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Far from pulling up at the county border, the wonderful mountain scenery found in Connemara marches on into the south of County Mayo (Maigh Eo), in the substantial shape of Mweelrea, the Sheefry Hills and the Partry Mountains. These ranges culminate in the conical peak of Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, beyond which change is announced by the trough of Clew Bay, the extension of a geological fault that runs all the way to the Scottish Highlands. Unless you’re beetling direct to Westport on the N59, two possible routes out of Connemara into south Mayo present themselves. You can detour east to the abbey town of Cong, right on the county border, sharing many similarities with Oughterard, to which it is linked by boat trips across Lough Corrib. Or you can forge through the heart of the mountains from Leenane to Louisburgh, which gives access to the charming islands of Inishturk and Clare at the mouth of Clew Bay. Either way, you’re almost certain to end up in Westport, a refined, lively, Georgian base, terminus of the railway line from Dublin and hub for local buses.
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The county’s other main tourist centre is Achill at the northwest corner of Clew Bay, Ireland’s largest island and a popular resort. Beyond this, there’s mile after mile of wild, dramatic landscape, but only a few specific attractions: the stunning discovery of a Neolithic farm system at Céide Fields justifies a journey to the north coast if you have the time, while a short way east of Westport is the impressive National Museum of Country Life at Castlebar.
Measuring 8km by 5km, Clare Island manages to cram in two hills, Knockmore (462m) and its little brother Knocknaveen (223m) to the east, behind which the mighty sea cliffs along the northwest shore are home to important breeding colonies of seabirds, notably fulmars. Other rare birds found on the island include peregrines, choughs and barnacle geese, while notable plants include petalwort, a species of liverwort. A leaflet available on the boats details five walks on the island, including a complete circuit which takes about six hours.
The harbour, which shelters a Blue Flag beach with fine views of the mainland mountains, is guarded by a well-preserved, sixteenth-century tower house, which was the main stronghold of Grace O’Malley. In the middle of the island’s south shore near the post office and shop, she – or more likely a relative of hers – is buried in an ornate Gothic tomb in the mid-thirteenth-century Cistercian abbey. More notable from an artistic point of view are the frescoes in the chancel, among the finest extant medieval paintings in Ireland, which depict cattle raids, people hunting and fishing, musicians, dragons and griffins.
Rising to 764m to the east of Louisburgh, the cone of Croagh (pronounced “croak”) Patrick dominates Clew Bay and the Westport area. It was the pagan home of the mother goddess, now converted into the holiest mountain in Christian Ireland, and on a fine day offers an awesome panorama, stretching from the Twelve Bens in the south to Slieve League in the north.
The starting point for the ascent of Croagh Patrick is the excellent visitor centre on the R335 on the north side of the peak. Here you’ll find lockers, showers, advice about the climb and the weather, an excellent café and a DVD on the history of the mountain (on request). During his long missionary tour of the island, St Patrick is supposed to have passed the forty days of Lent in 441 alone on the mountain, finding time to hurl all of Ireland’s snakes to their deaths over the precipice of Lugnanarrib just to the south of the summit. This association with the saint has made Croagh Patrick the focus of major pilgrimages, which take place three times a year, on March 17 (St Patrick’s Day), August 15 (Assumption Day) and – the main event – on the last Sunday in July, Reek Day (which coincides with the pagan harvest festival of Lughnasa). On this day, tens of thousands of pilgrims still make the climb to attend Mass on the summit, some of them fasting and walking barefoot.
The climb itself, taking on average 3hr 30min return, is easy to follow though very steep in places – you’ll need good walking shoes and preferably a stick, available from the visitor centre. At the summit you’ll find a small chapel that took twelve men six months to construct in 1905, though archeologists have discovered evidence of much earlier building work up here, a massive rampart dating from pagan times.
Set on the picturesque shores of Clew Bay, WESTPORT is an agreeable, easy-going town that matches its location with some fine architecture. Its main visitor attraction is Westport House, a graceful, Georgian mansion now surrounded by a country park of rides and amusements, which separates the town centre from Westport Harbour. The centre itself was laid out in classical style in 1780 for the Browne family of Westport House by James Wyatt, who built a striking, octagonal square and canalized the Carrowbeg River, flanking it with the tree-lined Mall. More recently, the town has developed an artsy, cosmopolitan feel, attracting many visitors and residents from other parts of Ireland and Europe. During the summer, the place is abuzz, especially for the prestigious, ten-day Arts Festival in early October (wwww.westportartsfestival.com).
The National Museum of Country Life digs beneath the dewy-eyed nostalgia that besets popular images of rural Ireland to reveal the harsh realities of country life from 1850 to 1950. Even the scenic approach, 8km east of Castlebar off the N5, fits into the picture, with the museum’s sleek, modern lines reflected in the beautiful lake of Turlough Park
The exhibition is on three levels: Level -1 includes a brief but worthwhile history of the period from an ordinary person’s point of view, with examples of the ingenious uses of twisted straw rope – baskets, hens’ nests, mattresses, stools and horse collars. Level -2 chronicles the unremitting work of farming and fishing, of housewives, craftsmen and tradesmen, including a recording of a poignant letter home from an emigrant to America, and footage of men making a coracle on the River Boyne. Probably the most interesting section deals with the seasons and festivals: churning butter on May Day to ward off evil, leaving food and drink out for dead relatives on Halloween, and grainy footage of Wren Boys, who would knock on doors on St Stephen’s Day (Dec 26) with the corpse of a wren, asking for money to bury it while singing songs and telling jokes – the money, of course, would be spent on a party. Level -3 presents personal reminis- cences of the changes in rural life. You can also look inside the adjacent “Big House” of the landowners, the nineteenth-century Gothic Revival Turlough Park House, designed by Thomas Newenham Deane, architect of the National Museum in Dublin. As well as a good café and shop, there are guided tours of the museum and a range of workshops, demonstrations and performances.
Isolated on Mayo’s dramatic, cliff-girt north coast, the prehistoric site of Céide (pronounced “cage-a”) Fields is difficult to get to, but repays the effort. Here, archeologists have discovered a unique, 5000-year-old agricultural landscape, miraculously preserved under a thick layer of peat and undisturbed by later farming. A highly organized system of dry-stone field walls, dotted with individual houses and gardens in what were apparently peaceful times, covers an area of thirteen square kilometres, the largest Stone Age monument in the world. What’s remarkable about the site is its very ordinariness, its similarity to much of the Irish countryside today, as Seamus Heaney noted in Belderg:
A landscape fossilized, its stone wall patternings
Repeated before our eyes In the stone walls of Mayo.
Rough contemporaries of the tomb-builders of Newgrange, these farmers cleared the area’s forest to make fields for their cattle, sheep, wheat and barley, and built wooden houses, of which trenches and postholes are now the only traces. However, after only five hundred years, the climate deteriorated, causing the bog to gradually rise up over their farms.
The site is commemorated by an impressive, well-designed visitor centre, which features exhibitions and audiovisuals on the history and geology of the area and the formation of the bog, as well as a viewing platform and a fine café. Regular forty-minute guided tours take visitors outside to see excavated walls, animal and house enclosures and to learn about the ecology of the bog that swallowed them up. From the adjacent cliff-top viewpoint, you can see Donegal’s Slieve League on a clear day, and in the near distance the sea stack of Downpatrick Head, neatly layered and tufted with grass: according to legend, this is the severed head of the last snake that St Patrick chased from Ireland.
The grandeur of ACHILL’s scenery, encompassing towering sea-cliffs and bulky, bare mountains that rise over 650m, can seem grey and forbidding in poor weather, but on a sunny day is quite magnificent. It’s the largest of the Irish islands and, now connected to the mainland by a road bridge, one of the most developed, with plenty of hotels, B&Bs and hostels, and a ribbon of white-painted holiday homes on the south coast. Drawn by sweeping sandy beaches (five of which have earned a Blue Flag) and fairground rides, Irish fun-seekers descend in droves on August weekends, when the place can get a bit rowdy. Germans are also attracted to Achill, by associations with novelist and Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll, who lived at Dugort in the 1950s. The island was until recently entirely Irish-speaking and its eastern half is still a designated Gaeltacht area, hosting teenagers at Irish college in their summer holidays.