip out of it?
Here are some ideas:
- Take the coast road from Westport to Croagh Patrick (15 minute drive) At the foot of the mountain is ample parking and while you are here, visit Murrisk Abbey and the National Famine Memorial.
- Take this same coast road and continue on to Louisburgh. You could make a stop at Bertra and Old Head beaches. To your right, you’ll have stunning views across the bay to Mulranny and Achill, and to your left, Croagh Patrick.
- From Westport, drive to Newport, a lovely village with an iconic bridge. From here continue on to Mulranny (30 minutes from Westport)
- At Mulranny, take the Atlantic Drive road, one of Ireland’s most stunning coastal routes. Here you’ll come across the Spanish Armada memorial. Continue on to Achill and follow the Atlantic Drive to Keem Bay. In my view, this is the most spectacular road in the west of Ireland. Here is the exact route:
Where is the best view of Clew Bay?
Overall the best view of Clew Bay is undoubtedly from the summit of Croagh Patrick. Here you’ll witness the bay, its islands and beaches from a spectacular vantage point.
But if that option is out of the question, here are my favourite spots to get a great view of Clew Bay:
- Spanish Armada Viewpoint (Atlantic Drive)
- Bertra Beach
- Leckanvy Pier/Tullymore Beach
- Old Head beach/headland
- Rosmore Island
- Top of the hill at Inishnakillew
- Rockfleet Castle
- Greenway near Mulranny
- Road from Leckanvy to Old Head (R335)
Where to stay near Clew Bay
In the Clew bay area, there is a good selection of places to stay, be it in the countryside, in a larger town or one of the smaller villages. Let’s start with the main hub.
Westport is located on the south eastern corner of Clew Bay and offers so much for visitors. There’s the wonderful Westport House with its beautiful grounds, a place very popular for families in the summer months. There’s a whole lot more to discover too and we have it all covered here.
Then you have a great selection of very good restaurants, which serve anything from local seafood to pizza. Westport also has has a wide variety of places to stay in.
Louisburgh is often overshadowed by its neighbour, Westport, but it is excellently located on the south-western corner of Clew Bay. Nearby, there are some incredible beaches, not just on Clew Bay, but along the south-west coast of County Mayo, which also happen to be excellent surfing spots.
You’re also within a few minutes‘ drive of Roonagh pier, where the ferry to Clare Island departs from. One of Ireland’s most spectacular roads is also nearby, Doolough Valley. Have a look at accommodation options here.
A town located along the Great Western Greenway, Newport is a solid option if wishing to explore the Clew Bay area. There’s a few choices for accommodation, including the hotel (which is highly rated) and the Riverside, which has its own ‘shepherd’s hut’. Also in the town are some lovely pubs, including our favourite, the Grainne Mhaol.
Newport is ideal, especially as Westport has become very expensive of late. For those of you into angling, Clew Bay charters are based here, and the Black Oak river is well-known for its salmon and trout fishing.
Located on the northern shores of Clew bay, Mulranny is a gem. There is so much to do here if you are active, from cycling, walking or running the Greenway, enjoying some beautiful coastal walks or playing a round of golf.
There is one hotel in the village – the famous Mulranny Park, and this offers stunning views over Clew Bay.
Eat/Drink in the Clew Bay Area
There are some excellent restaurants in Westport, and it is here that you will also find the best selection of pubs, most notable being Matt Molloy’s. For a detailed guide about eating/drinking in Westport, check out our post here.
Your Questions About Clew Bay Answered
What are the best things to do at Clew Bay?
From hiking Croagh Patrick to going on a cruise, there are many fantastic ways to discover Clew Bay. There are also many coastal drives, along with the Greenway cycle trail, which provide stunning views. For those into outdoor activities, why not try your hand at: surfing, windsurfing, kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, fishing, golf, cliff walking, swimming, walking, cycling, horse-riding and plenty more.
Why is Clew Bay famous?
Visitors are drawn to Clew Bay’s tranquil water, lush green surroundings and drumlin islands, making it a popular destination for boating, kayaking, and outdoor enthusiasts. The bay is also steeped in history, with ancient ruins, castles, and monastic sites dotting its shores, providing a glimpse into Ireland’s past.
So that wraps out our guide to the majestic Clew Bay and its surroundings. As someone who has visited every nook and cranny of the area more times than I can count, I am still drawn to it.
From witnessing a summer sunset on Tullymore Strand to standing on the summit of Croagh Patrick, there are few places in Ireland as uniquely beautiful. Seems I’m not the only one to think so.
Grainne Mhaol protected the bay with all her might, St. Patrick spent 40 nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick and John Lennon decided this was his idea of paradise.
You’d be inclined to agree with him too.