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