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Keel and the slow reveal

Outdoor Living

KEEL APPEAL When the weather is kind, the wild charms of Keel Beach rival any Greek strand.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

“Have you ever been to Achill?”
“No,” they said. They had not. They’d seen it on the map, but fallen to the charms of Westport town and the beaches to the south, as so many do. “Why do you ask?” They wanted to know. “What’s there that we should see?”
I showed them on the map, at which they pursed their lips and sucked inward through their teeth. I knew what they were thinking. Old Head was sheltered and the sun would be out later, even for a short while, and if they didn’t make the most of their summer holiday they’d be going home paler than they arrived. They’d be gone to Greece if it wasn’t for this virus, they’d made that clear, and if I couldn’t arrange the Irish equivalent of sunbeds and a sun-blackened Greek waiter serving olive oil on toast and cocktails overloaded with ouzo they might not be back. No, Achill Island might not be everyone’s idea of a holiday destination.
“There’s a bog,” I said, trying to be helpful. “And a hill.”
“A bog on a hill? It’s more than 50 miles!”
I felt a little defensive. “It’s not a bog on a hill.” How could I best describe it? “It’s a hill in a bog.”
Now don’t get me wrong. Achill is a beautiful island. In fact, in it’s day it must be among the prettiest of all places. The trouble is, it’s day was sometime back in spring, before the summer rains began.
The journey from Westport does little to prepare one for the Achill experience, especially under a leaden sky with rain blowing horizontally in little short of a hurricane. Along the Atlantic Drive from Mulranny, the car did a good impression of a rollercoaster and we were pretty near seasick by the time we hit the Sound, where white-topped waves did their best to wash us off the bridge.
I was surprised to see so much tourist traffic. Virtually all of it was going in the opposite direction to ourselves. My guests were silent.
Trying to be optimistic I wound my window down and gestured to a rather miserable looking bunch of birds. “Look, seagulls,” I shouted over the roaring gale and through a faceful of sea spray. Nobody was impressed. I put the window up again and had to stop to wipe my glasses. “We’ll go to Keel. We might see a chough.”
“What’s a chough?” they wanted to know.
I did my best. “It’s about the same size as a seagull, but it’s black.”
“A black seagull.”
We drove in silence as far as Keel strand, where we sat in the car and stared at the sea through misted windows, with the rain doing its best to hammer a way through the roof. Conversation faltered. Weak attempts at jokes fell flat. Then suddenly, without any prior notice that such a thing would happen, the rain stopped, the wind fell away and the sun came out.
It was one of those moments when everything becomes right. The instant colours were brilliant: green cliffs behind, cobbles of chestnut and grey, and a blue, blue sea, creased and lined with surf of startling white, while overhead tall, crisp-edged clouds sailed imperiously inland.
We got out of the car and stretched our limbs. Right on cue we heard them call, “Jack! Jack!” and there, between ourselves and the ocean, were those wonderful birds. How many? Six, I counted, though there looked to be more, such was the speed and agility of their flight. They were in no hurry to leave the scene but put on a wonderful display of flying ability, especially for us, I thought.
The storm was gone, the sun was warm and before long there were rocks dry enough to sit on while we enjoyed our picnic. The chough family, dressed ragged black with neat red trim, came to join us, striding about the rough pasture and pretending to search for worms while waiting for pieces of crust. Now and then they lifted for a little aerial combat, diving and swooping, jinking and twisting and calling aloud, “Jack! Jack jack jack!” as if they were a circus act glad of an impromptu audience.
Suddenly my friends wanted to know. What were the birds? Where did they nest? Why are they rare? And then, “Could we climb the hill? Go to the far end of the beach? Spend an hour beachcombing?”
Day’s end came too soon. “Could we come again?”
“Yes,” I said, we would.