Reek Tours is a registered Irish company based in Westport, County Mayo. It provides guided bicycle and hiking tours to those interested in seeing a different side of Croagh Patrick – known locally as ‘The Reek’ – and the Clew Bay tidal islands. Using ancient pilgrimage and heritage routes, the company provides five options to explore the Reek outside of the ‘modern’ approach to Ireland’s holy mountain, including the southern route that was part of the original path taken by Saint Patrick when he spent forty days on the summit. Tour guides are well versed in the history, archaeology, geology and geography of Croagh Patrick and the Clew Bay Islands.
Michael Cusack is the author of the book “Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay – A Guide to the Edge of Europe”. He first climbed Croagh Patrick at the age of six and countless times since. He has led several multi-week cycling and hiking trips for The Biking Expedition in both Europe and the United States. His travels have included several treks in the Everest and Annapurna regions of Nepal, as well as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Kosciuszko in Australia. A former member of the Irish cycling team and Olympic Squad, he raced extensively in Europe and the USA. He holds a Master’s degree in organisational communications.
Hear the interview with Tommy Marren of Midwest Radio on May 6th, 2016 about “Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay – A Guide to the Edge of Europe”:
In his own words…
My mother Gerardine was born 97 years ago in what is now a restaurant and pub called the Sheebeen, just outside Westport. She was the eldest of nine Hopkins children. She is an author, historian and painter, and worked as a guide for the Irish Tourist Board for twenty years. My father John grew up on a farm in Aughagowla, between Westport and Castlebar. He went away to sea at the age of sixteen and returned nine years later, after witnessing the Spanish Civil War and fighting in the Second World War. I grew up in Dublin, but I would spend summers at my grandmother’s house in Rosbeg, just outside Westport and about 10 yards from the sea. My grandfather Peter Hopkins was one of the last Clew Bay pilots and often spent nights as a guest of the Gibbons and Kelly families on the islands when the weather was too stormy for him to get home. My mother also tells me that my great-great grandfather was the Admiralty Pilot for the west coast of Ireland, and would deliver bags of meal to the islanders in times of need.
I myself spent several years racing on the Irish national cycling team before heading for Vienna, where I worked as a furniture restorer, then Saudi Arabia, where I became a recreation specialist and was privileged to travel to places like Mongolia, Nepal, China, Australia, Kenya, Russia, Zimbabwe and then on to America, where I got married, obtained a master’s degree, raised my two sons and worked as a business analyst before returning to Ireland about 18 months ago.
The magic of the west coast
When I got back to Westport and Clew Bay, I felt as if I was really home – the pure air of the west, the ever changing Atlantic, the deep history of the land, the magic of the Reek – I think it’s something that stays with you wherever you are in the world.
Every day there is something new here. The Atlantic always has a different look – one day it is green, the next turquoise. One day the waves are throwing rocks all over the strand, the next the beaches are covered in golden sand. One moment it is dark and stormy, the next the sun is splitting the skies!
After spending the better part of 25 years in New Jersey, I was used to the sound of traffic, day and night. Here, even when you are high on Croagh Patrick, the only sound is the wind or the waves crashing far below. It reminds me of Nepal, where the only sound you will hear on the trails are the bells the traders attach to the mules that carry supplies across the Himalayan foothills.
The Evolution of Clew Bay
Over 12,000 years ago, we know that Clew Bay was covered in ice. As the temperature rose and the ice retreated, wave like patterns left sediment on the surface of the land, leaving these drumlins sloping from west to east with their massive boulder clay cliffs.
I researched census records going back before the famine years in the mid-19th century and found that in 1841 there were over 1500 people living on 35 inner islands of the bay, and another 1600 on Clare Island alone. At the last count in 2011, there were just 25 people living on 6 inner islands, and the population of Clare Island had dropped to just 168.
Inspiration for the book
It isn’t hard to be inspired by Clew Bay. It really is one of nature’s great spectacles and it only takes a few minutes climb on Croagh Patrick to see why. Its swarm of drumlins is unlike anything else in western Europe. So when I returned home I scoured the Mayo libraries and the Internet and was surprised to find that while Clew Bay is often mentioned, especially as having an island for each day of the year, virtually nothing had been written the social history and geography of these islands with the exception of Clare Island – with Clare the most famous island in the bay, especially its association with Granuaile, or the Pirate Queen, but there are another 141 named islands in the bay, along with countless unnamed tidal islands and drowned drumlins. So these may well make up the 365, but as I said in my book, I leave that argument to those better informed!
In fact, I discovered that only those with strong associations with the bay know more than a handful of the island names, apart from John Lennon’s island of Dorinish (or Dorinch as it is called locally), and places like Inishraher, which is now a “Maharishi Capital of the Global Headquarters of World Peace” for the Transcendental Meditation organisation, and Inishturk Beg, which was bought and developed by the millionaire Nadim Sadek.
I found other curious stories about the smaller islands of the bay – like Inishdaugh with its legend of hidden Danish gold; Inishgowla with its valley and lake of fresh water; the lobster so big it has been trapped for thirty years in the cabin of a sunken ship off Inishgort; the commune led by ‘King of the Hippies’ Sid Rawle that survived on Dorinish for two years.
Using references like ordnance survey maps from 1848, field research and interviews, the national archives, and dozens of Internet sources, I was able to piece together what I think is the first complete picture of the bay. Having said that, the one thing I have learned is how little we really know about life on the islands.
I tried to relate some of the incredible stories around this part of the Wild Atlantic Way and Croagh Patrick, or the Reek as it is locally known. Like the successful opposition to Gold Mining led by people like my late uncle Paddy Hopkins and the British environmentalist David Bellamy in 1989; the 43 shipwrecks lying beneath the Atlantic waves, including two ships of the Spanish Armada; the Tochar Padraig – a pilgrimage trail Saint Patrick was said to have followed, but which was once part of a much longer trail stretching all of the way to Rathcroghan – the home of the High Kings of Connaught – and some say even Tara itself; the southern wilderness with its Western Way and the Famine Road; then there is magical Brackloon Wood on the slopes of the mountain – with its stone circle and ringfort; and the other Bronze age remnants all around the Reek.