Achill – a truly unique part of Ireland

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PICTURE POSTCARD Keem Bay has become one of the most popular beaches in Ireland. Pic: Edwin McGreal

Oisín McGovern

“Oh the Green and Red of Mayo, I can see it still.
Its soft and craggy boglands, its tall majestic hills”

Being a proud son of County Mayo, I felt the place I grew up near Lough Carra always epitomised these lyrics.
Indeed, anywhere you roam in our wondrous western home, you’re never far from hills or bogs.
However, visiting Achill Island for the first time in my 25 years made me rethink what part of Mayo is best described by that over-played Saw Doctors tune.
Achill is a truly unique part of Ireland, even among other Atlantic coastal areas.
Having visited Erris on a few occasions in recent years, I was already familiar with just how wild and remote the Mayo countryside can be.
While the barony is rugged, rocky and majestic, many of its vistas stretch far off into the distance and are less hill, more bog.
In Achill, you are humbled, if occasionally awestruck by the landscape before you.
With its dark, imposing hills of beige acidic soil only fit for sheep grazing, the environment is always reminding you of its presence.
Although it is the largest and best-connected island in the country, you still get the feeling of being somewhere unique and remote.
From when you cross the bridge at Achill Sound, the entire landscape becomes more rugged, more barren, more rocky, more unblemished, more imposing, and as wild as you will see on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Modernity
COASTAL settlements such as Belmullet and Westport have all modernised while retaining that uniqueness that you get from old Irish towns.
In Achill though, many parts of the island appear frozen in time. Its hills, mountains, bogs, streams, valleys, flora and fauna bedeck nearly as much of the landscape as the day the first settlers arrived here.
While you will find plenty of fine Chinese takeaways, salad bars, coffee houses, or French-style bistros in many bigger towns, everything about Achill feels plainer, simpler and uniquely Irish.
Many of the pubs look almost exactly as they might have in the 70s or 80s. Likewise with the small rural homesteads which dot the land.
Indeed, modernity has blighted many Irish towns with soulless pound shops and multinational chain stores, displacing many of the family-run establishments that were part of the towns’ lifeblood and identity, where the owners knew their customers by name and news and banter were exchanged as liberally as pounds and shillings.
There is little evidence of such erosion on Achill island, right down to the roads – which can be dodgy in parts, to say the least.

Appreciating what’s on our doorstep
For many years, this reporter carried a mild sense of shame that I had never visited this part of my home county, a place which draws visitors from all over the isle and beyond each summer.
Having dipped my feet in the Atlantic from the shores of Long Island as a child, I decided that I would finally explore this much-treasured corner of County Mayo.
Neither myself nor my co-pilot were disappointed. From when the heaven’s cleared at mid-day, we had landed in paradise.
Seven hours wasn’t enough time to explore all of Achill’s attractions at a leisurely pace.
This great Atlantic rock undoubtedly holds many wonders that I have yet to lay eyes on, particularly in the northern half of the island.
I do intend to return in the future. If you haven’t been to Achill yourself, do take a trip, particularly on those rare but wonderful sunny days. You won’t be disappointed.