The Deserted Village of Achill Island

I was lost. Fog had rolled into Achill Island, obscuring any familiar landmarks that may have helped guide me back to Achill Sound and the bridge to the mainland. I’d lost cellphone signal and couldn’t use GPS. There were no County Mayo maps in the rental car either. I had this sense that maybe I’d passed from one life to the next, and my fate was to drive aimlessly around the island for all eternity. It was at this point, when I’d resolved myself to an afterlife of driving in circles, that I saw a sign pointing to a Deserted Village. Sounds like the opening scene in a horror movie, doesn’t it?

Well, I had seen The Deserted Village on maps and knew it was to the north of the island, and this helped reorient me. So, with a few hours of daylight remaining, I decided to explore it. At first I couldn’t pick out the village on southern slope of Slievemore Mountain, but as I drew near, rows of crumbling stone cottages became visible.

Achill Island Deserted Village

When driving around County Mayo, the ruins of Famine-era cottages can be seen dotting the hillsides. They blend into sloping pasture lands and are easy to miss and impossible to get to because they’re on private property or off dangerous roads. Needless to say, I was thrilled to finally find some that were accessible and to examine them up close through the lens of my camera. Nearly 100 cottages stand in various levels of decay along the base of the mountain, stretching out across a quiet mile.

After parking next to a modern cemetery, I walked up a gravel road that wended through time. A village full of ghosts rose before me, and I stood there, unsettled, to be the only living soul. Normally, I liked exploring attractions on my own, but on this occasion, I wouldn’t have minded another tourist or two… The fog didn’t help matters. It was a damp blanket over my head and shoulders, so I decided not go very far on the cold that day (I returned a few days later in the sunshine). When I left the road to explore the first set of ruins, the spongy ground soaked my shoes almost immediately.

The terrain was uneven due to falling stones and also because of the lazy-bed fields, systems that redirect rainwater coursing downhill into deep furrows that—at one time—separated potato beds. Some of the furrows were too wide to jump across, and I had return to the path to climb up another section of the village.

As I wandered from one cottage to the next, I tried to imagine what life would have been like 150 years ago—peat fire smoke hanging in the air, sheep bleating, children running barefoot through the hills while their fathers gathered the potato crop and mothers tended the kitchens. To walk through The Deserted Village is to fall into the past, to commune with yesterday’s ghosts and to think about how, from one generation to the next, our basic needs always stay the same: food and water, shelter, love. A sense of purpose.

I came to the conclusion that there are those destined to circle Achill Island for eternity, and they occupy Slievemore Mountain. Why not visit Achill Island and see them (the cottages or the ghosts…) for yourself? Just cache your Google map before heading out. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a pair of Wellies!





Achill Island Deserted Village 2

Achill Island Deserted Village 3


I am the Falconer

Last October, my sister Carole and I visited Ireland’s School of Falconry for an afternoon. I had been looking for a unique Irish experience, something Carole could go home and tell her children about, and this seemed perfect. Lilly (7) would love the pictures of a castle and Isaac (9) would be interested in the birds. Plus, having grown up in the farmlands of Minnesota, there’s nothing so dramatic as driving up to a place like Ashford Castle with its guarded front gate and perfectly manicured grounds.  You feel like you’ve been dropped into the middle of a fairytale.

Ashford Caste
photo credit:

School of Falconry sign

Located within the forested acres surrounding the castle, the school is enclosed by an ivy-covered stone wall, and its massive wood doors are like an entrance to another world. I half expected Dumbledore to open them instead of a young woman in a green pullover. The woman led us inside and to a weathering yard, where a dozen Harris hawks perched behind screens. Within minutes of arriving we were introduced to our instructor, who selected our bird for the private, hour-long Hawk Walk.

There was a long list of names on a board inside, and I really wanted Uisce because that’s the name of my favorite bar back home. However, Uisce wasn’t at a good flying weight that day, and hawks will only cooperate at this magical number. A few ounces over and they won’t be hungry enough to fly; the meat you are offering as a reward won’t interest them. A few ounces under and they may fly off and find something still alive to be hunted and preyed upon.

My memory being what it is, I can no longer recall the name of our hawk. I’ll call it Killary, as she seems to be popular among the other travel photographers who visited Ireland’s School of Falconry around the same time period, although I know it was a name more Irish and unpronounceable than that (probably Siobhan, Aoife, or Naimh).

Instructor with Harris Hawk

I let Carole have the first go so I could take pictures. Neither of us were nervous about handling Killary. I don’t even remember being worried about if the talons would hurt or if she would land anywhere other than the glove. Mostly, we were excited to try something new.

Strips of leather were threaded through a ring around Killary’s legs. Carole held them to secure the hawk while we walked outside the gates and into the woods. To release Killary, Carole simply uncurled her fingers from around the jesses. She was a complete natural.Carole and Harris HawkHarris Hawk on glove

We walked through the grounds at a leisurely pace, and Killary flew from tree to tree, jingling the bells on her feet and giving away her position. Whenever Carole or I wanted her to land, we held up our gloved arm and Killary swooped down, taking the meat from our hands. I didn’t feel a thing, except for her weight and her strength as she gripped the glove. How could I not be in awe? There was something very alert, intelligent and even a little sly behind those eyes.

School of Falconry Hawk WalkHarris Hawk in Tree

Hawks are impressive birds. Their eyesight is eight times better than humans, and unlike many animals, they see in color. During a hunt, they can dive at 150 miles per hour to catch their prey. That doesn’t bode well for a little field mouse, scurrying home at only 8 mph.

Harris Hawk taking offHarris Hawk Landing

Some people believe there is a bond between bird and falconer, and maybe that’s true. I think it’s simply operant conditioning. The hawk trusts the falconer for food and shelter and the falconer trusts that the hawk will fly back. Our instructor said that if a falconer calls the bird without a reward (meat), soon the bird will quit returning.Harris Hawk in Cage

The school also keeps an owl named Dingle and Peregrine falcons, formidable hunters that dive after prey at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. These beautiful creatures are worth a visit for anyone traveling through the village of Cong or staying at Ashford Castle. You can call yourself a Falconer!