Friday, 19 September 2003
Salthill, Co. Galway – Achill Island, Co. Mayo
We were slowly but surely making our way to Achill Island (pronounce this “ACKle” like spackle or grackle), but it had turned into the Abbey Road tour, somehow, from Kylemore to Cong … and then on to Ballintubber Abbey. Even the tiniest historic spot was marked on Gerry’s map, and we were continually watching for the brown signs that would direct us off the main road, such as it was, to the historic sight. By this point I’d become quite adept at whipping onto a tiny one-lane track at the last moment!
Ballintubber Abbey, founded in 1216 and damaged during the Protestant Reformation, was restored in 1966.
It’s across the road from a pub and that day had just been the site of a Friday afternoon wedding. (Fridays are typical days for weddings in Ireland.) Most of the party appeared to have adjourned to the pub for a drink; the cars—decorated with balloons and white crepe paper—were all lined up, ready to head into the nearest town with a hotel, where the reception would likely be hosted. Gerry told me that when they were ready to head out, they’d all start honking their horns, and would do so in every village they passed through on their way to the hotel.
As we made our way around the grounds—the abbey, now used as the local parish church, had an elaborate and beautifully staged stations of the cross on the grounds—sure enough, the honking started and the party was off! Ballintubber had a large cemetery, too, and I noticed many headstones draped with large rosaries. I found that very moving, very touching.
Leaving Ballintubber and thinking we were going straight to Achill Island, we stumbled upon Burrishoole Friary (Dominican), set close to a quiet lake. (For some great photos, go here—and click through all of them!) We believe we might have been the first visitors that day, as the churchyard gate was closed.
The plaque out front read, in part, “This Dominican Friary, dedicated to St. Mary, was founded around 1470 by Richard De Burgo of Turlough, Lord McWilliam Oughter. Permission from the Pope had not been sought for its foundation—an oversight for which the community faced a threat of excommunication—but in 1486 the Pope instructed the Archbishop of Tuam to forgive the friars. All that remains today is the church and the eastern wall of the cloister in which the monks walked and meditated. All the domestic buildings—the kitchen, the dormitories and the refectory (dining hall)—have been destroyed. The church consists of a nave and chancel, a south transept and a low tower.”
Of all the places we visited on this day, Burrishoole was our favorite … it was completely silent except for sound of moving water and the birds; it was far enough away from the road so there was no vehicular noise at all … truly, it was a spiritual place.
As we walked carefully among the headstones, we were struck by the notion that even when a holy place fell into disuse (forced disuse, in most cases), the locals still returned to it to bury their dead inside the consecrated walls. There were graves as recent as the late 1800s inside the building; there were even more recent ones in the churchyard and in the cemetery across the road. We were most touched by a modern headstone, commemorating the lives of a husband and wife: “In loving memory of / Tom Mulchrone / Buckagh, Newport / Died 1st May 1935 / And his wife / Catherine (Kitty) Mulchrone / Died 18th June 1967.” Beside it—and this is amazing, considering that the churchyard was paved with stone and gravel—a rose bush, with a single pink bloom. How loved Tom and Kitty must have been!
(For an updated post about Burrishoole Friary, visit my friend Patrick Comerford’s blog: “Monastic ruins on a remote Mayo coast.”)
At last, with the sun low in a late afternoon sky, we made our way at last to Achill, Ireland’s largest island—a bridge links it to the mainland, no ferry involved. (For photos, go here. Check out the corrie lake in gallery 1, then visit 2, 4, and 5. You’ve already seen 3, which has the Burrishoole photos.) Achill covers about sixty square miles; there is evidence that the island was inhabited as long as 5,000 years ago, and was home to Celtic tribes from the fourth century. Although the population is currently under 3,000, Achill has several hotels and many B&Bs, spread out in several villages, and is a popular destination for tourists looking for glorious beaches (called strands in Ireland), hiking and mountain climbing, fishing, surfing, golf, and other activities.
In spite of what I’ve just said (hotels, golf, and so on), it felt like the Land that Time Forgot, y’know? Achill is in the Gaeltacht, so there was little English to be seen on signs. September, particularly late September, is after the tourist season, so the place was very quiet—we rarely passed another car. The pace of life seemed somehow slower. The distinctive smell of turf fires was in the air—and there were sheep everywhere. The whole island was like a park, because those shaggy, black-faced, contented-looking beasts had nibbled the whole thing into a neatly landscaped submission!
One interesting thing: unlike almost everywhere else in Ireland, where homes and businesses are painted all sorts of colors, from pastel to not-pastel, the homes on Achill (and in County Donegal, I would notice the next day) are predominantly white.
We found our B&B, West-End House in Dooagh—a cozy, small home (the bathroom in the room was smaller than my bedroom closet at home, no joke) with a delightful attached glass gazebo (we might call it a plantation room) that housed the dining room and overlooked the sea. No kidding, it was Right There. Being from a land-locked state, I was so charmed by this that I could hardly wait for breakfast.
But first, dinner. It being after the tourist season, many of the pubs and restaurants were closed, but we found Calvey’s, conveniently located just next door to their own butcher. (Yep.) The menu informed us that all the meat served in the restaurant was from the island, from the fresh fish and shellfish to steaks and Achill Mountain Lamb. I had the parsnip and carrot cream soup as a starter (just typing the words out makes my tastebuds shiver with delight!), with roast lamb for my main course, which was served with potatoes, brussels sprouts, carrots, and parsnips, all absolutely delicious. There were several Americans in the place, and by eavesdropping we learned that they’d all flown in to attend a wedding, which was to take place the next day, Saturday. Two wedding parties in one day!
After dinner we found a way down to the beach, and had a nice stroll at sunset.
This was a perfect conclusion to the meal, but not to the day … we’d noticed a pub (Gielty’s) about three doors down from our B&B, which meant “no designated driver required.” So we ended the night at the pub, drinking Guinness with whisky chasers, snug inside with a turf fire burning and the owner’s kids doing their homework a couple tables over.
Next: County Donegal (pronounce this “dunny-GOLL”). For a woman who will tell you that The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966) is still her favorite Disney flick, the name alone conjures excitement and romance—so stay tuned!