Mayo: Castles at the end of the earth on a Wild Atlantic safari
From Ballina to Belmullet and Westport, Mayo makes for a magical journey, says Hillary A White
Killary is cloudless and crisp as we travel up from Clifden, not a ripple interrupting the surface of the fjord as an uncommonly sunny Mweelrea mountain looks on approvingly.
Further north we go, up through Newport and the national park blanket bogs of Ballycroy and on to the Mullet Peninsula, where the land begins to flatten and stretch as if about to spill over the lip of some distant falls.
Nowhere does Ireland reach out further towards America, and this end-of-the-world feeling is, for many, the draw of Belmullet and Erris. At last, you reach the village of Belmullet itself and pass straight through and out the other side, stopping off at the Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Centre in Aughleam to discover a local history more storied and dramatic than this far-flung, sparsely populated region has any right to be.
A little further on rests Blacksod and the famous lighthouse made from local pink granite (found nowhere else except northern Egypt) that acts as the entire peninsula's full-stop. Beyond the nearby memorial commemorating the 3,300 famine refugees that fled to Boston and Quebec from the area, the rocky shore gives way to sand and water and navy expanses of wrinkled blue all the way out to Achill's jutting Hapsburg chin to the south.
It's cool today but the evening sun is lusty so we drive around the headland with local historian and renowned Gaol Siar foraging expert Barbara Heneghan. You hope that every community in the world has a Barbara. A nine-month-old in one arm as the other arm gestures its way through encyclopaedic reams of local lore and history, she opens up this mysterious corner of Ireland to us with tales of hurricanes, poitin raids, Celtic sacrifice (Mayo has a human history dating back nearly 6,000 years) and tragedy - both ancient and, sadly, modern.
Belmullet packs much into its infinite nooks, crannies, coves and nature reserves. We can't do everything so we settle on a summery leg-stretch around the spectacular Erris Head loop before some giant crab claws back at the Talbot Hotel. The next day, while my other half melts into the capable embrace of the Elysium Spa in the Broadhaven Bay Hotel, I continue along the Wild Atlantic Way seeking a more formal introduction to the ancients Barbara mentioned.
Hugging the coastline through some exceptional landscape that could be Newfoundland for all I know, the road crests and plummets towards the world-famous Ceide Fields (above), an extensive stone-age network of preserved fields and early settlements seated on a clifftop overlooking Downpatrick Head and that epic monument of the Wild Atlantic Way, Dun Briste stack.
Out the back of the award-winning interpretive centre (just announced as the recipient of €1.15m via Fáilte Ireland), a boardwalk traverses the site. A field system becomes apparent, marked out by stone walls that are the oldest anywhere in the world. It's somehow heartening among all this archaeological worthiness to have skylarks sing and swoop in the air above the pristine bog, just as they probably did all those millennia ago.
That night, we leap forward but stop just short of dull modernity. Somehow, we have found ourselves in Belleek Castle (below). As we sit in the Library Restaurant of this frankly incredible 19th century manor hotel, watching the pyrotechnics as a waiter flambees a sword of fillet steak in poitín (straight from the excellent Connacht Distillery down the road), the evening has given us much to talk about.
For starters, there's the story of Marshall Doran, mariner, antique dealer and adventurer, who took on the abandoned former ancestral home of the Knox-Gore dynasty in 1961. Acquiring the rambling Ballina pile and bashing it into something hotel-like in nine years takes some doing. It's made all the more remarkable by colourful anecdotes of "borrowed" identities, plundered Armada shipwrecks, and the kind of old-school moxie that comes when a determined mind meets a demanding and costly project.
All this is relayed to us in the castle dungeon by a nice gentleman wielding a broadsword. Such a thing becomes perfectly normal after a few hours in Belleek Castle, where prize-winning food, a beguiling setting and boutique comfort sit alongside delightfully musty bemusement courtesy of Marshall Doran's extensive collection of armour, fossils and antiques.
A nightcap at the bar - tonight it's Connacht Whiskey Company's caramelly Ballyhoo Grain - is supped with an elbow resting on wood salvaged from a Spanish galleon that lay in the River Moy estuary that borders the 1,000-acre castle woodlands. Unforgettable, really.
The Marshall Doran collection also featured a four-post bed once belonging to pirate queen Grace O'Malley, so it feels right and proper that we spin down to her ancestral home on the grounds of Westport House. Currently the subject of a multi-million euro investment since being bought by the local Hughes hoteliers family, this resplendent jewel in Mayo's crown is set to be both shored up as the pride and joy of this gorgeous town, and also become a functional and stately appendage to the nearby Hotel Westport. Exciting times.
A little further down the Harbour road that leads to Rosbeg, we find Cronin's Sheebeen in a particularly comely corner of Westport's outskirts (which is saying something). This is Clew Bay's answer to The Bulman in Kinsale or Monks of Ballyvaughan - cosy waterside pubs that deliver on promises of excellent local cuisine, creamy Guinness and a good view.
Our trip is drawing to a close, but time has been made to meet the good people of Terra Firma, a "slow tourism" company more concerned with lasting sensations than box-ticking. It's too overcast for their famous stargazing tour so we curl into Cronin's candlelit snug for an enchanting night of magic, stories and bewitching atmospherics.
A fitting curtain call to our Mayo safari if ever there was one.
Rooms at Belleek Castle start at €220 for bed and breakfast based on two people sharing. Tours run throughout the day, subject to demand (belleekcastle.com).
At the four-star Hotel Westport (encompassing Westport House and grounds), rooms start at €59 for bed and breakfast per person sharing (hotelwestport.ie).
Terra Firma specialises in cultural and outdoors experiences with a difference (including stargazing tours) in and around Mayo (terrafirmaireland.com).
Connacht Distillery and visitors centre is open six days a week. A variety of tours and tasting experiences are available to book online (connachtwhiskey.com).
For more on the Wild Atlantic Way, see wildatlanticway.com.
Read more:10 great reasons to visit Westport
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