Achill Island

Samuel Gamble Bayne
Achill Island

I AM writing this from memory and without notes, so I may be pardoned for having forgotten to introduce in its proper place our trip to Achill Island, one of the most interesting of our experiences. I shall start by saying that we crossed over to the island at its nearest point to the main-land, and, taking our seats on a "long" public car which stood in readiness, we were pulled by two immense horses the thirteen miles to the village of Dugort at a steady pace that never "slacked up" for the entire distance. It rained, but the car was plentifully supplied with tarpaulins, which were strapped round us in artistic style, and so we arrived at the Slievemore Hotel dry but benumbed. "Mine host" of the Slievemore, one Captain Sheridan, is perhaps the best-known Boniface in the west of Ireland. The iridescent splendor of his imagination, his contempt for detail, and his facility in escaping when cornered, place him on a plinth so high that, compared with him, Baron Munchausen would seem to be a practical monument of truth and accuracy; indeed, the Baron is his only rival in all the years that have gone to make up history. He greeted us with: "I saw you coming; knew by your looks you were the real thing, and wired for a ten-pound salmon."

The Fishery, Achill Island

The Fishery, Achill Island, Slievemore in the Distance

We were stiff and cold after the wet drive, and asked for a nip of Irish whiskey. "Bad luck to it, anyhow, I haven't a drop in the house, but my team is hauling a cask of 'Power's Best' from the mainland. But I have 'Scotch,' boys, as is 'Scotch'; not a headache in a hogshead of it!" So we had the substitute, and, upon our asking its age, he started in rather modestly at "five," and when we gave him a drink quickly raised it to " ten year old." Before the evening was over, he told us, in a confidential whisper, that the prime-minister had been his guest some time before and had pronounced it "twenty," so he did not know how old it really was—we must be the judges. He had a collection of stuffed birds and horns, and upon being asked what he would take for a pair of ram's horns, he exclaimed: "'Tis simply priceless they are! 'Twould cost you a thousand pounds to fit out an expedition to get them, and besides you would have to get permission from the Grand Llama of Thibet, for 'tis only in his dominions that these rare animals are found; but still, I have too many horns, and I'll let you have the pair for forty guineas, packed up and ready for the steamer."

He admitted that he was a first cousin of Phil Sheridan's. "They try to make out that Phil wasn't an Irishman, that he was born half-way over, but I tell you the true facts are that he was born before he started," was the way he conclusively settled General Sheridan's nationality.

Guests "move on" at the approach of rain in Irish hotels, so our genial host would pass from room to room if it threatened rain, calling out to an imaginary guest, "'Twill be a lovely day to-morrow." Pressed to divulge his sentiments on the landlord-and-tenant question, and not knowing how we stood, he said: "I'm for 'give and take'; the tenant to give what he thinks fair, and the landlord to take it or leave it"

He had a supreme contempt for rival attractions, and said that the Dunfanaghy puffins were corn-fed and the seals were chained to the bottom to attract visitors. He had a comic-opera, smuggler, weather predictor, and long-distance-sea-serpent man who turned up every morning and mingled with the guests. He dressed the part to perfection, á lá Dick Deadeye, and would tell how many whales and seals he had seen in the bay at daybreak. As for the weather, with him it was always assured; if it rained while he was talking, he would belittle it by saying, "Sure, 'tis but a little bit of a shower; 'twon't last ten minutes"; then he would pilot a schooner over the bar and disappear.

But, after all, our host Sheridan was a kindly, good-natured fellow and very accommodating; he had told his tales so often that he really believed them, and was not so much to blame as one would think at first sight. His wife was a most capable manager, and largely made up for his shortcomings in the fulfilment of promises. Cead Mille Failthe (a hundred thousand welcomes) was emblazoned on a large crescent over the door.

The place was well supplied with pets—cats, dogs, and a tame crow making up the family. The house has four pairs of stairs leading from the hall vestibule; there is a high mountain close to its rear and another right in front of it, with the Atlantic to the west; so that it must be described as a picturesque establishment in every detail. The weather became foggy, and we were about to leave without trying to see anything, when the sun suddenly broke through the clouds and we changed the programme by remaining.

Achill Island is fifteen miles long by twelve miles wide; it is bounded by Blacksod Bay on the north and by Clew Bay on the south. There is a small grocery store on the west side of the island which is said to be the nearest saloon to America, and proud is the owner of this distinction. The people lead a very peculiar life. The latitude is high, and consequently in the dead of winter the day is very short, and they cannot fish in the stormy waters surrounding the island. They save enough money in summer to carry them through the winter months, and amuse themselves during the long nights by dancing. Every community has its fiddler, and it is his business to provide a house with a large room in which the dances can be held. Each family furnishes the supper in turn, and all "pay the fiddler." One would suppose that whiskey would play the leading part in such entertainments; and up to the latter part of the last century it did, but it is now entirely absent. Long experience taught the participants that if peaceful family parties were to be indulged in, the "mountain dew" must be an absentee; so they took to Guinness's stout, and the piles of "empties," everywhere to be seen, show clearly that the Guinness shares are a valuable investment. This dancing is carried on in most of the northwestern counties, where the winter days are short. The "balls" end at about 3 A.M., and the dancers sleep till eleven the next morning.

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On an Irish jaunting Car through Donegal and Connemara

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Samuel Gamble Bayne was born in Ramelton, County Donegal, and educated at Queen's University in Belfast. At the age of twenty-five he left for America with a view to making his fortune. He invested in an oil well in Pennsylvania and later founded a bank which subsequently came to be the JP Morgan Chase bank in New York. By the time this book was written he was wealthy enough to be referred to as a billionaire. His account of the tour through the north, west and south of Ireland is a pleasant snapshot of how that part of the country was in the early part of the 20th century. He describes what is to be seen, gives some background history and, through the illustrations especially, provides wonderful glimpses of the area's social history.

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