It is especially difficult to pinpoint a favorite place in Ireland because there are so many wonderful spots everywhere. But, after 20-plus years of traveling to and renting a house in the West, I have to say that Achill Island in Co. Mayo is my favorite, with Connemara a very close second.
There are many reasons why I love and visit Achill so much. This island has breathtaking views; amazing archaeological sites and monuments; crystal-clear water, and clean, sandy beaches; excellent restaurants; a lengthy, intriguing history, part of which includes the pirate queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaille); great shops; a variety of adventure sports; a vibrant, active tourist organization, and much more.
It has long been a magnet for artists, photographers, and writers. In other words, there’s something for everyone but not enough space in a newspaper column to mention everything. You’ll have to go and see for yourself.
Achill is Ireland’s largest island at 12-plus miles east to west and 11-plus miles north to south. It boasts the highest sea cliffs in Europe, nearly 75 miles of spectacular coastline, and five beaches that have won Blue Flag international designations for their exceptional quality.
It’s interesting to note that Achill is Ireland’s nearest point to the East Coast of the US. We laughed when Gielty’s, a third-generation family-run pub near Dooagh village, advertised that it is the nearest pub to New York City. It also claims the honor of being the most westerly pub in Europe.
Achill’s name might be linked to the colony of white-tailed sea eagles (Aquila albicilla) that once inhabited the island but disappeared in the mid-19th century? (It’s interesting that there is currently a project by The Golden Eagle Trust to reintroduce the Irish white-tailed eagle to the country. Breeding is reported to have been successful there with chicks born annually – not on Achill, but in other parts of the Republic. A similar project in Donegal had not been so successful but we haven’t checked lately.)
THE ISLAND’S HISTORY
Visitors are introduced to the story of Achill Island when they drive, walk, or cycle across the Michael Davitt bridge that connects it to the Curraun Peninsula and swings open for boats to pass underneath.
The first bridge over that narrow sound was built in 1887 for horse and buggy traffic. It was replaced in 1949 and again in 2008. Some say the newest bridge reminds them of a whale carcass with its white ribs meeting high over the roadway. (Davitt, the bridge’s namesake, was an agrarian campaigner who founded the Irish National Land League and his work and life are remembered in a museum in Straide, Co. Mayo.)
The bridge is just the beginning of the history you’ll find on Achill. Among my favorite sites are Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley’s 40-foot tall, three-story Tower House (“castle”) at Kildavnet (strategically positioned at the mouth of Achill Sound to protect the passage that connects Clew Bay with Blacksod Bay), and also the haunting Deserted Village on the slopes of Slievemore Mountain, where remnants of more than 70 abandoned homesteads remind visitors of the families that left during the famine and other trying times.
The Achill Archaeological Field School, established in 1991, offers courses for all levels at the Deserted Village and other Achill sites every summer. See achill-fieldschool.com for more. You can also attend an Irish language summer school while on Achill.
There’s much more history here, such as the coining of the word “boycott,” which can be traced back to Captain Charles C. Boycott, a land agent on a nearby Co. Mayo estate who lived on Achill for about 20 years.
When he worked for Lord Erne in Ballinrobe in 1880, he was asked by the Land League to reduce rents after an especially bad harvest. He refused, and his tenants retaliated by refusing to harvest the crops. He then hired workers from Co. Cavan. The American journalist James Redpath, who covered the story for the New York Tribune, was the first to use the term “boycott” to refer to this kind of social and economic refusal. Redpath credited a local parish priest with the idea of using the captain’s name.
Be sure to visit the Achill Experience in Keel to learn more about the island’s history, Edward Nangle and the Achill Mission, as well as the island’s only aquarium.
Achill has always been a magnet for artists and writers stunned by the island’s beauty and stayed or returned over and over. Among the many were artists Paul Henry, Camille Souter, Alexander Williams, Sean Keating, and Robert Henri. I especially like work by current resident artist Padraig McCaul (padraigmccaul.com).
Heinrich Boll was among many noted writers - including Graham Greene and Ernie O’Malley - who were drawn to Achill over the centuries. Today there is a chance for artists and writers to apply for a residency at Boll’s cottage in Dugort that was purchased in 2003 by the Achill Heinrich Boll Association to ensure future benefit for the arts and local community.
Many options are available on Achill for those wishing to stay over, including the 26-room, family-run Ostan Oilean Acla hotel in Achill Sound (we often have lunch there), and at the other end of the island, the Stella Maris B&B and Joyce’s Marian Villa guesthouse.
There are many other hotels, B&Bs, and guesthouses and the tourist board office (achilltourism.com) in Achill Sound is an excellent source for visitors seeking accommodations and advice on activities, festivals, camping, hostels, self-catering cottages, water sports, and more.
Many visitors stay in nearby areas like Mulranny and drive out to visit the island. Among accommodation there is the lovely, four-star GN Mulranny Park Hotel, which was formerly a Great Southern Railway hotel. The Park is completely updated and boasts outstanding management and staff as well as a creative, award-winning chef, Chamila Mananwatta. Sunday brunches, lunches and dinners are memorable.
Speaking of food, we can’t forget to mention Keem Bay Fish Products and their great smoked salmon atop McCambridge’s whole wheat bread, which we enjoy nearly every day for lunch or an appetizer. In 1985, Gerry Hassett and his wife, Julie, began smoking salmon and other local fish in their smokehouse as the business grew. The Hassett family also runs the excellent Chalet Restaurant in Keel on Achill.
Also in Keel is Michael and Patricia Joyce’s coffee shop, craft shop and restaurant - The Beehive in Keel - where we go for lunch several times a week and have taken every guest who has ever visited. The food at The Beehive is delicious and fresh. Michael is a gifted baker and creates too many great desserts to even begin to mention! Patricia’s excellent taste shines through in her stock of Irish gifts, clothes, and cards. Most members of the Beehive staff have worked there for many years and some of their children have now joined the staff. It’s a wonderful, family-friendly place to stop and enjoy.
It’s probably no surprise to anyone who has visited Ireland that the tourism industry is the country’s largest indigenous employer and supports some 230,000 jobs - around 11 percent of all employment - with about 60,000 of those jobs in the hotel sector.
Whether you stay in a hotel, B&B, guesthouse, or other accommodation, you’ll find Ireland is the perfect place to visit in April when flowers are blooming, lambs gambol across the green fields, and the island comes to life again after a cold winter.
Enjoy Ireland whenever and wherever you go!