The Michael Davitt Bridge that connects Achill Island to the mainland was officially opened by leading Irish land reformer Michael Davitt on 31st August 1887, making 2017 its 130th anniversary. Construction began on a replacement Michael Davitt Bridge in 1948, and was completed a year later writes Daria Blackwell
The third Michael Davitt Bridge, which was commissioned in 2008, was a design based on a Spanish Calatrava architectural model. This swing bridge weighs 390 tons, yet it is operated manually. It’s illuminated by LED lighting integrated into the bridge design, and in the long winter nights of West Mayo, this adds to its sense of permanence.
And the fact is, the 2008 bridge has been rarely opened since it was built. It had been too difficult to close, so it was decided that it would be better not to open it in the first place. The sheltered theoretically-available through-transit by boats with a high air-draft via narrow and tidal Achill Sound, while not actively discouraged, was certainly not promoted as a passage-making option.
This caused a dilemma for the islanders, for when it comes to Government grant aid, an island is not an “island” if connected by a fixed bridge. A long battle with the State has been ongoing since, with the Achill islanders demanding that the bridge be shown to be openable again, and this finally happened this past weekend.
To mark the connection choices that Achill maintains with the mainland, a Maritime and Heritage Festival celebrating the past and present of the Achill Parish was held on Sunday the 3rd of September. As part of the festival, the bridge was scheduled to open at 5:00 pm to allow a parade of ships to pass through at high water.
Mayo Sailing Club was invited to take part. Members of the Club accepted the invitation and seized the opportunity to go one step further and circumnavigate Achill Island. Wallace Clark had written about it in Sailing Round Ireland and several members of MSC were inspired to attempt the challenge, as it had not been done in recent memory.
The currents in Achill Sound run strong and swift, and shoaling is common. Mayo Sailing Club Vice Commodore Duncan Sclare organized yachts to sail from Rosmoney in a clockwise manner so they’d have a rising tide coming south through Achill Sound and still have enough water to exit the Sound beyond Corraun back into Clew Bay to return to their moorings in Rosmoney.
Navigational calculations were meticulously plotted, tides accounted for, fishermen consulted, and charts checked, as the fleet prepared to set off on the Saturday from Rosmoney. Five yachts set off on the circumnavigation. This was no small feat, as conditions on Saturday were demanding. A rough, wet and boisterous rounding of notorious Achill Head was in store for the fleet, which was subjected to 40+ knots of gusts of wind tearing down Slievemor, the second highest peak on Achill Island at 671 metres. They sought shelter for the night and holed up securely at anchor in Blacksod Bay, where good company and cold beer went down well in the pub.
They set off in the morning to arrive at the bridge just before its scheduled opening, but a thick fog enveloped Achill and Achilbeg. Yet the project continued, even though two deeper draft vessels ran aground on the way in and had to await the incoming tide to continue on. When the time came, all five of the Achill circumnavigators succeeded in passing though the bridge, dressed for the occasion. A sixth member joined the fleet, passing under the bridge from the south and returning with the fleet, accompanied by Coast Guard vessels, rowers, and ribs, and a flotilla of the famous traditional Achill yawls making spectacular transits under sail.
The crowd cheered from the bridge as each vessel passed through, and the Achill yawls then had a race in the Sound close south of the bridge in front of Alice’s Restaurant, complete with loudspeaker commentary as the evening weather finally improved for the fog to lift, and let sunshine illuminate the spectacular landscape. The day’s events were recorded by Henry McGlade for the TV show “The Irish at Home and Abroad” for an episode due to be shown on Sky TV in early October.
But by the time the weather improved, Mayo SC fleet were well on their way, their movements dictated by the now rapidly falling tide, and it wasn’t until they were out on Clew Bay itself that the visibility began to clear properly for them, and the familiar sight of the peak of Croagh Patrick showed above the fog’s grey blanket.
Back in Mayo SC’s hospitable clubhouse at Rosmoney, Former MSC Commodore Rory Casey of the First 31.7 As Lathair commented: "One of the best sailing weekends I've ever had - we had a bit of everything. Why do we have to travel to the ends of the world, when we have this adventure sailing here on our doorstep?"
Vice Commodore Duncan Sclare, who made the circuit on one of the smaller boats, the Achilles 30 Freebird, summed it up: "On this circumnavigation of Ireland’s largest island, we experienced it all: Flat calm, Atlantic seas, howling winds, rain, sunshine, fog, tricky navigation, an unopenable bridge that opened, and great company. A voyage that will be remembered a lifetime."
The Mayo Sailing Club boats whose crews now cherish very special memories of the first weekend of September 2017 in proving that Achill is indisputably an island were: Freebird, As Lathair, Xena, Misty, Enya, and Eabha Marie.