By Conal Healy
IT was a perfect spring day out on the West coast of Europe.
The sun was shining, and yesterday’s gale had dropped to a whisper.
From the last beach – some would argue – in Europe I looked out on cobalt-blue Atlantic Ocean.
Over the horizon, just out of sight, was America. There was nothing between me and USA but 3000km of water, cold water.
Keem Bay, for all its picturesque magnificence, has to be the coldest beach on Achill Island, County Mayo, Ireland.
I had been told as a child that five tides met at Achill Head – one of the arms that sheltered the yellow sandy beach.
Despite my childhood warning I pulled off my heavy woolen socks and stuffed them into my much-travelled walking boots and ambled down the golden sand beach.
The first wavelet stung, so did the second and the third. This was cold water, seriously cold water.
“It’s warm today, don’t you think? It’s not that usual mad cold,” remarked a local, who was enjoying the sun after a long winter of grey short days.
I agreed and hobbled to a nearby volcanic-black rock in an attempt to warm up my almost-numb toes.
Socks-in-feet again, I sat back to admire the view.
On that perfect day I wished I had packed a pair of shorts. The previous night the weather forecaster had warned of a risk of sunburn if people stayed out for more than 25 minutes.
A HEAT haze hung over the Minaun Cliffs, among the highest seacliffs in Europe, the distant coastline of south Mayo shimmered…everything blended together like a watercolour painting.
Two days previously – when I arrived on the island – the mist had rolled in, erasing temporarily the tall mountains and the rest of the view. It was a day for writing post cards.
The next day a thankfully rain-free gale force wind had cleared the view but you almost had to weigh yourself down with rocks to stop from being lifted off your feet.
On this third day Achill shone like a new pin. Like an emerald in a sapphire sea. This had to be one of Europe’s best kept secrets.
ACHILL takes its name from the Irish word for “eagle” – from the Golden Eagles that used to hunt over this beautifully desolate place, Achill, the Island of the Eagles.
The eagles are long gone, another footnote to an island which has been moulded by nature for millions of years.
Bleak granite mountains – nurtured by glaciers – are now covered by brown heather and thin grass form a dark backdrop to an almost empty landscape.
The forests – like the eagles – are long gone, only their bleached roots remain, buried in the bog that time dissolved into over the millennia.
FOR at least the past 5000 years people have worked the land in Achill. Their stone-age tombs remain on the slopes of Slivemore. However more recent history hasn’t been kind to the island. The famine of mid-19th Century started a string of tragic events that started an exodus that has only slowed in the past couple of years.
A long deserted ruined village – beside the local graveyard in Keel – stands as testimony to this dark times.With little industry on the island there was little for successive generations to do but join the millions of Irish people on the emigration trails across the world.
But things are changing. The Celtic Tiger economic boom proved to be godsend to the island. A seedling of infrastructure planted in the early 1980s have also blossomed making this west coast island a holiday destination waiting to be discovered.
ABOUT 300kms from Dublin, Achill is about a half a day’s leisurely drive from the Irish capital. There is a coach service too. However – if you have the time – a train to Westport and coach to Achill is perhaps the best way to make the trip. There is also a bicycle trail from Newport.
A sheltered rural scenery is gradually transformed after you leave Newport and take the coast road by the shore of the drumlin-filled Clew Bay.
After Mulrany you skirt around the edge of Curran, an ugly lump of heather covered granite, the road ribbons between bog and rock only the occasional sheep or a weary-eyed dog noticing you.
In the harsh evening light of early spring everything is usually burned into silhouette. Drooping telegraph hang like shining silver cobwebs.
You round a corner and the narrow bridge crossing to the island can be seen, it is Achill Sound.
There are the traditional white-washed cottages, putting up wisps of sweet-smelling turf smoke, crouching low against an almost perpetually blowing gale force wind.
New houses are there but the bogs, the mountains, the islands and the ocean haven’t changed.
You drive up a rise and look down a wide valley to the village of Keel – a collection of cottages strewn between the domineering Slievemore (literally translated from the Irish as Big Mountain) and the curved beach of a horseshoe bay.
An almost diesel-blue bog lake is held in place by a barren golf course of green, rimmed with gold – a sure sign of the precarious hold the grass has on the sand underneath. You are never far from a sand bunker when you play golf on the Keel Sandybanks.
Down the valley and into the village itself, the money from the EU has got this far (in one form or another) and there are backpacker hostels, pubs have been extended and it is possible to hire anything from surfboards to AirBnB cottages.
It seems incongruous to sometime see old satellite dishes on the gables of traditional white-washed cottages, with a reek of turf against the side wall, potato drills in the garden and a scarecrow guarding the onion patch.
Unlike a lot of European rural communities, Keel (and the rest of Achill) appears more like a scattering of white Monopoly houses than something actually planned.
While a lot of Europeans prefer to tour the island by bike, a car is a better option especially when it comes to climbing mountains.
Drives in Achill
Three of probably the most exceptional drives in Europe can be done in half a day – if you are in a rush. A full day – with leisurely stops and a picnics – is far more enjoyable.
The Atlantic Drive – starting just outside Achill Sound – takes you winding past a real pirate’s castle through small villages until you are faced with a panorama of the Atlantic Ocean. At times the road shears away to boiling breakers and the view should take your breath away (if the usual gale doesn’t).
The next drive is up to the Minaun Heights. Originally the road was dug out of the mountain so a TV transmitter could be erected. The view from the top of the (466-metre mountain is top-of-the-world stuff and is a must for anybody with a video recorder.
Then follow the road to the end of Achill, Ireland and Europe to Keem Bay. Over the mountain, past the estate where Captain Boycott (the man made famous when Irish people refused to work for him and gave the English language a new word) and around by the cliff road and down to Keem.
A word of warning, however. None of three drive should be contemplated if you have unsteady nerves – or your car has dodgy brakes. If you suffer from either complaint you run the great risk of becoming part of the scenery.
Also: We aware of sheep straying onto the road.
Five things to do in Achill
1. Climb the Minaun Heights (on a clear day).
2. Walk the golden beach at Dugort.
3. Climb to the old lifeguard station at Keem Bay. The Victorian era station has been left to fall into ruin, it is a good climb to the top. The view is amazing.
4. Walk from Keel to Purteen Harbour (via Nun’s Cove).
5. Walk the streets of Achill Sound.
Summer: Bright at about 5.30am, dark by about 10.30pm. (About 15 hours of brightness).
Winter: Bright from about 8.30am, dark by 4pm. (About 7.5 hours of “brightness”)
In August 201: Keem Bay was voted the 11th Best Beach in the World. The travel organisation Big 7 Islands announced their Top 50 Beaches in the World list and in among some of the most beautiful and stunning locations on Earth is Keem Beach. Not only that but it just missed out on a Top 10 finish!
Famous people who visited Achill Island?