FALL IN LOVE WITH MAYO: #7 – THE SOUTHERN LOOP

Soft day. Thank God! smiles the waiter at breakfast.

Soft day. Thank God! nods the cleaner in the hallway, waiting to start on the bedrooms.

Soft day. Thank God! chirps the receptionist on our way out.

What is WRONG with you all!!!

I don’t WANT a ‘soft day!

I want heat and sunshine! (but I’d settle for some nice puffy clouds).

There’s NO way to put a positive spin on this day – and, by the way, it’s anything but ‘soft’!

It’s a rotten morning!

I’m still expounding the wonders of County Mayo folks – I’d NO idea there was so much to see and do! Now there’s no way you’re going to get 11 days in Mayo with great weather throughout!!! – I’ve warned you regularly throughout this series. So you make the most of it and try to plan accordingly. Options for this particular bad day were either stay in with a book or go for a drive –

So we went for a drive……

This tour begins and ends in the town of Westport. We’ll be travelling in an anticlockwise direction and straying into county Galway for a while…

Westport

Westport is gorgeous – you could happily spend a few days here. The town has won so many awards over the years including a ‘Best Place to live in Ireland ‘ award in 2012.   There’s plenty to do and see and the food is great.   

I wrote about Westport back in 2018 so have a look here.

Clew Bay

As we leave Westport, we follow the road around the south side of Clew Bay. The bay has 365 islands – one for every day of the year! Of those, 117 are part of a drowned DRUMLIN field…. a Drumlin (Droimnín = littlest field) is a small half egg shaped hill formed by the movement of glacial ice.

Croagh Patrick

Before we left Dublin, I thought we might climb Croagh Patrick one morning and then do this drive the same afternoon – I suppose, in theory, it’s doable but I wouldn’t fancy it!!

Croagh Patrick – known locally as The Reek – is Ireland’s holiest mountain. (Croagh means hill or mountain). It’s thought to have been a pilgrimage route as far back as 3000BC when pagans gathered to celebrate the start of the harvest season at the festival of Lughnasa – traditionally held around August 1. (Lúnasa is the Irish for August). It was believed to be the dwelling place of the old Celtic fertility deity Crom Dubh. and even though Crom Dubh was considered to possess evil powers, women often slept on the summit during the festival to encourage fertility.

Roll on to 441AD when St. Patrick supposedly fasted on top of the mountain for 40 days.

At the end of his fast, Patrick threw a bell down the mountainside and banished all the snakes from Ireland. (The fact that snakes were never native to Ireland cannot be allowed stand in the way of a good story!!)

The site became an important place of Christian pilgrimage – a dry stone oratory, dating to between 430 and 890AD, was discovered on the summit.

Nowadays, The Reek attracts about 1 million visitors annually, some 25,000 of those making the climb on the last Sunday in July – Reek Sunday. This was a night pilgrimage up until 1973, and many still opt to do the climb barefooted.

I say ‘visitor’ rather than pilgrim – many of those who do the climb – especially on Reek Sunday – are indeed the faithful who believe that the journey to the top is an act of penance. But for most, the climb has no religious meaning and just offers an opportunity to enjoy a good workout with breathtaking views.

The National Famine Memorial

Sitting at the foot of Croagh Patrick, this sculpture commemorates those who perished during the Great Famine of 1845 – 52. It depicts a “coffin ship” with dead souls hanging from the rigging. (The term coffin ship was applied to the overcrowded boats leaving Ireland, filled with emigrants fleeing the famine).

An estimated one million people died when the staple potato crop failed. About another million emigrated to the USA, Canada and elsewhere.

Murrisk Abbey

In 1457 the chief of the O’Malley clan donated land to the Augustinians for a Friary. It is believed that relics of St. Patrick ( including a tooth) were kept in the church which became the starting point of the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage

Clew Bay Archaeological Trail

I didn’t know about this until I saw the signpost – its the kind of thing I’d be happy to spend a day following up on- maybe another time…

The trail stretches from Westport along the bay and even out to Clare Island. Along the way, it takes in 21 archaeological and heritage sites.

Glaspatrick Church

Mostly overrun with briars, the ruins of the Church at Glaspatrick are in poor condition, but it is thought that this church belongs to the medieval period – probably early 12th century. It takes its name from glaise PhadraigPatrick’s stream – a stream that runs from the top of Croagh Patrick. The cemetery was mainly used for the burial of islanders of Clew Bay. There is also a holy well on the site.

Roonagh Pier and Clare Island

The pier accommodates the ferry service to Clare Island, just 5km from the mainland. The daily 20 minute sailing schedule is increased during the summer. The island is supposed to be beautiful with great scenery, birdwatching and walks as well as a sandy beach and a castle.

There is also a ferry service to Inishturk.

The journey out to the islands is worth it alone for the uninterrupted views of the Mayo coastline including Croagh Patrick and Achill Island.

The next part of the drive offers up narrow country roads, barren landscapes and some gorgeous unspoilt beaches – White Strand, Silver Strand…- imagine the sunsets! (well- not today obviously!!)

Doolough Valley

Nestled between the mountains, this should be one of the highlights of the drive…. stunning even today…

Cant believe I’m in my winter coat…. in June!!!

But the sunglasses stay on!!!

This beautiful place is forever associated alas, with a heartbreaking Famine story…

In 1849, the 600 odd population of nearby Louisburgh was starving.

On Friday 30 March 1849, two officials of the Poor Law Union arrived in Louisburgh to verify that the people in receipt of famine relief should continue to receive it. The inspection, for some reason, did not take place and the two officials went on to Delphi Hunting Lodge,  19 km south of Louisburgh, to spend the night. Several hundred people had gathered for the inspection and were told to appear at Delphi Lodge at 7am the following morning if they wished to continue receiving relief. For much of the night, many, in an already weakened state, walked in very bad weather through the Doolough Valley. At Delphi Lodge their request for help was denied and countless died of hunger and frost on the roadside on their way home.

A stone memorial, the Doolough Famine Memorial, in the form of a simple stone cross, was erected in memory of the victims of the famine in this area and in particular those who died that fateful night. The memorial includes and inscription from Mahatma Gandhi:

“How can men feel themselves
Honoured by the humiliation
of their fellow beings”

A walk is held along this route each year to remember the Doolough dead and to highlight the continuing starvation of the world’s poor. Among those who have joined the walk are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, some Chernobyl Children, Kim Phuc (the little girl running down the road in that famous photograph from the Vietnam war). In 1990, representatives of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma lead the walk. They were invited in recognition of the US$170 in famine relief their forebears sent to Ireland in 1847.

At a press conference prior to the walk, Archbishop Tutu was asked why he had travelled from South Africa to such a remote part of the world.

And his response?

“Why Bethlehem?”

The road continues through the valley and Delphi before reaching Killary Harbour

Killary Harbour

With majestic mountain views all around, Killary Harbour boasts some of the most spectacular scenery in the west of Ireland.

2 points –

Firstly, I get a lot of travel related pressies of course but years ago I was given Unforgettable Places to see before you die – A BBC publication which I still love and has pride of place on my shelf.

The 40 entries are real bucket list stuff and I’ve been able to tick 19 off over the years – Uluru, Varanasi, Petra, Zanzibar, etc….. and, and, and…. Killary Harbour!!!! Now on the one hand I’m seriously chuffed that there is an Irish entry among the greats. But the jury is definitely out on this being the best pick of the country… ah well, to each his own as they say! (And NO! Don’t ask me what I’d choose – I haven’t a clue!!)

Secondly – A fjord or not a fjord!!

Killary boasts of being Ireland’s only true fjord

Definition – a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created by a glacier.

However, it’s often listed as one of Ireland’s 3 fjords – the others being Lough Swilly and Carlingford Lough.

But seemingly those 2 could be fjards.

Now Geography was one of my majors in college and I never heard of a fjard until today…

Definition – a large open space of water between groups of islands or mainland in archipelagos.

And in case anyone really wants to follow up on this, apparently it is disputed whether Killary was actually formed by glaciers at all!

I for one, actually don’t care!!!

The fjord – or whatever it is! – extends 16km in from the Atlantic, and, to be fair, it IS impressive. Forming a border between counties Galway and Mayo, this is a true haven for those lovers of outdoor pursuits. Along the shores are fabulous opportunities for hill walking, trekking, cycling and bird watching. The fjord is deep – 45metres at the centre – and offers safe, sheltered anchorage for your yacht. Or you can enjoy a 90 minute cruise along the fjord and out into the Altlantic (maybe spotting a dolphin or an otter), or scuba diving.

Killary is also a centre for shellfish farming. Aquaculture is an important industry here and mussels and clams grown in Killary Harbour can be tasted locally or bought at the Westport Country Market every Thursday morning,

Alas, we won’t see much today….

The road follows along to the head of the fjord and Aasleagh falls.

Aasleagh Falls

This is the River Erriff, before it flows into Killary Harbour. There is some parking on the roadway and a path to the small (about 3.5metres) but impressive waterfall. This is a great spot for salmon fishing if that’s your thing!

I didn’t think this day could get any worse… but it does!

Despite the grey skies, it’s still possible to appreciate the surroundings (from the comfort of the car of course!)

Lough Corrib

This is Lough Corrib -the second largest fresh water lake in Ireland. It stretches about 35 miles in length while width varies from a quarter of a mile to 8 miles.

The lake is reputed to have 365 islands, the most famous being Inchagaoill with its early monastic settlement. Filled with salmon and wild brown trout, this is recognised as one of the best game fisheries in the world. Not alone that, its waters support one of the largest areas of wetland vegetation in the country and offer an abundance of wildlife. There are numerous angling centres around the lake but, if you’re not into fishing, the best way to enjoy the lake is by a one or two hour cruise.

Cong

The village of Cong is a popular tourist stop.

Luckily for us, it actually stops raining for a while and the weather miraculously clears enough to get out and about for a bit……

The decorated limestone Market Cross on the main street is said to mark the completion of the Royal Abbey of Cong in the 12th century. It’s not actually a cross as such, but a modern shaft inserted into an earlier cross base and capped with part of the original cross.

The medieval Irish inscription reads:

OR DO NIAHOL AG DO GILLIBERD O’DUBTHAIGH RABIH ABAIDDE AGT CUNGA

(Pray for Niahol and Gilbert O’Dubthaigh, who were abbots in Cong).

The date 1350 is carved on the back – thought to be a restoration date.

The 12th century Augustinian Abbey is the focal point of the village and a huge tourist attraction.

Built on the site of an earlier 6th/7th century monastery, the abbey was founded in the early 12th century by the then High King of Ireland, Turlough O’Connor. It served many purposes – hospital, place of learning, shelter for the poor… At its height, it had 3,000 inhabitants, including many scholars and skilled craftsmen. Known as the Royal Abbey of Cong, it also enjoyed the patronage of Turlough’s son Rory O’Connor – the last High King of Ireland – who is believed to have died here in 1198.

The Abbey backs on to the River Cong

This is the Monk’s Fishing House – probably 15th/16th century.

Fish would have been a major feature on the monks’ menu. This small house was built to allow a passage for water to flow underneath. A trapdoor in the floor allowed the monks fish in relative comfort while a fireplace kept them warm. It is said that a line was strung from here up to the abbey kitchen, to alert the cooks when there was fish to be cooked.

The footbridge beside the Fishing House leads to the 3km and 8km Cong Forest Nature Trails.

The Church of St. Mary of the Rosary is located right beside the Abbey. It was built in 1971–1973 on the site of a former church built in 1864 . The church incorporates a number of older stained glass windows from the former church, among them the Holy Family Window by the Harry Clarke Studios in Dublin.

Harry Clarke (1889–1931) was born in Dublin, where his father ran a church decorating business and stained glass studio. He was apprenticed in 1905 to his father’s business but also attended schools of art in Dublin and London. His first stained glass commission was for the Honan Chapel in University College Cork. Between 1917 and 1931, despite ill health, he carried out many commissions for churches in Ireland and abroad- 17 churches with Clarke stained glass windows have been identified in Mayo alone. One of his most famous works is the Geneva Window, commissioned in 1927 for the International Labour Building of the United Nations. He died in 1931 en route home from Switzerland where he had been sent by his doctors to fight tuberculosis.

Just picture this sleepy west of Ireland village in 1951! There’s economic stagnation and ongoing rationing from the war. The Rural Electrification Scheme, rolled out in 1946, has yet to reach its inhabitants who still depend on oil-burners and candles. Apart from its own migrants and emigrants, no one really knows, nor cares, much about the place.

Then along comes John Ford!!!

Hollywood director Ford had been searching for a location for his next project – The Quiet Man – and Cong ticked all the boxes. He descended on the village with his 80 strong entourage of technical and acting personnel, equipment and paraphernalia the likes which the locals could not have even imagined existed. He brought stars Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne – dressed in white tropical trousers and a crimson shirt no less, much to everyone’s astonishment and amusement!

Ford got straight down to business – he campaigned for the electrification scheme to be speeded up, knowing how much power was needed for filming. Locals were delighted (although the story goes that some were none too happy when they later discovered they’d actually have to pay for it!). He had telephone lines fitted in the area. He even had wheaten soda bread brought in for everyone – despite the ongoing bread rationing. He drafted in 200 locals for 30 shillings per day and the rest, as they say, is history.

The newly formed Irish Tourist Board couldn’t have asked for a better start! And Cong is still shamelessly milking it! The village is now synonymous with the movie classic and there are landmarks, events and attractions aplenty – including dramatisations, memorabilia, film screenings, a branded cafe and a heritage centre – to occupy the surge of tourists to ‘Quiet Man Country’.

Sir William Wilde, father of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, was a surgeon, antiquarian and amateur archaeologist. His wife, Lady Wilde was an avid writer and wrote for ‘The Nation’ newspaper.

The Wilde family spent long periods at their country home here in Cong. Their son, Oscar, frequently returned to the area throughout his life.

I am sure you will like this wild mountainous country, close to the Atlantic and teeming with sport of all kinds. It is every way magnificent and makes me years younger than actual history records.

(Oscar Wilde)

Lough Mask

I know, I know, I know – you’ve always wondered where exactly the Annual World Cup Trout Fly Championship is held…..

Well – all is now revealed – it’s here at Lough Mask, 10 miles long and 4 miles wide and presumably teeming with trout! An underground river links it to Lough Corrib.

Beware!

A banshee haunts Bly Island, a small island in the lough, and there have been rumored sightings of a banshee around the shore of the lough!!!

The banshee ( bean=woman/ sí= fairy >>>> Woman of the Fairies) is a female spirit who roams the countryside and can be heard wailing – usually at night – when someone is about to die. She appears in a number of guises – as a beautiful young woman, a stately matron or an old wretched hag. She is usually dressed in a grey or white hooded cloak and her eyes are permanently red due to constant weeping.

It is said that she only cries for 5 Irish clans – O’ Neills, O’ Connors, O’ Briens, O’ Gradys and Kavanaghs. However, intermarriage has obviously extended this exclusive list!!!

Tourmakeady Wood

Tourmakeady Wood was first planted in the mid-19thcentury by a Bishop Plunkett. Plunkett was a hated landlord who was eventually forced out of the area and, while he may not have been the most popular of men, he left behind a lovely woodland of oak, alder, birch, hazel, ash, and Scots pine.

There’s a nice looped trail here….

….leading to a beautiful waterfall.

A 30 minute drive brings us back to Westport to complete the loop.

As we get back to the hotel for hot whiskeys (in June for Heaven’s sake!), I vow that if I ever get to leave this country again I’ll never, ever moan about being too hot – ever!

Before you go…..

Have a look at the rest in this Mayo series…

#1 GREAT WESTERN GREENWAY

#2 MULLET PENINSULA

#3 TÍR SÁILE

#4 CROAGH PATRICK

#5 ACHILL ISLAND

#6 THE CÉIDE COAST

WESTPORT

37 thoughts on “FALL IN LOVE WITH MAYO: #7 – THE SOUTHERN LOOP

  1. This looks like a weather review of Ireland. In Cong I used to enjoy walking to Ashford Castle. I’m not sure whether the gardens are still freely accessible.

    1. Didn’t go near the castle – even for a look – it was too miserable. I believe there’s a charge now – €5 per adult….

    1. AS I was putting it together, I was listing the reasons to go back – even to just this part of the county – I’d like to do all the Archaeological Trail, I’d like to go out to Clare Island and of course I’d love to actually complete Croagh Patrick… So much in such a small place!

      1. What a wonderfully informative post. Visiting Ireland was on the bucket list but, unless world events improve, my experience may have to be through your post! Thank you for sharing all of it. Warm wishes —

      2. I truly hope you make it one day. I think you’d love the experience. Meanwhile, my own bucket list isn’t looking good for a long while either so I’ll be concentrating on Ireland for some time to come! XXXMarie

      3. Knowing how much I loved Scotland (although it’s also in my genes), I think I’d love Ireland too. Come to think of it, Ireland is also in my genes. 🙂 I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t love Ireland or want to return. Hopefully it won’t take too long for you to be able to cross some things off that bucket list. Warm wishes — XXX

      4. Well you know what they say…
        There are only 2 kinds of people in the world, the Irish and those who wish they were!!!!😅 😂

        XXXM

  2. Great post and such wonderful photos, Marie 🙂 County Mayo is such a beautiful place to explore and photograph, but you have to be prepared to wear a winter coat in summer – I always bring one with me just in case because even in June, the weather can change in instant. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

  3. Wow – beautiful photos and terrific narrative. We visited John Ford/John Wayne movie country in Utah this fall – fun to read about their adventure in Ireland.

  4. Your blog reminds me of my husband. When he had the ‘Ach, it’s only a soft rain’ for the umpteenth time in four days on our Killarney trip he exploded to me “What the hell’s the matter with these people. It’s bloody raining, non-stop, end of …” Oh, to be in Ireland, now that spring is just around the corner!

    1. Only we Irish could put a positive spin on such dismal weather😅 😂. There’s a little stretch already in the evenings Mari, which gives us a bit of a lift.
      PS – did the blog open ok for you this time?

  5. Wonderful post as always Marie. The Doolough business was unbelievable wasn’t it? No wonder the memories of Britain in Ireland are not fond ones. Westport I never took to, but I’m not sure what I expected from Matt Molloy’s in mid-afternoon 🙂 Leenane in Killary Harbour is pretty cold on a Sunday morning waiting for the start of the Connemara Half Marathon.

    1. I can take Westport in small doses. A bit touristy all right but I feel they work hard at avoiding too much tackiness. That must be a beautiful route for a race – can you actually appreciate it as you run or is it a case of ‘could be anywhere’ as you concentrate on getting the deed done?

      1. The route is gorgeous Marie, Leenane down to Maam Cross. I absolutely loved it (three times, some years back) though possibly the Irish lads were a little less starstruck.

      2. Sounds idyllic Roy. Apart from the exercise part of course… and the training … and the weather….😅 😂

  6. A wonderful drive with you despite the weather! Actually, some of the views look particularly atmospheric BECAUSE of the weather, dare I say?! I don’t know where to start in picking out highlights – the moving coffin ship sculpture, that beautiful stained glass in the church in Cong, the tale of the banshee, the walk through Tourmakeady Wood to that lovely waterfall … Oh, and I have that ‘Unforgettable places ..’ book and am trying to tick off as many as I can, but you’ve beaten me with Killary 😆

  7. Every single one of your travel Ireland posts makes me want to get on a plane and to hell with Covid! I loved the short time we had in Ireland and someday we do hope to return. Your blog gives such a great look at the different areas.

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