Mutton Island is a tolerable anchorage that is protected from the west through north by Mutton Island itself, and northeast through east to the southeast via the reefs that extend to it from Seafield Point. It is entirely open to winds from the south. A boat in duress may find temporary protection here if caught out in a northerly component gale. In a big seaway, it can be exposed to a heavy cross sea that comes over its sheltering reef at high water. Careful navigation is required for access as the island and bay are fringed by dangers on all sides and there are no supporting marks or lights. Hence a stranger should only approach Mutton Island with the benefit of very good visibility or with sound local knowledge.
Keyfacts for Mutton Island
SummaryA tolerable location with careful navigation required for access.
Position and approaches
Haven position52° 48.630' N, 009° 30.470' W
This is the anchoring position as marked on Admiralty 3338 east by southeast of the island. It resides in the area between the island and the reef extending out to Mal Rock form Seafield or Lurga Point.
What is the initial fix?
What are the key points of the approach?
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Image: Tom Bourke
Extending two miles offshore, the mile-long Mutton Island, rising to a height of 30 metres and presenting its signature watchtower, will be easily identified. However, formidable dangers surround it and it is essential that this area's Coastal Overview is read in conjunction and careful examination of a good chart prior to approaching this area.
The Mutton Island initial fix is set 1.3 miles due west from Mattle Island and about midway between the Doughmore Shoals and the Grundel Rock.
The latter and mostly covered Grundel Rock is the key danger in this area. It is the most outlying of the dangers in the Mutton Island area, and the one to be specifically careful to position whilst operating around the island. It is situated a mile and a half west with little south from the southwest corner of the island. This rock uncovers at low water to 0.3 metres and is very steep-to with 44 metres close to its western side. The portion that uncovers is extremely small, but there are several rocky heads, within its area and to the west of it, that have about 1.2 metres of water over them.
Over a mile to the east of the initial fix is Mattle Island. This 10 metres high rocky elevation will be easily seen. It lies on the outer edge of Carricknola Reef that extends 1¼ miles to the west of the mainland.
Finally, about 1 to 1.75 miles to the southwest of Mattle Island, are the Doughmore Shoals. They have from 9 to 14 metres of water over them and the ocean breaks heavily upon them when a swell is up.
A course of 57° T for 2½ miles from the initial fix leads into the anchoring position. However, an easier course would be to take a slightly more easterly bearing of 65°T first that leads to Mal Rock which provides a good pilotage mark. Mal Rock is situated at the end of a drying finger of land that extends just over half a mile to the west of Seafield Point. It dries to 4.6 metres and when covered nearly always has breakers over it. This approach skirts the southern side of the Curragh Shoal, located 600 metres southwest-by-south from Mutton Island’s southwest point, that has a least depth of 2.1 metres of water.
Once the anchorage opens up, between the finger of land extending from Seafield Point to Mal Rock and Mutton Island, pass halfway between them and into the anchoring area.
Image: Tom Bourke
Anchor in depths of 3 to 4 metres off the southeast end of the island in the area marked as Tobacco Cove on Admiralty 3338. Holding can be indifferent in a bottom of rock with patches of sand.
Do not overrun the anchoring area as, 600 metres to the northeast, the island is almost connected with Seafield Point by a stony barrier that uncovers at low water. It has at its western extremity the Craggaun Rock that covers at half-tide. Between Craggaun Rock and the corresponding point of Mutton Island, there is a narrow low water passage with 0.6 metres of water where a dingy can pass through to Seafield and Quilty. Although covered by the tide this stony barrier provides the anchorage with some measure of shelter from northerly component winds.
Why visit here?Mutton Island is situated across the bay from Seafield or Quilty. The island, as its name suggests, has been the consequence of notable small-scale sheep farming that took place here in past centuries.
In antiquity, this was called Fitha Island and it was much larger than the Mutton Island we see today. St. Senan founded a church here in the early 6th century and today there is little trace of this except for two small cairns on the rising ground on the north and northeast sides of the island. Both cairns have slabs that are partly cut to shape and appear to be the remains of a cross. Back in 1887 reports noted a ‘Bed of St. Senan’. This was the oratory’s west end gable plus a shattered cross standing in a garden behind an island cottage. All of these have since fallen into the sea. The church would have been lucky to have survived in any form as two hundred years after its construction a catastrophe struck this coast. On March 16th 804, as detailed in the ancient ’Annals of the Four Masters’, an earthquake accompanied by a Tsunami altered this coastline forever …"the sea swelled so high that it burst its boundaries, overflowing a large tract of country, and drowning over 1,000 persons …..the sea divided the island of Fitha into three parts." These three parts are the current Mutton Island, Mattle Island (or Illanwattle), and Carrig na Ron (or Roanshee).
A millennium later, in 1837, Samuel Lewis came to this coast and detailed it in his ‘Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’. The Gazette came to provide a pre-Famine snapshot of Ireland and the account of the island he encountered was as appropriate then as it is now. "Mutton Island is the largest island off Clare's western coast half a mile from the shore, and it lies off that part of the coast which from its rocky and dangerous character, is called the Malbay, and contains 210 statute acres of excellent land for feeding oxen and sheep, particularly the latter; hence the name "Mutton Island". On its shores are some curious natural caves, formerly used by smugglers for storing contraband goods. There is also an old signal tower, and the ruins of an ancient structure said to have been founded by St. Senan of Inniscattery." . This is very much Mutton Island today without the ruins of the oratory that is no longer there.
The island was also inhabited in Samuel Lewis’ time and continued to be so up to the 1920s. The Islanders made a living partly from fishing. They also harvested kelp, grew vegetables and kept domestic animals. Sheep was the mainstay of the island that has good grassland and rough pasturage that they fared well upon. But little if anything remains of the village today.
The Signal Tower or Watch Tower situated on the western cliff edge was built in the early 19th century. It was part of a watch system to provide warning of a Napoleonic invasion. As Samuel Lewis noted it was used in later times by the coastguards to curtail the activities of smugglers. The island is nearly cut across by bays, tunnels and deep clefts full of the churning seas; but some made for perfect places to secret caches of contraband. A cave on the north side of Mutton Island is still called Poul Tabach, tobacco hole, as a reference to the contraband dealings that went on there. In the cliffs near the tower, there is a cave with a window-like oblong opening, and another branded with the fearsome name of Iffrinbeg, or “Little Hell”, that are worthy of a visit. During the hectic days of the Sinn Fein courts, the tower and island went on to be used as a detention camp. This was a breakaway parallel people’s court, that operated outside of the jurisdiction of the British legal system, and continued until the Free State courts were established after 1921.
Visitors will also see the northeast corner of the island hosts the graves of unknown sailors. These are believed to have belonged to a ship from the ill-fated Spanish Armada fleet of 1588. From the Blasket Sound all the way up to Donegal, the floor of the sea is home to more than twenty Armada galleons that were on the run and retreating home through an atrocious storm. Three galleons were lost off Clare coast. Three hundred men lost their lives and 60 were captured when the 750 ton San Esteban was driven ashore at Doonbeg. The Sao Marcos was wrecked off Mutton Island and its crew was hanged by Boetius Clancy with their remains buried near Spanish Point. The third ship, the Anunciada, was scuttled by her crew off Scattery Island.
Today, Mutton Island is inhabited only by wild goats, seals, rats, rabbits and birds. At low water springs, it is possible to walk out to the island along the anchorages sheltering limestone reef extending from Seafield Point. Indeed the rescue services are more than familiar with the island as a result of children doing just that at low water and getting trapped by the flood.
From a sailing perspective, in settled conditions, this haven offers an interesting anchorage to await a more favourable wind or a convenient lunch stop. In these circumstances, it is worth launching the tender to come ashore and explore this interesting island. Although less convenient than Seafield it is also less prone to swell than that anchorage. In developed conditions, after taking into account all the aforementioned caveats, it might be the last means of saving a vessel caught out on this coast and being overwhelmed.
What facilities are available?The small village of Quilty has the basic facilities to serve its population of 250 but no specific yachting facilities other than a slipway. Though situated on the extreme westerly seaboard, it is easily accessible by road being located midway between Kilrush and Galway on the N67.
Any security concerns?Never an issue known to have occurred to a vessel anchored off Mutton Island.
With thanks to:Mark Murray, yacht Motivator.
An essential aerial overview with thank to Tome Burke
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