On Sunday night, Martin McDonagh’s film The Banshees of Inisherin will take home nine Oscars, making it the most nominated Irish film in the ceremony’s history. In theory, all the protagonists could come home with a statuette, but there is one key role that will not be celebrated: the scenery that is just as important in the film as Colin Farrell himself.
Along with the Aran island of Inis Mór, Achill, which is connected to mainland County Mayo by bridge, played the role of fictional Inisherin in the film (Inis means island in Irish). And although the house Pádraic (Colin Farrell) shared with his sister Siobhan (Kerry Condon) was on Inis Mór, Achill did much of the hard work, being home to the pub, the harbour, Colm’s house and the atmospheric lake on whose shores the banshee-esque Mrs. McCormick lives.
All of this has led to an influx of tourists and a map created especially for them to trace key locations around the island. You do need a car or a bike to do it. The film may be a study of claustrophobia, but the world feels vast on Achill, Ireland’s largest island, with empty roads, huge skies and nothing but a expanse of Atlantic Ocean all the way to Newfoundland. Whether you’ve seen The Banshees or Inisherin or not, it’s worth exploring.
Nowhere does the ocean roar louder than Atlantic Drive, the rugged coastal road that was temporarily home to the JJ Devine pub where Pádraic and Colm met (or lately didn’t) in the movie. Like most sets, it was dismantled when filming finished, leaving an empty space with a savage view of zigzagging cliffs.
But Achill doesn’t need movie sets to be dramatic. It’s one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. Graham Greene thought so too: his time with lover Catherine Walston in the small village of Dooagh sparked a creative explosion that led to parts of The heart of the matter.
Describing a recent surge in visitors, Chris McCarthy, head of Achill Tourism, acknowledges: “We’re lucky lieutenants to have had a phenomenal break.” While it was relatively quiet in February when I traveled, it was easy to spot the Americans at the Achill Island Hotel and the influencers hopping between venues with microphones and cameras.
Near the mainland, the landscape was scorched with the gorse blossom and the roads became lined with towering rhododendrons. But by the time I reached Keel, on the other side of the island where most tourists stay, the environment had somewhat tamed. Sheep feasted on the flattened grass of the golf club and signs advertised the town’s B&Bs.
In the ice of a blindingly clear winter morning, the city smelled of wood smoke, or perhaps it was peat: some islanders still harvest it from the swamps of Achill for fuel. Keel’s few cafes were closed until at least 11pm, so I grabbed a coffee and croissant from the fancy shop and headed to the beach.
It may not be part of the Banshees location path, but Keel Beach is one of the stars of Achill, up there with the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Dunes give way to pebbles, sand, sea and silhouetted cliffs. Along the two-mile expanse, the waves appear widescreen.
On the day I visited it was empty except for three teenagers who arrived in robes and bikinis and then happily jumped into the icy water, their screams lost in the clatter of the ocean. But Keel is the heart of Achill’s community. Nowhere is busier on St. Patrick’s Day. Celebrations begin at 6 a.m. in inky darkness when a drum wakes the residents; by mid-morning, bagpipe bands have begun a competitive cacophony outside the church.
McCarthy tells me the pipes were imported from Scotland, where the people of Achill sought work picking potatoes. A plaque on Atlantic Drive commemorates the women of Achill “who coped with loneliness and hardship”, while the island’s men went in search of work. Life on the island was so tough that after the Great Famine, many emigrated and left their homes, much like (spoiler!) Siobhan leaves Inisherin in the movie.
“You couldn’t support yourself here,” McCarthy said. “It remains difficult. As an American visitor remarked to me: ‘There are a lot of side issues going on’.”
As we walked among the ruins of Slievemore, an abandoned village of once thatched cottages, Gerard Mangan, who has lived on Achill since childhood and now serves as a guide on the island, told us that many husbands returned only twice a year to Christmas and Easter. Only the dilapidated outlines of Slievemore’s houses survive, but it is clear that they were even smaller than those in The Banshees of Inisherin, with as many as 12 family members sleeping, eating and living in one cramped room.
“My grandmother grew up there,” Mangan told me, pointing to a house in the valley below the village with the sea behind it. “She used to walk barefoot to Sligo.”
A 15-minute drive away on Keem Beach, another type of house stands guard. Colm Doherty’s house, central to the plot of The Banshees of Inisherin, was not demolished after filming because it stood on the shore like an old fishing hut long before the crew arrived.
Keem was also Insta-famous before the movie. Regularly voted Ireland’s most beautiful beach, it can get so busy in summer that the road to it is closed. Even in winter, the sea glows like an enchanting Caribbean turquoise against the creamy sand.
Back in the 1950s, Achill’s men used to catch basking sharks here, rowing wooden boats half the size of the fish and tying them down so they could sell their oil and fins. Despite a David and Goliath-esque difference in size, Mangan told me that no fishermen were ever killed in battle: depending on who you believe, it was either due to St. Patrick’s protection or the docile nature of the sharks.
Never ending stories
Like McDonagh’s film, Achill’s landscape brims with stories, truths embellished with fairy tales and folklore. Behind Corrymore Lake, where some of the film’s most gripping action takes place, there’s another lake called The Mermaid’s Looking Glass, a supposedly bottomless expanse of water of the deepest blue. You have to walk over the hill to find it – there are no signs and no roads leading to it.
And it’s hard to separate fact from fiction regarding the old Protestant colony of Achill, run by Edward Nangle in the 1830s and 1840s. It is said by some to have saved many from starvation death, but the zealous Nangle demanded in return before conversion (it now looks like a typical village, albeit hidden in one of the scrubbier, less photogenic parts of the island).
At the small aquarium and visitor center, there are countless more intriguing stories from below the local waterline – the starfish cloning themselves to reproduce, the albino lobster mysteriously turning blue, and the sulking male cuckoo wrasse perhaps turning back into a female at the bottom of his aquarium.
Both Mangan and McCarthy have encountered characters like the one in the movie, which makes McCarthy particularly think about the mental health issues it evoked. Although, as he put it: “We have artists around. We’ve had floating artists. To the locals, they would have been all crazy, painting for hours with work to do.”
However, the locals let them have their way. They did the same for Colin Farrell, who lived his life undisturbed while filming, in a small cottage near Slievemore.
“We love people, but we love our loneliness, and that comes through really well in the movie,” McCarthy told me. He’s not surprised when I tell the story of eating a solo meal at Alice’s Restaurant at the entrance to Achill Sound on a busy Friday night, surrounded by an 18th birthday party, a girls’ night out and several other busy tables. Refreshingly, no one batted an eyelid as I made my way through dinner with only a book for company. The chatter was loud, the room was warm and bathed in inviting yellow light, and it was easy to imagine being sheltered inside from bad weather, whether it was the film’s internal storms or the great shapeshifters that occasionally pass by. raging the coast and sending waves over the islands. offshore and hammering on the houses on the headland.
Achill’s turbulent weather can be a frustration for residents and holidaymakers. But when the sun glistens the Atlantic and paints the hills a deep purple, it’s easy to understand why Pádraic felt so entrenched on Inisherin that he couldn’t consider living elsewhere.
Amanda Hyde was a guest on Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland. See ahilltourism.com for more information on visiting the island