How sheep, seaweed and the shore in Ireland helped me bond with my father

Anchill Island is home to spectacular natural beauty – and plenty of sheep  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Anchill Island is home to spectacular natural beauty – and plenty of sheep (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Achill Island has many sheep. There are so many on this spit of land off the west coast of Ireland that they outnumber the island’s population of 2,345. Which might be why the man who fitted me and my dad for our hire bikes asked whether I spotted any sheep farmers at the pub the previous night.

“I don’t think so, why?” I asked.

“Would you like to be set up with any of them? Think about it: a simple life, quiet, by the ocean”, he said, as he fetched our helmets and high-vis jackets.

Tempting though the offer was, the only man for me on the trip was my father. Over lockdown, during our weekly-ish phone calls, Dad started telling me stories about holidays he took with his parents. It was the first I’d ever heard of these stories. He’s not one to talk much about his childhood. But lockdown made us all nostalgic, and I began to see a portrait of my father as a little boy in the back of the car, going to Achill Island one summer with his parents, while other summers saw him in his mother’s native Sligo with his cousins.

I realised we’d never travelled just the two of us. I remember one weekend when I was younger, my mother and sisters away, just us. It was very quiet. Only a few sentences passed between us; I’m certain they were about what to eat for dinner. Otherwise, it was just the tip of his head visible behind a newspaper, or else he was engrossed in some sports match. I just didn’t know how to communicate with my father, a man more fluent in sports and politics than books and art.

Aisling and her dad, with Golden Strand beach behind them (Aisling O’Leary)
Aisling and her dad, with Golden Strand beach behind them (Aisling O’Leary)

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With the sun high in the sky, we embarked on a trip, just the two of us. We set off from my granny’s in Dublin, our first port of call being Foxford Woolen Mills in Mayo, which Dad remembered from a trip with his parents. An hour and a half later we arrived into Achill Island, where tufted bogs gave way to an endless expanse of Atlantic Ocean framed by jagged cliffs. Dad drove us immediately to Keem Bay, the secluded horseshoe beach renowned in Ireland but made even more famous by the film The Banshees of Inisherin. Our B&B Teach Cruachan was not too far away in Dooagh; our view for breakfast the next day was unlimited blue.

Cycling around the island, the textured landscape thrilled, a combination of purples, browns and greens with pops of orange. At the base of Slievemore mountain in Dugort we visited the Deserted Village, around 100 houses abandoned when the Great Famine struck the island in 1845. The near mile of ruined dwellings haunts. JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World, came to mind, at which point Dad started telling me about his own involvement in theatre in his twenties, how he managed to get Brian Friel – another renowned Irish playwright – to send him an early draft of something he was working on for a magazine. That draft turned out to be the beginnings of the award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa.

The Deserted Village, at the slope of Slievemore (Getty Images)
The Deserted Village, at the slope of Slievemore (Getty Images)

And so the sea beckoned. Onwards to Silver Strand and Golden Strand, pausing at a gallery, Fox Press, full of beautiful art books and prints, followed by a lunch of mussels and smoked salmon at Masterson’s. Again, the importance of the sheep farmers loom. “They’re the ones who keep me in business during the winter months,” the owner told us, nodding his head over to the three men at the bar.

As late afternoon approached, we grew tired but knew a swim would invigorate. Into Keel Bay we went, a site I recognised from Paul Henry’s landscape paintings. Skin tingling, I spied our next activity.

“Wouldn’t it be great to get into that sauna now?’ I said to Dad, eyeing up the ‘portable sabhna’ in the distance, a wooden Hobbit barrel. As we sat and absorbed the heat, a memory came to mind, of how this man in front of me is very likely responsible for my love of swimming. I recalled a photo of me, aged three or four, in my first swimming pool, wearing a blue life jacket as Dad held me, having just led me around the water.

Seaside gem: Enniscrone beach shines (Aisling O’Leary)
Seaside gem: Enniscrone beach shines (Aisling O’Leary)

After paying one last visit to Keem Bay the next morning, we were Sligo-bound. Passing through Ballina, Killala, Belmullet, the roads bordered by flat brown made me wonder just how close to the sea we are. Then ample rewards as the dull shades gave way to green, followed by dramatic cliffs.

We stopped for lunch in Enniscrone, bodies slowly uncurling from the car ride while the beach winked at us. The town was busy with parents and children caught unawares by Ireland’s sudden last-minute shift into summer – “quick, get the summer stuff out” – so we decided to pay a visit to something else that this town is known for: its seaweed baths.

Dad enjoys wellness but does not seek it out – he is a classic sauna/steam only kind of man. But with four women in the family, he’s slowly come around to seeing the benefits of the wellness world (massages, mostly). This is not something I’d usually do with my dad but, knowing that these seaweed baths were so particular to the area, he agreed to do it – a unique experience that only he and I would share. And at just €30 (£26) for the hour, it was bargain wellness.

With each of us in separate rooms, we were slipping and sliding over piles of seaweed in massive tubs. After the hour was up, my dad gave his verdict: “That was quirky alright, definitely not one for pampered princesses.”

Ewe and me: Aisling with the animals that appeared throughout her trip (Aisling O’Leary)
Ewe and me: Aisling with the animals that appeared throughout her trip (Aisling O’Leary)

When we arrived in Sligo that evening, we met a cousin for a drink at Thomas Connolly’s, a place for a proper knees-up. As the two men who spent youthful summers together caught up, I could see that they shared more than just DNA. I realised that my Dad’s way of storytelling is not unique to him: the way he doesn’t quite look at you as he talks, slightly bent as his eyes search his story in the table, looking up from time to time to make sure he still has his audience.

The number of sheep on Achill Island is matched by the number hanging around Slieve League, the dramatic coastline recalling scenes in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. Driving onwards through Glencolmcille, Ardara and Rossbeg, we finally made it to An Tra Bhan in Malinbeg, a sandy beach you reach down stone steps. As we ran into waters lapping the curved bay, the initial bite gave way to a slow calm as we floated on our backs, a mutual silence and the the cliffs cocooning us. Donegal’s answer to Thailand’s Nui Bay, the coastal star of 2000 film The Beach, complete with sheep grazing on the ridges of green.

Travel essentials

Where to stay

Teach Cruachán has peaceful, airy rooms in Dooagh, Achill Island.

The Glasshouse has a contemporary feel and is right in the heart of Sligo town.

An Chuirt Hotel is perfect for those looking for an elegant and comfortable country hotel in Gweedore, Co. Donegal.

How to get there

Ryanair flies from Stansted Airport and London Gatwick to Shannon Airport from £32 return. Other airlines include Aer Lingus flying from London Heathrow to Shannon Airport from £103 return. Flight time is one hour and 30 minutes. Achill Island is approximately one hour and 45 minutes from Shannon Airport.

Read more: The best lesser-known European destinations for sun without the crowds