Achill-henge: A monument that divides Ireland
16 February 2012
By Kieran Cooke BBC News
Ireland has plenty of ancient settlements and monuments. But on Achill Island, off the far west coast - up a mountain and in the middle of a bog - sits a different kind of monument that locals are calling Achill-henge. The wind is so strong, just opening the car door takes considerable effort. A spitting downpour of hail hits the flesh like shards of glass. Balancing on one foot in a gale to put on waterproof trousers is not a good idea. I am blown, hopping, along the rough track, eventually toppling into a soft - and very wet - patch of bog.
Achill Island is about as far west in Europe as you can go: "From here it's next stop New York," said the man in the bar. On a bright summer day its rolling boglands and towering cliffs have a haunting, majestic beauty. But on a winter afternoon, with a force 10 gale blowing, Achill really does feel like the end of the road, the edge of the earth. Leaning into the wind, I struggle for about 1.5km (1 mile) up the mountain, its top covered in a thin layer of snow, like sugar powder sprinkled on a cake. And then, rising out of the bog as if it is some science fiction creation, it comes into view - a massive circular concrete construction of 30 columns, each more than 4m (13ft) high. The edifice, a very modern looking coliseum, is topped by a ring of stone: in all the construction is more than 100m in circumference.
Taking their cue from ancient Stonehenge in southern England, locals have been quick to name the site Achill-henge. Only a short time after it was built, roughly-made signs now guide the adventurous visitor up the slippery mountain path. A local developer with a grudge against the authorities is responsible for Achill-henge. In the past, he has driven a cement mixer into gates of the Irish Parliament to protest about what he sees as the politicians' inept handling of the financial crisis.
I struggle up on to a pile of stone and wet earth to take a picture. What is visible through the rain-soaked lens is peculiar, alien and definitely mysterious. To some, it is Ireland's latest tourist attraction. To others, yet another example of developers' wanton butchery of the Irish landscape.
The hail has gone but another storm is galloping in from the Atlantic. In between the downpours, the high cliffs in the distance are lit by rays of sunlight. You feel the weather here in every fibre of your being. It is desolate. Achill has always been a place of leaving. In one area, a whole village stands deserted - a relic to those who left during the mid-19th Century famine. A railway once ran from Achill all the way east to Dublin. Each summer teams of locals would leave to go picking potatoes in Scotland and England.
During the recent boom, years of the so-called Celtic Tiger, people did return to live on what is Ireland's largest island. Now, what with financial bail-outs and the economic downturn, emigration has once again become a fact of life.
There are varying opinions about Achill-henge: even those virulently opposed to the construction admit it is a considerable feat of engineering - built over a weekend in November without planning permissions - by a team of workers hauling giant concrete slabs up the mountain side and sinking them in the bog. "It would have taken the council five years to do anything like that," says one local.
Achill has always had a reputation as a wild place, where the rule of law does not always apply. Over the years, writers and artists have been drawn to the islands' rugged landscape, the clarity of its light - and its tempestuous storms. Graham Greene spent time here in a tumbledown house, writing and pursuing his then lover, a rich and eccentric society beauty. The German writer Heinrich Boll was a frequent visitor - it was a place, he said, where you could play truant from Europe. What, I wonder, would they have thought of Achill-henge?
Orders to demolish the construction have gone unheeded. Strangely, the man responsible for the project has said little about what Achill-henge is, what it represents or exactly what he intends to do with it. A poll in a local newspaper found that most people feel Achill-henge should be left standing. Some see it as a place of contemplation, or even as a daring art installation. It is causing plenty of confusion. One man summed up the general feeling. "It is meaningless - in a way - so each of us can put our own meaning on it."