Achill Island – a story of butterfly collections, Jehova’s Witnesses and old postcards.

During late July I spent a week on Achill Island in the west of Co Mayo. My reason for being there of course was music, a Summer School called Scoil Achla. This was my third time and I have spoken at length about it in my previous blogs. Indeed raved about it, so I won’t repeat that here. Just type Achill into the search box!  This time though I didn’t attend classes and to say I needed a break after the summer touring would be putting it too mildly. This was the perfect place to spend time away from the music but to have it on tap at the same time. At least that was my intention.

After my previous visits I thought I knew Achill. But what I discovered here was another Achill, not the one I had written about before. Oh that was all here too, the wonderful music and the undeniable beauty of this place as a Summer holiday destination.  So let’s get that over with.  Here are some shots that showcase Achill Island.  Hopefully you will hop onto the internet, book your accommodation and plan your trip as soon as possible.  But before you do read on……

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This time I got to know the people.  I met some genuine Achill characters, people that shape the place now and reflect where it has come from.  In particular there was John O’Shea, quintessentially Ireland and quintessentially Achill. A more delightful person you will struggle to meet. He lives in the appropriately named “Beach House” and he welcomes you to his house with his whole being. Never short of a quip, or a quick riposte, or a yarn he would entertain and educate for hours given the chance. I was introduced by a friend and we connected straight away. He has a passionate interest in the history of Achill and collects photos, postcards, books and ephemera relating to this. This parallels my own interest in the early history of the Goldfields of Western Australia as well as our similar collecting interests.

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So I spent quite a bit of time in his home as he generously allowed me to view his collections and we swapped stories.  He talked of the original settlement and the sale of the Island to the Rev Nangle and the establishment of the first village. Paintings by Alexander Williams and postcards dating  from 1903 to the First World War speak eloquently of an Achill which though much has disappeared is readily identifiable today. IG3C4770IG3C4778

One story that stuck with me was of a cruel landlord. Many of his tenants were killed in a tragic accident that took 25 lives. Because these families had lost their breadwinners and could not pay the rent they were evicted. This was 1847! in the height of the famine. He showed me a wooden bowl and a spoon made of horn, from this time, used to eat soup. This puts stories like this into harsh reality.IG3C6257

John is a truly charming man with a great line of patter and is quite one with the ladies. He is legendary for inviting visitors to the island to view his ‘butterfly collection’.  So for his 77th birthday his many friends on the island got together and created a butterfly collection for him. Each butterfly is cleverly designed to tell a story and is an individual work of art and he now proudly displays his ‘real’ butterfly collection.IG3C4755IG3C4744

He is also a man of spirit, a spirit I suspect comes from a harsh life in a remote place. He single handedly appealed a decision of his home insurers following their refusal to pay for storm damage and has taken it all the way to the High Court where he has tasted victory against the whole legal system railed against him. What we would call an Aussie Battler.

A lasting memory for me was of how he handled a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses at his front door. They arrived moments after me so I was standing in the foyer listening. There was a father and his daughter. Two other daughters in the car if they needed the heavy artilery. They said they were from Germany but initially didn’t say what they wanted. The man’s first question to John was whether he had a God. A man of faith, John answered he did. “Does your God have a name?” John was well aware where they were headed and he dodged around the answer, quoting passages from the Bible, which completely threw the evangelist’s well rehearsed patter. The man was searching for passages to respond with on his tablet (that’s the android version not one of stone!) but was not able to recover. At the same time he charmed the daughter with handshakes and blessings and she could do nothing but smile. He had them on the ropes now as he asked whether they were Jehovah’s Witnesses knowing full well they were. When they affirmed, “Yes”, he said, “I have read the Watchtower and I think you have a different view of God to me”.  As the man tried to fight back then came the knock-out punch. “I’m so sorry I don’t have time to talk with you, my Australian cousin is here”.  I bet they don’t meet many like that.

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There were so many highlights of my time on Achill. Here are a few that randomly jumped into my brain

  • Having a sean nós dancing lesson in one of the local pubs, from Pauline, a local artist and then being joined by some random punters for an impromptu performance.

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  • Fired up by this I then did two proper sean nós dance workshops offered by the School. Thanks Pauline for dragging me along.

  • And then a bit of a dance on Keel Beach.IG3C6400
  • The Red Fox Gallery and Press and Frances and Antic-Ham who run it. Two people in such obvious harmony and in harmony with their special place over looking Doogart. Francis collects polaroid cameras and they produce the most stunning Polaroid photography and art in book form.IG3C5493

  • A walk on Keem Beach, one of the most beautiful in IrelandIG3C4870IG3C4910aIG3C5206

  • The constant mist that hangs over the hills; lifts like a dancer lifting her skirt and just as quickly letting it fall.  And occasionally she puts on a spectacular show in the evening light.  IG3C4617IG3C5555IG3C5469IG3C6091IG3C5549IG3C6301IG3C5313

  • Impromptu sessions in quiet pubs.

  • Noisy sessions in packed pubsIG3C5411IG3C5410IG3C5414IG3C5349

  • A lovely vegetarian meal with my new friends at Pauline’s house with views over Keel and then songs and tunesIG3C6282IG3C629413918672_10153802382657634_1999679985_o

  • Hot soup in the Beehive CaféIG3C6106

  • the labyrinth at the end of Keel beach. Mirroring the twists and turns of life and our endeavours to reach the centre.  IG3C6442IG3C6430

  • The evening light turning the cliffs yellow and red and reflecting on the shallow strand.IG3C6321IG3C5908IG3C5920IG3C5930IG3C5947

  • Fish and chips for my birthday at Geilty’s Pub. The best I have tasted in Ireland.  And at the same meal, my introduction to banoffee!

  • Nutella and banana pancakes sold from a caravan at the camping ground at Keel. No pictures sorry.  Too busy scoffing them down.
  • The sound of Paul Dooley’s Brian Boru harp,  Absolutely entrancing to all ages….IG3C5685a

  • Brendan Begley singingIG3C5579

  • Sessions in the Wave Crest Hotel, which only opens for the Scoil Acla week.IG3C5595

  • The Richview Hostel and the many international visitors who inhabited it

  • A swim in Keel Beach with Bridge and Siofra. Everyone else was wearing wetsuits! Still can’t believe I did that.13879371_1016935231760452_1295093538081463806_n

  • And I was still talking to Bridge afterwards so it was pizza with them at Pure Magic CafeIG3C5545

  • A visit to the workshop of Johnny Butler who took the time to show me how Uilleann pipes were made. A true craftsman.

  • A couple of hours at the Inishbiggle Festival including tunes in the tent and skipping rope.

Actually there’s a whole lot more but that gives you the gist.  I have said enough.  If you have lasted this long then you deserve a medal.  Achill is a special place and a special time.

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Categories: Festivals, Real Ireland, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Achill Island – a story of butterfly collections, Jehova’s Witnesses and old postcards.

  1. Wow! Looks like a magnificent place to visit! Beautiful pictures!

  2. Jake Scott

    Thanks Bob….really enjoyed reading that….

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