Wild fun in the ancient waters of Bellacragher Bay

Article By: Michael Gallagher

HISTORY whispers in the wind that dances across Bellacragher Bay. The mountains that have shielded Erris from the rest of the world for thousands of years, cup the inlet in a semi-circle of stone and heather, where the array of contrasts and colour dance in the sunlight. Through an opening in the mountains the road snakes by and the remnants of the disused railway line that once carried joy and desolation to Achill can still be seen high above the water line.

The bay which touches the shores of Achill, Ballycroy and Burrishoole is unchanged for thousands of years and was lapping quietly in 1832 when the famous author, W.H Maxwell came to Ballycroy to write his novel 'The Wild Sports of The West'.

There was no road linking the Erris parish with 'Christendom' in those days and Maxwell had to take to the water once he passed through Mulranny. His cousin's 'galley' was waiting for him at Bellacragher and took him the short journey to Croy Lodge from where he recorded some amazing tales of the characters and the times.

Over the years the art of saling and boathandling has been gradually lost to the people of the area, and Ballycroy in particular, but last week a group of young enthusiasts gathered in the little cove where Maxwell had taken to the waves, as the sailing revival in the area continues apace. For the past four summers a group of local sailors have used their holidays to run a sailing school and the enthusiastic reaction from the community has been amazing. Every year the camp is inundated with applicants and while the vast majority of those taking part are young people, there are also a few more senior enthusiasts wishing to learn the ancient art.

Seamus Butler, a seasoned sailor and the inspiration behind Bellacragher Boat Club, who run the school, was brimming with enthusiasm as he explained how the school actually came about. "I was involved in the Ballycroy Summer Festival four years ago and we set ourselves a challenge where we would take people with absolutely no sailing skill and train them over four days to sail a boat from Ballycroy to Innishbiggle under supervision. We were more successful than we had bargained for and in the end eight boats of newly-trained people made the trip.

"We ran the school again the following year and it has gone from strength to strength. We have massive interest locally and we even have natives of the area living abroad, who arrange their holidays so that they can take their kids back for the sailing school. They enjoy it so much that they ring up in October wanting to know what date it's on the following year so that they can book their holidays," he added.

That type of enthusiasm has had a huge knock-on effect in the area and now Butler has 22 young people who could be described as 'having a good knowledge of the water'. The club have also trained more than 140 people locally to pass exams such as Bay Skipper, Navigation, VHF Radio and Power Boat Level 2.

"We hold courses during the winter in Ballycroy, Tonragee, Currane and Achill and there are now a large number of people who have passed their exams and are gaining more and more experience all the time," Butler explained. Seamus began sailing when just out of nappies on Loch Gara in his native Ballyglass and in Ballycroy, where his mother, Kathleen (nee Mullarkey) originated. "I always loved it and felt very much at home on the sea. I moved back to Ballycroy in 1999 and set up Bellacragher Boat Club soon after, never really believing it would be so successful but it has exceeded all expectations and continues to expand," the sailor added.

Last week Butler and his friends had 50 enthusiasts at their sailing school in Bellacragher. Nine supervisors under the watchful eye of Senior Instructor, Ruth Dwyer, made sure that everything went without a hitch as the basics of sailing were imparted in a professional yet 'fun' way. "There's strict supervision here but there's wild fun as well," Butler explained, while James Grealis and David Gildea assisted him as he nosed a Colvic 30 into the cove. "We have huge voluntary effort here, there's no such thing as profit in this organisation, every cent we have is pumped back into equipment and training. A lot of people give their time voluntarily to make this project a success, we couldn't survive without lads like Brian Masterson, Marty Hanley, David Campbell and Michael O'Hara. Everyone gets together and uses their summer holidays for this, which is the pure essence of community spirit," he added.

Soon the excited shrieks and laughter echoing around the cove was confirmation that those at the 2006 sailing school were having a ball. Padraig Doherty has been part of the sailing revolution in Bellacragher for a number of years now and soon he and his friends were on board Butler's craft as he took them for a cruise around the bay.

Cooked sausages and bread were produced for the ravenous trainee sailors as the adults set challenges for them. Double rations would be given to anybody who could eat a sausage doused with Butler's famous hot sauce and a similar reward was given to anybody who would sing a song. Soon the mountains that envelop the bay echoed to the sound of happy songsters as the craft cut through the waves.

At the end of the trip Seamus nosed the Colvic towards the pier but stopped short of sanctuary. "Ye all have to jump off now," he told his shipmates. Soon the entire group had gathered along the deck and with a 'One, Two, Three' they left the safety of the yacht and launched themselves into the ancient waters of Bellacragher.

"Wild fun," they roared, "wild fun."

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