The largest island off the coast of Ireland, Achill Island in County Mayo is linked to the mainland by a swing-bridge and is easily accessed. It is considered one of Ireland’s beauty spots, with a total of five blue flag (awarded by the EU for cleanliness and safety) beaches.
At the western tip of the island lies Keem Bay – a beautiful, secluded valley located at the western tip of Achill Island, where one of these beaches can be found. Another is at the even more remote Annagh, which has the lowest corrie lake in Ireland, and which is accessible only to hillwalkers or sailors.
But Achill is not only famous for its beaches – it also offers stunning seascapes and landscapes. These feature crashing waves, rugged cliffs and mountains, and beautiful open moorlands. Dolphins and porpoises are regular visitors to the shore. Other animals found on the island include the Irish hare, the fox, the otter, the Irish stoat, the badger, the pygmy shrew – and Ireland’s only lizard, which feeds on insects found on local bogs and sand dunes.
The coastal route around the island, favoured by visitors, is known as Atlantic Drive, which comprises over 40 kilometres of fabulous scenery, and can be enjoyed by car or by bicycle. Achill is also rich in ancient history. There is evidence that the island was inhabited as far back as 5,000 years ago. Megalithic tombs from this era, as well as promontory forts, can be seen at Slievemore, along the Atlantic Drive and on Achill Beg Island (meaning “little Achill”, as it lies beside its much larger sibling).
Other historical relics include Kildamhnait Castle, the remains of a 16th century Irish tower house, named after St. Damhnait, or Dymphna, who founded a church there. It was used by the legendary pirate queen Granuaile (Grace O'Malley). Granuaile, the most famous of the O' Malley clan (once rulers of Achill) was born on nearby Clare Island around 1530. The O'Malleys were a seafaring family, who traded widely and refused to submit to English rule.
Grace became a fearless leader and gained fame as a sea captain and pirate. She is reputed to have struck a deal with Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1593. She died circa 1603 and is buried in the O'Malley family tomb on Clare Island.