Dash to the splash with storms, sleet, traffic and frozen assets

The bridge at Achill Island
The bridge at Achill Island

Roamer’s first page of 2017 comes with the warmest seasonal greetings and a very Happy New Year to every reader.

A big thank you is also due to the many contributors who shared their stories and reminiscences here during the year that has ended.

A stream of appreciative messages constantly fills my in-tray from folk who thoroughly enjoy the twice-weekly readers’accounts, so not a word is wasted!

On Friday we’ll be revisiting just a few of last year’s pages and remembering some of the host of remarkable stories posted to Roamer’s mailbox during 2016.

But today ‘for auld lang syne’ - which essentially means ‘for the sake of old times’ - we’re pausing for a memorable moment beside (and in!) the vast Atlantic ocean which shaped Ireland’s history and pre-history long before mankind arrived on the furtherest-western edge of Europe.

Lashed by the sea, carved by the wind and swept by the rain, Achill Island is one of the world’s most spectacularly scenic and historic places.

Its rugged landscape can be breathtakingly beautiful or fearsomely wild depending on the weather which casts a constantly changing, but always powerful, ambiance on the dramatic cliffs, soaring mountains, remote lakes and secluded beaches.

On New Year’s Day just past, Achill was overcast with ominously heavy, jet-black clouds which unloaded a contrasting menu of sleet and rain driven by high winds, regularly punctuated by bright blue skies and glorious sunshine when the clouds parted.

The temperature, hovering around zero, seemed much lower because of the wind-borne chill factor.

No matter how bleak the weather, Achill islanders celebrate the New Year like no other community in the world!

Generations of islanders, some long since departed from their homeland, return, with a seasonal surfeit of eager visitors.

They cross the bridge (the shortest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean!) and join local folk on Minaun Hill to watch Europe’s final sunset of the year sink beneath the horizon.

Later, marching bands and a bustling cavalcade of joyful partyers wend their merry way out of heaving pubs, crowded hotels, packed restaurants and cosy cottages.

More and more people evacuate the hostelries along the route, swelling the numbers of walkers, weaving upwards along the hilly road towards the traditional midnight gathering outside the church at Pollagh.

The last time Roamer joined in the festivities there was standing room only, with lines of cars on both sides of the narrow road emptying joyful passengers into the throng welcoming the New Year.

Last Saturday night Roamer retreated from the sleet-storm and decided to stay indoors, but was up in time for Europe’s most westerly sunrise of the New Year.

Sunday’s dazzling, wintry sun was frequently obliterated by dark Atlantic clouds which dropped their cargo of rain and sleet and departed, allowing another swathe of sunlight before more black clouds rolled in and blanketed out the blue.

The winding road to Dugort’s golden strand dipped in and out of icy bog-land.

Bedraggled sheep safely grazed as best they could, shielded by trees and hedges permanently bowed by gales.

Sturdy Atlantic seagulls applied every square inch of their substantial wingspan to push through the freezing cross-winds.

Dugort is the panoramic setting for another of Achill’s well-known festive traditions - the New Year Day swim!

Seasonal swims aren’t uncommon, but Achill’s is unique because of its awesome location, and for its annual influx of hardy bathers from the island and from all around the globe. The roads and grassy coastline around Dugort Bay on Sunday resembled Piccadilly Circus at rush hour, with nose-to-tail traffic jams and parking spaces at a premium. But it was a long way from Piccadilly. Tall clumps of rugged sea grass and the few stumpy trees were bent double, swaying inland away from the fierce, bone-aching wind.

The road was carpeted with sand, thrown up by overnight gales and breaking waves.

Flags and bunting flapped on the porch outside the nearby Strand Hotel, where I parked my car whilst sleet slammed the windscreen.

Loudspeakers played Silent Night, which it definitely hadn’t been for the man supping a ‘hair of the dog’ in the hotel bar.

“I’m a bit wobbly,” he muttered, the Guinness-froth rippling in his shaking glass. Roamer joined the crowds making their way to the beach.

The swim was begin at one o’clock ‘on the dot’. Exactly on cue a rainbow glimmered against the parting clouds and the sun shone through on several hundred folk in dressing gowns, or wrapped in coats, or swathed in thick towels and blankets.

“Are you going in?” a man queried through his car window. The scarf-muffled grimace on my face said no!

At one o’clock the bathers lined up along the beach, shouted a countdown in unison and sprinted collectively into the freezing breakers.

A communal scream echoed across the sand! The festive “dash into the splash” was perfectly summarised by its R.N.L.I organisers - “the young and the old, the brave and the bold, wore a dazzling array of colours and costumes from festive Santa suits, to sporting team colours, wetsuits, psychedelic pyjamas and even a couple of dandies dressed up in full Arab regalia.” Steaming soup and hot whiskies were provided “to revive any frozen assets”!