Entranced by Pirate Queen territory
GO SEA ROAD: GARY QUINNkayaks around a part of Mayo – taking in Achillbeg and Clare Island – steeped in shipwrecks and legends
STORIES MATTER to Ali Donald. He tells them with passion, pulling atmosphere from the air and, in a sentence, connecting people across centuries and townlands.
He’s in a good place for it: the water and rock that shapes this part of Mayo are haunted by countless ship wrecks and perilous passages. Donald runs Saoirse na Mara (irelandwests eakayaking.com) and operates along the west coast, giving people the skills to get up close and personal with Ireland’s dramatic seascapes – but it’s Mayo that makes his heart beat fastest.
He’s leading me to Clare Island and Achillbeg today. He talks about these two islands like friends, people he really wants me to like. But this is Pirate Queen territory so I’m sold before he even begins. Gráinne Mhaol (Grace O’Malley) was the Pirate Queen. The woman who ruled the western seaboard from Mayo in the 16th century and faced down Queen Elizabeth I, among many others.
Clare Island was her home and getting inside her tower house overlooking the harbour is one of the goals of this trip.
Her presence is heavy. We launch alongside one of her castles and push out into Achill Sound. Strategically, this is a powerful spot, sheltered from the wild Atlantic, and it’s easy to see why she chose to build a stronghold here.
Heading out to Darby point we can feel the strength of the current as it ebbs and, as we turn into the strait, we see Achillbeg ahead. The waves are crashing between this island and its larger cousin, Achill itself. A strong white foam breaks the horizon, the only confident colour on this grey damp day.
I’m in one of Donald’s boats: a P&H Quest. It’s a terrific kayak which, Ali tells me, has fantastic secondary stability. I have to learn to trust it though before I believe him.
I’m surprised at how “off” I am. Perhaps I’m tired. Maybe a little intimidated by the wild surroundings. I miss my Greenland T. We shouldn’t get attached to inanimate objects but we do. It’s carried me many a bumpy passage this summer and has the scars to prove it. In return we’ve got to know each other.
The Quest is much higher in the water, which feels strange after months paddling at water level but it is incredibly comfortable. I’d forgotten how well P&H outfit their boats, a really comfortable paddle, and fast.
We make for the strait to see if the rougher water ahead is too much for the crossing. Donald pushes on, his casual stroke hiding the power behind his blade. He knows this place, it’s his home and he’s one of the best in the business, giving over his life to a sport he loves. As we push through the gap into open sea the view is magnificent. Achillbeg churns the sea around us, a foam gathering in patches of calm. Clare Island dominates now. It sits like a living thing before us, ready to rise from the sea at any moment.
It’s a 50-minute crossing from Achillbeg to Clare. Fifty lumpy grey minutes, enlivened by Donald’s tales and a quickening wind. Seabirds dive and call and the sheer height of Clare starts to capture our imaginations. The sea becomes more reliable as we move away from the smaller island, the waves coming in more regular sets, letting us establish a rhythm. I’m still bouncing more than I like but I’m slowly getting the hang of the boat, beginning to trust it.
But I’m unable to hide my bad habits from Donald. He’s a born teacher and I see him catch my errors: my paddle stroke, my bracing. I know they’re off and I’m reluctantly waiting for his suggestions.
Although I’ve been paddling all summer I haven’t taken enough time out simply to retrain. I get torn between finding the story of the landscape I’m in: filming, photographing, listening instead of just concentrating on my paddling. I fear it will be winter before I can let all these experiences settle into one new, stronger paddler.
We’re getting close to Clare. I think I can hear Gráinne laughing from the cliffs. The sky is heavy with those dark rain clouds that have been the backdrop to my summer. We skirt along the coast of the island to see if we can get around. It’s a difficult passage at the best of times but I can see Donald is eager to try. We get to glance along the coast, the wind building, a heavy mist shrouding the cliffs from view. It’s too big. We turn, reluctantly, the high mountain peak of its summit falling away behind us.
But this is no real disappointment because just getting to Clare Island is a terrific prize in itself. The caves, sea arches, lighthouse and landscape all make for a terrific destination and landing in the harbour under Gráinne Mhaol’s tower-house is great. We scramble up through the building to look out over the sea and towards the mainland, our hands feeling the history of the place passing through the cold stone walls. Later, ambling through the village, Donald stops to talk to friends, point out landmarks and opens Clare Island to us through tales and fables. It’s a vibrant place, worth staying longer in, but we have one more stop before home: Achillbeg.
Perhaps it’s because it’s such a lonely place, or because an abandoned island stands so firmly in our imagination, but something about Achillbeg pulls you to it. Our crossing is slow, the lighthouse on its headland firm in our sights for the 7km passage.
The light has changed, much brighter now, and the swell rolls in against it. We land on a small bay on its eastern side and walk among ruined cottages. The schoolmaster’s house, the school itself. Remembering the vibrant life on Clare makes the silence of these roofless buildings weigh heavy.
Pulling away from the white sandy shore I think how within hours I will be back in Dublin and how this island’s lost lifestyle may be the cost of our bustling capital. Did we pay too much? Ask Donald to bring you and tell his tales of the sea. You won’t know until you hear them.
All about Achillbeg to Clare Island, Co Mayo
DARBY’S POINT is at the southern end of Achill Sound. It is a picturesque location with Achillbeg Island lying just offshore. The tides run hard around the point as Achill Sound both empties and fills through the narrow channel.
Speeds of up to four knots are common at periods of spring tides so it is an immediate action spot for kayakers. Balance, edging and ferrying gliding skills begin the day and provide good fun to the start of a trip.
Leaving the slipway and tidal stream zones the kayaker has the possibility of two routes to see and pass around Achillbeg. If the weather is good and you have planned your tides correctly then my favourite route is to head west and pass through Blind Sound. The views as you clear the outer edge of Achillbeg are magic. The rugged coastline of Achillbeg combined with the views north-west along Achill’s cliff faces are stunning.
This is Atlantic kayaking at its best and the spectacularly placed Clare Island lighthouse and high top of Knockmore draw the eye and kayaker ever closer.
Knockmore stands tall above Clare Island at 425m and seems to fall sheer to the sea. The result is a rugged and beautiful coastline that presents the sea kayaker with a dilemma. A full circumnavigation of Clare Island is a memorable experience but it is a serious commitment. If you have planned the day correctly, and conditions allow, swing west and take on one of Ireland’s premier sea kayaking challenges.
The seabird life is fantastic with gannets, razorbill, guillemot and kittiwakes all breeding and both Manx shearwater and storm petrel regularly seen. On flat days keep an eye out for a fin as anything can be encountered!
If the sea does not allow passage, swing south-eastwards and enjoy the coastline until landing under Grace O’Malley’s castle. A day can be spent immersed in the fascinating history of this famous island and the legendary Pirate Queen.
Our journey back to Achillbeg takes the passage north on the flooding tide towards the distinctive beacon on its southern point. We continue along Achillbeg’s eastern flank to land on a beautifully sheltered beach. A walk on Achillbeg is the ideal way to finish this route and allows you to savour the views, once again, of a very special place. Achillbeg will cause you to linger but be aware that the tide should now be at full tilt so enjoy the tidal push and complete the route back to Darby’s Point. - Seán Pierce