Achill: The island off the island

The sky is heavy with grey clouds. The air is thick with the vague scent of rain that’ll fall any minute. You’re in your favourite place in the world where you’ve never known the feel of a full day of sunshine. The Achill Island you know has clouds and winds and rainbows. Always rainbows. You might head down the strand from keel bright and warm and dry and get to Minaun Cliffs a drowned rat with the winds whipping the hair off your head. And what harm? It’s Achill and you love it.

You’ve checked into a bockety hotel that reminds you a Faulty Towers and school tours of the early 90’s. Everything is in need of renovation. The wind whistles through gaps around the window frames. Colonies of mould have mapped themselves across the bathroom ceilings. Every floorboard is an instrument in itself. But as you tread your beat form the bedroom to the front door, you meet the staff with their warm, homely smiles and you are happy to be back among the good people of this place.

You walk down from The Chalet after a gorgeous fill of fish to have one or two in The Annexe before you trek back towards the achy breaky hotel. A few creamy pints’ll go down well. You know that one or two will be more than likely four, but you’re back in Achill, so anything goes. Is there a better way to welcome yourself back than with their freshest of fish and a giddy Guinness buzz?

You wake up the next morning to tremors. The whole place is shaking, but it’s only that you’re right above the breakfast room and there’s a someone downstairs with a ferociously strong footstep. Shockingly loud. Scary almost. But rather than run away from fear, you opt to get the breakkie in and suss out this racket for yourself.

A lovely, soft-spoken girl takes your order and returns with a welcome pot of coffee. She’s clearly not the culprit. Though no sooner have your first cuppa been poured than the cutlery on the table, on all tables actually, begins to vibrate. And over your shoulder you spot her. An innocuous looking girl, by all accounts, but stop the lights does she have one dangerously heavy step. She didn’t walk, she pounded. Floorboard’s worst enemy. You gulp your coffee. ‘Catríona’ it says on her name badge. Hurricane Catríona you christen her. The grub is very good so leave well fed and very amused.

Off with you up the path to Slievemore from Dooagh where your mind clears of any bit of stress that doesn’t belong there. Wisps of wind blow over the crest of the hill and you gorge on the lovely fresh air. Alone with your footsteps, surrounded by miles of fresh cut bog, you almost feel native yourself. It’s like you’re meant to be here, ambling up the bog path towards the old quartz mine, feeling nothing but a sense of gratitude for the day.

A mat of white marks out where the miners used to extract snow quartz from the earth. Not far away, up the road at Keem, they used to take amethyst from the earth. Achill’s wonders and beauty aren’t consigned to above the ground; they are in her surrounding waters and in the womb of her soil. There’s even magic in her air.  And you savour it as you look over towards Blacksod Bay and think of an old friend from there that you’ll never see again. People come into and leave your life for a reason – it’s part and parcel.

You pass the tumbling remains of the Deserted Village and it’s here you start to get the sweet scent of mint that perfumes the air from here to the old graveyard. Like the tall St. Joseph’s Lilies, mint grows wild here and only adds to the beauty of the place. As always, you’ll stop at the graveyard and say a prayer to the departed souls, particularly those poor folk who had to die on foreign shores and only got to return to their beloved Achill to be buried. To all those who passed in Coventry, Ealing, Glasgow and wherever the work forced you to flock, may you rest in peace.

Off with you towards Keel and a gorgeous bowl of chowder in the Amethyst Bar. It’s not so much that you’re starving after you’re decent breakfast, but rather the chowder is the best you’ve ever had, and when in Rome… You won’t have to be dropping of the hunger later either, when you’ll make the happy pilgrimage up to Gielty’s for their renowned fish and chips. Here is about communing atop bar stools, nursing pints or milling grub after a day full of nature and spirit and solace. Here is about being in Achill. Here is about now.

The next day you might take your life in your hands and head for Keem Bay, that wonderful horseshow ribbon of strand with its aquamarine waters overlooked by a parentage of tall cliffs. Were it not for the fact it’s one of the finest beaches in the world, you wouldn’t risk the drive on the heart stoppingly tiny ribbon of road that winds its way along a cliff. At points, your wing mirror is literally the last point on the island between you and the ocean. You’ll want to close your eyes to block out the terror, but for obvious reasons and seeing as your steering wheel is in the grasp of your white knuckles, it’s better that you keep wide-eyed.

The little coffee trailer set up by a wily entrepreneur on the verge of the strand is a Shan Gri La that you run to as soon as you park up. Coffee will settle the nerves after the drive. And you’ll sit on the strand, sipping your drink and looking across the calm little bay to where Bill’s Rock in the distance throws up a constant spray of white wash, where waves crash against it. A shark fin out in the bright blue water is a throwback to the times when the bay was a bug for shark fishing.

You’ll write a few lines about this or that. Time in a place so special is precious. Words written can be held onto – little momentos of your time on Keel Strand. And you’ll take some pics and pace the short length of the beach a few times. Then you’ll realise that leaving means getting on that road again, so you might choose to walk it a few times more. Anything just to not have to do that journey again. When you’ve curried some courage, you’ll hop in the car and realise the way back is not so bad. You can hug the far side of the (single lane) road, as far in to the side of the hill as possible, and just pray that you don’t meet an oncoming car or worse still, a coach. That would mean having to reverse your way back around the bends and hills until you find a place gracious enough to let you both pass.

And once you’ve made it back to terra-very-firma, you skip in to Gielty’s for a bit of lunch before you hit the road for Achill Sound and onward bound. A quick stop at the church at Minaun crossroads on the way out, and you’ll light some candles and offer some prayers for special intentions and those you love. It’s your form of three coins in the fountain that will, ensure you a return passage to this magical place.

Spin across the bog road towards Achill Sound pretending you don’t feel gutted that it’s Home Time. Denying that you have tears in your eyes, just as you always do when you depart the island. But to soothe the mood, you’re already going through dates in your head. Working out when you can next return. Because you will be back. Because it never really leaves you.

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