According to my AA Touring Guide To Ireland (1966), Mayo is “a place of stones and sheep, mild rain and mountain mists that magnify the brooding qualities of an introspective landscape…the strange other-world aspects of its mountains and lakes, boglands and stone-scattered flats, is reflected in the pride of its people.”
As I drove across country towards Connacht, I wondered if I’d need to get a new guide, or if the almost fifty-year-old AA gazetteer would still suffice. Well, I’m delighted to report that not too many other things seem to have changed substantially in Mayo.
Westport was to be my base for carrying out further research into the area.
Situated at the southerly corner of Clew Bay, Westport looks out onto the Atlantic straight across to America. Or nearly does. You can’t actually see much of the main Ocean because the bay is littered with a vast number of almost impossibly beautiful, green-topped islands, almost clichés of the form.
W.M. Thackeray described the scene: “The islands in the bay, which was of a gold colour, look like so many dolphins and whales basking there.” There are some 435 islands in total – or as a local put it to me: one for each day of the year, with, er, a few left over.
Now in describing the sea as ‘azure’ I use the term imaginatively, in the same way that Thackeray, presumably, used the word gold. Because as you will be aware, clouds are not unknown in this neck of the woods.
True there was a tentative smudge of sun as I walked up Toberbrendan for a better view of the surroundings, but the squelchy ground underfoot suggested that this was something of a rare event.
The scenery is breathtaking, and the town itself is a handsome place, still recognisably Georgian, and with a distinctly cosmopolitan air. There is a theory that a French architect, who arrived with General Humbert in 1798, designed the town giving it its je ne sais quoi, if you’ll pardon my French.
With scenery as dramatic as that which surrounds Westport, the town is of course firmly on the tourist trail. Throw in a good legend as well, and the place is irresistible.
Much is made of the area’s connection with the ‘pirate queen’ Gráinne Ni Mhaille or Gráinne Uaile, aka Grace O’Malley. Her headquarters were a castle where Westport House now stands — and even without the accompanying legends this is an elegant mansion to visit.
For a further overview of the area you could also swing by the Clew Bay Heritage Centre on The Quay. Here you’ll find a higglety pigglety collection of artefacts – including flachters and scraws for turf cutting, coins, ancient postcards, stamps and documents.
In fact, with the exception of the afore-mentioned flachters and scraws, more or less the contents of your office drawer.
Engaging though these places are, the glory of Westport is its setting amongst the finest scenery you’ll find anywhere in the world. A few miles up the coast are the idyllic villages such as Mulraney, a little further inland mountain lakes and rivers teem with trout and salmon.
Mayo really does have everything: Knock shrine and Croagh Patrick for contemplation, The Quiet Man industry at Cong for film buffs, and of course Clew Bay itself, with the formidable crags of the Nephin Beg range nudging the Atlantic.
Nowhere in Ireland resonates with more unchanging tradition than here in the West. Farmers are tilling the same fields that generations of Connacht farmers have tilled before them. The Mayo landscape can be melancholy – desolate even – here at the very edge of Europe.
But it’s a place everyone should visit at least once.
Places to visit
Country Life Museum
Just outside Castlebar the National Museum of Ireland (Country Life) in Turlough Park House paints the story of rural Ireland in vivid exhibitions and displays. Artifacts, folklore and stories have been collected together to represent every aspect of a very recently disappeared way of life.
The exhibitions, on four floors, focus on customs and festivals, farming and fishing, trades and crafts, life in the home (including furniture and fittings) as well as the clothes made and worn by country people during the period 1850 – 1950.
Rare video footage and photography are used to recreate the original settings in which the objects were made and used. It’s fascinating stuff, and an essential visit for anyone with even a passing interest in our history.
Ballintubber Abbey, founded by King Cathal O’Connor in 1216, is known as ‘the abbey that refused to die’. No wonder. Mass has been continuously celebrated here for the thick end of 800 years despite vicissitudes that would have sunk most establishments.
It has survived famine, oppression, edicts from Henry VII, Penal Laws and near-destruction by Oliver Cromwell. Although the roof has been missing at various times during the abbey’s history, the Faithful continued to come and pray here.
In 1966 the nave was restored and re-roofed, in time for the 750th anniversary of the abbey’s foundation (but not quite in time to be included in my AA gazettee).
The abbey has several contemporary attractions, including a very modern abstract Way of the Cross, an underground permanent Crib, and a Rosary Way.
Ballintubber Abbey marks the beginning of Tochar Phádraig, the ancient pilgrimage route to Croagh Patrick, long defunct but now reopened as a cross-country pilgrimage trail. However, as it passes over private land the pilgrim’s way is only opened on certain days of the year.
The route is named after Saint Patrick, but pre-dates Christianity; it was probably built as the main route from Cruachan (seat of the Kings of Connacht) to Cruachan Aigle, the pagan name for Croagh Patrick.
Since August 21, 1879 Knock has been a major centre for prayer. Its massive basilica, the largest church in Ireland can hold 15,000 people; the shrine complex also has a health centre for the visiting sick, a museum and a confessional chapel, where up to 60 priests hear sins at one sitting in high season.
There are 18 holy water fonts, two convents, a good delicatessen, umpteen souvenir shops and, it has to be said, nine pubs at the last count.
On the day of an organised pilgrimage the shrine area is thronged by thousands of pilgrims. Public devotions are held, a procession is formed and ceremonies are carried out with simplicity and decorum.
The little church of St John, or Apparition Chapel, with the celebrated gable end where the apparitions took place, now feature larger-than-life statues in glowing Carrara marble.
Pope John Paul II visited Knock in 1979 and is reported to have been very moved by the experience. Aside from papal visits, over a million pilgrims — the faithful and curious of all continents — annually make their way to the Connacht town.
Amongst these, thousands of ill and disabled people come on pilgrimage and are, for the most part looked after largely by volunteers – even if you’re not a devout believer, Knock is a moving place to witness the better side of human nature.
Foxford Woollen Mills
The Foxford Woollen Mills, for long a byword in fabric manufacture, re-opened in 2007 with the relaunch of full time production. Originally founded in 1892 by a nun and a Northern Protestant, the mill had shut down in the eighties due to lack of demand for natural fibres.
Today the mill is working flat out, and the Visitors’ Centre tells the whole story of the efforts of Sister of Charity Agnes-Morough Bernard and mill-owner John Charles Smith to bring unemployment to the then blighted area, struggling to recover from the rigours of repeated potato famine and colonial repression.
Discreetly situated behind towering ramparts of beech and oak, Enniscoe House is undoubtedly one of Mayo’s hidden treasures. Overlooking Lough Conn, its backdrop is the towering Nephin, standing some 806 metres – see if you can climb it before tea.
Originally a stately home, Enniscoe House dates back to the 1700s. It was briefly commandeered by General Humbert in 1798, just prior to his final effort with the United Irishmen to rid Ireland of its colonial presence.
Enniscoe now offers first class accommodation and award-winning cuisine. But it’s more than a B&B – the estate encompasses a small museum, a renowned genealogy centre and a restored Victorian walled garden.
At the northern end of the county farmers have been tending their crops for more than 5000 years. The Céide Fields are a snapshot of what the Irish countryside looked like some five millennia ago, proof that a highly organised, sophisticated and spiritually-minded farming community was working away here in happy isolation.
Five miles west of Ballycastle, Co. Mayo, burial sites and field systems date back 5000 years. Part of the bog has been cut away to reveal the collapsed stone walls of the ancient fields, and there’s an award-winning interpretative centre where you can get an idea how our early ancestors lived.
Westport House should be visited not least because of its magnificent setting on the edge of Clew Bay. Thackeray described the scenery hereabouts as “the most beautiful in the world” and it would be hard to disagree with old Billy Makepeace.
The mainland of Ireland suddenly stops here and the land appears to have shattered into thousands of tiny misty and mystical islands.
Westport is the largest and most important country house west of the Shannon and remains in the possession of the family that built it. Since the late eighteenth century, visitors have marvelled at the building’s ‘up yours’ style of architecture.
It used to have a beautiful demesne but sadly, as is the way of these things in Ireland, this has been seriously mutilated by development in recent decades.
Clew Bay trail
The Clew bay Archaeological Trail takes you back some 6000 years to pre-Christian and earl Christian sites. Stretching from Westport to Louisburgh and then on to Clare Island, the trail takes in 21 sites including the statue of St Patrick at the foot of Croagh Patrick, The Quay in Westport and the Neolithic carvings of the Boheh Stone.
From megalithic tombs and stone alignments to a ruined medieval abbey, plus the moving and stunning National Famine Monument at Murrisk and the infamous lady sea-captain’s castle on Clare Island, there is something to capture everyone’s imagination.
A book containing maps, extremely clear directions and information on all the sites is available at the tourist office and various retail outlets in and around Westport