A Brief History of Achill

Achill has a long history of human settlement and there is evidence that Achill was inhabited as many as 5,000 years ago. Megalithic tombs and promontory forts testifying to this can be seen at Slievemore, along the Atlantic Drive and on Achill Beg Island.


Kildamhnait on the south east coast of Achill is named after St. Damhnait, or Dymphna, who founded a church there in the 16th century. There is also a holy well just outside the graveyard. The present church was built in the 1700’s and the graveyard contains memorials to the victims of two of Achill’s greatest tragedies, the Kirchintilloch Fire (1937) and the Clew Bay Drowning (1894).

Grace O’Malley’s Castle

Kildamhnait Castle is a 15th century tower house associated with the O’ Malley Clan, who were once a ruling family of Achill. Grace O’ Malley, or Granuaile, the most famous of the O’ Malley’s was born in Clare Island around 1530. Her father was the chieftain of the barony of Murrisk. The O’Malleys were a powerful sea faring 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 met with Queen Elizabeth 1 in 1593. She died around 1603 and is buried in the O’Malley family tomb on Clare Island.

Achill Mission (‘The Colony’)

One of Achill’s most famous historical sites is that of the Achill Mission or ‘the Colony’ at Dugort. In 1831 the Protestant Reverend Edward Nangle founded a proselytising mission at Dugort. The Mission included schools, cottages, an orphanage, a small hospital and a hotel (the former Slievemore Hotel). The ‘Colony’ was very successful for a time and regularly produced a newspaper called the ‘Achill Missionary Herald’. The Reverend Nangle expanded his mission into Mweelin, where a ‘school’ was built. The Achill Mission began to decline slowly after Nangle was moved from Achill and was finally closed in the 1880’s. Edward Nangle died in 1883.

Railway Line to Achill

In 1894, the Westport – Newport railway line was extended to Achill Sound by the Great Western Rail Company. The train provided a great service to Achill, but it also fulfilled an ancient prophecy. Brian Rua O’ Cearbhain, a prophet from Erris who lived in the 17th Century – long before trains had been invented – had prophesied that ‘fire carts on iron wheels’ would carry bodies into Achill on their first and last journey. In 1894, the first train on the Achill railway carried the bodies of victims of the Clew Bay Drowning. This tragedy occurred when a boat overturned in Clew Bay, drowning thirty two young Achill people. They had been going to meet the steamer which would take them to Scotland for potato picking.

Although the train line was closed in early 1937, The Kirkintilloch Burning Disaster in September 1937 fulfilled the second part of the prophecy, when the bodies of ten victims were carried by rail to Achill. These people had died in a fire in a ‘bothy’. This term referred to the temporary accommodation provided for those who went to Scotland to pick potatoes. It was very common for young people from Achill to spend their summers work in Scotland.

The Monastery

In 1852, Dr. John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam set aside land in Bunnacurry for the building of a monastery. A Franciscan Monastery was built which, for many years provided an education for local children. The ruins of this monastery are still to be seen in Bunnacurry today.

Valley House

The historic Valley House is located in The Valley, near Dugort in the north-east of Achill Island. The present building sits on the site of a hunting lodge built by the Earl of Cavan in the 19th century. Its notoriety arises from an incident in 1894 in which the then owner, an English landlady named Agnes McDonnell, was savagely beaten and the house set alight, allegedly by a local man, James Lynchehaun. Lynchehaun had been employed by McDonnell as her land agent, but the two fell out and he was sacked and told to quit his accommodation on her estate. A lengthy legal battle ensued, with Lynchehaun refusing to leave. At the time, in the 1890s, the issue of land ownership in Ireland was politically charged, and after the events at the Valley House in 1894 Lynchehaun was to claim that his actions were motivated by politics. He escaped custody and fled to the United States, where he successfully defeated legal attempts by the British authorities to have him extradited to face charges arising from the attack and the burning of the Valley House. Agnes McDonnell suffered terrible injuries from the attack but survived and lived for another 23 years, dying in 1923. Lynchehaun is said to have returned to Achill on two occasions, once in disguise as an American tourist, and eventually died in Girvan, Scotland, in 1937. The Valley House is now a hostel, bar and restaurant offering accommodation, food, language courses and a woodland faerie trail. Click here for a full history of the Valley House.

The Deserted Village (Slievemore)

Close to Dugort, at the base of Slievemore mountain lies the Deserted Village. There are approximately 80 ruined houses in the village. The houses were built of unmortared stone, which means that no cement or mortar was used to hold the stones together. Each house consisted of just one room and this room was used as kitchen, living room, bedroom and even stable.
If one looks at the fields around the Deserted Village and right up the mountain, one can see the tracks in the fields of ‘lazy beds’, which is the way crops like potatoes were grown. In Achill, as in many areas of Ireland, a system called ‘Rundale’ was used for farming. This meant that the land around a village was rented from a landlord. This land was then shared by all the villagers to graze their cattle and sheep. Each family would then have two or three small pieces of land scattered about the village, which they used to grow crops.
For many years people lived in the village until 1845, when the Great Famine struck Achill, as it did in the rest of Ireland. Most of the families moved to the nearby village of Dooagh, which is beside the sea, while some others emigrated. Living beside the sea meant that fish and shellfish could be used for food. The village was completely abandoned which is where the name ‘Deserted Village’ came from.
No one has permanently occupied these houses since the time of the Famine, however the families that moved to Dooagh and their descendants, continued to use the village as a ‘booley village’. This means that during the summer season, the younger members of the family, teenage boys and girls, would take the cattle to graze on the hillside and they would stay in the houses of the Deserted Village. This custom continued until the 1940’s. Boolying was also carried out in other areas of Achill, including Annagh on Croaghaun Mountain and in Curraun.
At Ailt, Kildownet, you can see the remains of a similar deserted village. This village was deserted in 1855 when the tenants were evicted by the local landlord so the land could be used for cattle grazing. Some of the tenants were forced to rent holdings in Currane, Dooega and Slievemore, while others emigrated to America.

Some Notable Historical Figures

Grace O’Malley

Grace O’ Malley, or Granuaile, was born in Clare Island around 1530, the daughter of the chieftain of the barony of Murrisk. The O’ Malley’s were a powerful sea-faring 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. In 1593, Grace met with Queen Elizabeth I and after discussions, Grace was allowed to continue her exploits in Connaught. Grace died around 1603, and was buried in the O’ Malley family tomb on Clare Island.

James Lynchehaun

James Lynchehaun was born in Polranny, Achill Sound around 1858. Lynchehaun is the main character of James Carney’s book ‘The Playboy and the Yellow Lady’ and the inspiration for J. M. Synge’s play ‘The Playboy of the Western World’. Lynchehaun was a known trickster, but his fame arose from his association with local landowner Mrs. Agnes McDonnell. He was appointed land agent for Mrs. McDonnell, however after some disputes Lynchehaun was discharged. In 1894, Lynchehaun allegedly set fire to Mrs. McDonnell’s house in the Valley. The house was burned to the ground and the lady was seriously injured. In a subsequent trial, Lynchehaun was found guilty and sent to prison, but escaped to America. In 1903 he was arrested in America but efforts to extradite him failed and he later returned to England. Lynchehaun died in Scotland in 1937.

Capt. Boycott

Captain Charles Boycott first came to Achill around 1857. He leased land at Keem Bay and built a house there, however he moved to Corrymore House when his residence at Keem was burned down. Boycott is alleged to have been a cruel landlord and his departure to Ballinrobe in 1877 was not regretted by local people. It was in Ballinrobe that Boycott encountered Michael Davitt and the Land League. His name was added to the English language (boycott – to shun) when local tenants refused to work for him, in protest at his harsh and cruel tactics.

Eva O’Flaherty

Born into a wealthy Galway family in the late 19th century, Eva O’Flaherty trained as a milliner and practised her craft in Paris and London before deciding to relocate to Achill Island. In 1910 she was a founder member of Scoil Acla, a summer school set up to promote Irish music, language and culture. A couple of years later she established the St. Colman’s knitting industry in the village of Dooagh, an enterprise which she maintained until her death in 1963 and which, at its height, employed about 30 women and produced knitted high fashion garments which were sold in upscale department stores in Dublin and exported worldwide.