The Jewel of the West
By Aine Ryan, Contributor
By Kit DeFever, Photos
August / September 2002
A visit to Westport encompasses many aspects of the unique history of the West of Ireland.
On a clear day the panoramic vista from Sheeaune Hill on the Castlebar Road approach to Westport, Co. Mayo, is breathtaking. The town snuggles in a cosy hollow that is dominated by the pyramidal peak of Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick. Clare Island — the reputed burial place of the 15th century pirate queen, Granuaile — is like a great sentinel whale guarding the entrance to Clew Bay. The bay’s reputed 365 islands appear like a maze of Fabergé eggs blending gently into the wooded demesne at Westport House as the contours of Achill Island fade into the distance.
The picturesque heritage town of Westport is one of the few planned provincial towns in Ireland. Built in the 1700s by James Wyatt, its tree-lined Mall and gurgling river open into a bustling Bridge Street with its odyssey of colorful shops. A medley of cafes, restaurants, craft and design shops provide the visitor with an Aladdin’s Cave of goodies and a potpourri of eateries. There isn’t a chance of getting thirsty either, as an abundance of watering holes includes Matt Molloy’s, hostelry of the bearded maestro of Chieftains fame.
The town, which has had many distinguished visitors in the past, has become one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. The late Princess Grace went fishing in Clew Bay and caught the biggest fish of the day, while Beatle John Lennon owned one of the islands and was planning to build a retirement home there shortly before his premature death.
Today Westport has a population of almost 5,000 people. Of course, this figure more than doubles throughout the summer months. With nine top class hotels, four hostels, an abundance of B &Bs, vacation apartments and cottages, the visitor is offered a marvelous range of top class accommodation. Leisure activities include sailing, angling, cycling, horse-riding and exploring the islands. And since Westport Golf Club had the honor of hosting this year’s Smurfit Professional Golf Association championship, taking to the greens on its beautiful course, is a must.
Naturally, sightseeing has to come before any other leisure activity. After all, Mayo is a paradise, albeit one with a complex and heartbreaking history.
An ideal daytrip for the curious visitor encompasses many aspects of the unique attractiveness of the West of Ireland and its history. The winding coast road from the town leads past the entrance to stately Westport House and its beautiful parklands. The family of Lord Jeremy Altamont, direct descendants of Granuaile (Grace O’Malley), has resided at Westport House for over 500 years. Its impeccably kept grounds are opened daily to the public throughout the tourist season, and a tour of the house provides the visitor with a colorful glimpse of the grand way of life enjoyed by the gentry. Meanwhile, the recently renovated Turlough House, near Castlebar, home to the national folklife collection, offers a poignant reminder of the simple lifestyle of the Irish peasantry.
In the 18th and 19th centuries Westport Harbour was a bustling port; nowadays the row of old stone mills that once fronted the quayside have been tastefully reconstructed into luxury apartments, cafes, shops, pubs and a hotel. A walk along the quay offers an aromatic indulgence in sizzling fish, fresh Atlantic breezes and wafting turf smoke.
There is, however, a stark reminder of the treacherous past on a simple limestone and black granite plaque which commemorates the Achill Drowning Disaster of June 14, 1894. Thirty-two islanders, most of them in their teens, were drowned in sight of Westport Harbour when the Hooker (small boat) they were aboard capsized. They were all bound for Scotland to work as “tatie hookers” (potato pickers), many of them forced to emigrate in order to pay their landlords’ rent and avoid eviction of their families.
There are many such reminders of Ireland’s troubled past in this part of the country. The road from Westport through the village of Louisburgh and on to Leenane is much more than a breathtaking odyssey of spectacular land and seascapes. Every boggy valley and craggy hilltop has a story to tell, and a history of survival against the odds.
Its landscape remains witness to a history of famine, emigration and colonization, against which the colorful brash-strokes made by the buoyant economy of the Celtic Tiger are delightfully positive and buzzing with brightness as roadsides are cluttered with with signs for bed &breakfasts, camping, caravanning and ferries to the islands.
Ten miles beyond Louisburgh and approaching the Doolough valley, the scene quietens and nature predominates. Mweelra mountain and the Sheefrey Hills close in. A lake shimmers in the distance. A seagull screeches, a wispy breeze shivers. And there is another plaque.
On the night of March 30, 1849, hundreds of starving people descended on Louisburgh. The local Poor Law Guardians were to inspect them so that they could be certified officially as “paupers.” Being an official pauper entitled one to three pounds of Indian meal (corn shipped from America) and maybe even refuge in the workhouse.
There can be no comparison between the experience of a contemporary visitor taking this awe-inspiring drive and the pilgrimage that was endured by these crawling, bare-footed skeletons.
It was snowing, and a bitter wind blew in from the Atlantic as the desperate grey shadows of near quenched humanity made their way to the village. On arrival, they were told that there had been a change of plan and that they must now present themselves at Delphi Lodge, which was 10 miles away, at 7 the following morning. The paths were rough and slippery as they made their way in the dark. And when they finally reached the lodge they were told to wait. The Guardians were dining and not to be disturbed. Eventually, they were informed that there was no grain, no relief, no help. There was nothing to do but turn around and walk the 10 miles back to Louisburgh. According to local lore, hundreds of people died on that fateful journey. Many were so weak and malnourished that they were blown into the lake.
In 1997, this writer walked from Doolough to Louisburgh, as part of the 150th commemoration of the Famine. Before we set off, Liam O Maonlai, from The Hothouse Flowers played a slow air that chillingly reverberated throughout the natural amphitheater that is the Doolough Valley. Each year this “death walk” is reenacted, and has drawn such visitors as Bishop Tutu, and Gary White Deer, of the Choctaw Indian Tribe, who 13 years after their own Trail of Tears, raised over a hundred dollars for Irish Famine relief.
The past is always hauntingly close in this part of Ireland. But back in the present there’s a visit to Killary Harbour and the quaint little village of Leenane, made internationally famous by the shenanigans of the Bull McCabe in The Field, which sits at its head. British submarines often used the harbor as a refuge during World War II. Nowadays, you can board a luxury catamaran and enjoy lunch whilst cruising to your heart’s delight. Or if you’re happier staying on dry land, Kylemore Abbey is just down the road. With its splendid neo-Gothic architecture, Victorian walled garden, tranquil walks, craft shop and restaurant, it is regarded as one of Ireland’s most romantic places to visit. Kylemore is situated at the base of Duchrach mountain which overlooks the northern shore of Lough Pollacapall.
It may seem like centuries away, but the direct return route to Westport is a mere 30 minutes drive. Once there, one is quickly whisked back to reality by the energetic vibrations of the pulsing town, with a pint of the black stuff in Matt Molloy’s. ♦