course. More than any other rocky outcrop, this Irish-speaking oasis can claim to be Ireland’s Adventure Island, with five Blue Flag beaches, rambling mountains, sheep-strewn country roads, deserted villages and wild coastal paths all opening themselves up to the visiting walker, cyclist, surfer or driver. Winter lacks the warmth and crowds of July and August, but it’s also when Achill’s wild remoteness comes into its own, and for serious hikers and surfers, that’s often more of a reward. Achill has three looped cycling trails, including a 44km route from Keel to join the island’s famed Atlantic Drive. By car, bike or foot, this circuit is a short but spectacular symphony of coastline, churning waters and Irish heritage. Watch out for a deserted village, for a castle once owned by Grace O’Malley (Ireland’s pirate queen), and for an eerie graveyard bearing two mass graves associated with the abandoned Achill to Westport railway line. Long before the railway opened in 1894, a prophecy was made that “carts on iron wheels” would carry coffins to Achill on their first and last journeys. And so it came to pass. When the line opened in 1894, its first carriages
bore the bodies of 32 local labourers drowned after capsizing in Clew Bay. In 1937, the last train to use the narrow-gauge line brought ten young islanders who died in a fire in Scotland back to their final resting place. Thankfully, the latest chapter in the railway’s history is a happier one. Last year saw the opening of the Great Western Greenway, a 42km cycling trail following the railway’s route from Achill Sound to Westport. It’s a fairly flat cycle (though if fitness is an issue, I’d advise taking it section by section, rather than all in one burst), whisking the cyclist past some stunning views of the Curraun peninsula, Clew Bay and the Newport viaduct. My favourite rest stop is the stone-arched bridge over the Black Oak River ... bliss. Clew Bay is west Mayo’s other adventure playground. Mushrooming surf schools have made breaks like those at Carrowniskey accessible to all levels of surfers here, and you’ll find hundreds of sailboats flitting between the drumlins on a windy day. Kayaking, paddle-boarding and even sea safaris are other options. (Did you know John Lennon once bought Dorinish Island for £1,700?
Above, fisherman Simon Sweeney at Belmullet cliffs, near Pigeon Rock; right, cycling along the Great Western Greenway.
five mayo must-sees …
Ballycroy NatioNal Park The quiet kid of Ireland’s national parks, Ballycroy’s location on the western seaboard in northwest Mayo is a study in raw remoteness. Its 11,000 hectares encompass one of the last intact active blanket bog systems in Western Europe, the Nephin Beg Mountains and the Scardaun Loughs, with a seasonal visitor centre in Ballycroy village. (ballycroynationalpark.ie) the Great WesterN GreeNWay Opened last year by Ireland’s Taoiseach, cyclist-in-chief and Mayo man Enda Kenny, it’s no exaggeration to say this 42km route has revitalised tourism in the region. Following the old WestportAchill railway line, the Greenway whisks cyclists away from traffic, past some
glorious Atlantic scenery, and is peppered with bridges, signage and sculptures that still feel fresh out of the box. The 13km stretch from Mulranny to Achill is unmissable. (greenway.ie) keem Bay, achill islaNd Achill Island has inspired its fair share of artists over the years, and one look at this dazzling Blue Flag Beach will give you an indication as to why. Paul Henry, the painter, was so taken by the island that he tore up his return train ticket and flung it into the sea. One of his most famous paintings, “Launching the Currach” (1910) is set in Keem Bay. (achilltourism.com) WestPort house Built on the dungeons of a castle once owned by pirate queen Grace O’Malley, Westport House has
evolved over the centuries into a cracking theme park. A camp site, adventure park, extensive gardens, zorbing, archery, kayaking and paddle-boarding are just some of the activities on offer alongside tours of the house itself, making for one of the best family days out in the West. Upcoming events include a Halloween Fest (October 27 to November 4). (westporthouse.ie) museum of couNtry life, castleBar The National Museum’s folk life collection documents a 100-year period stretching from the Famine to the 1950s. Exhibitions cover the trades of the blacksmith, tinker and schoolmaster, as well as customs like Lent, wakes and harvest, amongst other fashions, traditions and communities. (museum.ie)