Achill (pronounced Ack-ill) Island, Irelands biggest island, tethered to the mainland of County Mayo by a single bridge, is almost as westerly as one can get without falling off the country altogether. We drove in from the Mullet Peninsula on Monday afternoon, a lazy, winding route that took us leisurely along the stunning Wild Atlantic Way, Dixie practically the only car on the road. Thats the beauty of the West of Ireland, it is easy to be really alone, far away from any thing or any one else, and isolation is exactly what we were craving. Something strange happens to you when you choose to stop buying things, you begin to avoid the places that are trying to sell you things, shops begin to look like amusement parks, noisy, overcrowded, a waste of your time and your energy. We were looking for an empty corner of the world to hide in for a while, some peace and quiet away from human traffic, Achill Island fit the bill completely.
There has been some kind of bridge across Achill Sound since 1303, the current one a cute white whalebone shape, and it is surrounded by signs pointing out the many scenic routes available and pronouncing various Irish language welcomes. Only 2,700 people live here now, but judging from the number of vacant holiday caravans scattered in parks near the sandy south west coast, tourists must far outweigh the locals on a sunny August day. Thats definitely not the case on a brisk Monday in January though, we passed some shops and outlets, mostly seasonal, mostly shuttered up. Achill is steeped in history; the most rural, westerly counties of Ireland bore the brunt of the famine and countless recessions before and after, nevermind the behemoth Atlantic Ocean battering down constantly with wind and waves to the left, like a big bruising bully next door.
Our first stop was the site of the deserted village. On the green slopes of Slievemore, one of Achill Islands few towering mountains, stands a ruined village of booley houses, 100 or so stone cottages in varying states of disrepair, scattered throughout a couple of fields. The rolling ridges and dips of deep and long-ago hand dug potato furrows still shape the landscape today. Booleying, or transhumance, is the practise of living in different locations in different seasons, primarily to facilitate cattle grazing, and this is believed to be the last used booley village in Ireland. We walked the fields and through the tiny exposed houses, sheep grazing quietly alongside us, just as they would have been when this was a busy community. The Great Famine of 1847 was just the worst in a long line of devestating famines in Achill, the land utterly unsuitable for any crop but the humble spud. A Protestant mission moved onto the island in the height of the Great Famine and was hugely successful for a brief time, providing aid, food and work clearing the land and planting imported strains of potato to locals in exchange for their eternal souls, however the Prodestants quest to bring order to the ‘lawless Pagans’ of Achill was ultimately short lived and the people left in their droves. Another reason the islands population diminished could well have been unreasonable rent increases by an absentee landord, the infamous Captain Charles Boycott was agent to a lot of land nearby and bought some land himself in Dooagh in 1854, and we all know how that went….don’t we?
Far far older than the booley ghost town is the evidence excavated from below it, proof that this site has been occupied as a settlement of some sort for at least 5,000 years, right back to Neolithic times, and Slievemore (which translated from Irish literally means Big Mountain) is strewn all over with remains of ancient monuments.
Achills blue flag beaches are extraordinary, long stretches of white sand backed with pebbly shores, Keel Bay and Dooega Bay shone brightly in the sun. That Monday afternoon we were headed for Keem, a tiny empty pocket on the western most point of the island, at the very end of a one way road, talk about a civilisation boycott! The famous Atlantic Drive road would take us there, up some hundred metres into the clouds and along some of the steepest, narrowest roads Dixie has met yet, a sheer drop on one side to the rocks below…. I closed my eyes in fear more than once, luckily for us, William didn’t. Keem Bay was worth the brief scare, a beautiful little bay with bright sand glowing pink in the sunset, sheltered by two big bare and scrubby headlands, a more isolated spot in Ireland I defy you to find. We sat by the beach in silence and watched the waves until the sun set behind the headland and saw nor heard another vehicle nor human…..absolute bliss. I understand entirely why Graham Greene’s famous affair was carried out in the wilds of Achill, there is a rural romance to this place, bleak yet passionate, a Wuthering Heights kind of feel. Fully loaded with essential supplies and almost dizzied by the view, we decided to stay, to graze Dixie here overnight, to booley here on the beach.
A more peaceful nights sleep in Dixie we honestly can’t remember, and both the sun and the sheep were up early on Tuesday morning to have breakfast with us, we threw open the back doors to enjoy the mild weather and the wild view. Drawn as ever to visit ancient stones and monuments, we decided we had to take a look at something much more modern we had read about, a huge concrete stone circle, dubbed ‘Achill Henge’ and constructed in 2011 in the middle of a large bog without any sort of planning permission (and as a big middle finger to the whole process of planning) by a local protester. Famous for his high profile stunt of driving a cement mixer into the gates of the Dáil (the Irish parliament), the man is no stranger to controversy, and although ordered to remove the structure, it still stands, completely out of place in the wet turf bog. Stone circles are a place of reflection, and this is no different, we walked it’s circumference (at 100 metres, by far the biggest we’ve seen) and marvelled at the view from the hill. At the centre of the circle is a rough altar base, unfinished, now covered in stones and growing over with scrub, and each of the stone pillars is painted on the inward facing side with a piece of a mural, the picture gradually filling out around the circle and culminating in the finished graphic on what should be the reticent stone, the one facing the sun during the solstice. In fact we read the monument is a pretty accurate sun calendar, although raised in one hurried weekend, its precise alignment obviously took months of planning. Most controversial due to its proximity to the many neolithic sites I mentioned earlier preserved nearby in the same bog, the builder has variously defended Achill Henge as an ornamental garden, an art installation and a “tomb to the Celtic Tiger”. Decide for yourself!
We got a little lost on the way out of the bog, luckily I was wearing sandwich bags on my feet (thank you, 10 years of scouting with 18th Santry Troop) because I knew last week back in Mourne my hiking boots are simply not up to the job, I almost lost one in a particularly deep and vacuous bog hole. Achill Henge disappears from view quickly once you descend from the hill, at just over 4 metres tall it does nothing to impact negatively upon the landscape in my opinion, the grey stone blends seemlesly with the thousand shades of brown and green and blue all around, I don’t find it offensive. Love it or hate it, it’s worth a visit before the county council have their way!
Achill Island has welcomed the return of two beaches in the last few years. Doolagh beach was born again in April 2017 when the Atlantic Ocean dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of sand on the shoreline over a 10 day period, leaving behind a beautiful 300 metre long strand, the likes of which was last seen in 1984. Locals are delighted by the return of the prodigal beach whose disappearance after a storm over 30 years ago caused many businesses and the towns tourism industry to collapse. 10k away, in Ashleam, a small pebbly cove, the sand reappeared in November after more than 20 years of absense. Back then the coves isolation lead to it being used regularly by naturists, maybe they will reappear too, things happen in cycles. The impressive sea cliffs hanging over Ashleam are the 3rd highest in Europe, 688 metres up, if you are lucky enough to visit this place take the Atlantic drive for some stunning views, we did at dusk, most memorable.
The roads of Achill Island look as if drawn by a child, the turf-black tarmac laid down like a ribbon and undulating madly along on top of bog and stone. Hairpin bends and sudden, unannounced climbs are the norm, and driving safely and being hyper aware are a must. So imagine our surprise to see a little old man in a little old Nissan Micra take a left without even contemplating that there might be another vehicle anywhere nearby and barrel right toward us! Dixie narrowly avoided an accident, but as tends to happen when you drive your house around with you, a large snap and crash from inside indicated the sharp braking might have caused some ‘household’ damage.
Conversations like this are common in Dixie:
“Hey you, the (insert thing that is broken here) is broken”
“Oh shit. Where’s the tape?”
In this instance, it was the 4 drawer kitchen unit, bungeed to the leg of the bed, that had somehow snapped in half during the hard brake, spilling tea and coffee and other precious items onto the floor. We pulled over. The tape was in the pump cupboard, and 15 minutes later we were off again, with the unit patched up, restored almost to its former glory and the shock of the near miss almost forgotten about…. such is life living in a van. We learn to move on quickly.
The days are beginning to get longer, a ‘grand stretch in the evening’ we Irish call it, and that extra 20 minutes in the day is much appreciated and well considered as we search for a spot to watch the sunset. An Mionnán viewpoint is 466 metres above Achill, the road not as steep as the scary road to Keem but on our way up there the winds picked up, the thick white clouds formed around us and suddenly it was winter again. We ate soup on the summit listening to the whistling winds and looked around online for recommendations of a very scenic but very sheltered spot to sleep, eventually choosing Lough Acorrymore at the base of the Croaghaun Mountain. The heavens opened soonafter we pulled over by the lough and at no point in the next 12 hours was it not raining heavily. Very Irish yes, but high wind and heavy rain is a very different experience inside a tin can. The cheerful paradiddle of a light rain on the roof makes an errant jazzy beat to begin with but it can go either way, either each single drop magnified like a xylophone or the tuneless and sometimes terrifying crash-boom-bang of a mad pianists hands on keys. I can’t claim a plentiful sleep was had that night, but can’t blame the weather entirely either, we had seen so much my mind was racing, this island is bewitching to me, magical, inspiring.
By Wednesday morning, hail had replaced the rain, we watched the big white stones batter the windows while we drank our coffee in bed and read more about Captain Boycott in 1850s County Mayo. As agent to an absentee landlord, he refused to grant suitable rent relief to his farming tenants after a particularly bad harvest and attempted to evict 11 of them. Nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell proposed that instead of resorting to violence, they shun him entirely. Boycott being English, wealthy and a land agent might mean he was used to a certain amount of ostracism anyway, but this tactic worked, Boycotts workers refused to show up, his harvest rotting in the fields while local businessmen refused to serve him, he found himself completely isolated. Even the postman wouldn’t deliver his mail. The term to boycott has changed and evolved so much since coined back then, I know I use it often and badly.
The weather got no better that afternoon, a dark grey cloud settled low over the hills and the sun failed to warm the ground. Right in the middle of the island, down a boggy boreen road, near Dookinella we caught sight of a crannóg, (translated as small tree), a tiny island habitation floating in the bog, one of over 1,200 similiar dating back to early Neolithic times and found all over Ireland. Imagine living on this tiny piece of land for your own protection, what Ireland must have looked like back then.
As the afternoon turned to evening and the rain showed no let up, we sat parked by a ruined castle, chewing our sandwiches in contemplative silence. Compelling reasons had presented for us to return to Dublin, but we hadn’t even scratched the surface of the island yet, the pirate queen Gráinne Mhaol (aka Grace O’Malley)s castle and Clare Island were left unexplored. In the last two days our usually short list of “needs” now included new hiking boots and a new kitchen unit, we knew we had to venture back to the real world at some stage. Perhaps in future instead of a ‘civilisation boycott’ we will just ‘go rural’, and since boycotting hiking shops will not keep my toes dry, I will have to conceed on that too. We crossed that little white whalebone bridge back onto the mainland slowly, reluctantly, but we both know we will be back on peaceful, beautiful, inspiring Achill Island soon. This was just the start of the affair 😉