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Recent trips and recommendations

Ireland - Achill Island, County Mayo

Rainbow's end

Saturday March 13th, 2004 - The Guardian

Wharf and peace ... a typical waterman's workboat. Photo: Corbis
"Journeys are slow in Galway because there's
always a reason to make a halt." Photo: Corbis

"Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and ..." The kids are sitting in the back of the car, singing. The song, of course, is I Can Sing a Rainbow, and as we work our way along the northwest coast of Ireland, it has become our family anthem. We've invented many rainbow games as we bump and rattle along the windy roads, along fierce cliff tops battered by the ocean, and over heather-ridden bogs. There's Spot the Rainbow, Find the Crock, Count the Colours ... You're never far from a rainbow in Ireland, because you're never far from rain. Perhaps that's why too many families choose Costa Somewhere which promises constant warmth, rather than travel to this wild west coast. But while there's often rain, there's always sunshine close behind, breaking through the lowering clouds, forming rainbows and illuminating the spectacular landscape well into the long, light nights.

There's barely a year when we haven't felt a need to come back here. Any short break in our schedule, any spare half term, and we tumble into the back of our people carrier and set out across the Irish Sea, taking as many friends and as much family as possible. And each time we come, we make a new discovery.

This time, it was the blackshells. Blackshells is the local name for mussels, which hide under the seaweed-smothered rocks. They can be found in the more sheltered coves along the west coast, including those on Achill.

Looking for Blackshells to eat
Looking for Blackshells to eat

The largest and most accessible of Mayo's offshore islands, mountainous, beach-frilled Achill has a permanent causeway to the mainland. Most accommodation on Achill is self-catering cottages with views over the Atlantic, which is just the right recipe; it was a real life adventure for my inner-city 10-year-old, Storme, and her best friend Daisy to harvest then cook their own supper from the sea.

We bought eggs from the neighbour - only half a dozen at a time, so we always had an excuse to return for more and see how the young chicks were growing. Then there was the old German lady up the road (there's always a resident German nearby in the west of Ireland) who rears goats, where we bought kid chops. The two-year-old twins loved them, but Storme refused to eat something called "kid". She said it made her feel like a cannibal.

This is a holiday where you make your own entertainment; there's no all-inclusives or kids' clubs. But that doesn't mean there isn't childcare; on Achill, the local playscheme takes in visitors' children on a temporary basis, even the toddler twins.

But if the weather holds at all, you'll all want to be outside. Achill's beaches are long stretches of fine sand backed by dramatic cliffs, and, unless you go on a rare sunny day, you'll have them all to yourself. Few beaches are safe for swimming, and the Atlantic is cold even in the hottest months, but they're the best for sandcastles and beachcombing.

Moving northward along the coast, there's yet more beauty and more bleakness. After the Bellmullet peninsula, some of the best beaches are around Sligo town, including Strandhill, just half an hour's drive from the city centre, home to the wonderful Celtic Seaweed Baths. You hire a room to yourselves (kids are thrown in for free), containing a small steam chamber and a big white bath. The bath is filled with hot seawater and seaweed (the Fucus Serratus variety, a name not to be said aloud in the presence of small children) which is harvested daily from the reef and leaches a thick brown glue. This gunge makes your skin feel as if it has been swathed in silk. Lying back, you can hear the crashing surf just yards below.

Sheep and child
Sheep and child

Sligo and Galway - where Ireland's first Children's Discovery Centre, an interactive place where you can care for a kid-sized cow or pony, has just opened - are the liveliest towns on the west coast, but we just regard them as places on a map to head for, through the fabulous terrain. Journeys are slow because there's always a reason to make a halt. There are the ubiquitous abandoned cars, which two-year-old River finds endless pleasure pretending to drive over the bog. But there are also ruins punctuating the fields along the roadside - of abbeys, castles and old houses - so much more exciting for children to clamber over than a regular climbing frame in a boring old park. And there's barely an old brick without a legend attached to it, often involving Granuaile, the 16th-century pirate queen who headed a fearsome fleet that terrified the ships of our own Queen Elizabeth, and whose many fortresses line the coast.

You can even be a princess in the tower yourself. Markree Castle in Collooney, 10 miles from Sligo city, has been home to the Cooper family for over 350 years, since Cromwell invaded Ireland. Charles Cooper now runs his grand and heavily turreted home as a small, reasonable hotel. You can whisk yourself up the monumental staircase, while Mr Cooper (he titles himself the King of the Castle) tells of the headless chambermaid who appears through a secret door on summer nights.

If you feel in need of ticking off a proper attraction, then there's always one somewhere along the road, from the Foxford Woolen Mills and Westport House to The Museum of Country Life, just outside Castlebar, the first branch of the National Museum of Ireland located outside Dublin. There, activities you will already have experienced- picking your own mussels, building your own peat fire - are demonstrated through the centuries. (Close to Castlebar is the the Lynch Breaffy, one of the few hotels that has organised childcare.)

Keel beach
Looking down on Keel from the top of Croaghaun’

Many other attractions are far older, going back millennia rather than mere hundreds of years - vast outdoor areas like the Ceide Fields on Mayo's north coast, a Neolithic farm buried under the bog, where older children can marvel at the work of the 5,000-year-old farmers, while the young ones irreverently run over the mounds of history as if it were nothing more than a field. On the road onwards towards Sligo, we stopped at Mary's Cottage Kitchen in Main Street, Ballycastle (even the addresses come from storybooks), and feasted on freshly baked apple pie and homemade chocolate biscuits.

Finding a family-friendly place to eat is never a problem. For British kids, there's the wicked excitement of being welcomed into any pub; Ireland's licensing laws don't bar children until nine o'clock at night, and from March 29 every drinking establishment will be completely non-smoking.

The west coast of rural Ireland may be windy and wet, but it's about as good as you'll get for a family holiday. And you'll discover how many colours there are in a rainbow.

To help you on your way

Until recently, families heading to Ireland had to find their own way around. But in the last month, two new guides have been published:

The Rough Guide To Family Fun in Ireland (4.99, or free by calling 0800 0397000 and quoting 'Family Fun In Ireland') is more a list of attractions than a guide, giving useful information on the many heritage and activity centres that are popping up all over the country. Although the list is exhaustive, it doesn't say if a venue has a cafe or is pushchair accessible -vital information for many families. No maps.

Take The Kids Ireland (Cadogan 12.99) is both an excellent guidebook and a good read. Listings (including family-friendly eating places) are interspersed with fairy tales, fascinating bits of local history and Did You Know quizzes, to keep everyone amused. Although out this month, some listings are already out of date; one restaurant has been closed for two years.

Families may also find useful:

Berlitz Ireland Pocket Guide (4.95), because it's so small, it's easy to carry when walking through a major museum or over the Ceide Fields, so you have answers to any questions thrown at you, (such as, 'When was Sligo Abbey founded, mum?').

The Beautiful Magical Tales of Ireland (Hutchinson 14.99) is a collection of stories and illustrations by leading Irish writers for kids aged six-nine. A perfect bedtime read.

For older children, The Top Ten Irish Legends (Scholastic 4.99) is a good book to curl up in front of the turf fire with.

Way to go

Getting there: Ryanair (0871 2460000, flies to daily Stansted-Knock from 47 rtn inc taxes. Stena Line (0870 5707070, offers five-day return on fast ferry Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire for two adults, three children, from 193 if booked online by March 31.

Car hire: Holiday Autos (

Where to stay:
Lynch Breaffy House Hotel, Castlebar ( charges 730 for a family of five for two nights. For details of my sister-in-law's cottage where we stay on Achill contact

What to do: Museum of Country Life, Turlough ( Celtic Seaweed Baths, Strandhill, ( Markree Castle, Collooney ( The Children's Discovery Museum, Galway (

Further information: Irish Tourist Board (0800 0397000,

Country code: 00 353. Flight time Stansted-Knock: 1hr 25mins. Ferry time Hollyhead-Dun Laoghaire 1hr 40mins. Dun Laoghaire-Achill 6hrs by car. Time difference: none. 1 = 1.43 euros.

For more thoughts on Ireland see,8922,1090259,00.html

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