It was a cold windy morning over north-west Mayo, with just enough blue in the sky to make a pair of Dutchman’s trousers. Or a pair of Mayoman’s longjohns, come to that – there were enough of them on display around Carrowteige, cheerfully flapping on washing lines in the brisk spring wind as if waving goodbye to winter.
Carrowteige is one of Mayo’s remotest Gaeltacht outposts, a scattered village hidden in a vast landscape of bog and windswept mountainside. I was delighted to meet Treasa Ní Ghearraigh and her husband Uinsíonn Mac Graith in the Seanscoil community centre. The Children of Lir Loop Walk around the spectacular cliffs near Benwee Head is one of the local walks projects which Treasa and Uinsíonn have helped create as a labour of love for their native corner of the world. ‘Never spoke a word of English till I went to school,’ declared Uinsíonn as he and fellow walker Pádraig O Dochartaigh accompanied me down the shore road. ‘And I wouldn’t speak it even now among family and friends.’
The mound that holds the remnants of the church of St Ghallagáin dominates its lonely shoreline graveyard. Local people had the custom of burying their dead as close to the mound as possible, and so the graveyard came into being, an egalitarian resting place for Catholics, Protestants, unbaptised babes and nameless drowned sailors washed up by the tides. Climbing the mound, Uinsíonn turned over a long slab of stone and rubbed a wisp of grass along its surface. As if by magic, the outline of a Maltese cross appeared. ‘Early Christian,’ murmured Uinsíonn. ‘Well, we’ll leave you to your walk now – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.’
That was the understatement of the century. What unrolled over the next couple of hours was one of the most breathtakingly wild and beautiful coastal walks I’ve ever encountered. At hand all the way as a reliable guide was the stumpy sod fence of the Black Ditch, a half-toppled wall built and repaired over the centuries to stop cattle and sheep tumbling over the cliffs. Crossing its course lay long parallel lines of potato ridges, the very stamp and symbol of the Great Hanger that still scars all these western landscapes. I stood by the Black Ditch, the wind smacking at my face, looking down to Tráigh na bhFothantaí Dubha, the beach of the black precipices, where the sea creamed in tight ruffs of white foam under dark cliffs.
Following the Black Ditch up onto the crest of the mountain, I was hit with another, even more jaw-dropping prospect – a landward view filled with immensities of bog seamed with the black lines of turf banks, a seaward panorama of great stepped cliff edges full of huge dark hollows, rising to the magnificent 830-ft prow of Benwee Head. Just offshore, Kid Island rose from a collar of spume. The sight of its fierce cliffs, and the tiny white dots of sheep along its green back, prompted two thoughts – just how in heaven did they get up there, and just how the hell would the farmer gather them again?
A few steps more and I was gazing out at the Stags of Broadhaven, five sharply-cut shark teeth of rock rearing out of the sea a couple of miles off Benwee Head. This is a landscape in which one can believe anything might happen – even the salvation of four suffering exiles transformed by sorcery into swans. It was out on Inisglora, hidden away on the far side of the Mullet peninsula, that the Children of Lir eventually found burial and absolution. But it’s on the cliffs just north of Carrowteige that a modern sculpture has been erected in their honour.
I wouldn’t be bold enough to attempt an artistic critique of this assemblage of pipes, tubes and stonework. But everything has its uses, doesn’t it? I found, to my pleasure, that the pipes had been tuned to the key of G, and had fun knocking ‘Lanigan’s Ball’ out of them with my walking stick.
WAY TO GO
MAP: OS of Ireland 1:50,000 Discovery 22; downloadable map/instructions at www.discoverireland.ie/walking.
Road: R314/315 to Ballycastle; R314 to Belderg, minor roads via Porturlin and Portacloy to Carrowteige.
WALK DIRECTIONS (blue arrows/BA): Leaving the Seanscoil, right up road; in 200 m, fork left (BA) on road past Cill á Ghallagáin graveyard. Continue down to shore; right up tarmac road (BA) for 400 m, then left across machair, to follow Black Ditch sod fence along cliffs (take care!) for 2 miles to reach Children of Lir (BA) monument. Inland (BA) along road. In ½ mile, just after bog road joins on right, turn left (BA) on road to Carrowteige.
LENGTH: 6½ miles: allow 2½ – 3 hours
CONDITIONS: Boggy along Black Ditch – wear boots! A couple of steep, short climbs/descents. Cliff edge unfenced: keep dogs and kids under strict control.
• View over Tráigh na bhFothantaí Dubha from Black Ditch path
• View of Stags of Broadhaven from cliffs near monument
• Children of Lir monument
REFRESHMENTS: None en route; picnic from Garvin’s shop, Carrowteige
GUIDEBOOKS/LEAFLETS: The Placenames and Heritage of Dún Chaocháin by Uinsíonn Mac Graith and Treasa Ní Ghearraigh, and other booklets etc. available at the Seanscoil, Carrowteige (097-88082; firstname.lastname@example.org)
INFORMATION: local walking tour operators, local walks including Discover Ireland’s ‘National Loop Walks’, walking festivals throughout Ireland: www.discoverireland.ie/walking and www.coillteoutdoors.ie
Tourist Office: James Street, Westport (098-25711; www.discoverireland.ie/west)
Irish Independent – WALK OF THE WEEK – Christopher Somerville
16 May 2009