Secret Ireland: Achill island
Mountain walks are just one reason to visit our biggest island. Add five Blue Flag beaches, a deserted village and a cosy micropub, says Pól Ó Conghaile. Photography by Ronan Lang
The Blue Flag beach
"Achill... called to me as no other place had ever done," wrote the painter Paul Henry, who came to the island for a two-week holiday and ended up staying, on and off, for several years. One of his most famous paintings, 'Launching the Currach', is set on Keem Bay.
Most communities would be proud to have one Blue Flag beach. Achill has five, but Keem Bay is far and away the most breathtaking -- a sickle-shaped strand at the western end of the island, scooped out of the mountains and fronting on to a deep bay once bloated with basking sharks.
Croagh Patrick can apparently be spotted from the strand here. On my visit, the bay is kissed by mist and deserted save for a few upturned currachs and boarded-up fishermen's huts. Cliffs bruised with rusty streaks of fern frame a scene that would tempt you to get the oils out yourself.
Details: Keem Bay; see discover ireland.ie/islands.
The grimmest graveyard
Standing on a monastic site founded by Saint Dymphna in the 7th century, today's Kildownet Church dates from the 1700s. It isn't much of a looker but inside, I stumble across a T-shaped altar spotted with colourful stones left by visitors.
The intrigue continues with two mass graves either side of the roadway, each linked to the defunct Achill-Westport railway. Long before the railway opened in 1894, the story goes, a prophecy was made that "carts on iron wheels" would carry coffins to Achill on their first and last journeys. So it came to pass.
When the line opened in 1894, its first cargo was the bodies of 32 local labourers drowned when their boat capsized in Clew Bay. In 1937, the last train to use the line brought home 10 young islanders who perished in a fire in Scotland. For a small church, it's big on atmosphere.
Details: Kildownet, Achill.
The sea-kayaking sojourn
Adventure sports are booming on Achill, something that becomes clear over the course of a tour with islander Tomás Mac Lochlainn. With qualifications as an international mountain leader, surf coach, archaeologist and rock climber, he's a real go-to guy for adrenaline in the area.
When I visit, Tomás is preparing a sea-kayaking tour of Bullsmouth, the fast-flowing passage of water separating Achill from its souvenir-sized neighbour, Inis Bigil. For €35pp, other three-hour trips take in cliffs, caves and sea arches around the island, and lucky paddlers may even encounter dolphins, basking sharks and seals in the water. No prior experience is required.
Alas, the storms are having too much fun for kayakers to get out on my visit, though Tomás makes up for it by accompanying me on a winding drive around the island.
Details: Tel: 098 45085 or email email@example.com.
The cool corrie lakes
Any number of mountain walks can be undertaken on Achill, but it's possible to cheat the landscape by taking the second right after Dooagh, driving right up to the lip of Lough Acorrymore.
Nestling into the scree slopes, this old corrie lake serves as a reservoir, and from here you can get your boots on for an hour's hike towards a saddle overlooking Lough Nakeeroge. Rising just 15m above sea level, the lowest corrie lake in Ireland is set into Blacksod Bay like a bathtub.
Below Lough Acorrymore, keep an eye out for Captain Boycott's old Corrymore House. It looks engaging from a distance, but turns out to be a mess of impromptu extensions up close. Set in a hanging valley at the end of a line of holiday homes, it's the best and worst of Achill in a nutshell.
Details: Dooagh; corrymore house.com.
In summertime, Achill comes alive with tourists walking in the mountains, swimming in the sea and hob-nobbing at cafés. Winter is a different story. Battered by the tail-end of American hurricanes, it is raw, exposed and empty of visitors.
I love the elemental feel of it all, but the downside is that almost everything is closed. When I finally stumble across a pub that is open -- Gieltys in Dooagh -- there are just three other customers. Taking a seat by the fireplace, I gaze out on Gubalennaun, the spot from which Paul Henry threw his return train ticket into the sea. On a day like today, it would have blown back in his face.
I order a ham, cheese and tomato toastie (€4.25). There's nothing fancy -- nice, melty Cheddar on fresh sliced pan with a handful of crisps on the side. It plugs the gap, though.
Details: Tel: 098 43119 or see gieltys.com.
The deserted village
The deserted village of Slievemore, perched on the foothills of Slievemore Mountain, is surely one of the most evocative sights of any Irish island. These ruins -- several dozen houses spread among potato ridges that rise like the rice paddies of Vietnam -- are as folkloric as it gets.
Stashing the motor in a lay-by, I pick my way up past pottering sheep to a crop of ruins most likely dating from the 1800s. The old stone houses were last occupied as 'booley' homes, by communities following their cattle as they grazed, although ongoing archaeological digs have unearthed remains going back to Neolithic times.
Less evocative are the modern-day deserted villages sprawling across Achill below. From this height, the boom-time bungalows and vacant holiday villages are a real blot on the landscape.
Details: Slievemore; see visitachill.com.
The family- friendly hotel
You know a hotel is serious about its family offering when you pitch up in the middle of winter to find a turf fire in the lobby and a special check-in counter for kids.
That's just the beginning. Exploring Mulranny Park Hotel further, I find a 20m pool complete with shark-shaped floats, a children's menu that actually includes spinach (yegads!) and, alongside 'The Irish Independent' in my room, a copy of 'Match of the Day' complete with soccer stickers.
The attention to detail reminds me of Kelly's in Rosslare, and there's a kids' club during school holidays, with freebies such as movie nights and children's tea complemented by paid extras such as kayaking and horse riding.
And don't worry -- adults aren't left out either.
From views of Clew Bay to a bubbly al fresco Canadian hot tub, my expectations are exceeded. I'm definitely considering a return visit with the kids.
A post-Christmas package including two nights' accommodation and one dinner costs from €399 for two adults and two children.
Details: Tel: 098 36000 or see mulrannyparkhotel.ie.
The Atlantic drive
Achill Island's famed Atlantic Drive covers the Currane Peninsula now, but the original route remains a much shorter, sweeter affair. If you imagine Achill as being shaped like a hairdryer, the 19km loop is a circuit of the southern end, or handle.
Leaving Achill Sound, my first stop is the 16th-century tower house standing sentinel over the RNLI lifeboat. The castle is one of many linked with Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen, and I step through a splatter of cowpats and wild rhubarb stumps to enter it. It's surprisingly small inside.
Continuing on to Cloughmore, I pull in to watch the ocean thumping sea stacks along Ashleim Bay. "Ag tuile is ag trá, a chaitheann an fharraige an lá," reads a quirky little signpost here ("ebbing and flowing, that's how the sea spends its day"), and the water churns like cream.
Details: Tel: 098 47353 or see achilltourism.com.
The Great Western Greenway
I've never been on an electric bike. I don't see the point -- if you're going to cycle, why not cycle? When the opportunity presents itself along the Great Western Greenway, however, I'm tempted to think again. Gliding along on a light, upright, German-made bike provided by Newport-based Electric Escapes (€30 per day), I feel like a tourist from the 22nd century.
The Greenway itself is a cycle track following the old Westport to Achill narrow-gauge railway line. It will measure 42km by the time it is completed in 2011 and, slicing between the Atlantic and Nephin Beg Mountains, opens up some of the most unexplored countryside in Ireland.
You can bring your own wheels, of course, but electric bikes mean fitness isn't an issue. Arched bridges, salmon-leaping spots and startled pheasants are all features of my quick spin.
Details: Electric Escapes; 087 745 1155; electricescapes.ie.
The first time I pass Lynott's pub, I drive on. It's closed. It's also tiny and nondescript, hidden away among old barns. The second time, I stop. By then it's evening, and the glow exuding from an age-old hearth casts the place in a whole other light.
Inside, the pub looks fit to accommodate 30 souls at a squeeze. Old benches and tables sit on worn-stone slabs, the walls are lined with antique advertisements for Guinness and Old Gallagher's Snuff, and there's a spinning wheel above the fireplace. Nothing feels contrived.
Lynott's has been a pub since the 1800s, and if that's not enough authenticity, check its listing on the local tourism site: "No radio. No TV. No phone. No food."
Details: Cashel, Achill Island.