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Keem beach

Keem beach, Achill, highlighted in the sun. Pic IrishFireside/Creative Commons

Achill Island – Ireland’s largest island


Lashed by the ocean, carved by the wind and swept by the rain, Achill is one of Ireland’s most spectacular and beautiful places. It makes a fantastic day trip from Westport.

Sheep on a mountainside, Achill

Sheep on a mountainside in Achill. Pic: IrishFireside/Creative Commons

Achill Island in County Mayo is the largest Irish island and is linked to the mainland by a brand-new bridge. The colourful landscapes of Achill have inspired both writers and artists alike, and despite the buzz of people who flock to this island every year, it can also be a place of retreat for anybody looking for peace and solitude.

One of the possible origins of the name Achill is the Gaelic word acaill, meaning eagle. Travellers often remarked on the golden eagles white tailed sea eagles on Achill, mainly on the peaks of Croaghaun. The last reported sighting of an eagle on Achill was in 1912.

With its majestic mountains, breathtaking landscapes and miles of unspoilt Blue Flag beaches, Achill is a paradise for lovers of outdoor pursuits and water sports of all types. Popular watersports in Achill include swimming, windsurfing, surfing, kite surfing, kayaking and canoeing.

The Great Western Greenway from Westport to Achill finishes just short of the bridge to the island at Achill Sound. The adventurous can walk or cycle the 42km mostly off-road track in either direction, a great way to take in spectacular views of Clew Bay and the mountains around it.

A visit to Achill can be as active, or as relaxed, as you choose. Achill offers over a dozen restaurants with fresh Atlantic seafood a speciality, and its pubs and bars provide a traditional Irish welcome.

The imprint of past generations is everywhere on Achill, from megalithic tombs to ancient forts, historic churches to deserted villages.

Achill’s long history features a rich cast of characters, from the Granuaile, the pirate queen, to artists and writers including Paul Henry and Heinrich Boll.

In more recent times, a controversial construction which has become known as Achill-henge appeared over a weekend in November 2011. The 30m by 4.5m structure built by local developer Joe McNamara near Pollagh has been hailed as an artwork of genius by local politicians. The local community is divided as to whether it should be left intact or demolished.


Achill boasts a number of well established summer schools and festivals each year, one of the best known being the Scoil Acla Summer School, with workshops in traditional music, set and ceili dancing and of course, Gaeilge Acla – the Irish language. Other annual events include the Achill Archaeological summer school and festivals such as the Achill Yawl racing festival, Achill Seafood festival, Walks festival and many others.

The history of Achill island

Achill island has a long and troubled history. The first people came to the island about 5,000 years ago and since then Achill has witnessed the arrival of Christianity, the power of Granuaile, plantations from Ulster, great rows between Protestants and Catholics and the decline of the ancient disappearance way of life.

Achill has a history of human settlement that is at least 5,000 years old. The remains of megalithic tombs and monuments suggest settlement by Neolithic man in the 3rd or 4th centuries BC.

The arrival of Christianity into Ireland is reflected in two remnants on Achill: at Kildavnet the ancient church is named after St. Damhnait (St. Dympna), a 7th century saint, and at Slievemore there is an ancient church site and Holy Well, both dedicated to St. Colman, also a 7th century saint.

Kildavnet Castle, Achill. Pic: Mike Shinners/Creative Commons

The O’Malley’s and Granuaile had a strong influence on the island. The name O’Malley is still common in Achill today. The best known member of this family was Granuaille (Grace O’Malley), the legendary Pirate Queen whose son own Kildavnet Castle.

Between 1831 and 1834 a Protestant missionary settlement known as The Colony  was built at Dugort by Reverend Edward Nangle and can still be seen today. The ‘Colony’ was very successful for a time, even buying two-thirds of the island in 1850. Its success provoked a great long-running row between Nangle and the Catholic Archbishop John McHale, who built a monastery in nearby Bunnacurry in the 1850s to counteract the strength of the Colony

The Deserted Village at Slievemore near Keel consists of the remains of almost 100 traditional stone cottages. ITheir most recent period of use ended in the early 20th century, when the cottages were used for ‘booleying’ by the local population. As ‘booley’ houses they were occupied during the summer months, when cattle would be grazed on the mountainside, but the residents would return to their homes in the villages of Pollagh and Dooagh for the winter months.

Read more about the history of Achill

The Achill landscape, plants and animals

Achill island occupies an area of about 57 square miles. Achill’s location as one of the most westerly islands in Europe, and the climatic effects of the Gulf Stream, create a distinctive combination of flora and fauna.

The last reported sighting of an eagle on Achill was in 1912. A number of rare bird species are still found on Achill, including the chough, golden plover and peregine falcon. Keel lake is often used as a resting point for barnacle geese during migration.

Achill’s two highest peaks are on Slievemore (671m) and Croaghaun (668m). The northern side of Croaghaun features dramatic cliffs, some two miles in length and up to 600m in height, which are said to be the highest sea cliffs in Europe. One interesting feature of both peaks is the presence of rare Artic alpine flora such as juniper. Other significant peaks on Achill include Minaun (466m) and Curraun Hill (524m).

Read more about the landscape, plants and animals of Achill


The idyllic Inishbiggle (or Inis Bigil in Irish, which means “island of the fasting”) is just 90 meters from Achill island. It is an unspoilt and unique island, which to this day contains a traditional community where small farming and fishing are time-honoured traditions.

Wonderful for walking and exploration, life here runs at a relaxed pace, and the tranquil atmosphere and glorious scenery are loved by visitors. The Inishbiggle loop walks begin at the pier at Bullsmouth, where the ferry from Achill Island lands, and at Gubnadoogha, where the ferry from Ballycroy lands.


More about Achill


Achill island on the map


Pics: Roger Whittleston/Creative Commons; MRW/Creative Commons; Deejayw/Creative Commons; IrishFireside/Creative Commons 1 2 3

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