A few miles south of Croagh Patrick, beyond Lough Na Corra, lies a remote range known as the Sheeffry Hills. These are 650-million year old mountains whose western peak of Barrclashcame is higher than the Reek itself. Phonetically translated from the Gaelic ‘Cnoic Shiofra’, they are known as the ‘Hills of the Wraith’, and they were once silent witnesses to a great Irish tragedy.
The Sidhe in Irish Legend
Pronounced ‘Shee Free’, the name refers to the legendary Sidhe, who are considered to be a distinct race in Ireland, quite separate from human beings yet who have had much contact with mortals over the centuries. The belief in the Sidhe is part of the pre-Christian religion which survived for thousands of years and has never been erased from the collective consciousness of the Irish people.
Legend has it that when the Milesians arrived in Ireland, they found that the Tuatha De Danaan already had control of the land. The sons of Mil fought them in battle and defeated them, driving them ‘underground’ where it is said they remain to this day in the hollow hills or Sidhe mounds.
A wraith is defined as “an apparition of a living person that appears as a portent just before that person’s death.” In Ireland, such wraiths are known as “Banshees” (bean – woman and sidhe – fairy). In a place as lonely as the Sheeffry Hills, it is not hard to see why the ancient inhabitants of Ireland believed they were a haunt of the sidhe. Locals say there is an eerie atmosphere about the place, where the mists can descend unexpectedly and a traveller can wander ten miles along a desolate and silent ridge without ever seeing a person, yet at times be troubled by a feeling of another’s presence.
A Place of Terrible Beauty
The nearest village, Drummin, lies at the eastern end of the Sheeffry’s. To the west is the ‘black lake’ of Doolough, and beyond that, the massive mountain of Mweelrea, which slopes down to the Atlantic Ocean. This area, together with the Maumturks and the Twelve Bens, constitutes the great southern wilderness which stretches all of the way from Croagh Patrick to Oughterard in Connemara – a distance of some 70 kilometres. Today, that route is traced by the Western Way hiking trail.
It is at the western end of the Hills of the Wraith, along the shores of the Black Lake, that a story of extraordinary inhumanity and suffering has drawn worldwide attention. This is a place of exceptional beauty, where the Sheeffry’s, the Mweelrea Range and the peak of Ben Creggan intersect at the Doolough Pass.
Here, in March 1849, many people – perhaps scores – died along the rough twelve-mile trail between the town of Louisburgh on the southern shores of Clew Bay to a hunting retreat built in the 1830’s by the Marquis of Sligo. Lord Sligo is reputed to have named it ‘Delphi’ based on the valley’s similarity to the home of the Oracle in Greece.
The Famine Walk
There are various accounts of what happened at the time, but there is general agreement on a number of important points. Ireland had been gripped by famine for four years. The British Poor Law Unions had established workhouses for the poor, hungry and destitute Irish. These workhouses were run by a locally elected Board of Guardians. This board was also authorised to provide food without forcing the people to check into the workhouse.
In order to qualify for outdoor relief, the locals had to be inspected and approved by the Board. The poor also had to prove that they did not own more than a quarter acre of land to receive any relief. Those approved received three pounds of coarse Indian corn from America.
It is estimated that six hundred starving people gathered in Louisburgh in search of this food or a ticket that would admit them to the workhouse. The Receiving Officer at the Louisburgh Workhouse advised them that he had no authority to do either, but that the people could appeal to two individuals, named as a Colonel Hograve of the Board of Guardians and a Captain Primrose, the local Poor Law inspector.
The people were told that both these individuals were to be found at a distant hunting lodge. The group set off for the place in terrible weather, and after the six hour trek were apparently advised that they should return in the morning if they wished to present their cases to the two men.
After a very cold night, the people were turned away empty-handed in the morning and left to face the bitter winds that funnel through the Doolough Pass. None were given permission by Hograve and Primrose to enter the workhouse or obtain the three pounds of corn. During the walk back to Louisburgh, several perished along the shores of Doolough. A letter written to the Mayo Constitution at the time indicated that sixteen people died along the trail. Other estimates suggested that as many as four hundred people perished.
The next day, the Receiving Officer at the Louisburgh Workhouse sent a group of men out to bury the bodies where they had fallen. One account suggested that the trail was covered with corpses as numerous as sheaves of corn in an autumn field.
Gone but not Forgotten
A symbolic one-mile Famine Walk, as it is now known, takes place every year in the area of a monument at the foot of the Sheeffry Hills along the road that takes visitors through the Doolough Pass. To commemorate the hungry poor who walked this way in 1849, a stone marker topped with a Celtic-style cross carries a quote from Mahatma Gandhi – “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”
Today, sightseers will stop at the northern end of Doolough and gaze at the beauty of their surroundings. Others, like Bishop Desmond Tutu who visited the site in 1991, will also be mindful of the human suffering that took place here over a century and a half ago in the shadow of the Sheeffry Hills.