Coastal paradise

Townland tales

Achill Head from top of Croaghaun

Townland Tales

John O'Callaghan

One of my favourite coastal townlands in Mayo has to be Keel West on Achill Island. It happens to be the 4th largest one in the county and, according to, ‘nationwide, it is the 13th largest townland that we know about’.
It covers a wide area, stretching along the ridgeline of Croaghaun mountain, from Saddle Head in the north to Achill Head in the west and curving around to Moyteogue Head (Máiteog is ‘land subject to inundations’ or ‘flooded land’) in the south, overlooking Keem Bay.
Keel West shares a common border with Slievemore townland to the east along a line that runs from Dooagh village to the northern coastline at a point between the two lakes, Loch Nakeeroge, Loch na gCaoróg, or ‘beetle lake” and Loch Bunnafreva East, Loch Bhún na Fréithe Thiar, ‘the lake of the bottom of the root’ or ‘rock-bottom’?
The reason it appeals to me so much is because it is exhilarating walking territory. Not only does it contain some of the most unusual topographical features to be found anywhere in Ireland, it is also an area of outstanding natural beauty and unsurpassed scenery. Location is a key factor and when mountains and seascapes coincide, notably in Mweelrea or Mount Brandon, the experience is enhanced. It is the same with Croaghaun, Cruachán, ‘peak’, regarded as having the highest (non-sheer) sea-cliffs in Western Europe at an altitude of 688m. The mountain also exhibits some of the finest corrie lakes in Lough Acorrymore and Bunnafreva West.  
Robert Lloyd Praeger was (almost) lost for words when describing Bunnafreva Lough West, ‘perched on the edge of the huge cliff with another cliff overhanging it – a place so lonely and sterile and primeval that one might expect to see the piast or other Irish water-monster rising from the inky depths of the tarn.’ Scary stuff. This was in 1937. In his, by now legendary work, ‘The Way That I Went’, Praeger goes on to inform his readers that his ‘first acquaintance with Achill – at second-hand’ – was from an account by Edward Newman in the Magazine of Natural History a century previously in 1838. Newman was as enamoured with Bunnafreva Lough West as Praeger was and he describes the teardrop-shaped, reservoir-like lake, ‘undoubtedly one of the most remarkable features of Achill’ thus:
“Near the margin of the cliff a beautiful little fresh-water lake, surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills. I should think its surface was 600 feet above the sea, and its distance from the edge of the cliff scarcely 300. I doubt whether any Englishman but myself has ever seen this lone and beautiful sheet of water; its singularly round form, the depth of the basin in which it reposes, the precipitous sides of the basin, its height above the sea – all these are characters of no ordinary interest”.
According to a number of far-more-recent sources, the correct name for this dramatically situated corrie lake is Loch Réithí Dubha, referencing its often deep-blue-black colour. It may also convey elements of calmness and tranquillity from the ‘ré’ part of the name.
There have been some landslides in recent years in the summit area of Croaghaun and all walks here should be undertaken with extreme caution and care. I generally like to start in the car park beside Lough Acorrymore, taking a clockwise or anticlockwise route around the coum, the direction being optional depending on wind direction. Alternatively, if time and daylight permit, a longer trek may be undertaken from the car park at Keem Beach, to include all or part of the Moyteoge Head to Achill Head ridge, but be warned, this makes for a very steep approach to the summit of Croaghaun from the west. The views to the north include Blackrock Lighthouse, Blacksod at the southern tip of the Mullet Peninsula with its offshore islands of Duvillaun More and Beg and the Inishkeas. By the time you return to your car you will welcome a refreshing dip off Keem Strand, one of the finest beaches in Ireland.
It is interesting to compare the impressions of Eric Newby from circa 1968. He found Croaghaun ‘awe-inspiring’ and he mentions that nearby Corrymore House, west of Dooagh, was the one-time residence of Captain Boycott. He wisely recommends not undertaking the climb in high winds or foggy conditions and maintains the view of Croaghaun from the sea is less spectacular. He also cautions the reader that anyone intending to hire a boat from the islanders at Dooagh should prepare themselves for ‘vigorous bargaining’!

John O’Callaghan MA MBA PhD is a mountain walk leader and has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.