The west of Ireland has got to be one of the most beautiful places on earth and the county of Mayo in particular is absolutely splendid. I am lucky enough to have family located in this beautiful part of the world and in my youth, we would visit maybe three times a year including a long summer break. The area we saw the most of was around the town of Ballina, the home of the famous River Moy, one of Jack Charlton's favourite haunts. It was also home to the former President, Mary Robinson. Ballina is a good place to shop and there are plenty of things to do in the surrounding area. As you move down the coast you come to the little village of Killala which is where the French armies landed in August 1798 to fight the British in a story immortalised in the book "Year of the French" with a film of the same title, filmed on location in Killala. The village whilst only small boasts two large churches and a round tower dating from the twelfth century. The quay at Killala is nice for a dusk time stroll and just down the road is a terrific beach in the area called Ross. This is a beautiful, largely undiscovered, area of Ireland and you really can feel as though you are the only people around (great for your inner karma). Further on down the coast is the archaeological site of Ceide Fields (pronounced cager) which contains one of the oldest field systems in the world. Using various dating methods, it was discovered that the creation and development of the Céide Fields goes back some five thousand years. This dates them before the building of the pyramids and Stonehenge. It does not sound the most exciting day out I will grant you but it is worth seeing if you have an interest in history. Finally, one of the most amazing sites along this coast is at Downpatrick Head, where a spectacular tower of rock stands in the sea having broken away from the mainland. The Atlantic has gouged huge holes in the cliff side leading to fantastic displays of sea spray on particularly wild days. The area is largely fenced off today for extra safety but you can still get the feel of the place and stand in awe at natures power. The county of Mayo is absolutely breathtaking and I have not even mentioned the best bit. The people of Ireland are the friendliest in the world in my experience, always ready for a chat and to help in any way possible. If you have never been to Ireland, you are missing a rare treat and if you have never been to the West especially, don't forget your camera to capture the beauty of "God's own garden".
You see Achill Island long before you arrive. Anticipation builds, as the spectacular peak of its largest mountain, Slievemore, comes into view, looming over the 365 islands of Clew Bay. Get ready to be surprised. This ruggedly beautiful outpost off the West Coast of Co. Mayo is the sort of place that confounds expectations. What you actually get is infinitely more interesting. Since I was 'no age', I've been visiting Achill. One summer my family spent a month in Dugort, one of Achill's minuscule villages that manages to stretch out for at least a mile. We expected a tiny island you could explore in an hour and plenty of long days in the sea. The long days turned out to be short dips in the bone-aching chill of the water, but the 'small' island offered enough to keep everyone hiking, fishing and pubbing for a good month. No balmy seas that particular year, but we did find amazing, absolutely empty, stunning beaches; mountains that abruptly end as cliffs; pre-famine ghost villages in the middle of nowhere and deserted handball courts in the most remote spots. All these spots have stories to tell, especially the abandoned amethyst workings tucked away in the side of a mountain. High above Keel Strand, a turquoise jewel you can only reach via a hair-raising cliff road, you can still scavenge among the rubble for glints of purple. For my mother, the best surprise of all was the free fish from the fishermen at the local jetty. This was in the days when delicacies like mackerel and crab were not desirable catches, so she'd regularly arrive back with a dripping treasure. Her most memorable haul was a 6-foot conger eel, fat, black and slippery with a pronounced bulge halfway down the middle. The mystery bulge was a freshly swallowed mackerel - two fish for the price of one! By the way, I would not recommend boiled sea-serpent-sized eel, unless you like cotton wool. Who was to know that an even meatier surprise awaited me on my most recent visit to Achill? For golfers, the view is as much part of the enjoyment as the game itself, so when we were recommended Keel Golf Course with its breathtaking backdrop of the cliffs of Minaun, we made a beeline for it. The view was just as promised; sea, cliffs and mountains, and of course the extra bonus of a few dozen sheep because Keel Golf Course does double up as a sheep pasture. In return for good grazing, the sheep keep the course well-clipped and fertilised. Perhaps too well fertilised. The clubhouse was another eye-opener, a bottom of the range mobile set in a fenced enclosure. Access was strictly by gate only, which the locals warned us to shut firmly and quickly. Anytime the gate was opened, several of the less sheepish sheep would make a break for the clubhouse. As we walked down the path away from the clubhouse, I could hear someone shouting: "Who left the gate open? The sheep are at the clubhouse again!", it wasn't me, honest. Today, Achill, with its wild landscape and lively pub life is a popular destination for continentals, trekkers and water sports enthusiasts. But religious pilgrims have also joined this cosmopolitan mix. Yes, within the past few years, Achill has added religious apparitions to its many unpredictable charms. A resident of Achill Sound, the Island's main town, developed stigmata bleeding in the same places on the wrists and feet where Jesus was nailed to the cross. In no time, coachloads of the faithful were pulling up at her home, now called the House of Prayer. Knowing Achill, as I do, I'd be surprised if miracles didn't happen. Although a causeway joins Achill to the rest of the world, and the island no longer feels as remote as it did 30 years ago, Achill remains a place apart. Perhaps it's the attitude of the place. Or perhaps it's sheer eccentricity that ensures Achill continues to surprise with every visit. Which reminds me, it 's been two years!