Many years ago, as an undergraduate student at Queens’ University, Belfast I started a bit of an obsession with islands. It probably was fuelled by Prof Steve Royle who raised my interest in the lives of far-flung places and opened my eyes to the vast array of islands that surround the Irish coast. In particular, there was one lecture where he talked about the history and life on the Blasket islands. This stayed with me for many years and eventually (about 11 years later) on a holiday with my family down the west coast of Ireland – I finally managed to visit that place that had fascinated me so much.
That same year (in 2005), we had trailed my mum and dad’s caravan down to stay for a week in Castlebar and then for a week down in Killarney. Even with two young kids in the back seat (aged about 1 and 4 respectively) – I was keen to explore some of the less accessible areas of the coastline. As a Belfast-born self-confessed townie, who has lived and worked in fairly rural areas for most of my life – for some reason the coast and islands in particular have become a particular interest. I love the sea. I don’t really like being on it, or in it. But, I do like looking at it. I like the roar of the waves; the crash of the pebbles being pulled along a beach; the splash of spray in the air; the wind as it whips around you and does its best to push you backwards.
We are just back from a short break over half term where we stayed in a cottage close to a place that I wanted to explore more – Achill island.
In 2005, we spent a few hours doing a quick tour to the island but with young kids in tow – it was not long before we needed to hit a play park or beach. We found the fascinating Slievemore abandoned village and spent time wandering through some of the ancient houses and streets. I took a load of pictures that were quickly knitted into a oft-used PowerPoint presentation to highlight the impact of overpopulation and the impact of the Irish famine.
This time, I had a bit more time to be able to explore the island and learn more about life in this westerly haven. Achill is not easy to get to – but then, what island actually is? It is found in county Mayo and travellers have to keep going as far west as they can – through Castlebar and Newport and then eventually to the small settlement of Mulranny (or Mallaranny on all the maps and roadsigns). It is an island in the sense that it is completely surrounded with water – but, it has the luxury of being accessible by road bridge – which makes things a lot more straight forward.
The island is the largest Irish island and currently is home to around 2,500 people. Sometimes, islands feel like you are stepping back in time. To more simple times – yes, but not necessarily easier times as life would have been harsh. Survival was not a sure thing. Family and depending on neighbours and friends was paramount – you needed to feel and be part of a bigger community. Life out here on the fringes of Ireland (and of continental Europe) was never easy. People were quite literally, hanging on by their finger nails. Life was hard. Winters were brutal. Income from farming/fishing/seaweed harvesting was challenging. In many ways – its not much different today. The recent COVID epidemic has impacted tourism and many attractions/ hotels/pubs have closed their doors for the last time as they were unable to make it through those leanest of years.
Achill is an island for people who like to explore. It is peppered with coves, sandy beaches, small harbours with scattered currachs or naomhogs, towering cliffs and an ever-changing scenery. It feels busier than you might expect. There are numerous groups of people cycling from one place of interest to the next. Yet, it also feels empty. Devoid of people. Isolated. Far from ‘civilisation’. It has few shops and those that it does have keep the strangest hours. A cafe/bar/ restaurant will be open one day and closed the next. You always need a backup plan. There is evidence of people and past attempts at harnessing new sources of income. Empty guest houses and hotels. Overgrown drives and derelict buildings that look lost. I don’t think I have even seen as many run down modern and ancient buildings in my life. Yes, the ruins of buildings from nearly 200 years ago and the times of famine and emigration are rife. But, so too is the familiar story of recent emigration – where buildings are left to fend for themselves as owners flee towards better prospects. Island life continues to be a life built on the edge. Even with modern communications (wifi and roads), these places still feel like they are on the edge of the world.
Top 5 things to do on Achill Island
5: Drive round the southern part of the island
Also known as the Lub Moll Rothair Acla 1 – this road takes you round some of the more remote parts of the island past some stunning scenery and cliffs, harbours, ancient castles and with views of the smaller Acaill Bheag island.
4: The Amethyst Bar/Restaurant
A lovely, modernised bar and restaurant in the centre of Keel which boasts magnificent views and great food.
3: Keem Bay beach
This sheltered beach is tucked underneath the heights of Croaghaun and alongside Moyteoge Head.
2: An Mhaoilinn viewpoint
Its not for the faint-hearted – its a road up the side of a mountain but the view from the top is worth it in the end.
1: Slievemore abandoned village
It contains 137 ruined building that remind us of the pressure on land and resources before the famine in 1845-51. Its a remnant of community life, bathed in poverty where people had to work hard just to survive.