Achill Island (Co. Mayo)

Achill’s Islands

Acaill Beag / Achillbeg (Little Achill), a small island just off Achill’s southern tip, was populated for many centuries. The population was never more than 117. There were 100 inhabitants in 1900, and this was down to 67 in 1936 when some chose and others resisted evacuation and resettlement on Achill and the mainland. The last 38 residents all left during the 1960s.

A fertile valley links two ice rounded hills. The main settlement was in the centre of the island, bounded by two hills to the north and south.There is a row of cottages on the northern slope of the valley and a disused schoolhouse on the southern side. In 1959, there were eight pupils, all siblings.

Dun Kilmore on a headland on the western side, is said to be the most elaborate promontory fort in the west, defended by a ditch and stone-revetted rampart across the outer neck of the promontory, inside of which there are graves, huts and a bullaun stone. It was started in the early Iron Age, and was inhabited over a long period up to early Christian times. It is somewhat dilapidated through incessant Atlantic assault.

Two smaller defended promontories exist; the larger one, called The Dún, has triple ramparts, while The Daingean shares its site with the remains of a medieval castle.

The Norwegian sailing bark Jenny was lost at Achill Beg Island on route to Hamburg, Germany from Morant Bay, Jamaica, on 13th January 1894. She had a cargo of logwood and a crew of ten men, all of whom survived the wrecking. Built in 1865 at Drammen, Norway by one J Jorgensen, she was 29 years old at the time of her sinking. Though this is rather old for a wooden-hulled sailing ship, Norwegian merchants were known for utilizing older ships to eke out profits in the bulk cargo trade. She was single-decked and measured 135’ 4” in length, 32’ 4” in breadth, and 17’ 2” depth of hold. Her home port was Christiana, Norway, her owner was AF Koblerup, and her captain was L Andersen. The ship was stranded and smashed against the rocks in a force 1 gale coming in from the southwest.

The lighthouse on Acaill Bheag‘s southern tip was erected  in 1965 to coincide with the closure of the one on Clare Island. A helicopter pad was added in 1990.

A few old houses on Achillbeg have been renovated as holiday homes, but most of the island’s habitable dwellings are empty all year round.

Access to the island is from Cé Mhór, in the village of An Chloich Mhór / Cloghmore, by local arrangement.

On Celtic Tides, the Journal of an American Kayaker, by Chris Duff,  contains an interesting account of his visit to Achillbeg, which can be read online.

Achillbeg – The Life of an Island, a comprehensive account of the island, its people and their way of life, written by Jonathan Beaumont, was published in 2005 by Oakwood Press.

Inishbiggle / Inis Bigil (“Island of the Fasting”), situated between the northeast of Achill Island and the mainland, is still populated. It is a small low, boggy island with several small lakes,  and measures 2½ km x 1½ km, or 2.6 km2 / 650 acres in area. (Photo –

In 1852 the Reverend Edward Nagle‘s Protestant Mission bought the island from Sir Richard O’Donnell of Newport. In 1870 the Rev. Mr. Fitzpatrick, a visiting admirer,  enthused: “It was charming to us that in this remote part of Mayo where the church of Rome reigns and where rebellion and lawlessness are rampant, these poor converts are accustomed in obedience to Apostolic command and in the language of the Church of Ireland to pray for our gracious Queen“.

Holy Trinity church was built in 1903 with a donation from a Dublin lady called Ellen Blair, with the proviso that it should be exclusively for the use of the island’s Protestant residents. Very few of Ireland’s offshore islands have ever had a Church of Ireland place of worship, and this was undoubtedly the last in the Republic. The church, described as “a little gem”, was rededicated on the occasion of its centenary in June 2003 for use by both Roman Catholics and Anglicans, at an ecumenical ceremony celebrated by both bishops and also attended by a Buddhist monk called Nima.

Inishbiggle still has a dozen or so inhabited houses. The island’s dwindling population currently stands at around 40 people, many / most of them elderly. Their principal activities are sheep and cattle farming and fishing. The island’s school and a post office shut down several years ago, and the last shop closed in 2008.

Although accessible from Doran’s Point at Ballycroy, the nearby local town on the mainland, islanders usually visit the outside world via Askill on Achill, reached across the Bull’s Mouth, north of Achill Sound. In fair weather the passage takes about ten minutes, but unpredictable currents can isolate the community, especially in  winter months. Plans to build a cable-car link to the island were under discussion from 1996 until 2005, but prohibitive costs forced local authorities to settle for improved piers. Fortunately, emergency access is afforded by a fully illuminated helicopter pad.

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