You can walk in the footsteps of the artist Paul Henry, following the shoreline from Dooagh to Keel, as part of the May bank-holiday Achill Walks Festival. There are a half-dozen walks, some on the island, some on the north-west Mayo mainland in Ballycroy National Park and the Nephin mountain range.
A century ago Paul Henry and his wife Grace first came to Achill on a Midland Great Western Railway train and stayed on and off for a decade. The area between Kell and Dooagh, taking in Pollagh and Gubelennaun, was the focal point for much of Henry’s painting. The Achill walk will include the bog road made famous by Henry in one of his Achill landscapes.
It looks like good weather for the holiday weekend in Ireland. Time for breaks and trips. I like to link text and place when travelling. As I’m heading off to County Mayo, I thought I would pull together – in a fairly random way – some of my favourite texts linked to some wonderful Mayo places. So here they are – the texts and the places:
Heinrich Boll’s Irish Journal: Head to Achill Island’s Deserted Village and read Boll’s account of how he came upon this ‘skeleton of a human habitation’ that nobody had mentioned to him and where ‘the elements have eaten away everything not made of stone’. There’s a new edition of Irish Journal out with a fine Introduction by Hugo Hamilton.
J. M. Synge Travelling Ireland: Take this book to Erris and read the essays Synge wrote when he visited there in 1905 with Jack Yeats – travelling by long car from Ballina to Belmullet. This edition of the essays – edited by Nicholas Greene, with fine illustrations – was published in 2009.
Paul Henry’s An Irish Portrait: Take a boat from Blacksod to the deserted Inishkea Islands off the Mullet Peninsula where Henry travelled while a visitor to Achill in the early nineteenth century and wrote a graphic account of the whaling station. Paul Henry’s book is out of print but is available in many libraries and can be purchased on-line.
Michael Viney, Wild Mayo: Take a journey through Mayo’s landscape and wildlife with this wonderful account packed with great illustrations from the writer/naturalist who lives in Thallabawn.
Michael Longley, A Hundred Doors: In his latest collection the Northern Ireland poet brings a fresh perspective to the place he has long frequented – the Mayo townland of Carrigskeewaun: ‘Where sand from the white strand and the burial ground / Blows in.’
Graham Greene, The End Of The Affair: It is sixty years since this book was first published. Inspired by the affair Greene had with Catherine Walston, the cottage they occasionally shared still stands in Dooagh, Achill at the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
I would love to hear stories of other texts linked to favourite Mayo places.
Paul Henry’s ‘The Bog Road’ was sold at auction during the week to an anonymous bidder a century after the artist arrived on Achill Island, the setting for the painting, and stayed on and off for almost a decade, endlessly absorbed with the colour and variety of the island’s cloud formations.
Henry had a fascination with writing and his autobiography, An Irish Portrait (published in 1951), is mostly about his experiences of Achill. Sean O’Faolain wrote the introduction and made the provocative statement: ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’
Henry famously tore up his return ticket to London on the rocky point of Gubalennaun in Achill and between the island points of Keel and Dooagh found inspiration for many of his paintings. ‘The intensity of the emotion I got from a purely Irish landscape always puzzled and disturbed me …’
Paul Henry came to Achill the year after John Millington Synge died, admitting that there was something about Synge that appealed to him deeply and touched a chord, leading him to read Riders to the Sea over and over.
O’Faolain saw the same impulse in the work of the painter and writer: ‘Like his painting Henry’s writing is a sponge of nature …’
Maybe Henry would be pleased that his image of Achill soared through cyberspace this week, a century after he arrived in a place where he struggled to find the right image – and the right words – to convey the emotions he felt ?