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How sheep, seaweed and the shore in Ireland helped me bond with my father

Simon Calder’s Travel

Achill Island has many sheep. There are so many on this spit of land off the west coast of Ireland that they outnumber the island’s population of 2,345. Which might be why the man who fitted me and my dad for our hire bikes asked whether I spotted any sheep farmers at the pub the previous night.

“I don’t think so, why?” I asked.

“Would you like to be set up with any of them? Think about it: a simple life, quiet, by the ocean”, he said, as he fetched our helmets and high-vis jackets.

Tempting though the offer was, the only man for me on the trip was my father. Over lockdown, during our weekly-ish phone calls, Dad started telling me stories about holidays he took with his parents. It was the first I’d ever heard of these stories. He’s not one to talk much about his childhood. But lockdown made us all nostalgic, and I began to see a portrait of my father as a little boy in the back of the car, going to Achill Island one summer with his parents, while other summers saw him in his mother’s native Sligo with his cousins.

I realised we’d never travelled just the two of us. I remember one weekend when I was younger, my mother and sisters away, just us. It was very quiet. Only a few sentences passed between us; I’m certain they were about what to eat for dinner. Otherwise, it was just the tip of his head visible behind a newspaper, or else he was engrossed in some sports match. I just didn’t know how to communicate with my father, a man more fluent in sports and politics than books and art.

Aisling and her dad, with Golden Strand beach behind them
Aisling and her dad, with Golden Strand beach behind them (Aisling O’Leary)

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With the sun high in the sky, we embarked on a trip, just the two of us. We set off from my granny’s in Dublin, our first port of call being Foxford Woolen Mills in Mayo, which Dad remembered from a trip with his parents. An hour and a half later we arrived into Achill Island, where tufted bogs gave way to an endless expanse of Atlantic Ocean framed by jagged cliffs. Dad drove us immediately to Keem Bay, the secluded horseshoe beach renowned in Ireland but made even more famous by the film The Banshees of Inisherin. Our B&B Teach Cruachan was not too far away in Dooagh; our view for breakfast the next day was unlimited blue.

Cycling around the island, the textured landscape thrilled, a combination of purples, browns and greens with…

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