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Colm O'Regan: On Achill, happiness equals reality minus any expectations

Just 36 hours and one magical moment were enough to show Colm O’Regan that island life is all about mainlining the essence of the Wild Atlantic Way

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Pleasure principle: A view over Achill Island

Pleasure principle: A view over Achill Island

John Hinde postcard of Keen Strand, Achill

John Hinde postcard of Keen Strand, Achill

Island life: Colm O’Regan and baby both loved Achill

Island life: Colm O’Regan and baby both loved Achill

Ann Devine Handle with Care

Ann Devine Handle with Care

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Pleasure principle: A view over Achill Island

We were on Co Mayo’s Achill for less than a day and a half. The weather was stormy. We had brought a baby and a toddler with us. On the face of it, it might not seem like a reason to make a place special. And yet it is.

We went there for New Year’s Eve 2017. We never go anywhere for New Year’s Eve, least of all with babies. But there was a bit of a freebie at a festival and people do odd things for something free.

Expectations were low. Not because we didn’t think we would enjoy ourselves. It was because when you do go somewhere with small children, expectations are placed neatly on the floor. Outings are measured purely in terms of whether they were successful and disaster-free or ‘Well, we’ll learn from that anyway’ and ‘I’ll text them later to apologise’. And yet, by any metric, the day started badly.

Somewhere on the N5, the toddler got sick on herself while strapped in the car seat. The khtokh-plokh noise she made also woke the baby. There was stereophonic howling inside and outside the car, as we parked near an abandoned building, that might or might not have been a growhouse.

We were frantically changing children’s clothes and assessing how much of a smell would the newly regurgitated Aldi mango pouch make. The ambient light was the colour of ‘TV Reconstruction of a Serious Crime’.

But a couple of hours later, having crossed the Achill Sound, there was a moment that made it all worthwhile. Sometimes that is all you need. Five minutes of sheer, almost tearful joy. I wasn’t expecting it. I was just driving somewhere to give The Two a nap. But there it was. At a bend in the R319, the road from Keel to Keem, we saw it.

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Island life: Colm O’Regan and baby both loved Achill

Island life: Colm O’Regan and baby both loved Achill

Island life: Colm O’Regan and baby both loved Achill

There was no warning. As the road rose steeply out of Keel, suddenly it appeared, nestled between two headlands, Keem beach.

It could have been a setting for a Game of Thrones scene. A secretive landing on a beach at the end of a journey that took a week in Season 1 and an hour in Season 8. The children, who had been restive, seemed calmed by our wonder.

We drove down the hill to the beach, got out and just stood watching the squalls form offshore. We had the beach to ourselves. The toddler galumphed and squealed as she scampered away from incoming waves. And we knew it didn’t matter what happened for the rest of the time we were there. We were already mainlining the essence of Atlantic Way-ness.

And so began about 36 hours in Achill, some of the most enjoyable we’d had in a while. Our then six-month-old had been born with a heart defect. She had needed an operation at three weeks, so we hadn’t been too many places as a family that hadn’t involved ‘tests’. But here we were now, whooping and being silly on a beach.

Our B&B belonged to a woman who knew how and when to offer biscuits and tea at the right time. (There’s never a wrong time.)

My wife went and did yoga in the afternoon and then settled herself in with a blissful pint and a sandwich in a dusking pub while I went on another stunning cliffy drive to ‘our’ beach. She was nearly lamped after one sip, such was the release of tension. Tension that we may have been holding in for a while.

Later that evening, the four of us had dinner out and it was… successful. We went back to the B&B for more B&B landlady sympathetic chats and biscuits and child-dandling.

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John Hinde postcard of Keen Strand, Achill

John Hinde postcard of Keen Strand, Achill

John Hinde postcard of Keen Strand, Achill

We put the children to bed. As per our negotiated agreement, I went out for my solitary pints. The first New Year’s Eve without cans in about eight years. The ‘10 degrees West’ festival was going on Down the Town and off I went.

Such unlikely pleasure. Standing in a tent watching electro-trad, slowly supping pints from a plastic glass by myself and thinking about nothing. I wanted to contact teenage me and tell him that adulthood is not what he thought it would be.

Obviously, there’s only so much staring into space you can do at a hooley. At one point, I realised my eye-line was accidentally in the direction of a couple in mid-shift, so I rotated away.

The mood in the place was friendly and exuberant. It was that perfect a mix of oul lads in the main area of the pub and Rockshore advert-types out the back. But crucially, no bolloxes. I had the kind of non-committal chats you can have when you’re on your own but not trying to latch. As if I were a big Hollywood star appearing in my own low-budget arthouse vanity project.

Around midnight, I came out of the pub and the village of Keel was surrounded by sheep. It must be a New Year’s thing. They walked through the town, blocking traffic, unintelligible, only a few of them knew where they were going. A sort of well-wrapped-up stag-party. And clearly it had taken them ages to leave the house and they were only getting to town now.

Using the rainfall radar maps on the Met Eireann website to avoid the showers, I walked back from Keel to the B&B. I was elated.

I wasn’t alone on the walk. The different Achill pipe bands leave Keem and Keel respectively and meet in the middle at a church. It feels like a truce of sorts. As if they had been warring for ages but now they resolve their differences at a pipe-off.

The moon shone every now and then as showers scudded by. I stood outside the B&B composing myself and calming down in case I woke the whole place with all my elated insights on the human condition, sheep and pipe bands.

The following day, we went for a walk and ended up in sheltering from squalls that threatened to knock over the double buggy like it was a high-sided truck on a motorway.

But even that was exciting. Again, happiness equals reality minus expectations. The children giggled at the buffeting. The gales blowing away any questions.

I appreciated the way Achill reminds you that the weather doesn’t mess around in winter. A local woman told us that people from abroad have fallen in love with the place in summer and moved there, only to flee in February, the grimmest of months.

Because there’s no romanticising winter in the west. Go hard or go home. With our remaining time, we drove around the technically-not-an-island and fetched up around Claggan — sort of Achill’s heel on the map — to look northwest along the cliffs of Ashleam.

It was a good place to the see the storm surge. There was a sort of handover taking place between Storm Dylan and Storm Eleanor. A frothy white stormy coast of massive splashy waves.

Just another casual bit of raw, powerful beauty. Again we felt that scenery joy. It was enough to sustain us on the nearly four-hour trip home. We were only there a short while, yet it was memorable.

In a way, Achill was like a stranger you met when you were in a tizzy, and whose kindness you don’t forget.

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Ann Devine Handle with Care

Ann Devine Handle with Care

Ann Devine Handle with Care

Ann Devine: Handle With Care by Colm O’Regan (Transworld Publishers)

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