This week I’ve had a number of interesting conversations with Achill Tourism Director Chris McCarthy. He has been our primary contact on the island and chief curator, introducing us to people who know the island and it’s stories well, people engaged with folklore collection and preservation, and local heritage. One of the most refreshing aspects of being here is that everyone “gets” folklore. No need to explain, defend or justify. Achill residents know what folklore is and they understand why it’s important to their past and future.
On Saturday, January 4, we met with Vincent English, the director of the Achill Heritage Center (AHC). The Center and adjacent coffee shop are housed on Bunnacurry Road. Founded in 2016 with the mission of documenting, preserving and promoting Achill folklore and heritage. Part of the work of AHC is to connect to the Irish diaspora in the U.S. Many former Achill residents live in Cleveland, Ohio, having migrated there to work on the canals. Vincent and his collaborators travel to the U.S. to talk about the AHC and how American descendants can be involved.
During the summer months, Achill grows from an island of about 1,900 to 20,000. In the winter months, tourism drops off as it does everywhere. Chris would like to encourage more groups like ours to visit Achill for a January term or even an entire semester to boost off-season tourism.
On Sunday (January 5) we took the students to Westport to visit Westport House (ancestral home of Grace O’Malley and the Marques of Sligo). We also went to Croagh Patrick and hiked to the statue of St. Patrick. Then we spent the afternoon in the village of Westport which has a number of shops, pubs, and restaurants.
A group of students and I met with Justin Sammon, who runs a government-funded corporation charged with local cultural and community development. While his organization is free to do any type of economic development work, he wants folklore to be the central feature of the work he does. His idea is that students can come to Achill and County Mayo to do documentation, which in turn can be used as a cultural resource for the community. Justin sees academic tourism as a way to support community development throughout the year.
To that end, on Achill, the ACH has taken a 99-year lease on a former monastery with the hope of renovating it into a type of folk school where people can come to learn traditional Irish songs, story, and music. We took a tour of the monastery and the work that will need to be completed to make it usable. It will take a lot of time and money, but it has the potential to be amazing (see photos below).
We also bumped into a man, Gerry, who is a falconer. He is the brother of Patrick Stack O’Neill, who recently moved to Achill. He brought his goshawk to the Valley House. We got to see, but not touch the bird.