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The Magic of Mayo

cong, co. mayo

Near Cong, Co. Mayo - photo courtesy Bord Fáilte

by Suzanne Barrett

What is it about Mayo that brings people back time after time? Curious, I had to see for myself, and thus began my own love affair with this county of mountains (one of them holy), rolling plains, windswept coastline, and a shrine. The Mayo coastline from Killary Harbor to Killala Bay presents a wonderful succession of views from sandy beaches to cliffs with rugged headlands. Prominent in the area is the 2,500 foot Croagh Patrick, which rises from the shore of Clew Bay. Purported to be where St. Patrick spent forty days of prayer and fasting in 441 A.D., it is a place of pilgrimage for thousands on the last Sunday in July. A climb to the summit affords one of the finest panoramic views in Ireland. Achill Island, Clew Bay, central Mayo and even Connemara can be seen on a clear day.

Rounding the head of the fiord-like Killary Harbor is an area of outstanding beauty. The alternate road runs from Delphi to Louisburgh between the Sheffry Hills and the Mweelrea Mountains. Above Delphi on the left, Doo Lough appears as a long sheet of water with mountains on both sides. Louisburgh, a fishing village, is situated somewhat inland from the Bay. Fine sandy beaches are located at Cloughmoyle and Old Head.

From the mouth of Clew Bay, excursions to Clare Island can be made. Approximately 500 people live on the island, once the home of Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O'Malley), sea queen of the west. Her body lies in the ancient island abbey, and her massive square castle has served as a coast guard station and a police barracks. Grace was an extraordinary personality, and the subject of several novels.

Westport lies in an arm of Clew Bay and is a pleasant town with trees and groves surrounding it. It is unique in that it was designed to the plan of well-known architect William Wyatt. Lime trees line the Mall on both sides of the Carrowbeg River and it is one of the country's most charming thoroughfares. Westport House, a Georgian mansion designed by Richard Castle, is the home of the Marquess of Sligo. It has been in the family for over 300 years. Many fine English and Irish pictures grace its walls, plus there are exhibits of historical interest. The house is open to the public between April and September.

Castlebar is the county town of Mayo. It received its charter from James I in 1613. Perhaps it is better remembered historically for the routing General Lake received here by General Humbert in the 1798 Rebellion. John Moore, who was President of the Provisional Republic of Connacht in 1798, is buried in a plot beside the memorial on the Mall. Today, Castlebar, as well as Westport, are vibrant towns for visitors. Some of the best music sessions in Ireland originate in Westport pubs.

Medieval cross in CongTo the west, the Nephin Mountain Range looks down on the road from Newport to the l-shaped Achill Island. Achill is the largest of Ireland's islands and lies in a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area. The villages of Dooega, Dooagh, Keel, and Dugart dot the scenic coastline. Keel is a charming resort town with one of the finest strands in Ireland. At Dookinella a fine memorial marks the birthplace of Fr. Manus Sweeney, the patriot priest, who was hanged at Newport in 1799 for participating in the 1798 Rebellion.

Continuing north to Bangor, then northwest to Belmullet, the visitor sees a handful of gently sloping fields across a sheltered inlet of Broadhaven Bay. This is deceiving, however, because a few miles further on one realizes that these fields are reclaimed bog land of rushes and ragwort and mosses of soft green. Wiry grass and purple heather crowd the sloping brow of Erris Head, the northernmost point on the Mullet Peninsula. It is a wild and windy place where sheep huddle behind turf banks to keep warm and dry. Binghamstown, a few miles south, was an up-and-coming town in the nineteenth century. It declined as people shifted their commerce to the better situated Belmullet. There are several points of interest for the visitor. Sea angling is popular, the waters clean and rich. A ruined workhouse gives testament to the hardship this remote area faced during the famine years. Cross Abbey, perched atop a sandy hillock, is where Brendan the Navigator founded his beehive settlement in the sixth century. St. Dairbhile's Church on the southern tip of the peninsula, not far from Blacksod is an interesting ruin. Climbing through the window seven times protects one from drowning goes one superstition.

Here one understands the might of the Atlantic storms. The western coastline of the thirteen mile trip from Belmullet to Blacksod Point is completely denuded of vegetation, while the eastern shore is not.

The north coast of Mayo, accessible by a trunk road running through Killala, has some of the most interesting and grand cliffs in Ireland, well worth the side trip. Traveling east, we come again to Bangor, then Crossmolina near the shores of Lough Conn. The River Deel is now on the right hand side with the 2,646 foot high Mount Nephin towering on the left. A trunk road goes from Crossmolina to Castlebar along the western bank of Lough Conn. Errew Abbey, now only meagre ruins, is located on a jutting peninsula. Lough Conn is joined to the smaller Lough Cullen by a single-arched bridge. Both bodies of water hold large trout.

Ballina, eight miles east of Crossmolina on the River Moy, is the largest town in Mayo and an excellent angling center. The Moy is noted for its salmon and trout. A handsome, modern Catholic cathedral stands in the town; nearby are the remains of an Augustinian friary (A.D. 1427).

Foxford, in East Mayo is a sizable town with a woolen industry. The Foxford Woolen Mills Visitor Centre provide a unique experience to learn the story of a Sister of Charity who overcame enormous odds to establish a thriving industry in the town in 1892. A tour through the woolen mills affords visitors an opportunity to see skilled craftsmen producing the famous Foxford blankets, rugs, and tweeds. There is also a restaurant, Mill Shop, Art Gallery, and Exhibition Centre. They are open Mon.-Sat. 10am to 6pm and Sun. 2-6pm with tours running approximately every twenty minutes.

South of Castlebar is Claremorris, the railway junction for Knock. In 1879, fifteen people claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and Saint John the Evangelist by the south gable of Knock church, with a lamb and an altar surmounted by a cross. A group of pilgrims from Limerick visited three years later, and droves of people have been coming ever since. Many sick and aged have come, hoping for a cure. Bord Fá writes that apparitions are still the subject of eccliastical controversy. Even so, Knock has been popular enough to warrant its own airport.

Ballinrobe is a fine town situated on the Robe River near the eastern shore of Lough Mask. It is also an angling center, but its real value is its proximity to several sights of interest. Six miles north on the Ballinrobe-Westport road, the road forks with the main road going toward Castlebar. Three and one-half miles along this road lies Ballintubber Abbey. A cruciform church with nave, transepts, and choir, along with many fine windows, and a lofty gable provide much for the visitor. Nearby lies the monastic buildings with an altar tomb and fine row of figures on the pediment. The abbey was founded in 1216 by Cathal O'Connor, king of Connacht. Despite being wrecked by the Cromwellians, it is notable that Ballintubber has existed as a place of worship to the present day.

A return journey along the eastern shore of Lough Carra brings one to Carrownacon and the ruined Moore Hall, burned to a shell in 1923. The hall is the birthplace of famous novelist George Moore. His ashes are enclosed in an urn and buried on Castle Island in the lake.

'Quiet Man' cottage, Maam CrossThe most well-known Mayo town owes its fame to Hollywood. In 1951 John Ford made a film in Cong about a returned Yank and a farmer's fiery daughter starring John Wayne and Dublin's Maureen O'Hara. The Quiet Man endures in this part of the country where visitors can see the recreated 'Quiet Man' cottage at Maam Cross and the medieval cross in Cong which served as a real prop where many of the scenes were shot.

Cong's Augustinian Abbey was founded in 1128. Here Roderick O'Connor, the last high king of Ireland died in 1198, having spent the final fifteen years of his life in monastic seclusion. Visitors will enjoy the atmosphere of the ruins, especially the Monk's Fishing-House (seen in The Quiet Man). The famous processional Cross of Cong, now in Dublin's National Museum, was made for the Cathedral of Tuam by order of Turlough O'Connor. Its function was to enshrine a portion of the True Cross. Turlough's son, Roderick, brought the masterpiece of Irish art to Cong where it was found in a chest in the early nineteenth century.

Also in the vicinity of Cong is Ashford Castle, a luxury hotel set deep in the heartland of Mayo and with a nearly eight hundred year history. Originally built by the de Burgos on the site of a sixth-century monastery, Ashford has seen many changes over the years. Plan a visit to this magnificent 26,000 acre estate with a world class golf course and stately gardens.

Between Cong and The Neale lies the Plain of Southern Moytura, a prehistoric battlefield where the Tuatha Dé Danann inflicted the first great defeat on the Firbolgs.

Mayo has more magic--I've but touched on the highlights. I hope they inspire you to find a little magic of your own.

Do you have a question about Ireland? The Ireland for Visitors Forum is available with many helpful members.

Until next time.

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Donegal Castle

Ashford Castle, Co. Mayo

'Quiet Man' cottage - photo by author; other photos courtesy Bord Fáilte

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