‘I took my return ticket to London out of my pocket and tore it into small pieces and scattered it into the sea’.
Paul Henry, circa 1911
Artist Paul Henry was to stay on Achill on and off for the next nine years, some of his most famous paintings depicting the island’s dramatic landscape and traditional lifestyles. During that prolonged period, he definitely experienced many’s the day like the one we got – in a word – miserable!
Ah well – I suppose I could photoshop – or use stock photos. But why cheat – the place is gorgeous despite the weather!!!
We’re off to Achill, Ireland’s largest island. At 24km X 19km in size and boasting a 120km coastline, we’re guaranteed spectacular wild scenery and sandy beaches (but not always great weather alas!).
A wooden swing bridge, completed in 1887, first connected the island with the mainland. This eventually proved too small and was replaced by a new parallel bridge in 1949. The latest edition – the Michael Davitt Bridge, named in honour of the 19th century Mayo-born nationalist MP – opened to traffic in 2008.
Achill Sound – Gob an Choire -is the first village at the island end of the bridge. You can stop for coffee or a browse in the craft shops.
We take the road out along Achill Sound, looking across at the mainland and Corraun Hill…
The name Achill is an anglicised form of Acaill. It’s meaning is uncertain. It appears as Ecaill, Eccuill in various old Irish sources, and Akill, The Aukilles, etc. in 16th century English records. Some have linked it to an Irish form of the Latin aquila meaning ‘eagle’ but this is unfounded.
As one drives along, it’s impossible to ignore the number of ruins – so many sad stories….
Kildownet Old Cemetery is named after Saint Damhnait / Dympna, a 7th century nun who found refuge here while fleeing from her abusive father. The present ruins are 18th century. The graveyard contains the remains of many islanders who perished during the Great Famine, together with the victims of the 1894 Clew Bay Drownings and the 1937 Kirkintilloch Burning.
1894 Clew Bay Drownings
On 14th June 1894, about 400 people set off from Achill on an annual journey to the west of Scotland to work at ‘tattie hoking’, or picking potatoes. The potato harvest on Achill had been poor the previous year and families were forced to purchase seed potatoes as their own crops were useless These were bought on credit and would be repaid when the migrants returned later in the year. Families were desperate for extra income and so an unusually large number of first-timers were heading to Scotland on this occasion.
Currachs took them out to four hookers (large wooden-hulled sailing boats, typically used for fishing or cargo) which would in turn bring them across Clew Bay to Westport, where they would transfer to a steamship bound for Scotland. The first hooker to load – The Victory – was carrying 126 people when it set off.
As The Victory approached Westport, its passengers caught sight of the SS Elm, the steamship which would take them to Scotland. They rushed to one side of the hooker to get a better view, making the boat unstable. The boat capsized and the passengers were thrown into the water. Many were trapped under the large canvas sails which became heavy when wet.
In total, 32 people drowned in the tragedy. They were laid to rest in a communal grave in Kildownet cemetery, a single headstone listing all their names.
A familiar story throughout the west, Achill’s population was vastly diminished by a steady stream of emigration, both seasonal (like those above, heading to Britain for harvesting) and permanent. Right up until tourism took hold in the late 20th century – so not very long ago at all! – the main income of Achill’s inhabitants came from relatives who ‘made good’ in Britain and the US.
The Kirkintilloch Tragedy
On 16th September 1937, ten young boys from Achill died in a fire in their bothy in the town of Kirkintilloch just outside Glasgow, where they had travelled for potato picking (the term bothy referred to the temporary accommodation provided for those who went to Scotland to pick potatoes).
The three-storey Tower at Kildavnet is a perfect example of the 15th century Norman design tower houses that Irish chieftains constructed throughout the countryside. This one, strategically located at the mouth of Achill Sound, is thought to have been constructed by Clan O’Malley around 1429. It is more famously associated with a descendent – Grace O’Malley or Granuaile.
Gráinne Mhaol / Granuaile / Grace O’Malley / Pirate Queen
The Úi Mháille were based around Clew Bay and built a string of castles facing the sea to protect their interests – which included taxing all those who fished off their coasts. Grace was born around 1530, and although she had a paternal half-brother, it was she who was considered the legal heir to clan lands and seafaring ‘activities’. She was formally educated and would converse in Latin with Elizabeth I when they met in 1593.
The story goes that as a child, she wanted to join her father on a trading expedition to Spain. He dismissed her with the excuse that her long hair would catch in the ropes. She cut off most of her hair and he had to take her on board! This is where the nickname Gráinne Mhaol – anglicised to Granuaile – came from (maol meaning ‘bald’ in Irish!).
At the time of her birth, Henry VIII was King of England and Lord of Ireland. At that stage, Irish chieftains were left mostly to their own devices but, by 1541, the English had taken full control and while some of the circa 40 Irish clans accepted this authority, the O’Malleys were not numbered among them!
Grace’s father taught her well – armed with the seafaring and military tactics that she learned from him, she would control two galleys, 20 ships, and more than 200 men in Mayo waters. Gradually the clan built even greater wealth through trade, fishing and piracy. She repeatedly battled against the English – her exploits are recounted in Elizabethan state papers – and was imprisoned for two years.
She married twice – into two very powerful families – and had four children. When her half-brother and one of her sons were arrested, she asked for an audience with Elizabeth I and secured the release of her family. She died of natural causes in about 1603 and was supposedly buried on her family’s land on nearby Clare island although this has never been proven.
At Cloughmore, boat trips can be arranged for nearby Achill Beg and Clare Island.
Out from Cloughmore, separated by a narrow channel of water, is Achill Beg (Little Achill). It was no doubt connected to Achill at some stage and consists of two low hills with a sheltered valley. It once boasted a population of 178 (1841) and had a strong fishing tradition. Eventually this alone could not support all the islanders and there have been no permanent inhabitants since the 1960s.
We turn now onto Achill Island’s spectacular ‘Atlantic Drive’, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Clare Island and Achill Beg.
Hard to imagine that this landscape was once covered in forest! – don’t think we saw a tree all day!
The old fishing village of Dooega is part of the Gaeltacht – an Irish-speaking area. Until recently, Irish was the primary language in here
There are three distinct dialects of Irish – Ulster, Connacht and Munster – named after the provinces (a 4th – Leinster Irish – is no longer spoken). Achill (Connacht) experienced an influx of migration in the 17th and 18th centuries from other parts of Ireland, particularly Ulster, due to political and religious unrest. This resulted in two dialects of Irish being spoken on the island. Many townlands were recorded with two names in the 1824 Ordnance Survey and, even today, some places still have two names on maps. Achill Irish still has many traces of Ulster Irish, but it’s no longer the predominant dialect on the island.
We’re turning inland now and crossing the island..
Notice the bumpy road? Achill is 87% peat bog.
You’ll see sights like this everywhere in the west – vast tracts of blanket bog. Here you can see bog returning to its natural state after being cut. This source of cheap fuel was cut by hand and left to dry before being collected and brought home by cart.
This is a more common sight nowadays – this bog has been cut by machine and the turf is baged….
There’s a turn along here towards Minaun Heights which promises dramatic views of the island. While we did venture up the steep road to the top, the mist was so bad we didn’t even get out of the car.
This stock photo gives an idea of what we missed…
Dugort, boasting not one but two Blue Flag beaches, was the first area on Achill to embrace tourism with the establishment of the Achill Mission Hotel (later the Slievemore Hotel) in 1840.
Golden Strand is also known as Barnyagappul Strand. This comes from Trá Bhearna na gCapall meaning the Strand of the Gap of the Horses. It refers back to the time when horses carried seaweed from the beach for use as fertilizer in the fields.
The other beach, tucked under Slievemore, is known as Pollawaddy strand – Poll an Mhadaidh (Poll is a hole but not sure about Madadh – maybe someone’s name?). On January 1st, it hosts the first dip of the year as hardy adventurers embrace the not so inviting Atlantic waters!!
Located at the foot of Slievemore, The Deserted Village serves as a haunting reminder of Achill’s past. The remains of almost 100 traditional stone cottages extend for about a mile along an ancient pathway in one of the most sheltered areas of the island. It’s believed that the village was abandoned during the Great Famine of the 1840s.
Archaeological research has dated the settlement back to at least 12th century Anglo-Norman times and there is evidence of occupation at different periods – some houses being constructed on top of previous dwellings. However, the presence of a nearby megalithic tomb indicates habitation in the area some 5000 years ago!
Up until the early 20th century, the cottages were used for booleying by the locals. Families that were lucky enough to own cattle – usually dairy – migrated with their stock up to mountain pastures for the summer months.
Not just at Slievemore, but all over Achill, you’ll come across old lazy beds covered over in grass and heather.
Low parallel drainage furrows were dug by spade. The sod and dirt was piled between the furrows to create ridges. These ridges were enriched with manure and seaweed. Seed potatoes were usually put into the ground in May.
The term was supposedly first used by the British as a derogatory term for this system of agriculture which was widespread in Ireland and Scotland – the implication being that all the Irish ever did was grow potatoes in their lazy beds.
A day that began fairly miserably turned positively grim! We persevered but conditions gradually deteriorated and it became a labour of…. well… nothing … just a labour!!!!!
We’ve reached the end of the road – literally. We’d been looking forward to a walk on the lovely Keem Beach…..not today thank you! There’s also a popular 1.5km trek from here out towards the cliffs at Achill Head.
Plenty of others though, making the most of it….
Slipping in this stock photo to show you Bill’s Rocks, nine miles out in the distance. The story goes that the rocks are none other than the remnant of Atlantis, of whose end Plato (born circa 428BC) wrote:
At that time the Atlantic ocean was navigable and there was an island greater than Libya and Asia together. On this island a very rich war-race lived; but huge earthquakes and deluges took place and brought with them desolation in the space of one night, so all these people were merged under the earth, and Atlantis Island itself being absorbed in the sea entirely disappeared.
The photo was taken from Dooagh Beach which has it’s own story! The beach disappeared during the winter storms of 1984. Almost 34 years later, another freak tide around Easter 2017 brought it back, throwing hundreds of tons of sand onto the rocks overnight! Alas, it vanished again in 2019!
Keem was bad but Keel is worse! The 4km beach is the longest on the island – not that we can see for 4kms!!!
A sorry sight!!!….
…..even the pubs are closed….
Time to go!!!1
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