Mayo to Sligo

Monday 20th July 2009, Louisburg, Mayo
We've only moved on a few miles today but have crossed from Connemara into Mayo and are slowly but surely making our way around the coast. We are now nearly half way round Ireland.

We didn't wake until nearly 9am this morning. We were both exhausted last night, in part from the driving but the air here is clean and the atmosphere conducive to doing very little. Which is perhaps a good thing as there isn't much to do anyway unless you are happy to visit yet another craft shop, woollen mill, fitness centre, golf course or coffee shop!

Scenery is what this part of Ireland excels in but there don't seem to be public footpaths as we have in England and the only places to walk are along the roads. Round walks or strolls along the cliffs just don't seem possible. Villages are many miles apart with no more than a tiny shop, a pub and a tea room. Most of the population is widely scattered across the countryside in bungalows, each in their own grounds and far from neighbours.

We didn't move on from our campsite until after lunch. First we stopped to explore piles of peat stacked to dry near the roadside. It was a strange feeling walking across to them. The ground felt soft and spongy and started to tremble. By jumping we were able to create ripples spreading outwards. No wonder the roads across the bogs are so distorted! Presumably if we stuck a spike down far enough we'd hit a lake lying beneath the surface.

Peat divots drying in the bog near Clifden, Connemara

We stopped at Kylemore Abbey, erected in neo-gothic style between 1860 and 1867, for a Manchester financier. It is currently used as a boarding school and Benedictine convent. It is magnificently set beside a lake, surrounded by woodland and standing below the glaciated slopes of the Garraun mountain.

Kylemore Abbey, Connemara

We continued through Delphi, rather different from the one in Greece though both built on the slopes of mountains. Throughout our drive, every bend in the road opened new and stunning vistas of glaciated mountains with awesome corries gouged out by ice. Waterfalls tumbled down to the lakes and rivers in the valley below. The landscape was bare of trees, plants or any sign of life except for the grass and sheep. It made you very aware of just how small and insignificant humans are compared to the magnificence of the natural landscape.

Corrie eroded by ice. Doo Lough Pass, Mayo

We drove to the head of the fjord known as Killary Harbour, a deep inlet from the sea tightly edged in by mountains. It is said to be Ireland's only fjord. What we referred to as fjords further south must therefore be merely inlets or perhaps rias.

Killary Harbour fjord, Connemara

Killary Harbour fjord, Connemara

Beyond the fjord we drove through the impressive Doo Lough Pass to reach the coast at Louisburg, a pleasant village of holiday homes with its one main street supplying the needs of everyone for miles around.

Doo Lough Pass, County Mayo

The lady in the post office directed us to a campsite marked rather vaguely on our map. It's about a mile outside Louisburg just above a really good beach at Old Head. Having settled Modestine we walked down to the sandy cove with its little jetty. There were dozens of people swimming, snorkelling, kayaking, fishing or simply jumping off the end of the jetty into deep water for the fun of it. They were all wearing wet suits against the cold. The Gulf Stream may protect Ireland from the worst of the winter cold, but that does not mean that the Atlantic waters are warm enough for swimming during the summer months.

Incidentally, we have been quite amazed at the number of French visitors there are in Ireland. At times today they seem to have outnumbered the Irish. They were even staffing the ticket office at Kylemoor Abbey. We have too heard Gaelic being spoken naturally between friends and families so it is still alive and well.

Panorama of Doo Lough Pass, County Mayo – click to enlarge and scroll across

Tuesday 21st July 2009, Keel on Achill Island, County Mayo
I keep muddling up the name of this place, calling it Achilles Heel. We thought we should visit one of the off-shore islands while we are here in the north-west corner of the country and Achill fitted the bill nicely, not least because it is linked to the mainland by bridge which meant no expensive ferries.

Our day started, as it usually does, with drizzle. It continued as it usually does with rain. Around lunch time it began to really throw it down, again much as it usually does. Last night we were camping within sight of St. Patrick's holy mountain, its summit hidden in the wet, low hanging mist. Today our hopes for a clearer view were again thwarted by the clouds and rain. The mountain is a place of pilgrimage and once a year (next weekend in fact) crowds of local people climb the mountain to pray at the statue of St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, on the summit. Legend has it that the saint stood here, waved his staff and ordered all the snakes to leave Ireland. Which is why there are apparently no snakes to be found in the whole of Ireland. (Doesn't it just make you want to release a nest of little adders secretly on the mountainside? Can you believe nobody has ever done it?) At the foot of the mountain, in the village of Murrisk, we found a shrine with a very beautiful, sugar-sweet statue of the Virgin Mary. After it was set up She is said to have appeared to a local visionary approving the shrine and stating that men and God should all live in harmony. A worthy statement, particularly for Ireland.

Shrine of the Virgin, St. Patrick's mountain, Murrisk, County Mayo

Also in Murrisk stands the national monument to the Irish famine victims. It is represented by a bronze ship, its sails in tatters, crewed by tragic skeletons. It stands landlocked near the sea. Its symbolism is that so many died on the famine ships that carried the starving Irish to America in the 1840s, that they were no more than floating coffins. Most of the ordinary people of Ireland were trapped, landlocked, surrounded by sea and unable to escape starvation. We were deeply impressed by the powerful symbolism of the monument and that, more than anything else we have seen, enables us to understand why the Irish mistrust the English and regard us with dislike. The Irish poor were unable to afford bread and lived almost exclusively on potatoes. From 1847 to 1850 the potato harvest failed. Other crops flourished however and food was plentiful for the wealthy. Grain and meat was still being exported to England throughout the famine by Irish landowners, as the starving Irish could not afford the high prices. After the first year or so the English government did little or nothing to alleviate the hunger of the poor, leaving them to die in their hundreds of thousands. Small wonder so many Irish have held a bitter grudge against the English ever since.

National monument to the Irish famine victims, Murrisk, County Mayo

Further along the coast we reached Westport, a bustling little town laid out on its present site in the 18th century when the wealthy English owners of nearby Westport House had the village relocated so that it wouldn't spoil the view from their windows! It has to be admitted that they made a very pleasant job of it though their tenants had no choice in the matter.

At nearby Westport Quay was a museum we wished to see having read that it had memorabilia concerning William Joyce and his activities during the Second World War. Broadcasting from Germany Joyce would open his programmes with the words "Germany calling" before subjecting listeners to Nazi propaganda intended to weaken British morale. In fact it had a very different effect and people would eagerly tune in to be entertained by Lord Haw Haw, as they contemptuously named him. Joyce was actually born in New York but moved to Ireland at the age of three. In his twenties he moved to England before later offering his services to Germany during the war. Once the war ended he was arrested by Britain and executed as a traitor in 1947. Presumably he was somehow related to the vast number of Joyces that are to be found in Ireland – including James Joyce.

The museum was an excellent place to spend a rainy morning and although we were disappointed to find no more than William Joyce's cradle and a few newspaper cuttings in the museum there was plenty more to interest us. It was one of those muddled museums that nobody has yet bothered to modernise with interactive screens and smart display panels. Here exhibits were in elaborate 19th century display cabinets thrown out from a shop, or piled up in corners and on high shelves. It was in fact a jumbled collection of very badly arranged, displayed and labelled paraphernalia that deserved far more attention. It was though a delight to flit from butter churns and shoe makers' lathes to maps marking the landing places of some of the scattered Armada's ships along Ireland's west coast in 1588, or the involvement of the Irish in fighting with the Republicans against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. There was also a great deal about the local McBride family and their involvement in the 1916 struggle for Irish independence.

Cradle of Lord Haw Haw, Westport Quay, County Mayo

It was still pouring as we continued out to the Island of Achill. It covers an area fifteen miles by twelve, large enough that now we are here it doesn't feel much like an island. It's a place of spectacular windswept cliffs and widely scattered houses. There is a resident population of 3,500 but how they make a living is a mystery. There is no obvious agricultural activity. They might be tele-cottaging but it's almost certain they've not got broadband here yet and the people we've seen don't strike us as computer buffs. We are camping at the far tip of the island and here there is a small development of mainly recent housing. There is a pub and, incongruously, a small travelling fair with rides and entertainment for the island community.

Coastline of the Isle of Achill, County Mayo

Off-shore from Achill is Clare Island, far smaller with a resident population of a couple of hundred. It was the haunt of the Pirate Queen, Grace O'Malley who was the scourge of the area in Elizabethan times, resisting the English from a series of strongholds on the islands and shores of Clew Bay. In 1593 she sailed to Greenwich to petition Elizabeth I for the release of her brother and son, negotiating in their only common language – Latin.

We find the island of Achill as splendid and mournfully beautiful as the rest of this western fringe of Europe but cannot understand how people could wish to live here for ever with the wind whistling constantly and the rain sweeping in unremittingly from the Atlantic. There are those however who appreciate its charms. The German writer Heinrich Böll came here every year for thirty-five years, from the 1950s to the 1980s, entranced with its tranquil beauty. He found it conducive to writing and many of his major works were produced here. The Belfast artist Paul Henry came here for a couple of weeks in 1910 and was so enchanted he tore up his return train ticket and stayed for nine years!

Cottage where Heinrich Böll spent so many summers writing his novels, Achill, County Mayo

Wednesday 22nd July 2009, Knock, County Mayo
Our determination to seek out Europe's best-known religious hotspots has brought us to the most holy shrine in Ireland. It was here in Knock, a little village of less than 600 inhabitants, that the Virgin Mary appeared, along with St. Joseph, St. John and the Holy Lamb of God, to fifteen villagers back in the 1870s. Of course compared with Fatima it's fairly small fry but to Irish Catholics around the world it has become a place of pilgrimage. So much so that there is an international airport nearby and over 1.5 million pilgrims flock here every year. Which all goes to explain why the campsite charges over the odds. It's good though to know that the water in the showers is from the same source as that in the fonts of the basilica down the road.

When we arrived we searched in vain for a board directing us to the campsite - though we did find a signpost for Confession, O'Malley's Bed and Breakfast, Holy Water and Mary's hairdressing salon all on the same board! Maybe we'll avail ourselves of some of these tomorrow. Or again maybe not. We eventually found the entrance to the campsite opposite the Shrine View Bed and Breakfast. It's really comfortable and well away from the coastal breezes and clammy mizzle of the past few days. Apart from a red haired little lad hiding in the bushes and pointing his toy gun at us whenever we go outside it's perfectly peaceful. You'd think parents would discourage their children from playing war games in Ireland wouldn't you? Especially up here so near to the Ulster border. Parents should be decommissioning such toys and putting them beyond reach, just as the IRA has done.

Before leaving the island of Achill this morning we sought out the remains of an abandoned village on the sodden peaty slopes below Slievemore Mountain, the top hidden by the perpetual mist. The village had existed since mediaeval times but had gradually been deserted as a result of famine and land reforms. We found it very atmospheric, clambering around with umbrellas in the rain, right in the heart of a peat bog with the wind howling in from the sea. Ian loved it all. I was less enthusiastic. Life must really have been appalling for villagers trapped into such a hard way of living with no means of escape. They had no right to own the land they farmed and paid rents to wealthy landlords. They were totally dependent on their meagre vegetable crops and a few sheep for food, weaving and spinning for clothing and cutting turf for fuel. There was nothing romantic about it at all.

One of the houses in the abandoned village, Achill, County Mayo

Abandoned village showing ridged fields where potatoes were grown, Achill, County Mayo

Bog oak dig out from the soil during peat cutting. Evidence that the bare landscape was once forested, County Mayo

Once back on the mainland we made our way through Castlebar to Turlough. Here there is an outpost of the National Museum of Ireland, based in Dublin. Set in very lovely grounds stands the attractive neo-gothic house Turlough Park, which forms the nucleus of the Museum of Country Life, mainly housed in a purpose-built modern building behind. It's one of the most interesting places we've discovered in Ireland and is completely free.

National Museum of Country Life, County Mayo

Grounds of the National Museum of Country Life showing the modern galleries, County Mayo

Grounds of the National Museum of Country Life, County Mayo

The rest of the day simply disappeared as we browsed the galleries and played with the interactive displays. It was so different from yesterday's little museum. Everything was done with style with no expense spared. Display panels were in both English and Gaelic. There were enlarged old photos, personal testaments and examples of tools, equipment and home interiors. Until well into the twentieth century rural life in much of Ireland had not changed greatly for over a hundred years - since the great famine. The museum illustrated all aspects of the lives of country people including their trades – coopers, carpenters, shoe makers and cobblers, blacksmiths, turf cutters, agricultural labourers, basket makers, rope makers, fishermen and boat makers, wheelwrights and wagon makers. There were displays about education, religion, folklore and superstition, spinning, weaving, dress-making and tailoring. Old film footage showed building techniques for homes, barns and walls, thatching, harvesting and more. There were examples of women's work – knitting, sewing, embroidery and lace as well as darned and mended clothing, cooking, bread-making, salting and pickling food and much, much more.

Inside a reconstructed cottage showing construction methods, National Museum of Country Life, County Mayo

Just as we were about to relax with a dvd this evening a retired A level Irish history teacher knocked on our door for a chat. He was travelling alone and had seen us working with our computers. He told us he wrote poetry and wasn't it grand to be able to use one of those computer things. He had to write everything in a book. How long would it take to learn to use one? We were then dragged back to his chaotic camping car to read some of his poetry. They were rather good actually. He was fascinated with William Wordsworth and had literally dozens of hefty books by or about him and his poetry. The next hour gave us a whistle-stop tour through Irish history and literature almost without drawing breath! We've learned almost all there is to know about W.B.Yeats, Seamus Heaney and George Bernard Shaw. We've also learned much about church attendance throughout Ireland – claimed to be over 60% rising to 85% in more rural areas. He told us he'd come to Knock for spiritual and marriage guidance and had been seeking help at the basilica all afternoon. He explained that many people, himself included, thought in Irish and expressed themselves in English. He then told us that one of the main differences between the Irish and the English was that is you asked an Englishman a question you got a factual answer, whereas if you asked an Irishman he'd tell you a million other things along the way until he forgot what you'd asked in the first place! This was amazingly perceptive as it was exactly what he'd been doing for the past hour! Finally he told us Exeter was the best place his wife had found for buying new curtains! Altogether a most interesting and entertaining encounter.

Thursday 23rd July 2009, Ballyshannon, County Donegal
At the risk of everyone accusing us of being repetitive we have to say that it simply has not stopped raining all day. We cannot recall one single day since we crossed to Ireland where there has not been at least a shower and in general we'd say it has been raining overall, for more time than not.

There is not a great deal in Ireland for the ordinary tourist to do unless you are into golf, riding, fishing or outdoor pursuits. In the rain there is even less. All the towns are small and filled with provincial shops. There seems little for young people to do and now the school holidays have started the libraries are full of bored teenagers sheltering from the rain and queuing for a session on the library computers. Generally too the libraries are cramped and old fashioned.

This morning we got soaked preparing to leave the campsite. In Knock we gave up trying to keep dry and paddled through the puddles to explore the basilica and shrine. Already there were groups of pilgrims, usually elderly ladies, nuns and a few gentlemen holding their rosary beads. There are several small chapels around the complex including statues standing in a shrine built against the gable end of the church exactly where the saints were said to have appeared.

Knock basilica, County Mayo

Shrine of the Apparition of 1879, Knock, County Mayo

Stations of the Cross, Knock, County Mayo

In August Knock is packed with pilgrims on the anniversary of the apparition but today it was all fairly quiet. In the main street, and at locations around the site, thousands of souvenir bottles were on sale. They could be filled with holy water running from a dozen fountains – the same source in fact that serves the adjoining campsite.

Filling bottles with holy water, Knock, County Mayo

Around the complex there were counselling offices advising on everything from how to pray, to marriage guidance and help for young people. The bookshop was crammed with works about the apparition at Knock, testimony of eye witnesses, claims of miraculous cures and the lives of the Irish saints. In the centre of the complex stood a huge cross commemorating the visit to Knock in 1979 of Pope John Paul II, claimed to be the most important event in Irish history since the arrival of Saint Patrick.

Commemorating the papal visit to Knock in 1979, County Mayo

Many of the pilgrims were elderly and frail so the little train was fully occupied ferrying them from the basilica to the apparition chapel, to the toilets, to confession and back to the car park. There was a high proportion of nuns and they were having a grand time, enjoying every minute. The basilica was empty when we looked in. It is built in the round with the altar in the centre and it seemed rather a dreary place with concrete replicas of gothic windows from each of the four ancient provinces of Ireland.

Little train, Knock, County Mayo

Interior of the basilica, Knock, County Mayo

The main village street was full of souvenir shops that could hold their own with the tackiest to be found at Lourdes, Fatima, Assisi or any number of European shrines we've visited. They all sold bottles for holy water, plastic wreaths, ceramic plaques to put on your parents' graves, religious statuettes, prayer books, tacky angels and just the occasional leprechaun, baseball hat, tea-towel or stick of pink Knock rock! Still, we mustn't mock. As the song says, "don't knock the rock".

At the end of the street we found yet another monument commemorating the glorious deaths of various local Irish martyrs fighting to free the country from British domination - "the yoke of the stranger".

Memorial to Irish freedom fighters, Knock, County Mayo

We drove northwards, still through the rain, to Sligo, a busy little town where it is impossible not to be aware of its links to the Yeats family. The wet streets were bustling with visitors and the shops, as elsewhere in Ireland, were all small individual businesses that seem to have been family run for generations. It's something that sadly has almost disappeared from most English towns. Major supermarkets and department stores really are few and far between here.

Sligo and the river Garavogue

The William Butler Yeats Society had a free photographic exhibition of the life of Yeats, his plays and his poetry as well as other literary and artistic figures who influenced his writings – Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris to name some of those I recall. I'm woefully ignorant of his work and eyed the volunteer Yeats Society members on duty with terror in case they decided to open a discussion with me. Fortunately by the time one of them did I'd read enough of the display panels to bluff my way through. He was certainly a complex character – show me an Irishman who isn't – and was heavily into the supernatural, theosophy and other cults, going so far as to marry a medium!

W.B.Yeats Society offices, Sligo, formerly a bank

W.B.Yeats, Sligo

Upstairs there were a couple of galleries dedicated to a small exhibition of the paintings of his younger brother, Jack B.Yeats. The rooms were large and the paintings small. His watercolours I quite liked though I was unappreciative of his later works in oil.

Across the way the town museum also had Yeats memorabilia as well as material concerning the involvement of Sligo personalities in the struggle for Irish independence. Nearby stand the ruins of Sligo Abbey, definitely not worth two euros to explore in a downpour.

Ruins of Sligo Abbey

The modern art centre had an exhibition that was way above our heads called Medium Religion, full of sequin covered Jesuses and Buddhas, videos clips of Osama Bin Laden and tramps snoring in Milan Cathedral. There was also a darkened room with a projection of Islamic women wearing burkas with a sound track of a child crying. The most compelling exhibit was a film of Jewish people in Jerusalem placing barricades across the roads at the start of the Sabbath, effectively blocking off parts of the city for everyone, whether or not they were strict orthodox Jews.

By now we were quite bemused. If this is "medium religion", let me have mine rare please! On the way out the lady on reception was reluctant to return our wet umbrellas. "There are two more floors you've not seen yet!" We confessed it wasn't quite our scene and headed for the exit, happy for once to find ourselves back in the perpetual rain.

Deciding that in Ireland you definitely only get what you pay for, and so far today we'd gone for anything that was free, we lashed out on coffee and donuts in a little café where we watched the elderly ladies of Sligo in their flower print frocks having afternoon tea as an obvious treat to while away the rain.

What a bargain! Buy now while stocks last! Sligo

The most interesting thing happening on a rainy day in Sligo

Yesterday we found a campsite book covering Northern Ireland and parts of Donegal. This site, on the edge of a lake near some impressive flat-topped table mountains, is included but prices are not given. It turned out to be particularly expensive and really rather horrid with inadequate facilities and a shower that gives a mere six minutes for two euros. Overall, we've decided, Irish campsites are the most expensive and the worst value for money we've found anywhere in our travels. In mainland Europe in high season there are swimming pools, free wifi, restaurants and bars, free showers and sites are usually located somewhere interesting, usually for less than 20 euros a night. In Ireland all you get is free loo paper and a sink plug for 25 euros a night, or 29 if you want showers. As a bonus Europe usually gives sunshine in the summer; Ireland does not.