The Achill Walks Festival on Achill Island, Co Mayo, is one of the earliest dates in the Irish walking calendar. Launched in 2002, it is also one of Ireland’s newest walking festivals. Scheduled around St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), this year’s event offered a long weekend with two guided walks and the option of a third day of either self-guide walks or to join in with the tradition of following local pipe bands on their St. Patrick’s Day parades from village to village.

The Festival began on a Friday evening with reception drinks and a welcome from the lead guide, Tomás Mac Lochlainn. Participants had travelled from all over Ireland, braving Bank Holiday traffic on routes from Dublin, Cork, Co. Antrim and a few more in between. This informal reception allowed people to meet their follow walkers and start to relax into the weekend. For some, returning after the previous year’s inaugural event, it was a chance to renew acquaintance with Tomás and the other guides.

The reception provided an opportunity, too, to compare accommodation with other walkers. Achill Island has a thriving tourism industry that offers plenty of options for hillwalkers, particularly for an early season event in March. There are numerous hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfast establishments and hostels located across the island. Two main centres of accommodation are Achill Sound, located by the bridge that connects Achill to the mainland, and Keel, a picturesque village overlooking the 3km long Trawmore strand and spectacular cliffs of Minaun.

The first walk of the festival was an ‘Atlantic Ramble’ beginning in Derreens on the south-east coast of Achill Island. After a safety talk from Tomás and introductions to the three other guides, a party of 48 walkers set off in fine weather and with a surprise escort. A group of local pipers, enjoying some last minute practice ahead of Monday’s St. Patrick’s Day parades, led the group off for the first few minutes of the walk.

With the sound of the pipers following in the wind, the walkers ascended to a hillside quarry to survey the immediate area. Derreens lies on the shores of Achill Sound, the channel of Atlantic water that separates Achill Island from the Curraun Peninsula and mainland Co. Mayo. At low tide this channel, which connects Clew Bay in the south with Blacksod Bay to the north, betrays evidence of former sea farming cultivation on sandbanks and along its shores. The village of Achill Sound, and the swing bridge that connects Achill to the mainland, lies about 3km north while directly across from Derreens is Curraun Hill (524m). Along the shore to the south lies Kildavnet with its ancient church and cemetery. These provided the first points of interest for the walk.

Kildavnet church is thought to date from the Early Christian period, as evidenced by its east-west orientation, plain rectangular shape and the design of the doorway. Successive restorations have made it difficult to put a more precise date to this site. The adjacent graveyard contains a number of crude stone crosses thought to date from Early Medieval times. This graveyard also contains monuments to two of Achill’s greatest tragedies – the Clew Bay Drowning of 1894 and the Kirkintilloch Fire of 1937. According to legend, Brian Rua Ó Cearbháin of Erris prophesied that “carriages on iron wheels” would carry bodies into Achill on both their first and their last journeys. When the railway extension from Westport to Achill was completed in 1894, its first journey was to carry the bodies of 32 young people from Achill who had drowned in Clew Bay on the first leg of a journey to Scotland to work as potato pickers (‘tatie hoking’). The railway line was closed in the 1930s but was used one last time in 1937 to carry the bodies of ten young Achill people who had perished in a fire in a barn (‘bothy’) while potato picking in Scotland.

A short distance along the shore from the church and graveyard is Kildavnet Tower. This building is known locally as Grace O’Malley’s Castle after Gráinne Uaile (1530-1603) the legendary Pirate Queen. The Tower itself was probably built some 100 years before her birth and is a classic example of an Irish Tower House. Three storeys high, it features projecting buttresses along the top to allow its defenders to drop missiles directly onto any attackers below. Gráinne Uaile used this stronghold, and similar fortresses on Clare Island and other locations around Clew Bay, to control the waters off the Mayo coast. The strategic importance of the Kildavnet site is underlined by the fact that today the Achill Lifeboat is moored alongside the Tower.

From Kildavnet the walk continued south before rounding a bend at Cloughmore and on to Achill’s ‘Atlantic Drive’. This spectacular route follows Achill’s southwestern Atlantic coastline and offers some breath-taking cliff scenery. It also provides numerous points of interest and evidence of former habitation, from the ruined stone cottages and dry stone walls on the hills to the north and their overgrown ‘lazy bed’ fields, to sites of promontory forts and other features along the shore. One such feature is Killeenabausty (Cillín na bPáistí), a secluded cliff area with an undulating grassy surface. This area was used, until the mid-20th century, as a burial ground for unbaptised infants.

The walk followed this Atlantic coastline for about 4km, as far as Ashleam Bay. From here it turned inland towards the higher, rocky ground known as Ceathrú Garbh, which translates as ‘the rough quarter’ on account of its hilly terrain with rocky outcrops. From the highest point of this area, Derreens Hill (286m), it is possible to view the whole panorama of Achill Sound, with Blacksod Bay in the north, Curraun to the east and Clew Bay and Clare Island to the south. Returning via Derreens Hill, the walkers were welcomed back with soup and sandwiches at Johnny Patten’s pub.

If Saturday’s walk had been more informative and historical in nature, Sunday was to provide a sterner physical challenge. At 672m, Slievemore is Achill’s second highest peak. The walk set off in glorious – if somewhat hazy – sunshine from the beach at Dugort on Achill’s northern shore. Ascending via a ridge along Slievemore’s northeastern elevation, it was only a matter of minutes before the walkers had spectacular views across Dugort’s beaches (the Silver Strand and the Golden Strand) and inland to the north Mayo coast. Underfoot things were less attractive though; the heather that covers most of the slopes of Slievemore also masks potholes, and along parts of the northeastern ridge of the mountain these can be treacherous. Suitably warned to the danger of these by Tomás, the walk proceeded carefully to the summit. On a clear day the views from Slievemore are spectacular. To the south these extend beyond Clare Island to the islands of Inishturk, Inishbofin and Inishark, and inland to Croagh Patrick and the Twelve Pins. To the east is the Nephin Beg range, and to the north Blacksod Bay and the Belmullet Peninsula. Unfortunately for this walk, the heat haze obscured most of these features.

Proceeding from the summit of Slievemore in a westerly direction, the walk descended the mountain with a magnificent view of Croaghaun, Achill’s highest peak, and Saddle Head, which protrudes northwards from the foot of Croaghaun. Nestled on the southern slopes of Slievemore is the Deserted Village of the same name, a ribbon settlement of over 80 dwellings extending over 1km in length. While the present stone cottages date from the 18th century, the area around this village is rich in archaeological significance. Artefacts from the area have been dated to the 6th century, while a group of megalithic tombs nearby date from the Neolithic period some 5000 years ago.

From the Deserted Village the walk followed roads along the foot of Slievemore, heading eastwards back towards Dugort. An alternative, slower, route would be to return via the southern slopes of the mountain itself, exploring the megalithic tombs en route. Back at Dugort, a reception was waiting with soup, sandwiches, and certificates from Achill Tourism, organisers of the Achill Walks Festival.

The third day of the Festival, St. Patrick’s Day, is a highly anticipated date in the Achill calendar. Many of the villages on the island have pipe bands, and traditionally these bands march between villages on St. Patrick’s Day. For the really committed, this begins with reveille at 6am and continues until dusk. For many of the Festival participants this offers the opportunity of a good long walk, the entertainment of the bands, and the freedom to drop out at any hostelry that appeals. Next year St. Patrick’s Day will fall on a Wednesday, offering the intriguing possibility of a four-day Walks Festival on Achill. Judging from the positive comments of this year’s participants, many will be watching the Achill Tourism web site closely for news of this event, as booking in advance is highly recommended.