The call of home

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OPEN FOR BUSINESS John Barrett (left) and Graham Sweeney pictured at John’s Lílí Bán Cafe at The Bervie in Keel in Achill Island. Graham also runs his surf school and live music hub from there. Pic: Kesaia Toganivalu

Achill men Graham Sweeney and John Barrett on setting up business in Keel

Kesaia Toganivalu

If Graham Sweeney and John Barrett had a theme song it would be ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ by Thin Lizzy. Such is the excitement for what they feel is a new age for a younger Achill. Both men are back after years of ‘drifting’ in and out of Achill and part of a brave number of people turning their hand at new business ventures.
Technically, John’s is out the back of an island favourite, The Bervie, nestled at the foot of his parents’ garden. And whilst he stresses before we sit down for the interview he is merely a spokesperson for that established business and it is not really his, it is clear he has poured a lot of time and care into Lílí Bán. The Flat White, courtesy of the new Cafe is good and what I would describe as ‘proper’ coffee and I am struck by the fact the man handing it to me was a marine biologist working on Clare Island in another life. A man who tells me that I will see him behind a crepe griddle once the equipment arrives.
The beginning of our chat impressed on me how Covid was like an impossible slane, cutting down the lives of many and parting others completely. There was their lives before Covid, and then thereafter. There is a faint wistfulness as Graham describes how he had so much planned musically last year, tours and festivals lined up and ‘within one week it was all just called off’.
Now he has started his own business, Sound Wave, based at the back of The Bervie and physically attached to the cafe. It is an amalgamation of passions he has held his whole life from being raised on Achill, going out and seeing more of the world and finally returning home. Whilst the pandemic has crippled many aspects of life, as undoubtedly readers will know, it has also brought about new ways of living juxtaposed by what was and what, legislation-permitting, may well be again. Neither men are begrudging of the turn their lives have taken, and instead there is a strong sense that they are looking out to the whole island with a sense of hope.
I am reminded of a conversation I had on the bog last summer, where most reticent conversations of course take place, with a man who had lived most of his life on the island. They spoke of Achill like it was a sinkhole for the youth, always leaving. They expressed fear at what would become of the island without the backs of the children to carry it into the future. Graham and John echo having had this fear and talk of steady school closures with what felt like a dwindling younger generation.
Achill’s economy is that of tourism. With the restriction of international travel, both this year and last year, it is now, more than ever, seen as somewhere to escape to rather than from. Working as a waitress during the day I have met hordes of staycationers, many amazed by just how beautiful the island is. When I ask them for their drinks orders and ask them how their day is, there is a habit of comparing Achill to somewhere far more foreign: ‘It was like the Mediterranean today!’ This is testament to the elusive atmosphere of Achill to those that visit it. To them, it is another world, one that can only really be articulated by comparing it to more known far away lands.

An Achill adventure
Graham and John speak of Achill with the eyes of those that have grown up here, left here, and returned all the wiser. They say they would encourage those that are young on the island to get out there, to travel, but to not forget about their home back here. It all sounds a bit like some sort of gap year psyche but it is grounded in truth. For tourists Achill is merely a picturesque check-point, one they leave and maybe return every year, but for islanders it is the land they know so well, temperamental weather and all.
There is an almost paradoxical way in which John and Graham refer to the younger generation of Achill whilst also being on the cusp of it themselves. I, by comparison, am like a tadpole a child has scooped up to put into a jar and gawk at how premature it is. They flit in and out of being aged by their lives before the pandemic and excited teenage boys that are embarking on an adventure.
And it is an adventure.
For Graham to once upon a time to have been a dishwasher at the Bervie to now start a surf school out of it is a testament to the way their lives, not even generationally, but as individuals have intersected to this point.
“I think it took us six months, maybe, to realise we were both back on the Island,” Graham admits, conjuring an image of two prodigal sons returning at the same time and starting a redemption-based cooperative.
It is the summer season now, and there is an ephemeral buzz that comes with the warm weather and floods of people but John and Graham are looking towards the months and seasons to come.
“There is that great line, ‘You can’t eat scenery’ and it is true. Achill has always been a spot for daytripping from places like Westport but we need to keep cultivating it as somewhere people want to stay and come back to and have things to do when they’re here.”
When we conclude our chat and I begin the walk home from Keel to Dookinella, I’m struck by how many more food trucks there are on the beach strand. Maybe their giddiness isn’t just childish glee and they’re right, Achill is open again.