Recalling life on Achill Beg

Living

BIRD’S EYE VIEW A drone image of Achill Beg Island, with Clare Island in the background. Pic: Kevin Smith

Day trip to Achill Beg will be one of the highlights of the Féile Chill Damhnait in Achill

Edwin McGreal

‘A bridge would have saved this island’.
The headline in the Western People in July 1966 told you plenty.
The people of Achill Beg Island, just a stone’s throw from the much larger Achill Island, had been left with no choice but to leave behind their homes.
There were fears over safety – one local father of ten young children had drowned five years previously and the crossing from Cloughmore was – and is – capable of being notoriously treacherous.
Peter Gallagher was one of the last to leave the island. He was 73 when he spoke to The Western People in 1966.
“We would have been happy to stay on our island if they (the Government) had provided a bridge across. How much money have they spent on tourist roads around here over the past few years? If they put a bridge across they would have a great tourist attraction … at one point only about 25 yards separates Achill Beg and Achill itself,” he said.
Abandoning islands was a de-facto Government policy in the middle part of the 20th century and Achill Beg joined the likes of the Inishkeas, Inishshark, Great Blasket and others seeing their natives leave for the mainland. There was considerable support from islanders for leaving given the dangers they faced.
But while other islanders who left home for the mainland were compensated and given houses, the people of Achill Beg were afforded no such supports.
All the islanders were native Irish speakers and the report in The Western People hauntingly describes the scene on the island in the wake of the departure.
“Sheep graze on the hills. The houses, built only 30 years ago by the Department of the Gaeltacht in place of the old homesteads, stand shuttered and padlocked. The little island spring well is gradually succumbing to a tangling mass of weeds and moss. Down in the little valley the one teacher national school – built in 1903 – lies empty and deserted.
“Passing from house to house one can see in the rooms the pieces of furniture that have been left behind. A box of matches lies on top of a tablecloth on a formica-topped table in one house. In another house a little rectangular card on the wall reads ‘God Bless This Home’ … A calendar on the wall of another well-kept house shows that October 1965 was the last time anyone resided there. Outside a stack of turf which should have been burned last winter is piled practically untouched.
“The weird quietness and unspoiled beauty of Achill Beg is stunning. Nothing can be heard apart from the murmur of the Atlantic and the cry of the seagulls. Departing from a place as lovely as this must have caused many a heartbreak.”

Scattering to the four winds
Much like people on Achill Island itself, when the people of Achill Beg left their island, they scattered to the four winds. Some settled on Achill, others went to the UK and the US.
Life on Achill Beg will be remembered this Saturday when hundreds of people visit the island for the Achill Beg Day.
It’s part of the local Féile Chill Damhnait (Kildownet Festival) and the day has been a central part of the festival since 2016. It did not run in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Vivian Ruddy, who with Michael Patten and the Coiste Cill Damhnait committee, organise the festival, will lead a walk around the island on the day.
“It really is a fantastic island. It is so lovely and people who have come over have really enjoyed the trip,” he explains.
Ferries, put on by the Clare Island Ferry Company, will bring people from Cloughmore and Currane to Achill Beg.
The Kildownet Festival – based in the south-east part of the island – runs for ten days. It commenced last Friday night and is running to next Monday. There’s an incredible 37 events on with a family fun day, road races, local history talks, loads of live music in Patten’s Bar in Derreens (the headquarters for the festival), a ladies day, golf competitions, fitness classes, a yawl race and a guided walk on the hugely popular Slí Ghráinne Mhaol.

The boxer and An Paorach
The trip to Achill Beg will be the highlight for many, though.
In 1841 there was a population of 178 people on it. In 1961 that was down to 38 and four years later there was nobody.
There are holiday homes there now and one man lives there most of the year but Achill Beg as a community is no more. Sheep have the run of the place.
A new school was built there in 1903 and was still open in the 1964. One well-known teacher there was Francis Hugh Power, known as An Paorach, who was a central player in Conradh na Gaeilge during the Gaelic revival.
World champion boxer Johnny Kilbane, who was World Featherweight champion from 1912 to 1923, which is the longest unbroken run ever at that weight, had his roots on the island, with both his parents raised there prior to emigrating to the USA.
The island is also home to Dun Kilmore, one of the largest promontory forts in Ireland.
The lighthouse in Achillbeg was opened in September 1965, replacing the old lighthouse across the water at Clare Island. Ironically, as Vivian Ruddy points out, construction of it brought electricity to the island for the first time with the electricity being turned on for islanders on Christmas Eve 1964. Peter Gallagher had a radio telephone in his house and islanders were able to receive calls from family in the UK.
But a few weeks after the lighthouse was opened, in October 1965, the light of the Achill Beg community was extinguished.

For more details on Achill Beg Day and all the other events, see the Féile Chill Damhnait Facebook page.