Achill Island is one of the most beautiful islands in Europe, not to mention one of its most remote. It’s right on the edge of Europe, in the so-called Celtic fringe. It’s a place of staggering beauty, and there are many things to do on Achill Island. There are some incredible beaches and coastline to explore, as well as a magnificent mountain landscape.
This is a place to really escape the world for a while. It’s a place where sheep wander the roads, cliffs soar from the sea and the Atlantic Ocean vents its pent-up energy. The word ‘windswept’ was surely invented for Achill. Among the many things to do in Achill Island, there’s a stunning coastal road with outstanding views everywhere you look.
So if you’re thinking of a taste of the Wild West of Ireland, read on for our tips on Achill Island things to do.
- 1 ACHILL ISLAND – AN INTRODUCTION
- 2 WHERE IS ACHILL ISLAND?
- 3 HOW TO GET TO ACHILL ISLAND?
- 4 THE BEST THINGS TO DO ON ACHILL ISLAND – KEEM BAY
- 5 SLIEVEMORE DESERTED VILLAGE, ACHILL ISLAND
- 6 DUGORT BEACH
- 7 HEINRICH BÖLL MEMORIAL WEEKEND
- 8 ATLANTIC DRIVE
- 9 ACHILL ISLAND WALKS
- 10 KEEL BEACH
- 11 DOOAGH BEACH
- 12 ACHILL ISLAND PUBS
- 13 ACHILL ISLAND HOTELS AND ACCOMMODATION
- 14 ACHILL ISLAND RESTAURANTS
ACHILL ISLAND – AN INTRODUCTION
As a Welshman, I had explored surprisingly little of the Celtic western edge of Europe. Ireland and Scotland were big gaps on my travel CV. Then we finally booked flights to Ireland to meet up with friends over from Australia for a while.
Our first night in Ireland was going to be on Achill. I’ve always loved wild places on the extremities of countries and continents they’ve always fired my imagination. I’ll never forget the scene as we crossed the Achill Island bridge over narrow Achill Sound. We were driving straight into a fierce north Atlantic squall – typical Achill weather. As the rain horizontally lashed the windscreen, we could just make out the grey, brooding hulks of the Achill Island mountains.
It took us about twenty minutes to reach our Achill Island accommodation. By this time clouds were scurrying across the hilltops, and shafts of sunlight flickered and danced across the empty moorland and peat bogs. It’s a bleak beauty at times, but one that seared straight through to my soul. Goodness knows what this place would be like if the sun actually came out.
Well, it wasn’t supposed to, but it did….
WHERE IS ACHILL ISLAND?
Achill Island is in County Mayo, in the Connacht region of north-west Ireland. It’s separated from the mainland by Achill Sound, a narrow stretch of water. It’s a few kilometres to the north-west of Clew Bay, and most of the coast faces the North Atlantic Ocean. The nearest towns are Ballycloy, Mallaranny and Newport.
HOW TO GET TO ACHILL ISLAND?
The nearest airport to Achill is Ireland West Airport at Knock. This is served by Ryanair, Flybe and Aer Lingus, which fly to UK airports. It’s a 106 km (68 mile) drive from there to Dooagh on Achill. It’s worth checking Knock airport car hire options, as having your own vehicle is far easier than relying on public transport.
Dublin is the most popular gateway to Ireland, and it’s a 4 hour, 300 km (190 mile) journey across the country between the two. You can get to Achill from Dublin by public transport – the train to Westport and the onward 440 bus to Dooagh. However, once you’re on Achill Island you really need your own transport. If you intend travelling directly from the airport to Achill it’s worth your while checking Dublin Airport car hire deals. Otherwise it’s easy to arrange car rental in Dublin.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO ON ACHILL ISLAND – KEEM BAY
Keem Bay absolutely blew us away. It’s the last place on Achill you can reach by road. It’s tucked into a natural amphitheatre of steep mountains and moorland, in scenery reminiscent of the Faroe Islands. The beach itself looks like it’s from sub-tropical climes like the Caribbean or Australia, a golden strand with crystal clear turquoise water. The road approach is dramatic, the views breathtaking.
If this isn’t one of the best beaches in Ireland, then show me what is, immediately. We’ve included Keem beach in our Most Beautiful Beaches in Europe article. One very special place.
SLIEVEMORE DESERTED VILLAGE, ACHILL ISLAND
One of the best-known things to do in Achill is visiting the Deserted Village on the lower slopes of Slievemore mountain.
There are remains of up to a hundred different buildings, mostly cottages, that have long since been abandoned. The practice of moving around from season to season – known in Ireland as booleying – continued into the 19th century. This village was settled in summer, when livestock could graze on this hilly ground.
It’s believed that the village was abandoned during the Great Famine of the 1840s. During this period, well over one million died. The rural poor of Ireland were faced with a potato blight which destroyed the crop, one of their staple foods. Food was actually being exported from Ireland at this time, but the poor couldn’t afford it because of rising prices. They also had to contend with a spate of evictions by landlords. For many, this was too much, and so the Irish diaspora began.
It’s a very poignant place, and it’s important to remember events like this and bear witness to them.
Also known as Doogort, this is another beautiful Achill beach, on the north coast of the island. It’s in the shadow of Slievemore mountain. It holds Blue Flag status so you can be assured it’s very clean and easily accessible. It’s also known as Pollawaddy Strand or Silver Strand.
HEINRICH BÖLL MEMORIAL WEEKEND
The German author Heinrich Böll was one of the first to confront the memories of Nazism and the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War II. His overall work was recognised with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972. He regularly in a cottage near Dugort, Achill Island, between the 1950s and 1970s.
I had read several of his novels during my youth, but had no idea of his connection with Achill until we drove past the cottage and saw the sign. The Heinrich Böll cottage is open for artists residency through the year. A Memorial Weekend is held each year, with guided tours and walks, concerts, lectures, seminars and a boat trip to nearby Clare Island.
Ireland’s west coast has several Atlantic drives, and the Atlantic Drive on Achill Island is one of the most spectacular.
It follows the course of Achill Sound, giving great views across to mainland Ireland. En route, you pass the tower of Kildavnet Castle, which is believed to date from 1429. It was supposedly built by the O’Malley clan, and was at one time occupied by Granuaille, also known as Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen.
It then continues past some wild scenery, with the Atlantic crashing on reefs of rocks in full frothy fury mode. It then continues past the village of Dooega, twisting and turning close to clifftops before returning to the centre of the island. This road is ideal for cycling as well as driving.
ACHILL ISLAND WALKS
Achill has so much outstanding scenery, both on the coast and inland, and it’s ideal for walking and hiking. I did a couple of short coastal walks from the Atlantic Drive, and would have loved to have ventured much further.
One of the best Achill walks seems to be the ascent of Croaghaun, in the west of the island. You can climb there from Lough Acorrymore or Keem Bay, eventually reaching some of Europe’s highest sea cliffs at 2,257 feet (688 metres).
Keel Beach is the biggest Achill Island beach, a gorgeous long curve of sand stretching for miles. It’s also the best place for Achill Island surf, with the Atlantic providing a constant source of waves.
The adjacent Minaun mountain has an amazing view over the beach and island. An access road takes you to within 15 minutes of the summit, from which you have a panoramic view of the west of the island.
The most famous of the Achill Island beaches is Dooagh beach, which made the news worldwide back in 2017. The beach had been stripped of its sand in a vicious 1984 storm. However, in 2017 a similar freak storm deposited vast loads of sand on the stony beach.
It must have been an amazing sight for locals walking past the morning after to see the beach recreated after all that time. Apparently something similar has happened at nearby Ashleam Bay as well!
ACHILL ISLAND PUBS
If you’re staying on the island, it’s well worth keeping an eye on what’s on in Achill. The best time to catch some traditional Irish music is at weekends, especially during the summer season. These include McLoughlin’s Bar on Achill Sound, Amethyst Bar in Keel and Lynott’s Bar in Cashel.
ACHILL ISLAND HOTELS AND ACCOMMODATION
There is a good range of hotels in Achill, with plenty of other B&B options as well. Achill Island camping is also popular during the summer months, and there are places in Keel and Dugort open from April to September.
There are some places to stay in Achill Sound well worth considering. The three-star Achill Island Hotel (Ostan Oilean Acla) is on the Atlantic Drive, very close to Kildavnet Castle. Some rooms have great views across the Sound, and you can also hire a bike from there to explore the Atlantic Drive further.
Nearby, Achill Sound Hotel is a two-star option close to the Achill Island bridge. It’s a good central location, and there’s music in the downstairs bar at weekends.
We stayed at Pure Magic, a B&B and bunkhouse out in the country below Slievemore mountain. They also run Achill Island tours and courses in surfing, kitesurfing and other Achill Island activities. The food was excellent, both at dinner and breakfast. The room was a little basic and the mattress had done more than enough service. If they add a communal hanging-out area it would be brilliant.
ACHILL ISLAND RESTAURANTS
Apart from the aforementioned pubs, the one place everyone unhesitatingly recommended is Gielty’s. It has local specialities including smoked salmon, seafood chowder, beer battered cod and roast Achill lamb. They even have a shuttle bus to collect you and take you back to your accommodation, which is impressive indeed.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.