Gold Mining on Croagh Patrick

Traces of the gold mining initiative are still visible on the Reek

A seam of gold was discovered on the Reek in the 1980s: overall grades of 14 grams (0.45 ozt) of gold per tonne in at least 12 quartz veins, which could produce 700,000 t (770,000 short tons) of ore — potentially over 300,000 troy oz of gold (worth over €300m).

More than a few traces of the gold mining initiative are still visible on the Reek
Many traces of the gold mining are still visible on the Reek

There are still many remnants of the gold mining prospectors high on the Reek, over twenty-five years after they were forced to abandon the project.

In 1989 plans to mine for gold on Croagh Patrick drew huge opposition from the local community in Mayo, who launched a campaign to save the mountain, which had been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. British environmentalist David Bellamy spoke at a rally in Westport at the time. Bellamy said Ireland was “the greenest country in the world”, but lagging behind the rest of Europe on environmental issues and that he hoped Croagh Patrick would be a turning point. If Croagh Patrick and its magnificent scenic hinterland was in any other country, he said, it would undoubtedly have been designated a world heritage site. He described as “rank vandalism” the politicians passive stance in allowing the area to be “put up for grabs” for prospecting licences.  Even if the company did extract the gold with the least amount of damage, he said, the ecological and environmental cost would be intolerable.

Paddy Hopkins, Chairman of the Mayo Environmental Group and its secretary Seán O’Malley were determined to protect Croagh Patrick and its environment for future generations.

A cairn in memory of Paddy Hopkins, who led local opposition to the mining, built by his daughter Fiona and her family
A cairn in memory of Paddy Hopkins, who led local opposition to the mining, built by his daughter Fiona and her family

The campaigners would succeed in preventing gold-mining. Mayo County Council elected not to allow mining, deciding that the gold was “fine where it was”. No attempts have been made to mine the mountain since.

NEXT POST – The Southern Wilderness

 

Folklore from the foot of Croagh Patrick

The Reek from Aughavale Graveyard

These stories were collected from locals in 1938-39 and memorialized in a book by Catriona Hastings entitled “Ag Bun na Cruaiche” – Folklore and Folklife from the Foot of Croagh Patrick.

 

Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer) Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer)
Looking towards Croagh Patrick around 1900 (Robert French, 1841-1917 photographer)

 

Murrisk Village is situated beside the sea, about six miles west of Westport – ‘muir’ meaning the sea, and ‘uisge’ the water.  It is at the foot of Croagh Patrick or ‘Cruach Padraig’ – the Hill of Patrick, where Saint Patrick was said to have spent forty days and nights fasting on the summit. Before Saint Patrick, it was known as ‘Cruachan Aigle’ or Eagles Mountain, at which time most of it was said to have been covered by woods. The small road leading to the mountain is called ‘Bothar na Mios’, or the road of the dishes. This is apparently because people used to cook food nearby before climbing the Reek.  To the northeast of Murrisk, the sea comes in, in some places, and forms deep holes in the land. This place is known as ‘Murrisk na bPoll’ or Murrisk of the holes. To the west of the village is a place called ‘Cathair na Ranna’ (now known as Cahernaran Island) where there was once said to be a fort built by a chieftain named ‘Rann’, but that has vanished without a trace.

 

Clew Bay itself was called ‘Cuan Modh’. There is much mystery about how it got its name, but according to local legend a tribal chieftain named Aengus built a fort on one of the islands that was known as ‘Inis Modh’. Creag Bui, Sidh Rua and Creagan Ard are big hills around Croagh Patrick. Sidh Rua is so called because there is supposed to be a fairy living there.

 

According to local farmer Michael Gavin, “there is the ruin of an old abbey where Augustinian monks lived long ago. Grainne Uaile, the Sea Queen of the West, was baptised in Murrisk Abbey. There is a place called Log na nDeamhan (Serpents’ Hollow) at the foot of Croagh Patrick, where Patrick is said to have banished the snakes long ago”.

 

Lecanvey is situated at the foot of the Reek on the western side, about two miles from Murrisk. The name Lecanvey means ‘Flag of the Storm’ – ‘Leac an Anfaidh’. It is said to merit the name due to the Atlantic storms that typically occur during the months of December and January. There are said to be many local stories of fairy forts and ‘pisreoga’ or superstition among the older villagers. For example, “if you see a white horse and if you wet your finger with spittle and rub it on your heel, you’ll have good luck”, or “if you are going to play cards and you walk three times under a briar, you’ll be lucky”, or “if someone dies in the house, stop the clock and chase out the cat”.

 

The oldest type of dwelling which is remembered to exist in the area was a small house made of sods. The roof was also made of sods and beams of bog deal were laid across under the sods as a means of support for the roof. The roof was thatched with rushes or sedges to keep the sods from getting wet. There was a hole in the centre of the roof which supplied the place of a chimney. This type of chimney was plastered with clay. These types of dwelling went by the name of bothain. There was only one room in these houses and this had to suffice as a bedroom as well as a cooking and eating area.

 

Old Head and Clare Island Sunset
Old Head and Clare Island Sunset

 

According to the locals, the sea at Lecanvey is a great indicator of the weather. When the sea is green it is a sign of bad weather. When it is dark and rough, a storm is brewing. A blue sea, tranquil and calm, indicates a spell of fine weather. When the Reek appears near, it is a sign of bad weather. A dense fog on the Reek, with a west wind, foretells rain. When the haze leaves the top and rests on the base of the mountain, fine weather is expected. When the dust rises in clouds from the roadway, rains will follow. The bat foretells of fine weather when he flies about in the dusk or twilight. When the cattle or annoyed by the cuileoga (horse flies), it foretells of great heat. When the flies gather thickly on the window panes, especially after cold weather, it is a sign that sign weather is at hand. Beware the southeast wind at Lecanvey – it tells of a coming storm.

 

 

Sherpas on the Reek

Mingma Tsiri and Michael Cusack, author of "Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay" on the shoulder of Croagh Patrick

Mingma Tsiri Sherpa, a man that very few know his name or how to spell it, is one of the very best high altitude climbers in the world.

Mingma – a man who has climbed Mount Everest 19 times and and is the first Nepalese to summit K2 – and his brother Pasang climbed Croagh Patrick as part of an effort to develop closer ties with Ireland and promote tourism in Nepal, a country that has suffered greatly since the earthquake in April 2015 that killed over 8,000 people.

Mingma Tsiri Sherpa first summitted Everest via the standard north east ridge route on May 12th, 1995 with the Taiwan expedition. His next summit came on May 10th, 1996 again with an expedition from Taiwan but this time via the standard south east ridge route.

Mingma Tsiri and Michael Cusack, author of "Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay" on the shoulder of Croagh Patrick
Mingma Tsiri and Michael Cusack, Reek Tours guide, on the shoulder of Croagh Patrick

Mingma was at Everest Base Camp when the earthquake triggered an avalanche that killed nineteen people. In a talk given at Outback Jacks in Galway two days after his hike up Croagh Patrick, Mingma explained that if the earthquake had struck during the night, the sixty people rescued at base camp after being buried beneath the snow might not have survived.

Descending Ama Dablam
Sherpa Mingma on slightly more difficult terrain on Ama Dablam in the Himalayas!

Mingma’s brother Pasang, who himself has climbed Everest nine times (the family holds the Guinness World Record for most siblings to have climbed Mount Everest – a total of 56 ascents between seven brothers) explained how his father was employed by the first expedition to successfully climb Everest in 1953. His job was to collect from and deliver mail to Edmund Hillary and other climbers at base camp by running to and from Lukla – a distance of 38 miles each way.

Sherpas are an ethnic group from the most mountainous region of Nepal. ‘Sherpa’ is now used as a generic name by many westerners to describe mountain guides from the Everest region. Being born at an altitude of 4,100 metres (13,400 feet), Sherpas like Mingma Tsiri and Pasang are at home in places where most people would experience symptoms of altitude sickness.

Pasang also spoke about the difficulty of rebuilding his own village, which was destroyed and is still without electricity nine months after the disaster. Despite this situation, he believes that Nepal is recovering quickly and that anyone interested in trekking or even climbing there should consider 2016 as a great year to visit.

“We are from the Rolwaling village, east of Kathmandu,” says Pasang. “Our village is in a very remote area that is over 4,000m high. You have to trek nearly five days from Kathmandu to get there.”

Because of this, he says, it received no assistance from the Nepalese government or NGOs in the wake of the massive quake, so he, Mingma and other villagers decided to fundraise by themselves.

“A lot of Irish friends helped rebuild the homes and set up the Solar Project, so I’d like to thank all the Irish people who donated.”

The project raised almost $30,000 to power the village by solar power, with Ascent Himalayas contributing money too. One of the most successful Sherpas in history, Mingma set up Ascent Himalayas in 2012. It employs 25 guides, as well as a number of support staff.

Whereas for decades climbing companies were Western-owned, more and more Sherpas are taking ownership of these businesses in Nepal.

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“Mostly, climbing expeditions in Nepal are run by big Western companies, but we feel we can do it ourselves, as the benefit goes to the whole country,” says Pasang.

“For a Western company, the profit is split between them and the local company on the ground, because to get the permit you have to use the local company … We worked for many years for a Western company, which is why we wanted to give those services to climbers coming to our country, but by our own company, as we are more experienced than most other companies.”

Croagh Patrick may not have presented a particular challenge to these supermen, but they were pleased to have trodden on Ireland’s holiest mountain as part of their crusade to raise awareness of the disaster that struck their beautiful country.

NEXT POST – Saint Patrick’s Causeway

Exploring the Islands

Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay

Croagh Patrick and Clare Island are the two most recognizable icons in the Clew Bay area. It is also said that there is an island for every day of the year in the bay. Of course, much depends upon the definition of ‘island’, but even at high tide there are certainly more than one hundred distinctive pieces of land – drumlins – surrounded by water within the confines of the bay. Drumlins are the remnants of lateral moraines left behind by the last ice age, boulder clay and gravel covered with soil and grass. There are at least twice as many rock outcrops and drowned drumlins beneath the Atlantic waves.

 

Old Head and Clare Island Sunset
Old Head and Clare Island Sunset

 

Several of the islands of Clew Bay are accessible without the need for a boat. There are a few important points to keep in mind should you decide to walk out to an island. Firstly, always check the tide tables before setting off. Attempting to reach the islands that are not connected to the mainland via bridge or causeway when the tide is coming in is never a good idea. Sea levels can rise over ten feet in Clew Bay on a ‘normal’ day. Secondly, it’s not a good idea to set off for the islands in bad weather or if poor weather is forecast, Squalls on Clew Bay can be sudden and dangerous, and hurricane force wind gusts are common, especially in winter. Thirdly, keep to the shoreline of the islands, do not walk across the fields. Although the vast majority are now uninhabited, most of the islands are leased by locals as grazing land for sheep, and sometimes cattle, and it’s always best to stay on the good side of the farmers.

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Several of the ‘outer’ islands of Westport Bay are also connected to each other at low tide. It is not unusual to see ‘roads’ across the tidal flats that are used by farmers to get supplies and livestock to and from these seemingly remote places. Although there are now only five or six islands inhabited year round, prior to the famine years the majority of islands larger than a few acres had many occupants.

 

Westport Bay from the Reek
Westport Bay from the Reek

 

Most of the large outer islands are inaccessible other than by boat, while those in the shallower waters of Westport and Newport Bays may be reached by foot at low tide. Of course, these include islands that have been connected to the mainland by a causeway or bridge, such as Rosmore, Inishnakillew and Inishcottle, but even islands that looking at a map may appear to be far out in the bay.

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One such island is Collan More, which is the largest mass of offshore land in the area, apart from Clare Island. Collan More (Collainn Mhór – formerly Cuileann or Holly Island) is an inhabited island situated in Newport Bay, just northwest of Rosmoney Pier. It can also be seen from the mainland at Roscahill, about nine kilometres from Westport (left off the N59 after about five kilometres and about three kilometres west).

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Collan More was inhabited by 218 people in 1841. In 1911, it included Collanmore National School and nine private dwellings occupied by forty people. By 2006, there were just eighteen inhabitants and the school had closed.

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Collan More is a long island, stretching from west to east. At its westernmost end is the island of Collan Beg. This too is reachable at low tide, across a narrow channel. Allow at least an hour to walk from the mainland to the western tip of Collan Beg. A stone’s throw away is the island of Inish Gort, home of the only working lighthouse in the area, and the entrance to Westport Bay. At this stage, you are at the most westerly point possible for a hiker in Clew Bay.

 

Shingle Bar between Inishgort and Island More, with Clare Island in the background
Shingle Bar between Inishgort and Island More, with Clare Island in the background

 

South of Collan More, on the other side of Rosmoney, are two other islands that are accessible by foot. Crovinish (Croibhinis – formerly Creamh Inis or Garlic Island) is an uninhabited island, southeast of Inishlyre and northwest of Inishgowla South. In 1841, the island had twenty two inhabitants, and by 1911 there were still sixteen people living on the island in three thatched dwellings, each of which had two rooms. Sixty year old Martin Fadden and his thirty-nine year old wife Mary lived in one home with their eight children at that time.

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Illanataggart (Oileán an tSagairt – Priest’s Island) is also currently uninhabited. In 1841, however, there were 33 persons living on this island and by 1911 just seven resided there.

 

Illanroe
Illanroe Island on a misty morning – Westport Bay

 

Beyond Clynish are the islands of Inishnakillew (Inis na Coille or ‘island of the wood’), Inishcottle (Inish Coitil or ‘Cottle’s Island’) and Moneybeg. Inishnakillew is connected to the mainland by a causeway, and the more remote Inishcottle is connected to Inishnakillew by another causeway. Both of these islands are currently inhabited. An area known as Carrigeenglas to the south of Inishcottle brings the hiker to Moneybeg Island. Here, a channel divides the island from the bigger mass of Clynish, which is one of the islands in Clew Bay currently inhabited. In 1841 there were 87 people living on Clynish. In 1911, twenty three people lived in three dwellings. By 2006, there were just five inhabitants.

North of Collan More, the coastline of Newport Bay is deeply indented. Here there are long, narrow peninsulas of land that in several cases are barely connected to the mainland by bridges or causeways. Although several of these fractured pieces of land are not specifically identified as ‘islands’, they retain a tenuous relationship with the mainland.

Attached to one of the peninsulas is Rosmore. This ‘island’ is divided from the mainland by a 20-foot wide channel, which is crossed by a bridge.

 

 

There are other ‘mainland islands’ along the shores of Newport Bay, including Rosbarnagh (to the right of Rossanrubble peninsula), Inishturlin (northwest of Rosbarnagh), Roslaher/Rosbeg (south of Rossanrubble), Roslynagh (north of Inishdaweel), and Rosturk (north, towards Mulranny), which is accessible at low tide.

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There are a number of accessible islands near Westport, including Annagh (Oileán an Eanaigh), which is an uninhabited group of three islands situated in Westport Bay, just east of Murrisk. The islands are named Annagh West, Annagh Middle and Annagh East. These are located just off the Murrisk road, about nine kilometres from Westport. In 1841, Annagh East was inhabited by 33 people. Little trace of any dwelling remains today. Another is Cahernaran Island (Oileán Chathair na Reann), which is an uninhabited island situated in Westport Bay, south of Inisheeny. It is located just off the R335 road towards Louisburgh, on the right just before the Great Famine monument in Murrisk, about nine kilometres west of Westport (right at Carrowsallagh). Cahernaran is known for an ancient stone fort, now nearly destroyed. Illanroe (Red Island) is close to Rosbeg, about three miles out of town.

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NEXT POST – The Pirate Queen of Clew Bay

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The Rolling Sun

The Rolling Sun

Every year on April 18th and August 24th – on a clear day – a phenomenon known as the ‘Rolling Sun’ occurs when Croagh Patrick is viewed from the ancient stone at Boheh. This spectacle involves the sun tracing the western edge of the north face as though it is ‘rolling’ down the mountain. The two dates on which this occurs may be combined with the date of the winter solstice to split the year into three more or less equal parts. This may correspond to the sowing and reaping cycles even in contemporary civilizations. However, the significance attached to it by ancient civilization may never be fully understood.

The Boheh Stone
The Boheh Stone

Experts believe that the theory of crop production related to the Boheh stone and wonder about the relationship between the setting sun, the triangle of the mountain and the decorations found even today on the Boheh.

Looking east from just below the summit, towards the Boheh Stone
Looking east from just below the summit, towards the Boheh Stone

As Gerry Bracken, who first identified the ‘rolling sun’ phenomenon, points out, the Boheh Stone is an unremarkable mass of fractured rock that probably only escaped demolition because of its association with Saint Patrick (it is on the Tochar Phadraig trail that runs from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick). On closer examination, archaeologists noted that the rock designs predated Patrick by at least two thousand years.

The Rolling Sun
The Rolling Sun – GIF image courtesy of Ken Williams

Winter on the Reek

Winter on the Reek

The first snow of the season fell on the Reek on December 12th 2015. We took the ‘normal’ pilgrims route up the mountain from Murrisk in order to take a closer look.

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Conditions were quite calm on the lower slopes, with the snow really starting to accumulate about halfway to the shoulder. Once into the clouds, however, it was quite a different story. As we approached the first station at about 1700 feet, a strong north wind was blowing. This was to become a gale higher up the mountain.

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By the time we reached the base of the summit cone, the snow drifts were up to three feet deep in places. Now the going started to get difficult, with ice forming on the exposed rocks.

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Visibility was limited in the upper slopes
Visibility was limited in the upper slopes

Approaching the summit, we were surprised to see a shadowy form emerge from the mists to my right and stagger off down the mountain. Realizing that the person was on a route that led towards the steep north east face, I shouted a warning that was lost in the gale.

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Despite relying on sturdy hiking boots, we realized that the surface rocks on the summit cone were going to be a challenge, as they were sliding even more easily than usual. So it was a case of two steps up and one step back for a while.

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Descending from the summit, it was obvious how easy it would be to veer off the normal path, as everything basically looked the same, with snow-filled gullies left and right. With the wind howling, the temperature change above the shoulder was dramatic. Even wearing a woolen hat and anorak hood, I could feel my ears acknowledging the sub zero wind chill.

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Back on the shoulder, a few people came walking along the ridge. They were well kitted out for the challenge, with poles, gaiters and Goretex clothing. However, the next group of individuals were ascending with ordinary shoes, no hats and thin jackets. They confirmed that they were heading for the top.

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“How is it up there?” one asked, at the same time offering 20 Euros if I would give him a ‘lift’ to the summit.

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“It’s a bit dodgy,” I replied. “You need to stay well to the left and watch out for the deeper drifts.”

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“That’s fine,” he said. “We’re a dodgy crowd at the best of times.”

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We wished them good luck and realized that it would be a challenge for most of us to get off the mountain and home to a warm fire without a few unplanned excursions on the slippery way down.

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The difficulties of this climb reminded me that despite its proximity to civilization and a warm bowl of soup in Campbells pub, Croagh Patrick is not a mountain to be taken lightly, especially when conditions can deteriorate without warning on higher ground. Once back in the car park, I used my binoculars to scan the visible parts of the northeast face for any sign of the climber who had taken the wrong path, and was relieved to see him traversing across to the main route.

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Anyone planning to scale the Reek after a fresh fall of snow would do well to prepare for difficult conditions on the summit cone – strong hiking boots are essential, along with waterproof trousers and several layers of clothing, including gloves and warm headgear. Despite the well-worn path, it is important to be vigilant on the descent and not be lured into one of several gullies that sweep to the left of the mountain. The northeast face can be treacherous, even in summer. Bring extra food and a flask, and even a compass – better safe than sorry!

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The Causeway to Croagh Patrick

Round Tower at Aughagower

Tóchar Phádraig, or Patrick’s Causeway, is an ancient route that begins at the 13th century Ballintubber Abbey and finishes some 20 miles away, on Croagh Patrick.

Historians believe it is actually part of a long lost route from Rathcroghan, formerly the seat of the high kings of Connaught, to what was then known as Cruáchan Aigle, the pagan name for the Reek. Others take this as part of a route from even further east – all of the way to the Hill of Tara in County Meath. It is known as a ’causeway’ because it was originally built to carry heavy traffic, such as horse-drawn ‘chariots’, across the boggy terrain.

The route from Ballintubber Abbey to the Reek crosses no less than 113 stiles. In winter, the Tóchar can be a difficult hike, and waterproof footwear is a must. On a dark December day, we joined the trail at Stile 36, in an area known as ‘The Battlement’. Here the Aille River was in full flood as it rushed past the ruined Killawullaun Mill.

During penal times (when a series of laws were imposed in an attempt to force Irish Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters to accept a reformed denomination as defined by the Anglican Church), a man who became known as Sean na Sagart was employed to hunt priests in the area. Despite the best efforts of the locals to protect the priests, this man enjoyed some success before he himself was stabbed to death. The trail passed close to a lake known as Lough na gCeann – Lake of the Heads – where it is said that Sean disposed of his victims heads after claiming his reward.

After weeks of rain, the trail was extremely boggy. Several times we sank up to the tops of our boots. Fortunately, the landowners had allowed the trail pioneers to maintain small bridges across some of the swollen streams.

Round Tower at Aughagower
Round Tower at Aughagower

We followed the Aille River for about a mile, crossing several more stiles, before coming to a place named Teampleshaunaglasha, the ruins of a church that was abandoned in 1562. It is believed that the ‘Shaun’ in the name was a hermit who lived in this place in later years. The ruins were surrounded by a killeen – a unbaptized infants graveyard – and other graves from the famine years. There are several legends associated with this place, particularly those involving the terrible fate of individuals who removed stones or artifacts from the old church.

A bohreen (little road) at Stile 46 then led through overhanging trees to the remains of a famine village that once housed 26 families. A legend tells of a mysterious woman who visited at night to leave food for the starving inhabitants.

Large slabs of limestone became visible as the Aille River emerged from its underground course at Stile 50. Potholers have measured the underground course of the river at Pollflanagan to a depth of 112 feet, where they reported the existence of fish with no eyes. Nearby is another cave known as Pollhondra, where a man named Hondra is said to have hidden after he killed his wife. It seemed that there was a tragic story at every turn of this route.

At Stile 57, a depression in the ground reveals a place once called ‘The Well of Stringle’. It is here that St. Patrick is said to have baptized many locals when he camped there over two Sundays.

The trail then crosses a hillock known locally as ‘Creggaun ‘a Damhsa’, or the Hillock of the Dancing, where fairies are said to dance. this is followed by another bohreen (‘bothareen’ or small road) which leads to the impressive cliffs that tower above the River Aille as it vanishes into the earth.

At the village of Coill an Bhaile, the trail turns towards the ancient site of Aughagower (“The field of springs”), which Saint Patrick established as a diocese around 441 a.d.  At this turn, the ruined castle of MacPhilbin, who captured one of the O’Rourkes and paid a heavy price in return, dominates the landscape for miles to the west. On the way to Aughagower, the trail crosses a large swath of uncultivated land.

Approaching Aughagower, after Stile 75, the trail is temporarily lost as landowners have strewn wire across the stiles on the road from Westport. It is believed that it is unlucky to cut directly across a sacred path, but the site of Cloondachon – where Patrick is said to have either tamed or disposed of two unfriendly wolfhounds, does not seem accessible.

Apart from its impressive round tower, graveyards and churches, Aughagower boasts several artifacts dating back to Saint Patrick’s time, including ‘Dabhach Phadraig’ (Patrick’s Vat), ‘Tobair na nDeachan’ (The Well of the Deacons), and ‘Leaba Phadraig’ (Patrick’s Bed).

Aughagower-12-19-028

NEXT POST – Take a Reek Tour!

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