Thursday 14 December 2017

Mayo: Going wild - the Atlantic Way

Short breaks in Ireland

The sea stack at Downpatrick Head, one of the many spectacular places to visit on the Wild Atlantic Way
The sea stack at Downpatrick Head, one of the many spectacular places to visit on the Wild Atlantic Way

Anthony Tormey

When you leave Crossmolina and head across north Mayo towards Belmullet, you can see the place has that exciting wildness about it that entrances the imagination.

 You can keep your golden tropical beaches, this is a landscape I love.

My wife and I were here for a couple of days to experience this part of the Wild Atlantic Way. In total, the Way stretches from Cork to Donegal, covering about 2,500km (about 1,500 miles in old money).

Our base was the Talbot Hotel in Belmullet, at the head of the Mullet (or Erris) peninsula. The Talbot is a four-star boutique hotel. It was early evening when we arrived to its welcome warmth after a long journey. Our spacious room had a four-poster bed you could get lost in, air-conditioning, mini-bar and an espresso machine.

After settling in, it was time for dinner. It was steak for my wife and beer-battered cod for me. Both meals were delicious, the cod in particular tasted as if it had just leapt from the Atlantic and landed on the plate.

Next morning, breakfast for both of us was the full Irish (known here as the full Erris). Afterwards, it was time to head for the Ceide Fields, that monument to Neolithic Man, who came here about 5,000 years ago.

When you come within sight of the Fields, the views out over the Atlantic are spectacular. The visitor centre has fascinating exhibitions and re-creations of life back then. On display is the root of the roughly 4,000-year-old pine tree that was discovered in the blanket bog in the 1940s. You can still see the axe marks on the root that were the result of an earlier failed attempt to free it from its peaty prison.

At the back of the centre in the fields themselves, you can view some of the features left behind by our ancestors. Our guide, Joanne Feeney, was a mine of information. Clever Neolithic Man turned the native fishermen into skilled farmers; and he did it all without any EU headage payments or suckler grants.

The land at the back of the visitor centre is elevated, and there is a fabulous view of the sea stack just off the coast at Downpatrick Head, which you can also visit. St Patrick had a church here, the ruins of which can still be seen today.

That afternoon we headed back down the peninsula to Eachleim and the Ionad Deirbhile Eachleim Heritage Centre.

Here we met Rosemarie Geraghty, who helps to run the centre. The centre celebrates the history of the area. Rosemarie has made a special project of the assisted emigration programme that ran in Blacksod Bay over a period of 18 months in 1883 and 1884, after the famine of the late 1870s. About 3,300 people from the area took advantage of the Tuke fund for assisted emigration and left these shores for the US and Canada.

The Tuke fund was set up by James Hack Tuke, an English Quaker, another in the long line of philanthropic Quakers who included such luminaries as Eric Baker, a founder of Amnesty International, and John Cadbury, who has been giving immense pleasure to grateful women everywhere since 1824.

The Allan Shipping Line ran a route between Scotland and America. It began in Glasgow, and picked up passengers in Derry and Galway. The Tuke fund persuaded the line to call at Blacksod Bay. Passengers were taken from land by a Royal Navy gunboat to the Allan steamer anchored in Blacksod Bay.

Rosemarie has tracked down and contacted huge numbers of descendants of those who sailed at the end of the 19th century, and many have returned to Blacksod Bay to trace their ancestors.

Rosemarie, who is originally from the north of England, returned here 38 years ago, and she hasn't lost her north of England accent. Her father was from Achill Island.

Near the centre is Deirbhile's Loop, a 10km track across the peninsula that is suitable for driving, but is probably best appreciated by walking or cycling. It brought us more captivating views of the Atlantic and the offshore islands, and the Napoleonic Tower, one of 82 built around Ireland in the early 19th century to warn of French invaders.

By now it was time for dinner in Cheflen's Bistro in Belmullet. Another delicious feast awaited us at this attractive little bistro off the main street. Owner Len Shevlin was in attendance, and he told me how he took over the restaurant only last April, after the bookies he ran closed. Like others in Belmullet, his bookies was affected by the downturn, but it was also hit by the end of construction work on the Corrib Gas Project.

Next day, after another fortifying full Irish at the Talbot Hotel, it was time to head for the Ballycroy National Park. As in the Ceide Fields, there is a superb visitor centre here. Our guide, Agatha Hurst, took us to the top of the viewing tower which has great views of the park.

One of the main attractions is the Bangor Trail, a 30km trail that traverses the National Park. This is really only for the more robust hiker or climber, so be properly booted and suited for this. And while you are in the visitor centre, you must pay a visit to its Ginger and Wild Cafe for some great food. Their scones are a meal in themselves.

Our final call was a visit to the island of Inishkea South, a few miles off the peninsula. The island has a tragic history. In 1927, 10 fishermen drowned in a storm. By 1932 the inhabitants had abandoned the island.

The boat that took us out to the island is owned by Martin Geraghty, who runs a boat-hire business in Blacksod. Our captain for the trip was Jed Keane. The journey out to the island can take between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on wind and tide.

We headed out to the island in Martin's 28-ft craft. There was a slight swell and we were well soaked, but it was exhilarating. This was a real highlight of our trip. It was the closest I'll ever get to being Russell Crowe's Capt Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander.

The landing pier on the island is tidal, and because we arrived when the tide was out, we could not land in the boat. We had to transfer to a currach for the last 100 yards or so. Tricky for a landlubber, but we managed to avoid falling into the briny.

Sheep graze on the island, and on the day we were there, sheep-shearing was in progress near the pier.

There was a strange feeling of treading on past griefs walking around the island and going into the ruins of houses and the old schoolhouse. Some houses are now being rebuilt. Our captain Jed accompanied us on a stroll, pointing out various sights, including the remains of a Norwegian whaling station that was on a tiny island just off Inishkea South. Jed's grandfather and grandmother were born on Inishkea, and the house where his grandparents lived is now being restored.

After this visit to the past, it was time to head back. Wind and tide were with us on our return , and we did it in about 40 minutes. It was late afternoon, so it was straight into the car and off on the long journey home.

This part of the world gets into your skin, and it's hard to resist it. And yes, there are some nice golden beaches, if you like that sort of thing.

Sunday Indo Living

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