Ireland’s largest outlying island is also one of its most magical. Measuring 20 kms from east to west and 18 kms from north to south, Achill Island enjoys a coastline of about 120 kms and supports a community of about 2600 people (2011). If you’ve only got time to gaze out a moving windscreen, then a tour of the island shouldn’t take more than an hour. But the island is better suited to day-trippers, with numerous options for silencing the car engine and making further investigations by foot. There’s plenty to keep one and all entertained, be it epic cliffs plunging into the choppy waters of the Atlantic, the miscellaneous ruins of Achill’s ancient past or the always arresting sight of a fresh pint of Guinness. And if you have all the time in the world, then worry not because there is barely a brick on Achill Island that doesn’t offer some form of overnight accommodation.
When I first wrote this text in 1999, most tour guides to Achill began by pointing out that if the weather was bad, you should give Achill a miss. There is a certain amount of truth in this as orienteering one’s way around the island’s slender roads in fog, snow or sleeting rain can (a) make the otherwise sumptuous views unviewable and (b) trick one into a complimentary bungy jump over one of the aforementioned cliffs, no strings attached.
On the other hand, if you venture over on a day when the sun is shining merrily, then the road is – as is the fashion these days – likely to be chock-a-block with other cars, buses and bicyclists. Either way, it’s worth bearing in mind that if the weather’s poor then so are the Achill Islanders because their income is as much dependant on fair weather tourism as it is on keeping their hay and turf dry.
Unless you’ve befriended a passing ship, then your trip to Achill will begin by crossing the Achill Sound. This is a narrow strip of sea separating the island from the mainland, connected by a short swing-bridge named in honour of County Mayo’s very own Land Leaguer, the one-armed Michael Davitt (1846-1906). The swing-bridge replaced an earlier bridge built in 1887, thus enabling boats to pass freely through the Sound. There is actually a small village at Achill Sound, complete with restaurant, café, pub and hostel, and probably as good a place as any to arrange activities of the energetic boating – fishing – watersports type. Keep an eye out for the inimitable John Cooney, the oldest man on the island. For the first eleven years of his life, he only spoke Irish – the Achill dialect – but he “picked up the English quick enough”. He was the Sound’s postman from 1939 to 1958, before taking up work on the power stations of Wales. He gave up drinking the night JFK was shot and is as good a guide to the island’s past as you can possibly get. (We liked him so much we gave him a spread in the very first Vanishing Ireland book.)
The first thing you will notice as you leave Achill Sound is the large amount of new development going on. These are mainly holiday houses of the bungalow or cottage type, hurtful to the discerning eye, erected by people who made some long overdue cash during Ireland’s recent, occasionally lamentable rise to prosperity. In fairness, Achill needed a serious financial boost if it was to survive in the 21st century, but government tax incentives have now ensured that there ain’t so much as a roofless pigsty that hasn’t been converted into “a home away from home”. Thankfully, some of the islanders are aware of these hazards, being perhaps familiar with Oscar Wilde’s words about mankind’s unerring ability to destroy that which he loves best.
On a recent visit to Achill, I was accompanied by a friend from Hamburg called Ingo Worbs. I know this is irrelevant to an Irish tourist guide, but he told me they never eat hamburgers in Hamburg. He also told me that the reason we kept overtaking German bicyclists on our way to Achill is because ever since a German called Jan Ulrich won the Tour de France back-to-back in ’96 and ’97, the Germans have become obsessed with hoisting their butts onto bike saddles and pedalling furiously around the globe. Running over bicyclists is illegal in Ireland, no matter what country the bicyclist hails from, so please remember to drive slowly on Achill Island or you will have to go to prison.
Heading west from Achill Sound on the well signposted “Atlantic Drive” one is immediately smitten by a startling landscape of golden greens, yellows, blues, browns and khakis, rising and falling like kilts at a Scottish dance. The wild and rugged mountains – principally Slievemore, Minaun and Croaghaun – rise along the horizon and beckon you forward with quiet, dignified expressions. Ingo said they reminded him of the mountains of Majorca, the only difference being the swathes of turf cut into the slopes by islanders seeking to warm themselves during Ireland’s 50 week long winter.
The green and yellow bits are fields and meadows and boglands and in them you will find healthy examples of Irish livestock. Big brown bulls sauntering freely, knee-deep in marshes, slurping at the mossy waters, curling the nutritious grasses onto the tips of their enormous tongues and sending them down to fill their seventeen stomachs or whatever it is they have. My last trip occurred in mid-April 1999, which is the end of the lambing season. Hence, the fields were full of cute black and white faced lambs skipping and frolicking and suckling on their doleful mothers breasts. It is quite amazing how an animal that starts life so sweet and joyful ends up becoming a sheep.
One of the earliest manmade attractions to halt by is the church and cemetery at Kildavnet, named for a 7th century nun on the run called Saint Dympna. This lass was a daughter of a pagan king of Oriel who, after the death of his wife, reckoned his daughter would suit his bed just as well. The mad old king duly chased the terrified Dympna all the way to Achill where the sprightly virgin managed to catch a boat to Geel in Belgium. Here she set about devoting her life to the Christian God, only to find her life considerably shortened when her father caught up with her unawares and lopped her head clean off with his sword, at which point he was cured of his insanity. Dympna duly became the Saint of Sanity and hence the number of mental health institutions around the globe called Saint Dympna’s.
The present church dates to the 18th century and contains the graves of many islanders who perished during the Great Famine. Mayo was the worst affected county in the famine with some 350,000 inhabitants perishing or emigrating across the Atlantic. It stands on the site of another church, built by Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connaught, so that her household staff could nip down from nearby Carrickdaunet Castle and confess their sins. Carrickdaunet is a fine example of a 15th century Irish tower house, a slim 13 metre high stone-roofed keep, built by Grace’s grandfather. It’s worth spending a moment here, reading the gravestones, pondering the waters and the sands, trying to envision how life was on Achill before the tourists arrived and let the aroma of optimism spill from their wallets.
From Kildavnet, take the Atlantic Drive around the south of the island and Ashleann Bay to Dooega, a memorable journey where the road bounces and curls alongside some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in Europe. Sheep continue to lazily munch on the short roadside grasses. German bicyclists continue to pop up out of every pothole in sight. Again it’s worth killing your engine to exercise your mind contemplating the power of the mighty waves persistently crashing against the gnarled island walls. Rotate your head inland and you’ll see a landscape of relatively flat heather-speckled moors, again graced by the presence of houses and farmsteads, old and new, backed by the enormous bulk of Minaun, Achill’s third highest mountain.
At the entrance to the charming seaside village of Dooega stands a memorial to Thomas Patten, a local boy who joined the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War but was killed by the Fascists during the Defence of Madrid in 1936. Hemmingway fans might be interested to know that Mr. Patten was just one of several thousand Irishmen who fought in the Spanish Civil War, some for and some against General Franco. Dooega itself possesses some good bathing strands and is considered a good spot for those seeking to climb the gravel grey slopes of Minaun, a 466 metre dinosaur-like mountain, wearing a smoky necklace of cloud when last I saw her.
Shortly after Dooega, you reach a T-junction where you can take a right back for Achill Sound if the weather’s too poorly, or point your nose towards America and keep heading west if you’re up to the challenge. From the village of Cashel, head north through the centre of the island for Keel. This is good, hearty Achill at its rural best, stone walls clambering up the lowland hills, languid cows playing hopscotch on the road in front of you, black and white sheepdogs every which way you look, old codgers with ruddy cheeks who wave one hand at you while you pass.
Just before you arrive at Keel is a crossroads directing you left if you wish to see the memorial to Father Sweeny at Dookinella, a local hero strung up for treason in the wake of the ’98 Rising. You can’t actually get to Father Sweeny’s Memorial by car, but the road does take you to a most amazing dead end, the 5 km beach of Tramore, occupying the southern reaches of Keel Bay. It’s a stunning beach, seemingly made for surf dudes, albeit surf dudes clad in 40 layers of wet suit to fend off the icy temperature. But, alas, this beach is not open to surfers and a large sign says “No Swimming” and “No Removal of Beach Material”. But there is a worthy compromise just around the corner, only accessible by foot, in the Cathedral Rocks. This remarkable formation of caves and pillars has been carved into the side of the Minaun Cliffs, themselves a whopping 800 foot sheer drop that’d surely give even the bravest of seagulls a bad dose of the spins.
If you do wish to swim, then consult anybody on the island and they will perhaps direct you to one of the island’s five European Blue Flag beaches. In fact, the beaches on Achill are reckoned to be amongst the best in Europe but I’m not going to offer you any directions. “You can’t get there from here” would be my advice. You see, a good beach should be a personal discovery, a triumph of perseverance and fortune. If I write down how to get there, then you might all show up and then it wouldn’t be a good beach anymore, would it?
Back at Keel, the small Keel Lough was supporting a posse of ambitious windsurfers when we passed through. Best viewed from the slopes of Slievemore to the north, Keel is a small and friendly town, replete with B&Bs, pubs, holiday cottages, craft shops and a golf course of course. A football match was in process when we arrived. Fishermen were on the hunt for brown trout.
From Keel, keep on the road for Keem Bay. Thirsty punters can rein up in the village of Dooagh for a scoop, sheltered from the winds by the great bulk of Croaghaun to the west. Dooagh has a nightclub at the Achill Head Hotel, surely worth a visit if you’re that way inclined. There’s also a Folklife Centre, a 19th century cottage furnished in period style, designed to assist you in understanding how generally miserable life once was on Achill.
Otherwise the golden sands of Keem Bay offer rather special viewing; the beach was named among the world’s most incredible by Lonely Planet in 2024. When I arrived, I felt like I had finally reached the most western extreme of Ireland. (Which I hadn’t – you need to go south to County Kerry to achieve that accolade.) Despite the ambitious sun overhead and the shelter offered by the steeply rising Moyteoge Head behind, it was still bitterly cold when we arrived. But this didn’t seem to affect the snow-white Easter Holiday makers in the slightest. Naked kids scampering merrily about in the Arctic winds and turquoise waters, armed to the teeth with buckets and spades, no bother.
Walkers might want to take some time to press on north towards Blacksod Bay and the bleak and majestic mountains of Croaghaun (668 metres) and Slievemore (672 metres). You know yourself, there’s nothing more rewarding for the soul than reaching the summit of a mountain, but you do need to be quite fit to manage Croaghaun. That said, the views from Croaghaun are quite indescribable in words. It’s like having a look at the musical score sheets for Mozart’s Requiem and trying to understand the beauty beyond. Suffice it to say, you get to see about 7 kms of undisturbed cliff scenery, the ocean stretching and rolling interminably westwards, the islands of Inishkea and Duvillaun timeless in the distance, Blacksod Bay where the Armada ships tossed and sank in 1588, the Belmullet Peninsula roller-coasting to the north, Croagh Patrick rising from the southern mists, Connemara’s Twelve Bens rising behind, every magnificent inch of it worthy of a verse, perhaps a lament for the great Golden Eagle that once inhabited the island.
Alternatively, return to Keel and take the road north east for Dugort . A local curiosity here on the dark rifted slopes of Slievemore is what’s now called “The Deserted Village”, an eerie ghost-town of over 70 abandoned homesteads. On the opposite side of Slievemore can be found “The Colony”, a series of buildings constructed as part of the once flourishing Achill Mission. Since the arrival of Saint Paddy at Croagh Patrick in the 5th century, Achill Island has been a stronghold of Roman Catholicism. In 1831, an English Reverend named Edward Nangle sought to change this situation. He founded a Protestant Church and invited the islanders to attend. However, in order to benefit from the associated school, orphanage and hospital, the islanders had to convert to Protestantism. This was a tricky conundrum indeed, often dwelt upon at length in “The Achill Herald”, published monthly by the Reverend Ted. The gung ho clergyman even learnt Irish so he could impress the islanders with the joys of being a Prod. The Reverend was a determined man and, in the face of much opposition from the Catholic Hierarchy, he gradually developed The Mission to such an extent that, by 1851, it had become the biggest landowner on the island, owning three fifths of the land. But the Catholic Church pressed on with its campaign of dissing Nangle, even if he was genuinely trying to improve the lot of post-Famine islanders in an otherwise blind-eyed Victorian Ireland. By the time Gladstone’s Land Act for Fair Rents was passed in the 1880s, The Colony collapsed. There was another smaller Colony at Mweelin which lies, also deserted, on the same road going north-east around Slievemore. Success was not helped by the steady increase in emigration from the island by the young and restless seeking the bright lights of America. The island’s population tumbled from its peak of 8,000 and today rests at about 3,000. Indeed, until the recent tourism boom, the main income of Achill’s inhabitants arrived in the post from successful relatives living overseas. Large droves had found their way to Cleveland, Ohio. “Cleveland became the passage of assistance”, recalls John Cooney, “and it became an Achill stronghold. I had two aunts and an uncle that went there and I have cousins there now. One of them sent a text to McLoughlins wishing me a Happy Easter!”.
Not far from here, amid the gorse and heather clad drumlins, lie some impressive megalithic tombs, cairns, dolmens, tumuli and stone circles, puzzling memorials to Achill’s earliest known inhabitants and dating back some 6000 years. Also worth a diversion are the Seal Caves at the back of Slievemore where, on hot summer days, fat and prosperous looking seals lounge on the rocks, toying with their whiskers and growling at one another.
By now it should have become apparent why so many artists and writers come and came to Achill to get their creative juices flowing. Ingo tells me about Germany’s 1972 Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll (1917-1985) who wrote about his time here in the 1950s in “Irish Journal”. (Boll’s home in Dugort is now a house for Irish and international working artists). Also popular with the literary set is the Valley House Hotel near Dugort, once occupied by the woman whose story was told by J.M. Synge in his controversial 1907 comedy, “The Playboy of the Western World”. This poor lass turned down a randy suitor only to be brutally thrown on the flames of a barn this same fellow had set on fire. Paul Henry’s landscape paintings of the island now adorn the walls of art galleries across the world. So too do the works of Derek Hill, Charles Lamb and the American, Robert Henri.
Every year, between 2nd and 14th August, Scoil Acla (Achill School) invites people to a series of lectures and festivities designed to promote Irish language, music and culture. Scoil Acla was founded in 1911 by Mrs. Emily Weddall and was popular with those who wanted to learn the Irish language and experience the culture in its natural setting of Achill Island. (See: The Life and Times of Emily M. Weddall 1867-1952 by Maria Gillen.)
From Dugort, the north eastern shores of the island are available for your viewing pleasure and, once again, the cliff scenery is breathtaking stuff. Bunnacurry is the site of a Franciscan monastery built in 1852 by the Catholic Hierarchy seeking to disrupt the Reverend Nagle’s successful conversions at The Colony. They roosted here for 36 years, teaching the remaining islanders better farming practices, offering a place of refuge to travellers, and inviting nuns from the Sisters of Mercy to set up the local school. The monastery was sold as an agricultural co-op in 1971 with over 700 people buying shares. Lamb-fattening units, animal feeders and such like came on board, and the Monastery won a National Award for being a model farm, until mismanagement in the 1980s resulted in the Co-op’s collapse. Last I heard, a new team had purchased the monastery and were looking to make it a Heritage Centre for explaining the history, culture and language of Achill Island to curious parties. So keep your eyes on that one.
Also of interest is Muintir Acla, a good, sometimes provocative, Achill-based bi-lingual magazine published three times a year “for Achill people at home, elsewhere in Ireland and overseas, for visitors to Achill for friends of Achill and for readers everywhere”.
When you’ve had your fair share of Achill, all you need to do is find a road heading south and you will soon find yourself travelling through the green, almost junglish vegetation of fuchsia bushes and giant rhubarbs, back to Achill Sound and the mainland.
To get to Achill Island, aim for Westport (connected to the rail and bus networks) and hang a left for Newport on the N59.
See also Achill Tourism. With thanks to Benita Stoney.