SPECTACULAR An aerial view of Keem Bay, at the western end of Achill Island.?Pic: Darren Moran/Firefly Aerial Photography
I don’t believe there is a person alive in Mayo that hasn’t visited Achill at some point in their lives.
The beautiful island, marked by its rugged mountains and free-roaming sheep, is a tourism hotspot for people of all nationalities and backgrounds.
The five Blue Flag beaches that are located around the area are amongst the most iconic and cleanest in Europe, along with some of the most amazing scenery and historical features you will find.
What makes this tourism gem even more special is the fact that it is situated only an hour’s drive from my house. Yet, when the topic of popular Mayo tourism spots popped up in the Mayo News office, it dawned on me that I had not visited this iconic island in over ten years, apart from the odd torture of a GAA match there, which my memories of are far from iconic.
Coincidently, a brilliant new initiative was just launched by the CFÁA (the island’s local development company) as part of the ‘Achill Experience’ where you are given an iPad that will guide you around the island to all of the different sites and historical features scattered throughout Ireland’s largest island. This was an opportunity I could not let pass, so I jumped in my car and headed off to relive some of my childhood.
The weather on the day in question was typical of any Irish summer that has came before – sunny, but the possibility of rain almost seemed inevitable.
Like a child off to Disneyland for the first time, I eagerly approached the Michael Davitt Bridge that connects the island from the mainland since way back in 1887. It was the first swing bridge in the country when it opened and although it has been rebuilt twice since, it sets the tone of a unique experience right from the off.
Magical Keem Bay
From there, I immediately headed west towards Keem Bay, the last place in Achill I can remember visiting. It is the furthest westerly point on the island and the drive there is almost a memorable as the bay itself.
If you are in anyway scared of heights, you might want to close your eyes (presuming you’re not driving of course) on the steep ascent up the mountain. Luckily for me, I was driving through a rain cloud that had restricted my vision over the steep cliff.
Even luckier for me was that when I reached the top, I broke through the thick cloud into nothing but beautiful sunshine and a view so spectacular, I decided to pull over my car for fear I would inadvertently drive off the edge, in order to bask in all of its glory.
The sight of the beach, squashed in-between the rugged mountains, was even more marvelous than I had remembered. As I looked out on the Atlantic Ocean I caught sight of Bill’s Rocks, often described as Ireland’s best scuba-diving sight. With time not exactly been on my side, I decided to move swiftly on before the temptation to set up camp on the golden sand proved too much.
My next venture was to be towards the Slievemore Mountains, in search of the Deserted Village that I have heard so much about. The village consists of 80-100 old stone cottages which were used for ‘booleying’ during the summer months. As I walked up the mile-long dirt track I was amazed to find that many of these cottages were still intact, complete with potato-ridges that could still be distinguished underneath the grassland.
There was a very ghostly feeling surrounding the village and it certainly left nothing to the imagination as to the harshness of life all those years ago. For now though, its only occupants are the many mountain-sheep grazing around it.
My dreadful map-reading skills played to my advantage when I went in search of my next planned stoppage. Unbeknownst to myself, I had taken the scenic route along the north side of the island and in doing so passed through the picturesque village of Dugort, complete with two blue-flag beaches and its own hotel.
There was this beautiful feeling of peace and relaxation as I strolled through it, something I didn’t feel to this extent anywhere else on the day. The little village is also steeped in history as the hotel, along with St Thomas’s Church, were just a number of innovations brought to the island by Protestant colonisers from England, lead by Reverend Edward Nangle.
My final destination for the day was going to be just over the bridge at the old Achill Railway Station that closed in 1937. It was once known to be the most scenic route in Ireland but what intrigued me most about this railway line was the old tale of Brian Rua Ó Ceabháin and his prophecy that he told many years before, in the 17th century. He predicted that the first and last carriages out of the station would be carrying the dead, and he was correct.
In 1894 a special carriage was organised to transport the remains of the 32 ‘pratie-pickers’ who died when their boat to Scotland capsized. In 1937, just after the railway was closed, a special train was organised to transport the remains of 10 young men, also ‘pratie-pickers’, who had perished in Scotland when the locked barn they were sleeping in was set on fire. The route is now the Achill-Westport Greenway, a 42km walking track used by 220,000 people annually.
Had time been on my side, there were numerous places on this incredible island that I would have love to explored further, but I feel safe in the surety that I will not be waiting as long for my next trip across the bridge.