The Halcyon Charms of County Mayo

The four-hour drive from Dublin to the Stella Maris Country House in County Mayo unspools on a maze of country roads traversing low-slung hills, hummocks, and small towns where the pub still seems a main staple of life. So it is a soaring moment when I come to the western margin of Ireland and find myself at the barren doorstep of the Atlantic’s green rush of swells and surf.

I’m reminded of a quote by Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments, who said, “When you grow up on an island, what matters is how you stand to the sea.” As I gaze from the hotel’s 100-foot-long conservatory I can’t help but look the ocean straight in the eye—drawn by its brooding cloud armadas, towering headlands, and mournful little fishing boats overturned on the shore against the elements.

The great stone Stella Maris was built in 1853 as a British coast guard station overlooking Bunatrahir Bay (chinks in its stone walls once offered clear shots at potential intruders). It was rescued from ruin by Frances Kelly—who grew up in the area and marshals a kitchen that serves locally sourced food—and husband Terry McSweeney, a former PGA executive and Florida transplant who rhapsodizes about the meteorologically volatile and wild landscapes of the local golf links.

As driving rain clatters against the conservatory’s panoramic windows, I settle in to read an autographed copy of Liam O’Flaherty’s 1930s book A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland—a gift from a friend. The opening paragraph:

“The tourist is at the mercy of every kind of ruffian. Although every country holds out welcoming hands to him, it is only for the purpose of robbing him of all he possesses, and if he is caught escaping, at the end of his holiday, with even a small silver coin in his pockets, it’s more than likely that the Customs officers are going to fine him to that amount for taking away on his shoes some of the country’s mud.”

Surely not, I think. Restless and hungry, I abandon the book and drive the few miles to Ballycastle, a flyspeck of a place once called by a former Irish president “the periphery of the periphery.” I walk into Healy’s Bar on Main Street (a place, I later learn, that circumvents legal closing times by black-curtaining the windows and demanding a “secret” knock for entry).

“Can I get something to eat?” I ask.

I get a blank stare from the barman.

“Happy to push you a pint,” he says. “But we don’t serve food.”

“Where you from?” asks Danny, a scruffy farmhand in a tattered T-shirt sitting at the end of the bar.

I tell him I live in Washington, D.C., and he grins. “Capital of the free world. You believe that?”

I ignore the question.

“How hungry are you?” he responds.

“I can get by.”

“That’s won’t do,” he replies. “This is Mayo. Come up to the house and I’ll fix you a sandwich.” And so I do. We talk about politics and soccer and the state of Ireland (“Every time we think we get a leg up, tough economic winds knock us down”).

Clearly, Liam Flaherty’s opinions are an anachronism—at least in County Mayo. It is a place shaped by a history of rapacious landlords and rolling potato famines that often forced locals to eat shoots, weeds, and turnips. Luxury was a scrap of mutton, salmon, and trout poached from streams by the light of a torch, and mountain dew or poteen—illegal homegrown distilled in pots.

Today, Mayo residents, despite their hardscrabble history of tough times, have a twinkle-eyed determination to embrace innovation and reach out to the world. So you tend to find warm comfort in a sparsely populated area that shakes hands with you at every encounter.

I’ve made many visits to Dublin but this is my first to Western Ireland and it feels like a time capsule—a place that has dodged the bullet of overdevelopment and uber-tourism in the face of more than its fair share of ravishing landscapes and dramatic cliff walks.

That is changing. Mayo deserves more discovery, and on the day I arrive signs are going up along the coast to mark the Wild Atlantic Way, a roughly 1500-mile drive between Kinsale, County Cork, and Inishowen, County Donegal, that includes a stretch of 330 miles in Mayo.

I drive south to Belmullet, the road mostly deserted but for the plump sheep that wander heedlessly into it and carpet slopes like snowfall. A quaint port town, Belmullet marks the end of the 15-scupture “trail” (with “Deirbhile’s Twist”) that celebrates local artists and lore.

I retrace my route and stop at Céide Fields, where digs into the peat have unearthed megalithic tombs, stone walls, and crude buildings that at more than 5,000 years old are thought to be the site of Ireland’s first farm fields. There is not a soul to be seen.

Later I head three miles north of Ballycastle to Downpatrick Head to celebrate the inauguration of “The Crossing,” a restoration project directed by architect Travis Price. Entertainment includes a pair of immense Irish wolfhounds and traditional Irish music and dancing. But the real draw is the starkly romantic ocean walk that is one of 156 “Discovery Points” along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Offshore is Dún Briste, a towering sea stack that stands orphaned 260 feet from the mainland. Legend has it that here St. Patrick—patron saint of Ireland—used a giant sword to lop off the head of a snake, separating Dún Briste from the mainland and leaving Ireland free of snakes.

There’s a luminous underground waterway from the Atlantic that ends in a blowhole accessible by kayak, often geysering more than 100 feet into the air, and is surrounded by an elegant stainless steel fence that shimmers in sunlight.

A covered commemorative shelter is inscribed with the favorite folk takes of local schoolchildren. And near the lip of the cliff drop is a restored World War II watchtower and a 64-stone marker that guided Allied planes home after hunting for Nazi U-boats.

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The next day I join friends for a dinner of lamb and immense local lobster at Mount Falcon, a 19th-century baronial manor house on 100 acres in Ballina that includes a 1.5-mile stretch of the salmon-rich River Moy. Our host is Alan Maloney, a garrulous, larger-than-life former investment executive who admits to fishing for salmon with a shotgun as a teen and who was raised in the Middle East.

“This place is appropriately named,” he says. “Falconry is huge in the Middle East. I wanted to bring something to Ireland that was one of a kind.” He has set up Ireland’s only falcon breeding program on the castle grounds at the Water Tower Aviary. Accompanied by resident falconers, guests can watch Harris’s hawks climb to 100 feet and, spotting prey, rocket earthward at 60 mph, reducing it to mangled fur and flesh. “It is a sight,” says Maloney, “that allows visitors to be out in nature and get the full sense of why falconry is the sport of kings.”

On my last day in Ireland, headed back to Dublin, I stop in Foxford to meet Mayo County Council manager Peter Hynes. Foxford is the birthplace of William Brown, who became an Argentinian hero as the founder and first admiral of its navy (a small artifact-stuffed museum and statue do commemorative duty).

The River Moy, which runs through the town, is among Europe’s top salmon fishing runs and swarms with eels. “The real story in Foxford is this place,” Hynes says, pointing to a rambling 5,000-square-foot textile mill at river’s edge. “It is one of the last working mills in the country.”

It is a local triumph, a poster child for Hynes’s mission to help engineer a rise in Mayo fortunes in a hard-times economy. Built in 1892, destroyed by fire in 1908, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1980s as traditional textile mills fell prey to automated mega-mills, it is now thriving—locally and internationally—in a world that increasingly values old-world traditions and techniques.

Immense looms spit out locally designed fabrics, from linens and tweeds to upholstery and rugs. The mill shop showcases Foxford’s woolens alongside lovingly curated Irish arts and crafts (you can imagine the place doing killer business in New York or London). A gourmet café run by a former Four Seasons chef serves up local produce with homegrown herbs, jams, and preserves. Period pictures and artifacts recall the mill’s early days and an interactive tour includes a visit to the great loom room.

As I leave Foxford, Hynes tells me not to miss Rathcroghan, about two hours from Dublin in the heart of Ireland. And I don’t. It is mournful landscape and, on the day I am there, virtually free of visitors. It is the burial place of Daithi, last of the pagan kings, and the site of the Cave of the Cats, which legend says is home to the Morrígan, Irish goddess of war, strife, and death who guards this gateway to the otherworld. Also here is the Ogulla holy well, where St. Patrick baptized King Laoghaire’s daughters. As befits an ancient and haunted place that has been occupied for more than six millennia, the site has a spooky Game of Thrones feel.

When I return home, my children ask me if I saw leprechauns and fairies in County Mayo. It is perhaps true that, as George Bernard Shaw said, “the heart of an Irishman is nothing but his imagination.” So as not to disappoint, I told them they were out there somewhere but I had missed them.

Keith Bellows is editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @KeithBellowsNG.

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