Achill Island (Irish: Acaill, Oileán Acla) in County Mayo is the largest island of Ireland, and is situated off the west coast. It has a population of 2,700. Its area is 57square miles (147.6km²). Achill is attached to the mainland by Michael Davitt Bridge, between the villages of Achill Sound and Polranny, so it is possible to drive onto the island. This is a causeway and swing bridge which allows the passage of small boats.
Town: Achill Island
Scene: Dugort, Main St
Date: 1910 (estimate)
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Achill Island (Irish: Acaill, Oileán Acla) in County Mayo is the largest island of Ireland, and is situated off the west coast. It has a population of 2,700. Its area is 57square miles (147.6km²). Achill is attached to the mainland by Michael Davitt Bridge, between the villages of Achill Sound and Polranny, so it is possible to drive onto the island. This is a causeway and swing bridge which allows the passage of small boats. A bridge was first completed here in 1887, and replaced by the current structure in 1949. Other centres of population include the villages of Keel, Dooagh, Dooega and Dugort. The island's Gaelic football pitch and two secondary schools are on the mainland at Polranny. Early settlements are believed to have been established on Achill around 3000 BCE. A paddle dating from this period was found at the crannog near Dookinella.
The island is 87 per cent peat bog. The parish of Achill also includes the Corraun peninsula. The people of Corraun consider themselves Achill people, and most natives of Achill refer to this area as being 'in Achill'. In the summer of 1996, the RNLI decided to station a lifeboat at Kildownet.
It is believed that at the end of the Neolithic Period (around 4000 BCE), Achill had a population of 500–1,000 people. The island would have been mostly forest until the Neolithic people began crop cultivation. Settlement increased during the Iron Age, and the dispersal of small forts around the coast indicate the warlike nature of the times. Granuaile maintained a castle at Kildownet in the 16th century.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, there was much migration to Achill from other parts of Ireland, particularly Ulster, due to the political and religious turmoil of the time. For a while there were two different dialects of Irish being spoken on Achill. This led to many townlands being recorded as having two names during the 1824 Ordnace Survey, and some maps today give different names for the same place. Achill Irish still has many traces of Ulster Irish.
Despite some unsympathetic development, the island retains some striking natural beauty. The cliffs of Croaghaun on the northern coast of the island are the highest sea cliffs in Europe but are inaccessible by road. On the western tip near Achill Head is Keem Bay. Keel Beach is quite popular with tourists and some locals as a surfing location. Another extreme point of the island is Moytoge Head, which with its rounded appearance drops dramatically down to the ocean. An old British observation post, built during World War I to prevent the Germans from landing arms for the Irish Republicans, is still standing on Moytoge.
The mountain Slievemore (672metres) rises dramatically in the centre of the island and the Atlantic drive (along the south/west of the island) has some dramatically beautiful views. On the slopes of Slievemore, there is an abandoned village ('The Deserted Village') The Deserted Village at Slievemore is traditionally thought to be a remnant village from An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger, see Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849)). Recent archaeological research suggests the village was occupied year-round at least as early as the 19th century, though it is known to have served as a seasonally occupied booley village by the first half of the 20th century. A booley village is a village occupied only during part of the year, such as a resort community, a lake community, or (as the case on Achill) a place to live while tending flocks or herds of ruminants during winter or summer pasturing. Specifically, the people of Dooagh and Pollagh would migrate in the summer to Slievemore (Transhumance), and then go back to Dooagh in the fall. Just west of the deserted village is an old Martello tower, again built by the British to warn of any possible French invasion. The area also boasts an approximately 5000-year old Neolithic tomb. Achillbeg (Acaill Beag, Little Achill) is a small island just off Achill's southern tip. Its inhabitants were resettled on Achill in the 1960s.
While a number of attempts at setting up small industrial units on the island have been made, the economy of the island is largely dependent on tourism. Subventions from Achill people working abroad, in particular in England, Scotland and the United States allowed many families to remain living in Achill throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the advent of Ireland's 'Celtic Tiger' economy fewer Achill people are forced to look for work abroad. Agriculture plays a small role and is only profitable because of European subsidies. The fact that the island is mostly bog means that it is limited; largely to sheep farming. In the past, fishing was a significant activity but this aspect of the economy is small now. At one stage, the island was known for its shark fishing, basking shark in particular was fished for its valuable liver oil. There was a big spurt of growth in tourism in the 1960s and 1970s before which life was tough and difficult on the island. Since that heyday, the common perception is that tourism has been slowly declining.
Because of the inhospitable climate, very few houses date from before the 20th century. An example of the style of earlier housing can be seen in the 'Deserted Village' ruins near the graveyard at the foot of Slievemore. Even the houses in this village represent a relatively comfortable class of dwelling as, even as recently as a hundred years ago, some people still used 'Beehive' style houses (small circular single roomed dwellings with a hole in ceiling to let out smoke). Many of the oldest and most picturesque inhabited cottages date from the activities of the Congested Districts Board for Ireland—a body set up around the turn of the 20th century in Ireland to improve the welfare for inhabitants of small villages and towns. Most of the homes in Achill at the time were very small and tightly packed together in villages. The CDB subsidised the building of new, more spacious (though still small by modern standards) homes outside of the traditional villages.
Some of the recent building development on the island (over the last 30 years or so) has been contentious and in many cases is not as sympathetic to the landscape as the earlier style of whitewashed raised gable cottages. Because of generous tax incentives, many holiday homes home been built over the last ten years. This building boom has brought benefits but at a cost. On the one hand it has provided much-needed employment for the local people, has increased the demand and value for suitable development land and has allows the island to support more tourists. On the other hand, many of these houses have been built in prominent scenic areas and have damaged traditional views of the island while lying empty for most of the year. They may also be contributing to the declining fortunes for the traditional beneficiaries of tourism - bed and breakfasts, pubs and guesthouses.
The artist Paul Henry stayed on the island for a number of years in the early 1900s and some of his most famous paintings are of the dramatic landscape of the island. The Nobel Prize winning author, Heinrich Böll, visited the island and wrote of his experience in his 'Irish Journal' (Irisches Tagebuch). The Bölls later bought a cottage near Dugort and lived in it periodically until 2001 when they donated it to be used as an artists' residence. Graham Greene also spent time on Achill Island.