The islands of Ireland: Achillbeg a beauty to behold off Mayo

Dwarfed by its magnificent neighbour, Achillbeg lies to the south east of the dominant landmass with which it shares a name. It forms the pinnacle of an inverted triangle and was once connected to Achill itself. Now, a narrow sound separates the two Achills through which a powerful current flows.

The old schoolhouse on Achillbeg, Co Mayo. Pic: Dan MacCarthy

Clare Island lies just south — another formidable neighbour.

It may not have Achill’s size but what it lacks in scale it makes up in beauty. Two peaks are separated by a fertile valley at the edge of which the village population once thronged. And throng they did, for this relatively small island once boasted a population of 178 people (1841). The year-round population today is nil though some of the descendants of the islanders have holiday homes there which restores some life in the summer. In an odd twist of fate, the island was evacuated in 1965 which was the same year the lighthouse was built.

The lighthouse, in common with all our lighthouses today, is unmanned. Achillbeg took over the safeguarding of ships from Clare Island when the lighthouse on that island was so overwhelmed with constant fog it was deemed to be next to useless.

Achillbeg was once home to the schoolteacher Francis Hugh Power, known as An Paorach (the Power fellow) who dominated island life in the early years of the last century. His former home overlooks Tra Bo Dearg (Strand of the Red Cow) and once viewed it is not hard to see how it tempted an outsider to come and live there. A sweeping crescent of golden beach contrasts with the deep turquoise of the Atlantic and will send your soul soaring as high as the seagulls if you see it. The beach looks east to Clew Bay and South to Croagh Patrick. Times may have been hard, but in one sense this was paradise.

The Plymouth polyglot fetched up in Achillbeg having joined a branch of Conradh Na Gaeilge in London and later training to be a teacher in Waterford in a De La Salle College. His influence on the island was huge and he passed on his interests in music, sailing, chess and even backgammon, to the children of the island.

Johnny Kilbane

Another formidable figure associated with the island was the boxing champion John Patrick Kilbane whose parents were born on the island in the mid-19th century. A plaque in his memory is situated just above the pier just across the sound from Achill. Kilbane himself was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1889. He was World Featherweight champion from 1912 to 1923, which is the longest unbroken run ever at that weight. In fact, after Joe Louis, his is the longest reign of world title holder in the history of boxing. Louis reigned one year longer from 1937 to 1949 in the heavyweight division. There are statues of Kilbane in Cleveland and also at Achill Island which is proud to claim him too.

Achillbeg had a strong fishing tradition but could not support all its inhabitants and many, in common with other islanders and people from the mainland, left for seasonal working picking potatoes in Scotland — a tradition which became a way of life. In Jonathan Beaumont’s comprehensive book on the island Achillbeg — The Life of an Island one islander recalled his experience: “I was 13 years and three months … I went Ayrshire, there were bad conditions. We worked nine hours a day, five-and-a-half days a week… The pay was sixpence an hour”.

As a major strategic point looking west out to the Atlantic and east to Clew Bay, Achillbeg had an important iron age fort which commanded a 360 degree aspect. Many of our iron age forts have fallen into the sea but Dun Kilmore holds fast to the ground though its once proud walls are now mere overturned stones.

  • How to get there: Access to the island is via the N59 from Westport, Co Mayo, via the village of Mulranny and on to Achill Sound. Then drive south on Achill itself to the pier at Darby’s Point, Cloughmore. Inquire at pier for a boat.
  • Achillbeg — The Life of an Island by Jonathan Beaumont, is published by Oakwood Press.

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