Tradition at every turn in Mayo, Ireland's mild west

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Travelers looking for the Ireland of yore -- complete with craggy coastlines, friendly locals and flocks of shaggy sheep -- in the midst of the booming 21st century Celtic Tiger need look no further than the wilds of County Mayo, on the island's west coast.

Mayo has been populated for about 9,000 years. Its earliest inhabitants left traces in the form of megalithic tombs, some of which still dot the landscape. A more recent commemoration, however, has gone missing. Signs pointing motorists toward a Corraun Peninsula monument, raised in honor of the fleet of 16th century Spanish Armada ships lost along the rocky Mayo coastline, lead instead to an empty parking lot.

We were assured that the Armada monument would return once upgrades to the road were complete, but perhaps the scene of the mighty galleons being tossed onto the rocks is best left to the imagination.

We made the 120-mile trip from Shannon Airport to Mulraney, a small town on the Irish coast, in about four hours by car. The trip was slowed considerably by the traffic snarling up motorways around the city of Galway.

The landscape is a more vivid green than one would think possible, even after a hot and dry early spring. The verdant meadows are punctuated by the dark brown of peat chiseled into shelves.

Like other aspects of traditional Irish life, the harvesting of peat, used for fuel instead of wood, may be in jeopardy if Dublin decides to limit production. But for now, we were told, locals are free to harvest peat as they please.

Sheep, mostly female breeders, seem to be everywhere in Mayo, and, because our visit was in spring, we also saw plenty of newborn lambs. Some sheep were clustered in herds or walking along the road, but many were startlingly solitary, perched on top of rocky promontories, lonely cliffs and even on a few otherwise deserted islands.

Since the animals aren't fenced in, most bear swaths of colorful markings to distinguish them from another farmer's herd.

Boning up on Irish

While most signage in Ireland is bilingual in English and Irish, parts of Mayo are considered "Gealtacht," or Irish-speaking. That means that signs are posted only in Irish although they may still bear ghostly traces of English that's been recently painted out.

Using Mulraney as home base, we explored the coast opposite Clare Island, Photo by Felicity Longwhere we saw dolphins frolicking in the ocean and paused to admire the tiny beach and turquoise waters of Keem Bay, which looked more like the Caribbean than the rough Atlantic we had come to expect.

Some of the most impressive views were of Clew Bay, presided over by the imposing Croagh Patrick mountain, and Achill Island, where sheep outnumber humans and where the scenery is straight out of a calendar.

We stopped at the Beehive restaurant on Achill Island for a first-rate lunch of grilled panini and fresh salads, followed by shopping for unusual crafts, sweaters and one-of-a-kind jewelry in the adjacent shops.

Mayo was the home of Granuaile, otherwise known as Grace O'Malley, a legendary female pirate who was the subject of "The Pirate Queen," a musical that had a short run on Broadway in 2007. We visited one of O'Malley's many castles, now just a lonely turret, inhabited only by a grazing mare and her spindly legged colt.

For a dose of urbane shopping and dining, we spent a day in Westport. It's a small city with the appeal of larger Galway but -- as a nationally recognized "heritage town" -- its own flavor and charm. Westport's shopkeepers peddle everything from fashion-forward clothing and home furnishings to PC memory sticks and designer coffees.

But the urban pizzazz of Westport was trumped on the way back to Mulraney. We pulled over to watch a border collie herding reluctant sheep into a rubber dinghy tied to a shoreline mooring.

After a few breathless minutes, during which one sheep fell into the water but eventually managed to scramble on board, the dinghy pushed off, transporting the sheep toward a miniscule island that would no doubt serve as their grazing pasture for the summer.

Change is good, we decided, as we pulled back onto the country lane, but here, at least, we were grateful for this homage to the beauty of Ireland's past. For more on Mayo, visit www.tourismireland.com.

To contact reporter Felicity Long, send e-mail to [email protected].

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