NEW LIFE IN IRELAND Achill railway shed to be turned into new homes

‘It’s great to get the opportunity to transform what was a unique building. With its history and legacy we can now create a narrative that will breathe new life into our community in Achill’

By Aine Ryan and Bill Heaney

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland – even if it’s only for your holidays – and you decide you would like to live there, here is your big chance.

Achill has a story to tell. It has a Scottish connection and the island off the coat of County Mayo is truly beautiful.

The poignant and perennial story of island emigration and depopulation is hopefully set to be reversed though through a project involving a historic railway building on Achill Island.

The railway’s connection with emigration is historic. The first train to Achill in 1894 brought home the bodies of 32 island migrants, who drowned after their hooker capsized within sight of Westport harbour.

The last train to Achill was carrying the 10 victims of the KirkintIlloch Disaster in 1937. They had died in a fire in a bothy whilst working as potato pickers, pictured left,  in Scotland.

The fatal accident inquiry into their tragic deaths was held locally in Dumbarton Sheriff Court.

Achill is also the island where the much talked about movie The Banshees of Inisherin was filmed. It was nominated for an Oscar last year.

There’s craic in abundance in the new film from the In Bruges director and writer Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin.

The film stars Colin Farrell (as Pádraic) and Brendan Gleeson (as Colm). Farrell won a Golden Globe for his In Bruges performance, while McDonagh, born to Irish parents in London, was adopted as a native.

With Banshees Martin McDonagh is doing the same for the West of Ireland, acknowledging that he captured the rugged coast intending “to have the islands as a character be as important a character as Bruges was for that film”.

Farrell with Brendan Gleeson in the critically-acclaimed film
Colin Farrell with Brendan Gleeson in the critically-acclaimed film

As you’d expect from McDonagh, Banshees is pitch-black comedy, at turns shocking. Ostensibly a story about the break-up of a male friendship, it’s also a parable about the insanity of the conflicts in Ireland (it’s set in 1923 during the civil war) and the narcissism of artists.

Banshees plays stock rural Irish stereotypes: weather-ravaged men neck poteen in thick hand-knitted jumpers; make trips to confession past Virgin Mary statues; drink Guinness at impromptu pub sessions; joke about gay priests and alcoholism. It even opens with a gag involving Pádraic worried that Colm’s not coming to the pub when it’s just gone 2pm.

The Inisherin Island of the film’s title is fictional. In reality Banshees was filmed between two west Ireland islands, one of them Achill.

They were chosen by McDonagh to reflect his two markedly different main characters: Inishmore, a stark landscape of sheer limestone slabs personifying Pádraic’s “dull”, steady character and the rugged sea-ravaged Achill reflecting the artistically conflicted Colm.

Such differences might seem subtle but to us one lure of west Ireland is how it makes people contemplate nature more closely. Perhaps because here the impact of the raging Atlantic feels more important. Perhaps because there’s not much else happening.

Inishmore is in some ways the more magical, and certainly a more remote location. To get there you have a choice: ferry or plane. To call the 35-minute ferry ride across the wild ocean bracing is an understatement.

The short flight isn’t much better; on a plane the size of a table where, because you’re seated by weight, you might end up squashed by the pilot.

Farrell stayed in a cottage on Inishmore during filming, ingratiating himself with local children by taking selfies and with the local women by going jogging in short shorts.

Achill is a tidal island on Ireland’s western tip, connected to the mainland by bridge. It’s a spectacular and popular spot on the Wild Atlantic Way road trip, and in summer the island’s population of 2,500 almost doubles to 4,000 with tourists drawn to see its disarming beauty.

It’s a 185-mile drive to Achill from Dublin, although you could fly into the airport at Knock. The road to Achill, through Connemara, cuts past navy, wind-dappled lakes and through craggy valleys and low mountains circled by gloomy clouds.

Our Irish friends joke that Connemara men are known to be hardy from the storm-beaten landscape. Like Connemara, Achill is in the Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) region but the islanders mostly speak English.

We arrive on Achill to hammering rain. To live on the west coast is to live on a weather front. The sky is ever changing. One moment it’s thick with black clouds, the next the wind rolls them back to reveal bright sunshine. One side of the island can be bathed in god rays; the other, hailing. In one day I see six rainbows.

For island native and developer Tom Corrigan the reconstruction of a derelict railway shed to create five townhouses for local people on the Mayo County Council housing list is much more than about bricks and mortar.

“Growing up in Achill, myself and my business partner Fran O’Malley went to school in Bunacurry and we always heard about the history of the island and the Achill railway.

“It was the last building so many people saw as they left the sound and headed off tattie howkin’ (potato picking) to Scotland,” says Corrigan.

With the experience of leaving home himself for work, Corrigan saw the opportunity of returning to his native county two years ago. “We had been doing up a lot of apartments in Dublin and England over the last five years or so, but always thought of working back home again,” he says.

Their company, Achill Form-work and Construction Ltd, now collaborates with former banker Austin Currie Jnr’s Say-vale Group, which provides some financial backing for over 90 of the company’s projects in Co Mayo.

Half of the projects are being developed under the Government’s Repair and Leasing Scheme, which provides funding to bring vacant properties in need of repair back into use for social housing.

Currie, whose late father was a founding member of the SDLP and a Fine Gael TD, has long associations with the county. His family has a holiday home on the shores of Clew Bay in the village of Murrisk.

“This project is really driven by my family’s long-time love for Mayo. My parents started going down to Mayo, like lots of other Catholic families, during the Troubles and at the height of the marching season in the North,” says Currie.

Whilst Currie’s company helped to co-finance the project, Tom Gilligan, a Mayo County Council director of services and founder of, has also been proactively involved from the outset. He works alongside Deirdre Swords, the county’s vacant homes officer, to ensure the efficiency of the process.

“I’m really excited about this project in Achill. It’s great to get the opportunity to transform what was a unique building like this one. With its history and legacy we can now create a narrative that will breathe new life into our community in Achill. The restoration of this building highlights the enormous potential of the Repair and Leasing Scheme,” says Gilligan.

The exterior of the railway building, which dates from the 1890s, will be totally conserved “with its wonderful arches made from bricks brought from Liverpool”, he says.

There are huge amounts of Stat supports currently available “for bringing back abandoned properties to life and use”, he says.

“We have seen former convent buildings, that are protected structures, being brought back into use, utilising the Housing For All schemes. These schemes such as Buy and Renew, the new Croí Cónaithe Vacant Property Refurbishment Grant and the Repair and Leasing Scheme are proving particularly useful at delivering vacant units, especially in areas where there is a high demand for accommodation.”

These schemes “are very effective in re-purposing protected structures”, Gilligan says, adding that there is great interest in planning exemptions that allow unused pubs to be converted and returned as residential accommodation.

“In 2022 Mayo was the leading county as regards converting pubs to residential homes. All of this highlights the significant potential for housing that is currently lying idle within our cities, towns and villages. We are also seeing former bank buildings being brought back into use and they have enormous potential, with their reutilisation helping to rejuvenate our main urban areas.”

Citing the potential reuse of old convents, Gilligan praises the work of Waterford City and County Council with Walsh and Sheehan Manor Hill Investments for the multi-million city-centre development of a former convent into 71 residential units under the Repair and Leasing Scheme.

“The Waterford project has commenced and my understanding is that it is 50 per cent completed at this stage. Regarding a significant old convent property here in Westport, there are plans for this space to include a library, civic offices and housing,” he says.

Meanwhile, as works start on the old Achill railway shed, Tom Corrigan is passionate about ensuring the building helps to “bring people back home”.

Some of the exiles lived in Dumbarton for a while. You will remember big John Lavelle, who was in digs with Maggie Kennedy in West Bridgend and a familiar face in the Waverley pub there. Kevin Toolis, a journalist with The Guardian and New York Times,  who is a native of Achill wrote a lovely book about life and death there – “May Father’s Wake”.

Tom Corrigan said: “I’ve been looking at that old railway shed – where the locomotives were brought at night and cleaned and serviced – since I was a child going to Gaelic football matches across the road. I want this newly-restored building to mirror what my forefathers saw,” he says. “This was the last view of Achill as they crossed the sound and some of them were never to return. That will not be the story now over a century later.”

Writer Kevin Toolis, an Achill funeral and his book My Father’s Wake.


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