The Growing Controversy Over Ireland’s Holy Mountain

Wild Atlantic Way Croagh Patrick Mayo Ireland

Michael Cusack is the author of “Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay – A Guide to the Edge of Europe” and a tour guide with Reek Tours.

In recent years, there has been much talk about the alarming rate of erosion on Croagh Patrick’s primary pilgrimage path. There is no doubt that the summit cone of the mountain has become difficult to negotiate for all but the most coordinated visitors. Today, it is not unusual to see people descending the ‘bad bend’ – a particularly steep stretch about three hundred vertical feet below the summit – on their backsides. Almost every day during the peak season just before and after Reek Sunday in July, the Mountain Rescue team and often the coastguard helicopter are summoned to the mountain as a result of a fall or some other mishap.

In 2013, a report carried out by Elfyn Jones of the British Mountaineering Council proposed major restorative works, as well as suggesting more formalised management and monitoring of traffic on the mountain. Jones found that upwards of €1.5m would have to be spent to preserve the main route up Ireland’s holiest mountain. Jones was quoted as saying that with the possible exception of Snowdon in Wales, ‘there cannot be many other sites where a relatively wild and natural mountain is climbed by so many inexperienced and ill-prepared walkers’. Jones estimated that 300 separate 500kg bags of stone would have to brought to the summit cone by helicopter to help make the path safer for visitors.

Lugnademon

Tourist Magnet

The importance of Croagh Patrick as a magnet for visitors cannot be underestimated. A survey conducted by the Westport Tourism Organisation (WTO) determined that of the reasons influencing people to choose Westport as a holiday destination, a remarkable 60.2% indicated that Croagh Patrick either greatly influenced or somewhat influenced their decision. Climbing the Reek ranked second only to the Greenway and Railway Walk as the most attractive outdoor activity for tourists in the Westport area. Michael Ring, then Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, once described the mountain as “an integral part of our spiritual and cultural heritage and very important for tourism.” One Canadian sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, has even proposed erecting a 100-foot-high statue of Saint Patrick on top of the mountain. He was quoted as saying that “the whole Westport area is like an artist’s masterpiece that has been put in a dark closet. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if thousands of more people knew it existed?”

There has been talk of closing the mountain altogether, or banning athletes who race up and down the peak. The former would be a drastic measure indeed, considering the enormous footfall of visitors to this beautiful peak each year. Recently, however, Mayo County Council’s head of environment was appointed to lead a Croagh Patrick Stakeholders group, whose aim is to manage the impact of growing numbers of recreational users on the mountain. This group recently created a dedicated map marking the pilgrimage route on the 764-metre-high mountain, new signage and information boards, as well as ‘counters’ to determine precise numbers using the sacred site. Perhaps more significantly, the group is appointing a consultant to design the conservation works. It is anticipated that the Department of Environment, Fáilte Ireland and Mayo County Council will fund the conservation project, which would also be supplemented by voluntary contributions from users.

Members of the clergy have also voiced their concerns about what is seen as the commercialization of Ireland’s holy mountain. Currently, the Reek is a focal point for some major events, including endurance tests like the Gael Force and Sea2Summit races. Father Frank Fahey of Ballintubber Abbey, who was instrumental in the restoration of what is called the Tochar Padraig or ‘Patrick’s Causeway’, as an ancient pilgrimage route from the abbey to the top of the mountain, was quoted as saying that Croagh Patrick should not be exploited in this way, and that the sacred dimension must be prioritised and emphasised.

Who Owns Croagh Patrick?

Yet even today there is debate and often confusion about who actually owns Croagh Patrick. The fact is that despite its global fame, this mountain is not a national park or world heritage site. In fact, it is not legally protected at all. The higher slopes are actually part of what is called commonage and thus owned by a number of local farmers, while the small oratory at the peak is owned by the Catholic Church.

Most of the pilgrim route is through two commonages, one with 46 shares and another with three shareholders. Elfyn Jones points out in his report that while there has been a very long tradition of access to the mountain from Murrisk there is no existing legal right of access on foot.

To complicate matters, the question of liability has been raised regarding those who are injured on the mountain. Earlier in 2016, a court upheld a claim by a walker on the Wicklow Way that reasonable care had not been taken to maintain a boardwalk in a safe condition and this failure was responsible for a gash to her right knee which required seven stitches. The Irish National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) was held liable for negligence and breach of duty and ordered to pay the hiker €40,000. The case is under appeal, but if upheld, this sets a precedent whereby any work performed on the summit cone to make it safer for pilgrims may become the responsibility of those who undertook the work in the first place and/or the ‘owners’ of the peak. While ‘totally at your own risk’ disclaimers are in place today, there is some question as to whether or not these would be upheld in an Irish court of law.

More recently, there has been talk that a recognised legal policy will be enacted meaning that anyone entering privately owned land, such as Croagh Patrick, will be taking responsibility for themselves, and that the landowners and the Mayo County Council will be indemnified. It is hoped that the Uplands Management Division of the Department of Arts, Heritage and Regional Development will provide a National Indemnity Scheme for Upland Areas as a matter of urgency.

For over twenty years, the Murrisk Development Association (MDA) have worked to maintain Croagh Patrick as a national site. This is a somewhat unique organisation as it works to upkeep the mountain as a tourist attraction on a voluntary basis. The South West Mayo Development Company, a government funded agency, has also helped with funding for projects in the area, such as the community centre at the foot of the mountain. The official car park at the foot of the mountain in Murrisk is maintained by the Mayo County Council, who began charging visitors after refurbishing the area at a cost of 150,000 Euros several years ago. Revenue from the car park is currently shared between the county council and the MDA.

.The fact that the mountain is commonage also raises other questions for those who are concerned about its future. In 1989, a concerted effort to open the mountain to gold mining was thwarted only by local opposition. No less than twenty-one prospecting companies were invited to bid on mining rights at the time. That seam of gold is still contained in at least 12 quartz veins on the mountain, which according to experts could produce 700,000 tons of ore and potentially over 300,000 troy ounces of gold. Even today, over twenty-five years later, there is much chatter on the Internet about the prospect of revisiting gold mining. Local opinion was somewhat divided at the time, although the majority prevailed, and no doubt this is a matter that will come up for debate again in the future.

Other Approaches

Croagh Patrick is a spectacular peak whose pilgrimage traditions go back thousands of years. Excavations in the area have revealed that it was one of the foremost ritual sites in all of Ireland long before the advent of Christianity. While the current ‘Pilgrims Path’ from Murrisk is the one used by the vast majority of visitors, it is by no means the only recognised access point to the mountain. The Lecanvey Route, for example, is rarely used today, but once was part of the pilgrimage trail that led from Caher Island, near Inishturk, to the summit. In fact, this route is far more benign and less treacherous than the Murrisk route. Access, however, is somewhat more challenging. Unlike Murrisk, there is no designated car park and obvious line of sight to the summit. Those who visit all three ‘stations’ of Leacht Benain, The Summit, and Reilig Mhuire on the pilgrimage route will be familiar with this approach.

Some would also argue that Saint Patrick’s initial approach to the mountain would have been via what is now known as the Owenwee route, which is part of the Tochar Padraig starting at Ballintubber Abbey. This fascinating and historic route includes no less than thirteen stages and 113 stiles on its journey of over thirty kilometres to the summit. The Mayo Mountain Rescue team use part of the Owenwee route as it affords easier access to the shoulder from their station. Then there is always the traverse from the east via the Western Way access point, or from the west via Ben Goram, which would have been part of the original route from Caher Island. However, the only routes that would avoid the most eroded parts of the summit cone are those from the west.

What is to be done?

One obvious, if expensive, solution to the problem of erosion, particularly on the summit cone of the mountain, is to adopt the model of paths in the MacGillicuddy Reeks in Kerry or even Diamond Hill in the Connemara National Park, which has gravel footpaths and flagstones all of the way up to and down from the summit. Being one of six national parks managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Connemara National Park receives government funding that is not applicable to Croagh Patrick, so the money for any such project would have to come from another source. Elfyn Jones states in his report that if the landowners were agreeable, there could be options under the Planning Acts to declare the route a public right of way. This would put a responsibility on the local authority to then maintain the path in future years.

Another solution would be to utilize other access points to the mountain, such as Lecanvey, although as it stands, this would require some form of right of way access over private lands in the immediate area.

There are growing calls to eliminate commercial events on Croagh Patrick, as many believe that much of the recent erosion has been exacerbated by competitive athletes running up and down the mountain. However, any such claims are currently considered ‘anecdotal’. There is also talk of banning visitors entirely from climbing above the statue of Saint Patrick over a period of time, in order to allow the peak to ‘repair itself’. This suggestion has been criticized by Failte Ireland, who labelled any such action as ‘disastrous’ for tourism in the area. The final solution may be a combination of all of these considerations, but for now the fate of Croagh Patrick as a magnet for visitors from all over the planet is, as they say, ‘in the lap of the gods’.

Save

Save

The Magic of Brackloon

The Magic of Brackloon Woods

Brackloon Wood is part of the Tóchar Phádraig/Patrick’s Causeway Bike Tour!

Brackloon Wood is an ancient and little-known place, not far from the remarkable Boheh Stone (where a 5,800-year old tablet was discovered in 2016). The 173-acre forest lies undisturbed and still in low hills on the eastern side of Croagh Patrick, its 200-year old Atlantic oak trees fringed with lichen and ferns. Yet these are just indicators of a much deeper past, when the entire area was covered with oak forest. This occurred after the glaciers started to recede from Ireland over 12,000 years ago, so that when the first humans arrived around three thousand years later, they found trees covering the lower lands around the more exposed mountainsides.

There are local stories of a Celtic past, of caves and monuments hidden in these woods. There are moss and bramble-covered standing stones found here. There is also a prominent ringfort and even a stone circle.

Other evidence of early human settlements is found here – several fulacta fiadh – a type of cooking pit constructed during the mid to late Bronze Age. These were usually constructed near streams or rivers, which provided the water to fill a stone or timber trough. Stones were heated on a nearby fire, and were then used to boil the water in the trough. Ringforts were built in Ireland during the early Christian period after 300 a.d. and were predominantly used for human habitation for hundreds of years. Earthen ringforts are called ‘raths’, while stone ones are referred to as ‘cashels’. These had as many as three concentric lines of ‘defense’ in the form of walls. The ringforts were used by humans and also as a shelter for animals. The ‘door’ to the fort was often built on the eastern side, away from the prevailing westerly winds. The ringfort in Brackloon Wood is a cashel, some 25 metres wide, located in the centre of the forest.

Brackloon Ringfort Souterrain

The 19th century author Thackeray called Brackloon “noble woods”. At that time, they were a part of Westport House Estate, owned by the Marquis of Sligo. Patrick’s Causeway or ‘Tóchar Phádraig‘ (click on the link to see post), passes close to the woods. This route predates Saint Patrick by many hundreds of years. It was believed to be a significant road capable of carrying wheeled traffic from Rathcroaghan (Cruachan) in County Roscommon – home of the High Kings of Connaught and the legendary Queen Maedhbh (Maeve) – to Cruachan Aigli (now Croagh Patrick).

Brackloon Tochar Padraig Notice

Brackloon is found seven kilometres southwest of Westport town. It is one of the few deciduous forests surviving in modern Ireland.

Evidence of extensive prehistoric settlements in this area is already indicated by the presence of cairns on the shoulders of Croagh Patrick. These large burial mounds of earth or stone are thought by Archaeologist Leo Morahan to have their origin in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age.

Ancient Brackloon
Brackloon is an ancient place

Brackloon has undergone many changes in the years since it was pristine forest. Significant clearance of woodlands took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, after the invention of the blast furnace. Colonel John Browne, who had acquired huge swathes of land in Ireland, built what is now referred to as Westport House and established an ironworks at the nearby village of Knappagh in 1687. At its peak, 150 men were employed in the making of cannonballs, iron and metal tools to British garrisons in Galway and the island of Inishbofin. The ironworks was fueled by charcoal produced from local timber. Much of the deforestation of Ireland occurred during the industrial age, when the country’s English overlords used the country as a source for timber and charcoal. This exploitation of woodland occurred over centuries, and later fast-growing conifers were introduced. These ‘intruders’ to the primeval forest were culled by the Forest Service in the late 1990s, as the State sought to restore it to its deciduous origins by planting oaks, birches, willows and ash trees.

brackloon wood map

Acknowledgement to Dr. Deirdre Cunningham for her detailed work on Brackloon Wood.

 

 

 

Save

The Wrecks of Clew Bay

The Spanish Armada

In 1588, during ‘The Pirate Queen‘ Granuaile’s lifetime, two ships of the Spanish Armada, the San Nicolas Prodaneli and the 1,126 ton El Gran Grin – the latter being one of the largest ships in the entire Armada – sank at the mouth of Clew Bay. These were two of twenty-six Armada ships wrecked along the Irish coast. The Gran Grin, carrying 329 men and 28 guns, drifted onto the rocks at Clare Island. According to English accounts, the captain and about one hundred crew made their way to safety on the island, but were killed on the orders of one of the O’Malley chieftains. The remainder of the crew were said to have drowned.

The Spanish Armada

This story depends solely on one written account. Yet other versions permeated history, including one which suggested that the Spanish were anchored offshore at Clare Island for six days before the ship was wrecked by a massive storm. Another suggests that the men were taken as prisoners on the island, that dozens were killed trying to escape and the remainder handed over to the notorious Richard Bingham. Yet another story led to the belief that the Gran Grin was actually wrecked near the Corraun peninsula, on the north side of the bay, but was mistaken for the 26-gun San Nicolas Prodaneli, and that the ship’s treasures were picked clean by the O’Malley and Bourke clansmen. Whatever the ensuing circumstances, it is agreed by historians that both ships sank in Clew Bay. Oddly enough, there is no mention of Granuaile or her response to any of these events.

The Fancy, a Man O’ War vessel originally belonging to Charles II of the 1694 Spanish expedition from Corunna, but usurped by Henry Everly (Long Ben) and used for piracy, is recorded arriving at Inishlyre in June 1696 with 20 pirates on board. It is not certain what happened to the ship but it is thought to have been abandoned or wrecked.

In 1835, the 91-ton schooner Uxbridge, en route for Inishlyre harbour, ran ashore on the island of Inishgort at the back of the lighthouse. According to the Evening Freeman on Saturday 2nd.March 1835, ‘the weather was so thick that the light could not be seen at the time. Immediately on the circumstance being made known, the boats belonging to the Chance and Hawk, Revenue Cruisers and the Coast Guard boat at Inishlyre proceeded to her assistance, when the former boat with much difficulty, reached the vessel, and succeeded in rescuing the whole of her crew from a watery grave. The vessel was from Glasgow, bound for Westport and laden with coals and metal ware, and neither vessel or cargo was insured’.

In 1860, the Leguan, a Glasgow based 349-ton vessel was en route from Grenada to Greenock with a cargo of rum, sugar and molasses. She was caught in a gale and drifted into Clew bay. She was at risk of going ashore at Lecanvey, near Westport, so the master, William Buchanan, had the masts cut. Three pilot boats went out to the stricken vessel despite the bad weather. The men boarded the vessel but their three boats sank. The Master of Leguan was unable to get ashore until 6 a.m. the following day. While he was ashore trying to get an anchor and a steam tug, a fire broke out on his vessel. The fire spread rapidly so the crew, fearing there was powder on board, left the vessel. She became a total loss. An inquiry ordered at Westport found Master Buchanan at fault for anchoring when he could have gone to Inishgort. He was also blamed for going ashore when the officer left on board was not capable of holding the vessel. The cause of the fire was not discovered. The crew of the three pilot boats were rewarded with £5 by the Merchant Mariner Fund.

In 1886, the Spirit, a 26-ton cutter owned by Patrick Hopkins, sank off Carrowmore Point on Clare Island. The newly built ship had been loaded with herrings, which she was not built to carry. The load subsequently broke the ship’s back.

In June 1894, a vessel carrying about one hundred Achill Island ‘tatie hokers’ – migrant harvesters bound for Scotland – overturned when the young passengers rushed to the side to see the Glasgow-bound steamer SS Elm near Westport Quay. Unable to lower the mainsail in time, the boat foundered and thirty-two people drowned.

In 1899, the 52-year old, 44-ton wooden sloop Flora of Westport was at anchor at Inishlyre with two crew aboard when she was hit by the schooner Kate of Westport in a WSW force 9 wind and she became a total loss.

In 1904, the Pearl, a 36-ton wooden smack, caught fire and burned in Inishlyre harbour.

In 1928, the 200-ton ketch Charles Stewart Parnell, which serviced the lighthouses with coal and other supplies, caught fire and sank near Inishlyre island. It now lies in twelve metres of water between Islandmore and the channel between Inishgort and Collan Beg islands. Local legend has it that there is an enormous lobster living in the ship’s boiler and has been trapped in there for over thirty years, as it is too big to escape.

The Clare Island to Westport ferry Rossend was washed ashore during a storm in 1993. The bow now lies on the northern side of the island.

There are many other wrecks in the Clew Bay area, which despite the protection offered by the massive Clare Island at the head of the bay, is often at the mercy of brutal storms sweeping across the North Atlantic. This, together with the numerous shingle bars, submerged rocks and drowned drumlins around the inner bay, makes navigation around this area fraught with danger.

NEXT POST – The Islands Seen from Croagh Patrick

The Pirate Queen

The Pirate Queen of Clew Bay

The earliest written reference to the O’Malley territory around Murrisk is in the fifth century, when Saint Patrick climbed the mountain then known as Cruachan Aigle, before it was renamed Croagh Patrick. The O’Malleys built Murrisk Abbey for the Augustinian friars in 1457.

NW---Rockfleet-Castle

Grace O’Malley, otherwise known as Granuaile or Gráinne Mhaol, lived from around 1530 to 1603. She was born into the clan Ó Máille (O’Malley), who were said to be descendants of the eldest son of a former high king of Ireland. The clan were the hereditary lords of a territory which included the baronies of Murrisk* to the south of Clew Bay and Burrishoole to the north, which originally included the island of Achill.

According to Hubert Thomas Knox in ‘The History of County Mayo’, even before Granuaile’s time, Clew Bay was a famous resort for smugglers who did an extensive trade with the continent. Clare Island of old is often described as a ‘pirate’s lair’ and the ‘Mecca of Smugglers’.

The O’Malleys differed from most of the Irish clans in that they were a true seafaring family. According to the ‘Book of Rights’ (Leabhar ne gCeart), the O’Malleys paid the King of Connaught, who resided in Cruachan (now known as Rathcroghan near Tulsk in County Roscommon) handsomely for the right to make a living from the seas around Clew Bay and beyond.

The O’Malleys did not engage in fishing alone. Piracy became a hallmark of the clan, particularly during Granuaile’s time. The sixteenth century saw the old Gaelic world face an onslaught on land from its powerful neighbour. Granuaile built strongholds around the shores of Clew Bay that only skilled local navigators could negotiate by sea, especially as cartographers only began to map the remote and dangerous channels of the west coast after her reign.

Granuaile spend her childhood at the clan residences at Belclare (between Westport and Murrisk) and Clare Island (the tower which still stands today). She was first married at the age of sixteen to Donal O’Flaherty, whose family ruled what is now more or less the boundaries of Connemara in County Galway. During this time, she bore two children, but also began to take an interest in seafaring activities around the Galway City area, where she and her men are said to have exacted tolls or exchange of cargo for safe passage into the busy port before disappearing into the myriad of inlets around the Connemara coast.

Clare Island Lighthouse and Cliffs

It was highly unusual for a woman to command any position of authority in matters of merchanting, much less piracy. In can only be surmised that Granuaile led by example, and was capable of enduring the hardships known to exist on the brutal Atlantic seaboard around the west coast of Ireland.

Around this time, Elizabeth I began her reign as Queen of England. Using a divide and conquer strategy with the Irish lords, she began to disrupt the power base that had long remained undisturbed west of the Shannon River. Granuaile’s husband, whose authority had been diminished, died during this period. However, she successfully defended his island fortress in Lough Corrib against the Joyces, a predominant Galway family.

The O’Flaherty clan would not tolerate a woman as heir to Donal’s title and she looked again to the sea as a means of establishing power. She returned to Clew Bay and the tower castle at Clare Island. From here, she had a commanding view of the entire bay, and no ship could pass without being spotted.

Now in her twenties, Grace used her O’Malley influence to establish a fighting force of two hundred men, including the infamous ‘Gallowglass’ or mercenaries from Scotland. Stories of her exploits spread across the Irish Sea around the time the English queen employed a new strategy of colonisation that was to change the power base in Ireland yet again. Life became a matter of survival against the odds for Granuaile.

Granuaile was in her thirties when she married Richard Bourke. It is believed that her main goal was to acquire Rockfleet (also known as Carrickhowley) Castle and the deeper waters around Burrishoole on the north side of Clew Bay. Here, legend has it that the hawser of her favourite galley was attached to her bedpost at night (which is quite possible when one sees the location of the castle on the shore).

In 1584, Sir Richard Bingham was appointed governor of Connaught province. He believed that the Irish were ‘never tamed with words, but with swords’. His brutal tactics were not unlike those of his predecessors. He captured Granuaile’s sons Tiobóid na Long (Tibbot of the Ships) and Murrough O’Flaherty, and her half-brother, Dónal na Píopa. Granuaile petitioned the queen for their release and was invited to meet her at Greenwich Palace.

Granuaile was a native Irish language speaker. She was not known to have spoken English at all. However, it is also believed that she had been educated in Latin and that language was spoken at her meeting with Queen Elizabeth.

Following the meeting, Bingham was temporarily removed from his post as governor, but many of Granuaile’s other requests were not met, despite her assurances that she would stop supporting the Irish lords’ rebellion. Shortly afterwards, Bingham was restored to his position and Granuaile gave up on the notion that her meeting with the queen had a useful outcome.

Granuaile is believed to have died at Rockfleet Castle in 1603, the same year as Queen Elizabeth. She may have been buried in the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey on Clare Island.

NEXT POST – Gold Mining on Croagh Patrick

The Southern Wilderness

The Southern Wilderness

As a pilgrim approaches the shoulder of Croagh Patrick on a clear day, waves of mountain ranges stretch towards the southern horizon.

Looking southeast from the Reek, towards the Partry Mountains, with Lough na Corra in the foreground
Looking southeast from the Reek, towards the Partry Mountains, with Lough na Corra in the foreground

There is only one village of any size in the thirty spectacular kilometres between the Reek and Leenane, the gateway to Connemara. This is Drummin (An Dromainn, meaning “The Ridge”). At the time of writing, Drummin had a small church and a public house. It was also on this plain between Croagh Patrick and the next mountain ranges of Partry and Sheeffry that a young nun, Sister Irene Gibson, lived in a forest home as a hermit for several years up to 2003, in an unsuccessful attempt to set up a hermitage near the village.

It is said that after Saint Patrick fasted on the Reek for forty days, that he threw a silver bell down the south side of the mountain knocking the she-demon Corra from the sky into a lake, sited at the base of the mountain and known locally as Lough na Corra.

Looking southwest from the Reek, the first mountain range that comes into view is that of the Sheeffry Hills (Cnoic Shíofra, meaning “Hills of the Wraith”). This desolate and remote ridge affords spectacular views of both the Reek and the magnificent ranges to the south and west, including the Mweelrea group, the Maumturks, Ben Gorm, Devilsmother, and the Twelve Bens of Connemara. The highest peak, Barrclashcame, is actually eight metres higher than the summit of the Reek.

Connemara's Twelve Bens and Killary Harbour from Barrclashcame in the Sheaffry Hills
Connemara’s Twelve Bens and Killary Harbour from Barrclashcame in the Sheaffry Hills

Looking southwest from the top of the Reek, one can see the deep gorge that forms the break between Connaught Province’s highest mountain, Mweelrea (813 metres), and the Sheaffry Hills. This is the valley of Doolough (Dubh Lough – The Black Lake). This beautiful valley was once the scene of tragedy during the great famine, when starving residents were forced to walk for many miles in brutal winter conditions to request certification as paupers from the decision-makers who were staying in Delphi Lodge, at the southern end of the lake. The commonly accepted story is that they were instructed to appear at 7:00 a.m., then sent back towards the town of Louisburgh, some twelve miles distant. Several were too weak to continue and fell by the side of the road, where their bodies were later collected. Today, the monument in Doolough valley has an inscription from Mahatma Gandhi: “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

Winter Sun at Doolough
Winter Sun at Doolough

Beyond Doolough is Ireland’s only fjord – Killary Harbour. On a fine day, the Killary is visible from the Reek, as are the magnificent Twelve Bens and the tooth-like mountains of Maumturk.

Derryclare Horseshoe - Lough Inagh 

There are no direct roads from the Reek to the mountains of Mayo and Connemara. By car, it is necessary to either go via Westport or Louisburgh. The Western Way hiking trail does cross the valley, however, and intrepid walkers can follow this path without fear of motorized traffic.

Western Way Map
The Western Way near Croagh Patrick

The area south of Croagh Patrick seems placid today, but as evidenced by tales from the Tochar Padraig, or Patrick’s Causeway, which joins the main pilgrimage trail up the mountain from the southern side, this region has many stories of great hardship and persecution from not so long ago.

NEXT POST – The Wrecks of Clew Bay

Clew Bay Islands

A short walk to the statue of Saint Patrick on the Reek often reveals stunning views of Clew Bay and the distant Nephin mountains, but (apart from the massive Clare Island to the west) how can you tell one island from another? Here are some clues:

Westport Bay from the Reek
Westport Bay from the Reek
    • The semi-island at the end of the long strip of land reaching from the shore out into the bay is called Bartraw. It is one of the most popular destinations in the Westport area
    • The island just off the tip of Bartraw is called Inishdaugh. Legend has it that Danish treasure is buried there
    • To the left of Inishdaugh is Inishleague, behind which are Inishimmel and Inishlaghan, while to its right is the island of Inisheeny, now uninhabited but once home to several families
    • The connected islands that look like a prehistoric bird with a long tail (furthest west from Bartraw) are Dorinish Beg and Dorinish More, once owned by Beatle John Lennon and once home to a commune of hippies led by Sid Rawle
    • The large island inside Westport Bay with a prominent white house at its eastern tip is Inishraher, now a retreat of the Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization
    • The tiny island that looks like a hat to the east of Inishraher is called Corillan or ‘The Scotsman’s Bonnet’
    • The island at the end of the Murrisk peninsula (closest to the Reek and just beyond Murrisk Abbey) is called Cahernaran, and once had its own fort
    • Beyond Cahernaran, further down the coast towards Westport, are the three islands of Annagh – East, Middle and West joined by narrow strips of land and shingle – now empty but once home to over thirty people
    • The island that boasts the only working lighthouse in Clew Bay (the white structure visible just beyond the ‘tail’ of Dorinish) is called Inishgort. At last count, this island had one inhabitant
    • The island with a cluster of buildings to the southeast of Inishgort is Inishlyre, whose deep natural harbour used to be used as a dropping off point by larger ships with cargo for Westport Quay. A family still lives on the island.
    • The large islands behind Inishgort are Island More and Knockycahillaun, which once housed several families and are part of a network of islands connected by shingle A new holiday home and the old houses are visible where Island More and Knockycahillaun meet
    • Beyond the Island More chain, the distant shingle bar jutting straight out into the bay is part of Inishbee island, beyond which lies the beautiful island of Inishoo, with its horseshoe harbour
    • Further north and east of Inishoo are the myriad islands of Newport Bay and the Nephin Mountains, one of the wildest and most remote areas in the entire country.
    • Looking further west from the Nephins is the dome of the Corraun Peninsula, and beyond that is the island of Achillbeg and Achill Island itself, the largest offshore island in the country, with its cliffs of Croaghaun on the western end of the island – the third highest sea cliffs in Europe.
    Sunset over Westport Bay
    Sunset over Westport Bay

    NOTE – It is not unusual to see rain sweeping over the Nephin Mountains, while the Reek may be bathed in sunshine, and vice-versa. When the wind swings to the northwest, the impressive form of Clare Island being suddenly obliterated by mist is often a harbinger of a squall heading for Croagh Patrick.

    NEXT POST – Everest Sherpas on the Reek