Stunning sights of Achill

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Attending an Achill wedding gave DAVID SMITHthe chance to marry the trip with some local sight-seeing

A WEDDING brought me to Achill. En route, shortly before leaving the mainland, I saw a remarkable sight – a mountain mirrored on glass-like water. It appeared immense, twice its size; my road-weary eyes were drawn for almost too long. I was late and did not stop. Later, every guest recalled the same mesmerising vision. Three times I returned with the camera – three times the mirror was replaced with ripples.

Achill is the largest Irish island, spanning 25km east-west and 20km north-south. It is joined to Co Mayo by the surprisingly small Michael Davitt Bridge. There is an “An Gaeltacht” sign a few kilometres before the bridge – the eastern side of the island is Irish speaking.

“Booster – you have to go there. Left just before Teddy Lavelles and follow the road up,” I was told by Helen, whose parents are among the 3,500 inhabitants of Achill, during the wedding.

For her, Booster, or Mt Minaun (to use its official name), is the highlight of the island. From the ground the ridgeback that rises 459 metres and is sprinkled with aerials looks like any other mountain in the west. It was only on my last drive around the island, when I reached the top of Booster, that I discovered what so inspires both locals and artists.

Achill has a coastline of 190km. I saw it first in the aftermath of the church service. A long convoy of cars snaked behind the bridal vehicle as it meandered along the eastern section of the Atlantic Drive. It used to be custom for households to send a bride off by burning fires in their yards. These days there are no fires but families still gather to salute the procession. As we circled, mothers waved tea-towels and grinning children scurried. Some had even made signs to wish the couple luck. It is an endearing tradition and the short drive left me wanting to see more of the untamed shoreline.

THE FOLLOWING DAY I took the route around the southern tip of the island and found it enticing.

The Mayo coastline falls away to the left and there is an almost gravitational pull from the vast Atlantic ahead. Kildownet Castle, which looks out over Clew Bay and dates back to the 15th century, stands as a lonesome sentinel before the road twists to face the ocean.

I stopped at a viewing point. Before me were the cliffs at the base of Mt Minuan; in the distance those of Mt Croaghaun. The view contains everything that is missing from the midlands – a sense of scale and savagery.

The cliffs are dramatic; the mountainside rolling and sparsely populated. I encountered few cars and there was only static on the radio. It seemed fitting that the drive along this remote road should be made in silence.

I thought that I had seen the best that Achill has to offer at this stage. But I drove stubbornly on, determined to reach the west side. At Keel is a Blue Flag beach, over 1km long, which looks out to the northern cliffs of Minuan. If anything, they are more dramatic than the southern cliffs I had seen earlier.

As I continued on towards Keem Beach I felt a tingle of excitement. To my right was the steep, rugged mountainside of Mt Croaghaun (the north of which houses the highest sea cliffs in Europe), to my left, an almost sheer drop – one wrong move would bring the oblivion of the Atlantic.

I reached the road crest and saw Keem Bay down below. It sits in tranquil seclusion, at the very end of the road west. The waves pounded the beach; the sea water was turquoise near the shore and then brilliant blue further out.

IT WAS ONLY BECAUSE I had time to spare that I tackled Booster the next day. And thank God I did. As I wound up the narrow, crumbling path I could see the boundless vistas on either side. Up near the aerials it is not far to walk to see the sweeping south of the island on one side and the beaches of Keel and Keem on the other.

Random sheep here and there were unwitting props in my photos. A gust of wind was all that broke the silence – no other soul was in sight.

I spotted what I thought a trig beacon further up and strode on to it.

As I neared I saw that it was a statue of the Virgin, looking over Achill with the ocean at her back.

There were little clumps of stone, gathered in memory of fallen friends, scattered along the mountaintop.

Some had plaques with names, others not. On one of them was the letters spelling my own name – a common one – but the synchronicity was still eerie.

Standing in solitude, even the wind now still, I looked out to the infinite ocean and felt distinctly not alone.

Where to...

STAYÓstán Oileán Acla: last stop before the Michael Davitt Bridge, the hotel looks out to Clew Bay. Tel: 098-45138 or achillislandhotel.com.

Achill Head Hotel: situated in Keel and home to Achill’s nightclub Club Zamba. Tel: 098-43108 or achillheadhotel.ie.

Strand Hotel: in the more secluded Dugort, it faces the Atlantic and Mayo. Tel: 098-43241 or strandhotel.ie.

EATAchill Cliff House Hotel has a fully licensed restaurant. Tel: 098-43400 or achillcliff.com.

The Beehive Craft Coffee Shop. Relaxed atmosphere, fine crafts and traditional baking. Tel: 098-43134.

Calvey’s Restaurant: views of the Minaun Cliffs and Keem Beach. Specialises in certified organic lamb. Tel: 098-43158 or calveysofachill.com.

WHAT TO DOWalking: there are 14 walking trails, from 30-minute strolls to five-hour hikes. For maps, go to achilltourism.com.

Cultural: Scoil Acla provides a wide range of artistic activities, including writers’ workshops and traditional music courses. It is worth noting that writer Graham Greene and painter Paul Henry drew inspiration from Achill. See scoilacla.com

Watersports: windsurfing courses from Achill Outdoor Education (visit achilloutdoor.com) or surfing lessons from Tomás Mac Lochláinn. Tel: 098-45085.

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