Achill Island on the Wild Side

Achill Island on the Wild Side

Achill Island is synonymous with the wildest parts of Ireland’s west coast. Even from within County Mayo, the drive there can seem interminable, but is always worth it. As you make your way further west through the little villages of Keel and Dooagh, the dramatic combination of ocean, mountain and vast skies can seem overwhelming. But there is an even wilder side to Achill than most people imagine, and even fewer ever visit. The western tip of the island is dominated by Croaghaun, a whale-backed quartzite dome more than 600m high.

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Walker dwarfed by the western cliffs of Croaghaun, Achill Island, Co Mayo, Ireland.

The mountain is impressive enough from most angles on Achill, but the view most people don’t see is of its northern aspects, where it has been cut away by the Atlantic Ocean into some of the highest seacliffs in Europe.

Walker looking towards Saddle Head from Croaghaun, Achill Island, Co Mayo, Ireland.

Getting the right conditions for a trip up Croaghaun is a tricky business. The summit has an irritating habit of generating its own cap of cloud when everywhere else is bathed in sunshine. Wind is another problem. So to get calm clear and warm conditions right on the summit is a real treat.

I was lucky enough to get just such a day back in early June. In truth I’d had an eye open for these conditions for over a year. The climb to the summit of Croaghaun from the car park at Lough Acorrymore takes about 90 minutes or so, and despite the impressive views that open out to the east as you gain height, nothing quite prepares you for the sensational summit views as the ground on the northern side of the mountain abruptly plunges away

St Patrick’s Cabbage (Saxifraga spathularis), Croaghaun, Achill Island, Co Mayo, Ireland.

into the Atlantic more than 600m below. The walk along this cliffline is one of the classic hill walks in the west of Ireland, enlivened not only by the views but also by the alarming geology where huge fissures indicate where the next section of the mountain will, in the not too distant future, peel away in a massive landslide.

At the northeastern end of the mountain, the cliffs drop away in height as they curve around to Saddle Head. Tucked into the bowl of an isolated corrie and almost right on the cliff edge is Bunnafreva Lough West, from where you can look back west along the northern face of Croaghaun, and perhaps even catch a sighting of the local wild goat population, whose genetic heritage is perhaps the purest of any such population in Ireland.

Feral goats on the slopes of Croaghaun, Achill Island, Co Mayo, Ireland.

From Bunnafreva, you can contour back around the mountain to get back to Lough Acorrymore. The entire round trip requires about four hours, but closer to six if you plan to stop for photos or wait for optimum lighting.

All these images were shot on a Canon 5d mk2.