I’ve done a fair bit of travelling in Ireland but Achill remains my favourite. The island off the west coast of Ireland is a stunning beauty. It is connected to the main land by a small bridge so it is rather easy to get there. Once on Achill you enter a different world. I reckon this is how Ireland used to be a few years back. It is fantastic.
Achill is the largest of the Irish islands. It has an area of 146 km². Just under 3000 people live here permanently, during summer this figure goes up significantly.
There are five bigger settlements on the island; Achill Sound, Keel, Dooagh, Dooega and Doogort with Keel being some sort of local capital. It still isn’t more than a village though.
Ireland: Important Tours and Tickets
No big business
There have been a few attempts to establish some sort of industry on the island but they always ended up being spectacular failures. The locals could not be bothered and even people coming here from the mainland didn’t last long. Apparently the island makes you a little lazy.
Suddenly you have better things to do than actually doing something. I can confirm this myself. As soon as I set foot on the island all my plans go up in smoke. For years now I’m trying to this one particular hike that leads you to a spectacular view point it’s just whenever I get to Achill I suddenly come up with a million good reasons to do it the next time. Tough.
The same apparently happens to people seeking full time employment. You last for a while but sooner rather than later this Achill or how I call it “feck off virus” kicks in that makes you caring less about work and more about … actually I don’t know: Nothing I guess.
Even farming isn’t particularly big. Their excuse is that the soil isn’t fertile enough I’m not so sure though. May be another serious case of the Achill virus? Thinking about it; they may have a point. Most of the island indeed looks like a marsh.
Back in the old days sheep farming and fishing were pretty much the only sources of income. Shepherd by the way must be the coolest job on earth. You do absolutely nothing all day but watching the dog attending he sheep. This is so cool I can’t believe there are people out there that don’t want to become shepherd. I’m seriously considering a change of career.
Needless to say you don’t make the big bugs with fishing or watching the sheep eating but what can you do? Well, Fortuna came to their rescue and things got better from there. It this thanks to us – the tourists – that the locals now do a lot better than back in the old days. Instead of watching sheep they now watch us. I am certain it is a lot more entertaining.
And now this
Tourism on Achill started surprisingly early; in the 1960’ies. This was probably thanks to two prominent fans of the island. The famous painter Paul Henry lived here for a while around the year 1900. Some of his most famous paintings feature the Achill countryside. Obviously some of his fans thought the pictures are so beautiful they must find and see the place for themselves. Or may be not, I don’t know.
More influential was someone else. Famous German author and Nobel price winner Heinrich Böll visited the island in the 1950ies and also lived here for a while. His “Irish Diary” became one of his most famous books. A big part of the book plays on Achill. His description of the island and the people encouraged many people to come here. Since Böll is mainly popular in Germany you’ll still find loads German tourists here.
Most of the tourist on the island seem to be Irish and English though. Many people like coming here for the weekend. Even from Dublin it doesn’t take more than 4 hours to drive here and it’s well worth it. If you manage to escape the Achill bug there is plenty to do.
Popular are golf, hiking and cycling along the Atlantic for example. Surfing conditions are also pretty good at least as long as you got a decent wet suit. If you like something more unusual; why not swim with the sharks? I know it sounds a bit weird but of course we are not talking about the Great White ones. Achill used to be famous for its huge population of Basking Sharks. They are beautiful creatures and since Basking Sharks are vegetarians they are completely harmless.
On a sunny day there is no better place than Keem beach. It is considered one of Ireland’s best beaches. It is surrounded by green hills and in many ways perfect. To get there follow the Atlantic drive from Keel. Its a winding road along the sea. It first goes high up a mountain and the descents down to the beach where the road ends. The view from the hill is stunning. You look down at the fine sandy beach, clear water and the hills in the background.
From Keem beach you can walk up the hill. It is steep but not very difficult. On top of the hill is an old British watch post from World War I. From there leads a little path along the really impressive cliff. Be carful up there. It gets pretty windy on Achill and the weather sometimes changes quickly.
Another place to see is the Deserted Village. To get there starting in Keel keep left at the Y-junction at the pub Minaun View and follow the narrow road. The ruins are situated at the foot of Slievemore mountain just next to the cemetery. When you first get there you think there are only a few tumbledown huts but if you follow the path you realise there are quiet a few of them; all together over 80. They are a reminder of the past. The village was abandoned during the famine. If you want to learn more about the past, this is a good place to start. An archaeological summer school is held there on a annual basis.
If you like mountains climb up the Slievemore from there. It is relatively easy to get to the top. From there you can follow the ridge and walk down at Dugort. You get a great view from up there but make sure the mountain top is not covered in clouds. Don’t worry, the mountain is only about 670 meters high.
The most popular thing to do is just driving along the Atlantic drive. This can be confusing since every single road on Achill seems to be part of the Atlantic drive. If you start in Achill Sound (just after the bridge) follow the main road out of town and then turn left on the first occasion. Follow the road from there. You cant go wrong. The first stop is a cemetery to your left. It is quite picturesque and there also is a little chapel that now is not much more than a ruin.
Just afterwards is a little tower that once was the home of Grace O’Malley, a legendary pirate queen. This Tower at Kildavnet is actually a 15th century tower house and fairly typical for the Irish west coast. The locals copied Norman designs and I will give them this much: these houses do make a really cool tourist attraction. Check it out!
Keep following the road. The scenery is breathtaking. To your right you see the green hills of Ireland, to your left the massive and powerful waves of the Atlantic ocean are smashing against the cliffs. It’s simply beautiful.
On your way you will hit the little village of Dooega. It’s quite nice and the setting is perfect. If you like it quiet this might even be a place to stay.
Keep following the road that now leads inland. It will lead up for a while. To your left is the Minaun. Depending on which road you took there might be a left turn that leads up the hill. The view from there is really cool.
If you are fit enough (or have a boat at your disposal) ask for directions to Annagh. The place is located behind Croaghaun mountain and is a so called corrie lake. Surrounded on three sides by cliffs, the fourth side opens to Blacksod Bay. It is just 16 meters above sea level which makes it the lowest corrie lake in Ireland. It might be tricky to get there but it is really cool. The locals say it is not a good idea to spend the night there. Apparently the place is haunted.
There a number of blue flag beaches on Achill. Keem I already mentioned, another really niche and long sandy beach is in Keel. Very good and picturesque is the beach in between Dugort and valley. It is less busy than the one in Keel and it has nice dunes, a camping side just beside it and with Masterson’s – conveniently located just across the road – a very good pub that also serves excellent food.
Achill is quite famous for cosy pubs with good live music. Places I would recommend are Ted Lavelle’s and Lynotts (both in Cashel). Lynotts hardly ever open their doors to the public (at least that’s the impression I got) but if they do, give it go. It is a really, really cool place. In a way I’m surprised they have electricity. It is easily one of the most traditional pubs in all Ireland. There is no TV or radio or anything, it’s simply a pub with good live music. I love it.
In Keel I would recommend the Minaun View. It is a bit of s strange place with – believe it or not – a gas station outside in Irish colours. When I first went in there I immediately thought this is some kind of IRA pub. There are newspaper articles on the walls everywhere. It is – and this was confirmed by a friend of mine that goes there a lot – a very friendly place despite the rather odd impression I first got.
My favourite place however is The Valley House Holiday Hostel & Bar. This is not just a pub but also an excellent place to stay. Pat and Alice Gallagher are the friendliest people you can imagine and both are decent musicians as you most likely will find out at some stage during the evening. There is a session every night and if you are playing an instrument you are more than welcome to join in.
The Valley House is well kept and a beauty in itself. The hostel part looks like an old villa and in fact it sits on a former hunting lodge built by the Earl of Cavan. It burned down in 1894 and was later rebuilt. The building is beautiful from the outside and even more so from the inside. There are two private rooms and three dorms, a huge dining room, kitchen and living room. You can use them all.
In the back is a courtyard with benches and flowers. It is lovely. The pub is directly attached to the house and – not joking – this is of my favourite spots in the world. There is turf burning in the fire place, the atmosphere is a bit like friends coming together in your living room. Most people here know each other but that doesn’t mean that they don’t like to see a few new faces now and then. If you want to hear a few great stories from the good old days you won’t even have to ask. From my experience especially the older guests are more than willing to share a few tales with you.
Pats dad used to live there as well. Good old Roger was in his eighties when I last met him and apparently met the earlier mentioned Heinrich Böll. A friend of mine (good looking girl) managed to engage him in a little conversation and he told her a few stories that involved the Nobel price winning poet. Awesome.
Places to stay
The Valley House Holiday Hostel & Bar as mentioned above is the only place I ever go but of course there are plenty of rooms to rent depending on your budget. The Valley house has a couple of private rooms and a number of dorm beds. You can also camp there.
Another place to camp is near Dugort at the Golden beach. There are also caravans so it should be OK if you are driving on of these.
There are numerous hotels, Guesthoses, B&Bs and holiday homes to rent. You find a good selection on: Achill Tourism. Use the navigation bar on the right side.
FACTS ABOUT ACHILL:
- Achill is in county Mayo.
- It has an area of about 146 km².
- App. 2700 people live there all year around.
- Achill is the biggest of the Irish islands.
- It has some of the finest beaches in all Ireland.
- Achill is connected to the mainland by a small bridge.
- The dialling code is: 098.