I returned to County Mayo and arrived in the coastal community of Westport during the Westport Arts Festival. Once again, I was treated to music, dance, exhibitions, artist talks, and film.
The film, Draíocht Mhaigh Eo (The Magic of Mayo) is a compilation of archival film footage from the Irish Film Institute about County Mayo from the last hundred years, with music composed specifically for the film that was performed live. Click here for more information about this wonderful film. You may also view a rather graphic clip from the film called “Whaling Afloat and Ashore” that was filmed in 1908 that is available on youtube. As the gentleman beside me in the film screening whispered, “at least it’s not in color.”
Near Newport on the road to Achill Island, lie two historical sites dating from the 16th century. The first, Burrishoole Abbey, was built by monks and overlooks a tidal estuary. The abbey and graveyard are easily accessible and this beautiful, quiet location lets one wander and be lost in thought. One poignant gravestone touched my heart, that of a woman whose husband had preceded her in death by 41 years. How lonely she must have been until she died in 1965.
Just a few miles from here is Rockfleet Castle, also known as Carrickahowley Castle, a tower castle of the O’Malley clan and believed to be where Granuaile, or Grace O’Malley, died.
Granuaile, the Pirate Queen, was an impressive, powerful woman who has been erased from much of written Irish history, but who is infamous in County Mayo. Legend purports that Westport House, located in the town of the same name, was constructed on top of Granuaile’s former castle dungeons and her family’s descendants still own the house. For more information about Ireland’s Pirate Queen, read this fascinating account by author Anne Chambers. Granuaile is very much a presence throughout the west of Ireland.
County Mayo has many thin places (see also Wild, Wild Erris). Croagh Patrick is located in Murrisk, five miles from Westport. While not the highest peak in Ireland at 2500 feet, it is considered to be Ireland’s most holy mountain, for it was here that St. Patrick is said to have climbed and fasted forty days. Click here for more information: http://www.croagh-patrick.com/visitorcentre/holy-mountain
An estimated one million people per year come to climb the mountain. I did not. Devout pilgrims begin their journey near the town of Ballintubber and walk the Pilgrim’s Way, or Tóchar Phádrai. The last Sunday in July, known as Reek Sunday, is the official day of pilgrimage, though many make the 3 ½ hour trip throughout the year. In the film mentioned above, penitents from the 1950s were shown making their way up the rocky slope on their knees.
At the foot of Croagh Patrick is the National Famine Memorial, a coffin ship, honoring the 1.5 million who left their homeland during the famine times. This sculpture by John Behan was dedicated by Irish President Mary Robinson in 1997, and stands between the holy mountain and Clew Bay.
One of my favorite drives in Ireland is the road between Louisburg and Leenaun, the Doolough Pass. Curving between the Sheffry Hills and the Mweelrea Mountains, this is the site of the Doolough Tragedy. On March 30, 1849 during one of the darkest years of An Gorta Mór, hundreds of starving people were required to report to Delphi Lodge, 12 miles from Louisburg, in order to continue receiving food assistance. They were sent away without food or provision, and the weather became bitterly cold with sleet and snow. Many died on the return walk to Louisburg, with some of the bodies pushed into the lough since they could not be buried. Click here to read a summary of the Doolough Tragedy written by historian J. Michael Finn.
Two memorials are on this beautiful, desolate road, with the more formal one bearing this quote from Mahatma Ghandi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”
The other memorial, shown below, has had more stones since the last time I visited. Passersby add their own rocks to the cairn, as a means of remembrance. The tragedy that happened in this place lingers. It is part of the land, of this place. If it is possible for a place to have a consciousness, an identity, it does here at Doolough, for it seems the light, the mountains, the lough – all are suffused with a deep-felt grief. I have been here three times, and my heart always aches. This is a sad, thin place.
Ballintubber Abbey is located in eastern Mayo, east of Lough Mask and the towns of Tourmakeady and Finny. On my last blog, I mistakenly wrote that Ballintubber Abbey was in County Galway and I apologize for unintentionally locating this beautiful abbey in the neighboring county. If you wish to read about Ballintubber Abbey, return here.
Most of the monastic and religious sites I’ve visited in Ireland are Roman Catholic, but at Tourmakeady, along the Lough Mask Drive, I found the beautiful ruins of a gothic Church of Ireland. While the grounds are lovely, including a large Celtic cross that marks the grave of Thomas Plunkett, Bishop of Tuam, the history of this area and Plunkett’s tenure here is odious. Click here for more information: http://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/towns-villages/tourmakeady/tourmakeady-history.html, but to briefly summarize, 104 families were evicted from the area because they refused to send their children to Protestant schools in the 1860s.
On my last day in County Mayo, I made my final visit to the area near Finny, stopping at Lough Nafooey. Here, with my dearest friend, Kerry, I scattered the last of Jerry’s ashes. After singing The Parting Glass, I gently let him go, back to the place from whence his ancestors came, many years ago. As we left this place, this resting place, this thin place, I whispered to him a final Slán Abhaile.
Click here to hear a beautiful version of this haunting song by Kate Purcell, with lyrics by Dermot Henry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfQLDZneFXQ
The sun is down, the moon is blue
I think they know that I’m missing you
But time will heal this heartfelt pain
As soon as I see you again.
Slán abhaile, slán go foil Safe home, good luck
Beidh mo chroi seo briste gan thú a stór This heart of mine will be broken without you, my love
Nó go gcasfad arís orainn Until we meet again
Éist is bí ag smaoineamh Listen and be thinking
Ar an gceol ‘tá ag teacht On the music that is coming
Ó mo chroi seo amach From the depths of my heart
I see an island, you’re on the pier
I see you crying in the misty air
You look so lonely, and there’s no one near
Wish I could hold you, wish you were here.
Look out your window when you’re feeling blue
You’ll see a bluebird looking in at you
Lay down your head, let yourself be free
Take in your deepest breath and sing with me.
Ó mo chroi seo amach
Lyrics from: http://www.celticlyricscorner.net/ryan/slan.htm