Watch: Achill Island, Ireland

As a sun-chaser and crowd-hater, my travels have almost always taken me to far-flung tropical islands or warm, secluded getaways. But in June, I found myself bundled up in a Patagonia fleece and rain boots, gazing over the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland, surrounded by tourists and shivering from head to toe. Drenched in rain, my mind drifted to the deserted beaches of Barbados, and I asked myself why I had chosen to visit Ireland — a country not exactly known for its sunny weather. At that moment, the sun peeked its rays through the grey clouds, illuminating the majestic cliffs, and a feeling of gratitude quickly replaced any lingering thoughts of regret. Ireland is sublimely beautiful, but it’s more than the lush green landscape that left a lasting impression on me.

In case you can’t tell by my first name, I come from an Irish family — my great-grandmother immigrated from Ireland to the States in the 1920s. As such, I have always had a strong desire to visit the Emerald Isle to connect with my Irish roots. My intention for this trip was to gain a deeper understanding of my ancestral identity and make it a bigger part of my story moving forward.

I started in Dublin where I got the chance to meet a handful of distant relatives, volunteered at a seal rescue in County Wexford, then headed west to explore County Clare and Galway. From there, I rented a car and drove to Achill Island, one of Ireland’s most remote places, for the main purpose of my trip: tracking down the home where my great grandmother was raised.

Achill Island is a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland, accessible from the mainland by a small bridge. The island is known as the gem of County Mayo, which is a haven for outdoor adventure seekers. People escape to Achill to surf, bike, hike, dive, or just hang out at the beach. I was told that less than 1,000 people live on the island full-time (there are far more sheep than people), although it’s a popular vacation spot for the Irish in the late summer. The island is so small that they don’t even have a police station — they “share” police with a nearby town so officers are only on the island one or two days a week.

The moment I drove over the bridge, I was awestruck by the indescribable beauty of Achill Island. When most people think of Ireland, they think of the lush green countryside, but the dominant hue of the island was blue — from the intoxicating azure ocean to the shadowy lapis hills towering in the distance. The coast was dotted with endless stretches of beach, where a handful of surfers braved the ice cold Atlantic. I immediately sensed a friendly, laid-back island vibe that was understated and somewhat untamed. A stark contrast to everywhere else I had visited in Ireland, the landscape was distinctively empty — it was rare to see another car on the road or person on the beach and I was actually the only guest in the entire hotel for part of my stay. However, there was definitely no shortage of sheep — I often had to stop for them to cross the road (an Achill traffic jam). As I drove aimlessly around the island, suddenly my affinity for the ocean and distaste for big cities made sense, as it is ingrained in my DNA.

Because all the road signs were in Celtic and cell service was nonexistent, I spent a lot of time being lost on the island, but I did manage to find the mythical Keem Bay, a white sand beach sheltered between two cliffs. The bay is only accessible by a narrow road with a steep cliff edge, but when you get there it’s like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With dreamy turquoise water, it could have very well been a beach in the Mediterranean, if it weren’t for all the sheep. There wasn’t a soul on the beach the entire time I was there and I found peace in the solitude.

After getting acquainted with Achill, it was time to find my great grandmother’s house. The only clue I had to finding it was a photo my mom took in the 70s and this map provided by my great aunt:

I had dedicated an entire day to finding the house, anticipating that it would not be an easy task, so you can imagine my disbelief when I had been on the island for less than three hours and stumbled upon it — completely by chance. Driving alongside the Wild Atlantic Way, I noticed a cottage in the distance that looked similar to the photo my mom gave me. As I turned down the dirt driveway towards the house, I got goosebumps because I knew it was the one. Shooing a herd of sheep away, I stepped out of the car and stood before the exact house from my mom’s photo, except that the undressed stone was a bit more crumbled and the landscaping was a bit more overgrown. It was difficult to imagine an entire family living in the tiny, disheveled cottage. It didn’t even have any windows, because an old Irish window tax mandated that homeowners pay a flat rate for every window in their home (luckily this tax was abolished in the mid 1800s). Although the old house looked as though it was barely standing, its walls undoubtedly held a million memories, and that is what made it beautiful.

This moment was so surreal it almost brought me to tears. I was standing where my great-grandmother had spent her childhood, seeing the same amazing ocean view that had provided the backdrop for her upbringing. I could picture her running home from the local schoolhouse, warming up by the fire during Ireland’s dark winter months, and playing in the Atlantic ocean which was just steps from her front door. I wondered what she would think if she knew that many generations later, her great-granddaughter would make the 5,000-mile trek from California to see where she had lived.

But as magical as this moment was, it was a bit anticlimactic. I had assumed that this ancestral house was the link I needed to connect with my Irish roots, that finding it would provide me the ‘ah ha’ moment I was looking for — but I was so wrong. As I drove away, I thought to myself, now what? Was my life forever changed? Did I suddenly gain this deep connection with Ireland? Not necessarily.

It wasn’t until later that night, while I shared a pint of Guinness with some new Irish friends, that I had a revelation. Getting in touch with your roots isn’t just about finding an ancestral home, or even long-lost family members — it’s so much more than that. It’s about experiencing a country and forming a deep, personal connection with the culture at-large. For me, it was getting lost in the streets of Dublin, jamming out to Irish music at the iconic Temple Bar, dodging sheep as I drove through the countryside, learning Irish slang over a glass of Irish whiskey, watching a game of curling with my mom’s second cousin, hearing stories about basking shark hunting from a salty old fisherman, and being taught the proper way to pour a Guinness at Pattens Pub, my great uncle’s old watering hole. It was all the incredibly kind, welcoming, and hilariously sarcastic Irish people who reminded not to take life too seriously. Above all, it was the palpable sense of belonging I felt the entire time I was there.

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to fall in love with a culture that has played such a large role in shaping my family history, and ultimately who I am today.

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