Latest Census Shows Further Decline in Island Population

Inish Lyre harbour, as seen from Crovinish

The 2016 Census figures just released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) show a continued decline in the population of Mayo’s offshore islands. However, the good news is that there are now eight inhabited islands in Clew Bay, up from six in 2011.

Census Records 2011 v 2016
Mayo Island Population – Census Records 2011 v 2016

The population of Clare Island, the largest island in Clew Bay, declined to 159, with nine male residents leaving the island. The female population remained at 75, the same number as in 2011.  As for the inner islands of Clew Bay, all five residents of Inishcottle left the island and it is now uninhabited, despite being connected to Inishnakillew. Inishlyre and Clynish retained their respective populations of four inhabitants each, although one male left Inishlyre, leaving three females and one male. Inishnakillew also lost two male residents, but gained one female, leaving a total of five people living on the island.

The previously uninhabited Rosbarnagh island gained one male resident, as did Achill Beg for the first time since 1965. Collan Beg – empty for many years – now has one couple living on it year round. The island that showed the most significant gain was Collan More, which now has seven year-round residents, up from four in 2011.

As for the larger Mayo islands, Achill lost 65 males and 64 females since 2011, leaving populations of 1,201 and 1,239 respectively. Inis Bigil’s male population dropped from 16 to 11, and female inhabitants declined from nine to seven. Despite its efforts to gain residents fleeing the new American administration, Inishturk lost nine male inhabitants, but gained seven females, leaving a population of 51.

Overall, the population of the Mayo islands declined from 2,839 in 2011 to 2,694 in 2016, a drop of 145 people or just over 5%.



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.


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’.



Croagh Patrick and Other Sacred Summits

The World's Most Sacred Peaks

Croagh Patrick is one of many ‘sacred summits’ on the planet. Machupuchare, the magnificent ‘fish tail’ mountain of the Himalayas, is believed to be an abode of the Hindu god Shiva, while the remote Mount Kailas in eastern Tibet is a most sacred mountain to no less than four major creeds. Unlike the Reek, where a pilgrim’s objective is to reach the summit, the gatekeepers of many holy mountains dissuade the faithful from setting foot on the highest ground.

The Asian religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism (as well as the indigenous Bon of Tibet) all revere mighty peaks as places of power where masters have achieved spiritual realisation. When one sees these mountains firsthand, it is not hard to see why.

The Fishtail Mountain

My first glimpse of Machupuchare was on a crowded bus destined for the town of Pokhare in Nepal. For days since my arrival, the clouds had obscured the mountains and one was left to imagine whether or not the highest peaks in the world would ever materialise. Sitting crammed against a window, I noticed that a strong wind had started to bend the trees along a pretty suburban avenue. Just then, the clouds parted momentarily and I found myself gazing at a double summit, impossibly high above the town. I could clearly see the ‘fishtail’ that gives the mountain its name, and just as soon as it had appeared, almost five miles above my head, it vanished into the mists.

Machupuchare - The Fishtail Mountain
Machupuchare – The Fishtail Mountain

I visited Nepal on two other occasions, and saw the even higher peaks of Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Everest itself, but nothing would ever eclipse that first glimpse of a most beautiful and unworldly object. It was no surprise to learn later that Machupuchare was ‘off limits’ to all climbing expeditions, and that no mere mortal was permitted to stand on its summit. The one who came closest to doing so is said to be the Englishman Wilfred Noyce, who in 1957 came within 150 feet of the summit before turning back. No one has been allowed on the mountain since, although there are rumours of illegal trespassers in more recent years (who later met untimely deaths, as is their fate).

The Abode of Many Deities

Kailas is the most sacred of all peaks in the Himalayas. Standing 6,638 metres (21,778 feet) high – small by Everest standards – it is still more than eight times higher than Croagh Patrick. Similar to Machupuchare, no one is allowed to scale Kailas. Instead pilgrims are expected to circumnavigate the entire mountain. This is a distance of 50 kilometres (32 miles), and takes place after many pilgrims have walked for days and even weeks to reach this isolated place.

Mount Kailas
Mount Kailas in Tibet

Unlike Croagh Patrick, where the most devout pilgrim may climb the shale in bare feet, the pilgrim on Kailas bends down, kneels, prostrates full-length, makes a mark with his fingers, rises to his knees, prays, and then crawls forward on hands and knees to the mark made by his/her fingers before repeating the process for the entire fifty kilometres. It is said that Kailas “opens the mind to the cosmos around it, evoking a sense of infinite space that makes one aware of a vaster universe encompassing the limited world of ordinary experience”.

There are many other Himalayan peaks that inspire religious awe. The beautiful Nanda Devi in India, for example, is named for a Hindu Goddess, while Annapurna is the abode of the benevolent deity Parvati.

Nanda Devi
Nanda Devi in India

China’s Holy Peaks

Further east, in China, are four sacred summits of the Buddhist religion. When I visited that country first, it had just been opened to individual travellers. I was fortunate to get permission to ascend the highest of these peaks – Emei Shan – a three-thousand one hundred metres (10,167 feet) mountain in Sichuan Province. Like Croagh Patrick, this peak has a distinct ‘normal’ pilgrim’s pathway, but unlike the Reek, the entire trail has been diligently carved out of the rock.

Emei Shan in China
Emei Shan in China

It can take two days to scale Emei Shan. Monasteries situated on the trail and at the summit accommodate pilgrims, although today there is a cable car to facilitate the journey. These monasteries are believed to be the original training places of the Shaolin monks. At dawn, one is awoken by the sound of Buddhist drums and bells. Military style green coats are provided on the summit for warmth, as hundreds gather to witness the sun rise from the top of a mighty cliff. It is truly an awesome sight, as the mists rise from jade forests far below.

Too Many to Mention

There are many other ‘sacred summits’ on the planet. Here are a few of the others:

  • Mount Ararat – alleged by some to be the site of Noah’s ark
  • Mount Athos – also known as the Holy Mountain, Greece
  • Mount Fuji – the most popular of Japan’s three sacred summits
  • Mount Kinabalu – Known as “Aki Nabalu” which means “Revered Place of the Dead”
  • Mauna Loa – an active volcano on Hawaii
  • Machu Picchu – sacred to the Incas
  • Mount Sinai – where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments
  • Uluru – also known as Ayers Rock, Australia – sacred to the Aborigines
  • Mount Vesuvius – thought by the Romans to be devoted to the demigod Hercules.

Of course, there are many more. Please share your stories of these places!

The Lonely Hills of the Wraith

The Hills of the Wraith

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.

The Hills of the Wraith
The western end of the Sheeffry Hills overlooking Doolough and the Famine Road to Louisburgh

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

Barrclashcame Summit
Barrclashcame – highest point in the Sheeffry’s – with Croagh Patrick in the background

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.

The Famine Road Doolough
The Famine Road at Doolough – once a rough trail – was the scene of many tragic deaths

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.

Delphi Lodge
The lodge in its idyllic setting just off the Louisburgh Road

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?”

Famine Memorial Doolough
The Memorial at Doolough to the Famine Walk Victims

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.

The Mysteries of Croagh Patrick

The Sheefry Hills as seen from Croagh Patrick

This stunning quartzite mountain on the edge of Europe has a geological history dating back 750 million years. Yet its social history is far less obvious. Fact and myth have become curiously intertwined. The recent discovery of a ‘rock art’ tablet at Boheh, east of the Reek, has been dated back to 5,800 b.c., which would put its creation in the Mesolithic or middle stone age. These would have been the first people to come to Ireland. Britain and Ireland were still joined to the continent, by land bridges. The sea level was lower, because much of the earth’s water was still frozen solid on higher ground.

When Saint Patrick first climbed the Reek around 441 a.d., it was known as Mons Egli, Croachan Aigli or Cruachan Aigli. It was not until 1350, hundreds of years after his death, that it became known as Cruaich Patric. It was the 16th century before the anglicised name “Croagh Patrick” came to pass.

The discovery of the ‘rolling sun’ phenomenon by the late historian Gerry Bracken suggests that even then, the natives venerated the Reek as a mountain of special significance. Bracken determined that on April 18th and August 24th, when viewed from the Boheh Stone, the setting sun appears to ‘roll down’ the western side of the mountain. Perhaps coincidentally, when considered along with the winter solstice on December 21st, this divides the year into three equal parts. However, it is considered more likely to signal the beginning and end of the growing season. The Boheh stone, about six kilometres east of the mountain, is significantly decorated with “cup and ring” motifs.

The Colour of Gold

The Bronze Age did not begin in Ireland until around 2000 b.c., and new settlers around the Reek were probably first attracted by the bright colour of gold. The area around the Croagh Patrick must have been of particular interest, for the vein of gold that runs along this part of the west of Ireland suggests that the southern side of Clew Bay truly merits the name ‘Gold Coast’. Even the local Owenwee River – translated Abhainn Buí or Yellow River – suggested that the presence of gold was commonly known. These people built ceremonial circles of stone in the area, like the stone circle at the magical Brackloon Wood on the slopes of Croagh Patrick.

A mix of folklore and legend tells us that a group called the Fir Bolgs arrived in the area from Greece around 1850 b.c., but were defeated by another invader, the Tuatha Dé Danann, who were to become the main pagan gods of Ireland by representing particular features of life and nature. One of these gods was called Lugh, and pagans celebrated the harvest with the festival of Lughnasa (now encompassed in the Irish word for ‘August’).

Around 1500 b.c., the Milesians arrived – apparently from the Ionian Sea and the Middle East, although some would argue that they came from France. Knox, in his ‘History of County Mayo’, notes that “old chroniclers allege, that years after the Milesians came to Ireland, there were fierce battles fought about Cruáchan Aigle, Cleire (Clare Island) and Inisheemow (the other islands of Clew Bay), and that the chief races of ancient Ireland were brought together at Murrisk – De Danaans, Firbolgs and Milesians inter-married and produced a new race, the tribes as such being actually submerged.”

The Ancient Astronomers

The Celts arrived around 600 b.c. By that time, it is clear that their predecessors had already established a thorough understanding of astronomy, and that the Reek was an important landmark in ancient times. Murphy and Moore, in their book entitled “Island of the Setting Sun: In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers” are convinced that the Reek is at the western end of an ‘Equinox Line’ that stretches 217 kilometres across Ireland from Inbher Colpa (now Drogheda), where Amergin, leader of the Milesians landed.

Tracing this straight line across the country – the authors noted that sunset occurs directly over the Hill of Slane – where Patrick lit the Easter fire – at the time of the full moon (now the indicator of Easter in the Christian calendar) a few days after the Vernal Equinox, and continues through the ancient dwelling of the High Kings of Connacht at Rathcroghan (or Cruachan Aí) and west to Croagh Patrick. Murphy and Moore go on to state that this line crosses the summit of Croagh Patrick “with breathtaking accuracy”. They also point out that the relatively unknown site of Rathcroghan is one of the largest archaeological complexes in the world, with over two hundred monuments in a ten-mile radius.

The theory is that Saint Patrick deliberately followed this line across the country to Croagh Patrick. The authors state “At the moment of the equinox sunset, we were looking in the direction of the Hill of Slane and also Croagh Patrick, following a sacred pathway to the stars. This is breathtaking. It connects some of the most significant places associated with Ireland’s national Saint, and at the same time reflects an ancient cosmology which predates Patrick by three and a half millennia. There seems no limit to what the ancients were capable of. We are amazed.”

Harry Hughes, author of “Croagh Patrick – A Place of Pilgrimage” points out that the equinox line also passes along Patrick’s Causeway (otherwise known as the Tochar Padraig) and the Rock of Boheh. According to Murphy and Moore “evidence is emerging that significant archaeological sites dating from deep in prehistory are linked – not just through mythology, archaeology and cosmology – but through an arrangement of complex, and, in some cases, astonishing alignments.”

A rampart once existed around the summit of the Reek, with several huts located on the northwest side. The location of these huts is still visible today. The earliest oratory on the summit has been dated between 430 to 890 AD. It is likely that the Reek had a succession of these oratories.

Excavations on the top of Croagh Patrick determined that it had once functioned as a hill fort, with several dwellings on the summit. Local archaeologist Gerry Walsh’s team also discovered the outlines of at least thirty hut sites. Further excavations also uncovered the foundations of an early church, dating as far back as the fifth century, when Saint Patrick was alive.

Lugnademon – the hollow of the serpents, located on the northeast side of the mountain – was formed during the ice age. The stories associated with this impressive area – it being the legendary Armageddon of all snakes in Ireland – are more symbolic of Patrick’s desire to banish paganism from the land. If this mountain was truly his focal point for such symbolism, then Croagh Patrick must have been one of the foremost sacred ritual places in all of Ireland.

The Reek was clearly of great significance in ancient Ireland. There is no doubt about its important place as a pilgrimage mountain since the stories concerning the life of Saint Patrick emerged long after his death. Yet despite the mysteries surrounding pre-Christian sites in Ireland, we are fortunate that for whatever reason, many of these still remain to silently tell of the mountain’s vaunted place in prehistoric times.

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.





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.


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