GOING THE WAY THAT I WENT
“Just a hole in the ground with water in it”. With these unromantic comments the young man in charge of the photographic exhibition in Dooagh dismissed one of the most striking topographical features in Ireland. Bunnafreeva Lough West, the corrie lake on Croghaun Mountain in Achill, has to be one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. In part this is because of its remoteness and relative difficulty of access. It is tucked away near the top of the mountain, which is itself at the farthest end of Achill Island.
Yet for those who make the effort, and can manage the climb, the result is well worth it. Bunnafreeva Lough is the highest corrie lake in Ireland, over 300 metres above sea level, and is located in spectacular surroundings close to the edge of sheer cliffs jutting into the Atlantic. Photographs rarely do it justice (including the one which failed to move one young man), though the accompanying photograph, taken by me several years ago, gives some idea of its unique beauty. There are also several fine images and descriptions to be explored on the MountainViews website, and another one is available on the Achill 24/7 website. But the best advice I can offer is to go and see it in person.
The lake is so off the beaten track that it scarcely features in most guides to Achill, which concentrate on the island’s more accessible features. Indeed I first learned of it by chance through the account in Robert Lloyd Praeger’s classic book “The Way That I Went”. The book, my copy dates from 1947, is an idiosyncratic account of a trip through Ireland by one of our greatest naturalists. Happily it was reissued in paperback a number of years ago making it available to a wider audience. Praeger is a master of understatement, classifying hair raising but spectacular walks along cliffs and promontories as requiring “a good head, careful progress” and, in the case of scrambling along Achill Head, “nailed shoes”.
Nobody could read Praeger’s description of the lake without becoming intrigued. He sets the scene with a quotation from Edward Newman, a London publisher and naturalist who visited Achill in 1838. Newman described Achill as “more like a foreign land than any I have visited”. He described Bunnafreeva Lough as follows:” Near the margin of the cliff a beautiful little fresh-water lake surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills. I should think its surface was 600 feet above the sea and its distance from the edge of the cliff scarcely 300, I doubt whether any Englishman but myself has ever seen this lone and beautiful sheet of water; its singularly round form, the depth of the basin in which it reposes, the precipitous sides of the basin, its height above the sea – all these are characters of no ordinary interest”.
My first two attempts to access the lake were thwarted by the weather. Croghaun is almost 700 metres high and no place to attempt to climb if the weather is uncertain, common enough on Achill. It was third time lucky during a recent summer. We took a house in Dooagh for what were two glorious weeks in June, with temperatures throughout nudging 30 degrees. I set out early one morning with my then 14 year old son.
The lake can be accessed by a more gradual climb leaving the village and heading up past the booley village of Tamhnach Mor but we chose the more direct and challenging route. We left the car at Acorrymore lake, the delightful, scenic –and accessible – corrie lake which serves as a reservoir for the island. Then it was uphill, at times quite steep, for several hundred metres. We struggled across an expanse of bog, where we were surrounded and feasted upon by clouds of midges. After this it was uphill again; then, suddenly, as we crested a hill, we were there.
Newman did not exaggerate. Several hundred feet below us lay the lake, wedge shaped rather than round. The ground before us sloped away steeply down to the waters while on the other sides similarly sloping shale and rock lightly coated in green vegetation created the effect of an amphitheatre. The lowest side faced west, with Saddle Head and the Atlantic beyond. The lake itself was a deep intense blue, accentuated by a rim of white quartz stones, the effect contrasting strikingly with the lighter blue ocean in the background. We took a number of photos and then made our way back. Later in the holiday we visited the lake again, by the easier route.
Assuredly Bunnafreeva Lough West is not just a hole with water in it!