Ireland’s Cultural Heartland: A Visit to Ireland’s West and Northwest

Strandhill, Co. Sligo lies in the shadow of Ben Bublin. Photo by: Nutan.

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief and Bridget English, Contributor
August / September 2007

The West
Patricia Harty’s tour of the West

Landing in the West of Ireland “the cultural heartland” is a wonderful introduction to Ireland. “It is,” as Liam Scollan, the CEO of Ireland West Airport, Co. Mayo, said, “a way for Irish-Americans whose ancestors left this part of the world centuries ago to experience Ireland, which has changed little since that time.”

The western counties of Mayo, with Galway to the south and Sligo and Donegal to the north, were the hardest hit during the Famine and suffered the twin tragedies of death and emigration. Just two eighty-year lifespans later, the inaugural flight from New York to Knock was an emotional homecoming of sorts for many whose ancestors had left in the worst of times.

While Ireland is today enjoying the fruits of a booming economy, the West, as Liam Scollan so rightly pointed out, seems little changed – on the surface at least. There are still miles of empty roads bordering bogland in County Mayo, not too much traffic, and the most beautiful scenery – mountains, lakes, villages, in the world. What’s new is the air of confidence, particularly in the young people  involved in promoting tourism.

The Ireland West airport was the inspiration of Monsignor James Horan who dreamed up the grand scheme as a way to stem the tide of immigration. He passed away on August 2, 1986 (on a trip to Lourdes), just a few months after its official opening, but he would have been most happy with the scene that greeted us when we landed in the early morning of May 28, with the sun just coming over the hills (we would be blessed with good weather throughout the trip). Arriving passengers exclaiming their delight at not having had to fly into Dublin were greeted by family members from over the road. A young “shopper” returning from New York said it was “brilliant altogether.”

The Marian Shrine
After a champagne reception, speeches, several scones and cups of tea, it was time for the tour. Bus driver, Ken Hartman, a Galway man with a quiet sense of humor, tried his best, but failed, to keep us on time, as he soon discovered at our first stop, The Marian Shrine, Knock.

Bottles for holy water (we had to fill them ourselves) had to be bought at the souvenir shop, and in my case, glow-in-the-dark rosary beads (a reminder of a long ago school trip to the Shrine.)

Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. John the Apostle and the Lamb of God all appeared on the gable end of the parish church in Knock on August 21, 1879, in front of 15 witnesses. The Shrine now draws a million and a half visitors a year.

Even the most cynical among us can’t help but be moved by Knock. I took a few minutes to sit in the basilica (John Paul II raised the status of the new church on his 1979 visit to commemorate the centenary of the apparition). It’s a simple structure with plain, stackable chairs and it was all but empty. I thought about the faith that sustained many through the worst of times. And how, just when the power of the church in Ireland in recent years was ebbing, the influx of Polish immigrants has once again swelled the tide. In fact, thousands of Polish visit the Shrine each year, and actually have their own special commemorative days.

The Big House
As much part of Ireland’s history as bog oak and Our Lady of Knock are the country estates of the Anglo-Irish. Many were burned during the War of Independence;  others, no longer sustained by rack rents, fell into disrepair.
Some survived.

Set against the towering presence of Mount Nephin, Enniscoe House is the home of Susan Kellett — a descendant of the family who settled this estate in the 1670s.

A magnificent 18th century Georgian house on the shores of Loch Conn, Enniscoe boasts a Victorian walled garden, an organic farm, a family history center (for approx $300 you can have your family tree researched and bound into a hardcover book), a museum of household artifacts and farm machinery, and a tearoom (more scones) which opens onto a terrace overlooking the gardens.

Susan takes us on a tour of the house which she has lovingly restored; even the wallpaper is genuine 1800s. The house is full of antique family furniture, portraits, books, paintings by Susan’s mother, and other memorabilia. It offers bed and breakfast and self-catering accommodation, and is a popular spot for anglers.

Fishing is huge in the West of Ireland, and no one is more animated when discussing the topic than Shane Maloney.

He’s never happier than when he’s out with a rod, and he’s happy now, because in the best fishing area in Ireland, he’s made himself a home.

The Mount Falcon Estate, famous for its salmon pools, lies between Foxford and Ballina in Co. Mayo. It is here that we would bed down for the night.

Built in 1872 by Ultred Knox for his new bride, Nina Knox-Gore of Beleek Manor, to resemble her childhood home, the castle was restored by Maloney family members who bought Mount Falcon in 2002.

Today, it’s a secluded haven in a magnificent 100 acres of woodland and lakes. We enjoyed Irish music in the lounge bar, dinner in the former kitchen, and sleep in the height of modern comfort in one of the new chalets just a short walk from the big house.

The famous pirate queen Grace O’Malley who ruled the seas around Mayo had several castles, and one of those was the foundation on which Westport House was built by Colonel John Browne and his wife Maud Bourke, Grace O’Malley’s great-granddaughter.

The Brownes still own the house, which is open to the public. We didn’t visit, instead we took a walking tour of the town, one of the few planned towns in Ireland. The tour was followed by a boat trip on Clew Bay.

On a fair day a boat trip is the best way to see Achill’s dramatic cliffs, the 365 islands, or drowned drumlins (glacial formations) scattered across Clew Bay, or the smaller inhabited islands to the south. Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, is also visible. Shipper Brian Patton from Achill Island and his son Patrick served as our tour guides, pointing out John Lennon’s island (it was sold back to the original owner for a nominal sum by Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono); the island purchased by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, as yet vacant, and a tiny island that is home to a colony of seals.

Famine Times
The annual Famine Walk from Doolough to Louisburgh took place on Saturday, May 26, just prior to our visit. The picturesque route, which we traveled in reverse on our way to Galway City, still bore the printed “marker-signs” for the walk, which commemorates those who died in 1849. The story has it that the starving villagers from Delphi walked to  Louisburgh, 10 miles away, to seek help from the Board of Guardians and were turned away. When they were returning to their village, a storm struck up, and many died; some of their bodies, so light from lack of food, were blown into the lake.

We stopped at the Famine memorial in Doolough, a beautiful valley, totally deserted now except for some grazing sheep, and for a moment, we remembered those who had once lived here.

Galway City
Known as the City of the Tribes because it was once controlled by 14 families,  Galway still holds many traces of its medieval past. Our tour guide, Conor Riordan of Legend Tours, is not only well-versed in the history, he’s enthusiastic about his subject and admonishes us for not taking notes.

As with the rest of Ireland, the past is just a thin layer away, and it is soon uncovered by Conor, who takes us first to Lynch’s Castle, on Shop Street, where the Lynch family’s carved coat of arms and stone-mullioned windows are still intact on the building’s facade.

Conor, who also runs a “Dublin Crypt & Vaults Tour,” and doesn’t shy away from the gruesome side of history, took us to the churchyard where some 1,000 sailors who survived the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588 were hanged by the British over a period of several days.

He also pointed out the Gothic doorway and a relief sculpture of a skull-and-crossbones bordering the churchyard, linked to another tragic story. It seems that in 1493, a young Spanish sailor was killed by the son of the mayor, James Lynch Fitzpatrick. Since no one could be found to carry out the sentence of death, Mayor Lynch hanged his own son, pushing him out a high window of the family home. (The family then moved to the aforementioned house on Shop Street.)

Christopher Columbus reportedly stopped in  Galway in 1492 and prayed at the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra (the saint of the seafarers), before sailing across the Atlantic to discover America. (Supposedly, Columbus’s map-maker was an Irish lad, which might be why he got lost!).

We ended our tour at the Galway City Museum, fittingly watching a video presentation of J.F.K.’s trip to Ireland.

My birthplace in Tipperary being just a stone’s throw or two from Galway, I picked up a car from Dan Dooley Rent-A-Car and headed home, while the rest of the tour headed to Strokestown in Roscommon. A few days later I drove back to Knock, had a wonderful encounter with a farmer and his son herding a black bull into a horsebox in Kiltimagh, and promised myself that I would visit the West country again soon.

Bridget English tours the Northwest

Maybe it’s coming from a nature-starved city like New York, but as our bus departed Knock airport, headed towards Donegal, the air was filled with exclamations of wonder and delight at our new surroundings. Each stone wall, the sight of sheep grazing in the fields, commonplace things for most, seemed somehow remarkable.

When we arrived at the Sandhouse Hotel in Rossnowlagh, Co. Donegal, the scene was spectacular. Situated on the Rossnowlagh beach, the rooms offered views of smooth white sandbanks stretching out to meet the Atlantic Ocean. Enclosed by rock cliffs on either side, the beach was an ideal spot for surfing, a surprisingly popular sport in Ireland. The hotel’s antique-strewn interior proved a cozy environment, especially the lobby’s coal-burning fireplace.

On our first excursion, into Donegal Town, we took a waterbus ride around the bay. Over Irish coffee we viewed even more beautiful views of the landscape and encountered a tiny island of seals and their pups basking in the sun while we listened to an informative narration on the history of the area.

Back in town we were treated to lunch at a pub overlooking the bay before a whirlwind tour of the Donegal Castle. Our last stop of the day was at Hanna Hats, a tweed-maker shop. A demonstration of the tweed-making process proved interesting and was a testament to the workmanship that goes into each product made, from the hats to the shawls, scarves and newly-designed handbags.

The summer sun in Ireland sets late, around ten or eleven o’clock, and after a delectable meal in the Sandhouse dining room, I caught one last glimpse of the beach and the newly risen moon sending waves of silver across the water before I fell asleep with my window open, breathing the sea-salt air, as the sand glowed white beneath the shadow of the cliff.

The next day at breakfast in the hotel dining room the brown bread toast was so remarkable that a woman on our tour begged the “secret” recipe from the waitress. The first stop on our itinerary was Glenveagh Castle and National Park.

Located in the Derryveagh Mountains, the castle was built in the 19th century by John George Adairan, an Irishman born in County Laois who made his fortune in America. The grounds span 40,000 acres and the castle itself was designed to resemble Balmoral, Queen Victoria’s highland residence. The tour provided an overview of the castle’s history with tales of its most recent owner, Henry McIlhenny who amassed a fortune through his invention of the gas meter. McIlhenny used the castle as a summer home where he entertained the likes of Greta Garbo and Rosemary Clooney. But even more breathtaking than the lavishly decorated castle are the lush gardens. Just before he died, McIlhenny agreed to donate the Glenveagh grounds and castle to the Irish government  in 1983, allowing for the creation of a national park.

Leo’s Tavern
A lunch stop at Leo’s Tavern proved an entertaining break in the day. The tavern is owned by Leo Brennan, father of the  singer Enya and Celtic band Clannad, and our group was treated to a rendition of traditional Irish songs over fresh mussels, Irish stew and pints of Guinness.

On a quick visit to the town of Ardara we were given a weaving demonstration and warmly welcomed by various hotel owners and businesses.

Dinner that night was at Heron’s Cove, a lovely stonehouse restaurant serving exquisite cuisine. There we had the pleasure of dining with the mayor of the neighboring town of Ballyshannon. After our meal the mayor played his guitar for us and passed out a copy of his band, Redwing’s, most recent CD.

Yeats Country
The last destination on our mini-tour was Sligo and our first stop was at the grave of Ireland’s most beloved poet, W.B Yeats. Notably, Yeats wrote his own elegy with a description of his burial place: “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head/ In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid…No marble, no conventional phrase/ On limestone quarried near the spot/ By his command these words are cut: Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!” The words are carved into the heavy stone just as the poet wished, leaving generations to ponder their meaning.

Sligo not only boasts Yeats’s grave but many spots that were made immortal by his poetry. Indeed, the poet’s spirit seems to infect the place. Nowhere was this more apparent than on a visit to Lissadell House, the Neoclassical manor home of the Gore-Booth family. Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Con Markiewicz were great friends and supporters of Yeats. Standing amongst the faded old furniture and books and looking out the window facing Sligo Bay one can almost hear his words echoing in the vast room. “The light of evening, Lissadell, / Great windows open to the south, / Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful, one a gazelle.” The history of Ireland fills every room in the house and it seems that even some ostensibly insignificant object like a spoon has a story surrounding it.

As a respite from the busy schedule, our day ended at the peaceful hotel and spa, Castle Dargan in Ballygawley, Co. Sligo. The luxurious new four-star hotel boasts a championship golf course designed by professional golfer Darren Clarke. Surrounded by trees and farmland, it is an ideal setting for a wedding. Aside from the gorgeous surroundings, the hotel dining room served gourmet cuisine and the lobby was adorned with fresh stargazer lilies that perfumed the bar, lounge and hallways.

On the return trip to Knock airport on the bus, the surrounding landscape seemed no less extraordinary after three days than on first viewing. Perhaps it’s something in the Irish air but there is an inexplicable need to romanticize the place, even before leaving it. ♦

3 Responses to “Ireland’s Cultural Heartland: A Visit to Ireland’s West and Northwest”

  1. Paul McTaggart says:

    Henry P. McIlhenny did not invent the gas meter, it was his grandfather, an Irish immigrant. Henry was an art collector and a chairman of the board at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He was not a member of the McIlhenny family that makes Tabasco sauce as some have claimed.

  2. Hello my family member! I want to say that this post is
    amazing, great written and include almost all significant infos.
    I’d like to peer extra posts like this .

  3. Zsolt Káldos says:

    A great summary, thanks for the well-compiled info. One note though: the mountain in the picture on top is called Ben Bulben or Benbulbin (Binn Ghulbain). I saw the film Calvary the other day and wanted to know the name of the big mountain in the background of many outside shots. This is how I found your picture via Google and tried to go on by your caption — to no avail. Hope this will help others 🙂
    Thanks again!

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