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Achill Beginnings

This evening I am on a boat crossing the Irish Sea from Dublin to Liverpool.

Suddenly I am five. I am with my mother and my sister on an ancient freight ship: none of your Ro-Ro ferries in 1967. Just a rusting heap of beige metal, cars craned up onto the storage areas, non-commercial passengers a necessary evil on a vessel that crosses daily to a land still blighted by inequality and poverty, accumulated over centuries of English mismanagement.

Our mother had seen a private ad in The New Statesman: ‘Cottage to rent on remote Irish island. Very primitive. Wonderful views’.

Unlike any other person I can think of, this generated a passion within our mother to get out to that island and see those views.

We travelled up to Liverpool from our London home, to stay with relatives we barely knew of: who knew that my father had two sisters in Liverpool, from the Plymouth Brethren no less? And all this in the same year I took my First Holy Communion.

My sister got fleas on the trip. I was slightly jealous - I didn’t know what fleas were, but I sure as hell didn’t get them, so something wasn’t fair.

We arrived in dawn Dublin, unimpressed by the grimy-looking dock area; and it took ages for the crane to lower our car to earth while we waited in a cold shed, laughably described as the ‘Passenger Terminal’.

We got into the car; but a treacherous friend it turned out to be, because although new, shiny, and very red, it broke down in Roscommon as we traversed the Midlands on our first Achill Odyssey.

I don’t remember much about this hitch in the journey, other than my mother asking a passer-by for help, and that person saying ‘if you go into the village you will find a man who can fix your car. You can call him Paddy Reilly’.

What did he call himself on other days of the week I wondered?

Anyway, ‘Paddy Reilly’ did the job, and we set off from Roscommon only five hours later than we should have.

Arriving in Achill that first night had all the ingredients of a gothic nightmare: the person whose house we had been instructed to call at to get the key for our cottage, was out.

It was pouring with rain. Not polite London rain: huge shards of horizontal water, directed at all incomers, particularly those in defective red Triumph Heralds.

It was dark; and dark in a way that Londoners didn’t fully expect; so our attempts to find shelter became increasingly desperate – no room at the inn, and then some: we tried a hotel near the absent key holder – no luck . We drove into Keel, one of the bigger island villages, and tried a hotel there…but again, no luck. However the chatelaine of the Amethyst Hotel, whilst unable to offer us accommodation on site, did manage to procure an excellent alternative for us – one of her waitresses had a mother who did bed and breakfast. So what might have been a disaster of epic proportions, turned into something rather wonderful: we were suddenly warm, both literally and figuratively, and all slept soundly in one room of a traditional island cottage.

Good old Achill – you always know how to switch on the glamour lights when it’s necessary; and the following day, we woke in the Gallagher household to find sunshine, a huge breakfast, and the most stunning view I have ever seen in my life: The Minaun Cliffs from across Keel Bay.

I must have taken hundreds of photos of these glorious sea cliffs over the fifty years I have been coming to Achill, but I never tire of gazing at Minaun in all weathers, and the ever-changing light brings new fascination to the contours every time I look at them. Any doubts about why we had come that first time, were dispelled instantly; and once we had picked up the key, we were able to make friends with what would be our home for the next three weeks.

We spent three weeks on Achill that year, joined halfway through by our father. It became gradually clear that all of us had fallen under the spell of the island, and looking back over the fifty years of our connection with it, there is a seamless trail of wonderful memories. Sadly, our parents are no longer alive; but they are both buried on the island, their grave facing that wondrous view of the Minaun Cliffs. Both my children have been coming to Achill since they were small, and it has been a great joy to bring friends to the island over decades.

It isn’t for everyone: you could spend two weeks of August watching horizontal rain fall relentlessly, and you might find the uncompromising terrain too challenging if you were the suburban sort; but for those of us who long to escape our urban existences, it has a unique magic.

Certainly for two little girls of seven and five, that summer of 1967 was a turning point: our mother hung emergency whistles round our neck, taught us how to blow the SOS signal should we get into difficulties, pointed us up the slopes of Sliabh Mor, and let us run wild.

It was completely wonderful.