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A ghostly Famine-era village and a Pirate Queen castle: Put Achill on your 'to-do' list

Archaeologist Neil Jackman explores the historical treasures of Achill Island as part of his new book on the Wild Atlantic Way.

TO ME, ACHILL has always felt a place apart, even a little otherworldly. That feeling perhaps comes from its weather, which is often difficult to predict. On our most recent visit, the sun was shining all morning until we crossed onto Achill Island, when we were enveloped in the famous Achill mist.

You scarcely notice the gentle fog until you realise you are soaking wet, though it is easy to forgive when it helps to create the unique ethereal atmosphere that makes Achill so bewitching.

Achill Island 8 Keel Bay Achill Island and Keem Bay. Source: Neil Jackman

Achill has a wonderful blend of fascinating heritage and breathtaking scenery, with spectacular cliffs and five Blue Flag beaches, including the stunning Keem Bay. The island has been a source of inspiration for many writers and artists through the years, and it continues to be a popular place for those seeking a deeper immersion into the Irish culture and landscape. This mountainous island is connected to the mainland by the Michael Davitt Bridge, which connects Achill Sound to Polranny.

The landscape is dominated by the mountain of Slievemore, and a wealth of historic monuments can be discovered around every corner of the island. The Achill Archaeological Field School has been carrying out vital work investigating and highlighting the heritage of the island.

Kildavnet Church Kildavnet Church, where the nearby graveyard has a number of plots filled with the remains of victims of the Famine. Source: Neil Jackman

We begin our tour of the island at Kildavnet church and graveyard. This area takes its name from Cill Damhnait, perhaps a reference to the ‘Church of Dympna’, a 7th-century saint who, tradition says, sought shelter here while fleeing from pursuers. Today you can see the ruins of a small late medieval church that is presumably associated with the nearby Kildavnet Castle, and a graveyard that straddles both sides of the road.

The graveyard has burials from a number of periods, including plots of those who died during the Great Famine. There are also monuments dedicated to significant tragedies in Achill’s history, one to a group of more than 30 Achill residents travelling to Scotland who drowned when their boat overturned in Clew Bay. A second monument within the graveyard is a memorial to the ten young emigrants from Achill who tragically lost their lives in a fire at Kirkintilloch, Scotland.

Achill Island 4 Kildavnet Castle Kildavnet Castle, associated with the Pirate Queen Gráinne Ní Mháille. Source: Neil Jackman

Further along the road you will encounter Kildavnet Castle. This tower house is thought to date to the 15th century, and it was built by the O’Malleys to guard Achill Sound. The site is particularly associated with Gráinne Ní Mháille, the famous Pirate Queen. The tower house stands three storeys and about 12m tall. The ruins of a bawn wall that once surrounded and protected the tower can still be made out.

It is well worth the steep climb up the craggy slopes to the shoulder of Slievemore to visit the court tomb at Keel East. The hill was shrouded in mist when I visited, adding an atmospheric sense of mystery but also depriving me of what would surely be beautiful views over the island. The tomb has a roughly circular court area and a three-chambered gallery. It is likely to date back over 5,000 years to the Neolithic period.

Keel East Court Tomb The court tomb at Keel East. Source: Neil Jackman

Not far from the tomb, on the lower slopes of Slievemore, you can find one of Ireland’s most poignant historical sites. These are the ruins of a number of houses that formed a village, once the home of a substantial community. The first edition of the Ordnance Survey, which was produced in 1838, recorded 137 houses, of which around 80 can still be made out today.

The majority of these traditional drystone houses were one-roomed cabins, known as ‘byre houses’, as the inhabitants would have kept their livestock with them within the small houses overnight during winter. Inside many of the houses you can still see the drainage channel that separated the livestock from the dwelling area, and a number of houses still have tethering rings in the walls.

This settlement may have ancient origins, with houses being constructed on top of older dwellings, and archaeological investigation revealed the settlement to date to at least as far back as the 12th century, though given the proximity of the megalithic tomb at Keel East, it is likely that people lived in the vicinity in the Neolithic period, and recent archaeological discoveries have identified Bronze Age settlement in the area.

Many families left the settlement in the mid-19th century, either from eviction from non-payment of rent through poverty, or through emigration. In the aftermath of the Great Famine, much of the land of Achill came under the control of the Achill Mission Estate in 1852, a Protestant missionary endeavour that had been established at Doogort some twenty years previously under Rev Edward Nangle. This led to a reorganisation of the settlement and its field systems.

The Deserted Village The poignant ruins of the deserted village on the lower slopes of Slievemore. Source: Neil Jackman

The village became more a base for seasonal booleying, where livestock was moved to mountain grazing during the growing season allowing the crops to grow undisturbed in the more fertile lowlands, and this practice continued up until the 1940s. Today, the village is an atmospheric place to visit to get a sense of the harsh life of islanders in the 19th century.

These are just a few of the multitude of historical treasures that await you in Achill. The whole coast of Mayo is a wonderful place to explore, with truly beautiful natural and built heritage. It still remains relatively undiscovered by tourists so it can be the ideal place for a break. Achill is also nearby to a hub of the Mayo Greenway at Newport. Before you set off on your bicycle be sure to visit Kelly’s Butchers where you can enjoy the Pudding Platter. I think eating that was one of my highlights of the whole process of writing this book!

  • This extract has been reproduced with kind permission from Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: A Guide to its Historic Treasures by Neil Jackman, published by The Collins Press. From Kinsale in West Cork to Malin Head in County Donegal, this guidebook will lead you to 100 of Neil’s favourite heritage sites and landscapes. To order a signed copy of the book, click here.
  • Neil Jackman is an experienced archaeologist and the director of Abarta Heritage, a company that helps to tell the story of Ireland through audiobooks, and works with communities to empower them to showcase their heritage through training and mentoring. He has previously published 2016’s Ireland’s Ancient East with The Collins Press.

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