Achill Island in Context
The Civil Parish of Achill (Achill Island, Achillbeg Island and the Corraun Peninsula) is widely known for its beauty, majestic cliffs and mountains, and its historic landscape dotted with archaeological monuments. Achill Civil Parish has a rich archaeological heritage that spans the entire spectrum of Irish history from the remote prehistoric Neolithic period to the nineteenth century.
Achill Civil Parish in County Mayo is a particularly important in Irish archaeology for a number of reasons. The first antiquarian to visit the historic sites on Achill was William Wood Martin who toured the island recording monuments in the 1880s. Following Wood Martin, the list of archaeologists that have worked on or written about the island reads like a veritable who's who of Irish Archaeology, and the list even includes several notable names from Britain. William Borlase reanalysed Wood Martin’s work on the Achill megaliths at the end of the nineteenth century, whilst Thomas Westropp visited the sites in 1910. The archaeologist Michael J. O'Kelly worked on Achill in 1942, undertaking a range of projects, and Stuart Piggott and Terrence Powell resurveyed the Achill megaliths in 1946, and investigated a number of the unusual post-medieval sites on the island. Ruaidhrí de Valéra and Seán Ó Nualláin prepared detailed surveys of the Achill megaliths in 1949 as a practice run for methodology to be used during the monumental Megalithic Survey of Ireland, a project of such magnificent scope that work is still ongoing today! In 1991, local resident Theresa McDonald, established the Achill Archaeological Field School in order to continue investigating the archaeology of the island and since then such well-known names as Audrey Horning, Nick Brannon, Eoin Halpin, Richard O’Brien, Rory Sherlock and Chris Caseldine have been involved in recording and excavating various archaeological sites on the island.
So why has Achill drawn so much interest over the years? It seems that what is truly special about the archaeology on Achill is not any one particular site, but the totality of the archaeology in Achill, Achillbeg Island and Corraun. Whilst all archaeologists appreciate the really spectacular examples of different monument classes, much of the appeal of archaeology lies in studying the everyday lives of our predecessors, and it is here that Achill truly excels. The Neolithic tombs on Achill are fine examples of the type of smaller megalithic structures that would have been by far and away the more common elements of the megalithic landscape in Ireland. From the Bronze Age there are stone-built roundhouses sited in a vast stone-walled field system on Slievemore Mountain. Two of these buildings were excavated by Achill Archaeological Field School and were found to be among the best preserved examples of the many hundreds of such domestic structures known from Ireland in this period. Whilst Iron Age sites are curiously rare in Ireland there are numerous promontory forts on Achill that are thought to date to this period, and Dun Kilmore on Achillbeg is thought to enclose the largest area of any such site in Ireland.
Early medieval sites are represented by numerous small ecclesiastical sites, but typically these have been obscured by later church buildings and graveyards. However a kiln complex excavated on Slievemore Mountain by Achill Archaeological Field School was found to indicate industrial activity of a totally unexpected size and complexity for rural western Ireland, and the surviving stone buildings were utterly beguiling.
It is suspected that much of the medieval occupation of the island is obscured by later settlement but a fine fifteenth century tower house stands at Kildavnet, close to the southern tip of the island. The tower itself is in excellent condition but its bawn, the defended enclosure in which the tower would have stood was demolished sometime in the nineteenth century. The site was one of the many residences of Grace O'Malley, the famous and much romanticised Pirate Queen of Clew Bay who sailed to London for a meeting with Elizabeth I, and this certainly provided an interesting back drop to Achill Archaeological Field School’s successful excavations that revealed the surviving foundations of the bawn wall.
The post-medieval archaeology of Achill is by far the most common feature of the landscape and with its curious blend of archaic features it is endlessly fascinating. Achill Civil Parish is literally covered in ruined vernacular cottages, a legacy of the depopulation through the great Irish famine and emigration that began in the early nineteenth century and continued well into the twentieth century. The largest abandoned settlement is the Deserted Village on Slievemore where 74 buildings out of an original 137 still stand in silent testimony. Three of the buildings within the Deserted Village have been excavated by Achill Archaeological Field School and many more have been recorded in fine detail. Other elements of the village such as the garden plots and the roadway have also been excavated. Finds from the excavations include a remarkable ceramic assemblage of colourful imported pottery, quite at odds with the standard images of nineteenth century rural life in Ireland. Transhumant farming, where people moved to remote pastures during the summer months to tend their cattle, was practiced on Achill until the early years of the twentieth century and the summer settlements on Achill, known as 'Booley Villages', are again among the best surviving examples of this type of archaeological site in Ireland. Achill Archaeological Field School has undertaken various projects to investigate this common but seldom discussed farming practice, including extremely detailed surveys and a small scale excavation at one site, and indeed the founder of the Field School, Theresa McDonald, recently completed her Ph.D. at the National University of Ireland, Galway on the subject of transhumance in Achill Civil Parish. Other highlights of the dense post-medieval archaeological landscape include a Napoleonic era signal tower, numerous coast guard stations, the archaic looking 'curacy pens' for storing the small traditional boats that are still in regular use around the island, an early 20th century look-out post and numerous shipwreck sites.
Achill Island, Achillbeg Island and the Corraun peninsula may be a small part of County Mayo and may lie in a remote corner of the west of Ireland, but the density of high quality archaeological sites representative of almost every period of Irish history and prehistory means it is a fascinating place to work and to study. Every season of surveying and excavation by the archaeologists employed by Achill Archaeological Field School, assisted by an international group of undergraduate and graduate students, continues to reveal new surprises about the archaeology of the Civil Parish of Achill and the scale and complexity of the sites continue to surpass all of our expectations.
McDonald, T. 1998. ‘The Deserted Village, Slievemore, Achill Island, County Mayo. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 2:2.
McDonald, T. 2006. Achill Island. Archaeology – History – Folklore.
Rathbone, S. and McDonald, T. 2009. Achill Island: Irish Archaeology from the Neolithic to the Great Famine. Current Archaeology, 235.
Rathbone, S. 2011. The Slievemore Roundhouses. Archaeology Ireland, 25:1