“I confess I find such a place not lonely or depressing but inspiriting. You are thrown at the same time back upon yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature and you may feel dimly something of your own littleness and your own greatness; for surely man is as great as he is little: but the littleness is actual, and the greatness largely potential.”– Robert Lloyd Praeger describing the Nephin Beg hills in his classic book The Way That I Went
Mayo is derived from the Irish Maigh Eo, or ‘plain of the yew trees’. However, along the N59 from Crossmolina to Bangor, it is trackless bog and not yew trees that extends for umpteen miles along the desolate stretch of road. The bog envelopes the flat plains like a blanket, extending for hundreds of square kilometres to the north and south, its mossy surface a habitat for insectivorous plants like sundew and butterwort.
Further south, worlds away from the barren sea of bog, rises a band of heather-clad brown hills, its plateaued tops separated by miles upon miles of wild country. These lonely hills, sequestered from civilisation and wedged in on all sides by vast boglands, belong to the Nephin Beg range, home to hills such as Slieve Carr, Birreencorragh and Glenamong.
Wedged between the Nephin Begs and Achill Island is the hilly Corraun peninsula, with the cliff-fringed Clare Island to the south, standing guard at the mouth of Clew Bay with its archipelago of harlequin-green drumlin-studded islands scattered on its waters. They say there is an island here for every day of the year.
It doesn’t end there. Heading farther south still, stands the conical shaped mountain of Croagh Patrick, regarded by many as a mountain of pilgrimage. And then finally to Doo Lough whose dark waters is guarded by Mweelrea, the highest mountain in County Mayo and the province of Connacht.
For the avid walker, Mayo certainly has lots to offer – here are a few of its very best hiking routes you can explore and discover.
Rising prominently from the southern shore of Clew Bay, the pyramidal-shaped quartzite mass of Croagh Patrick is easily Ireland’s most popular mountain. With tens of thousands of pilgrim walkers traditionally congregating on Reek Sunday (the last Sunday in July), Croagh Patrick definitely gets more than its fair share of footfall.
In ancient times, Croagh Patrick used to be known as Cruchán Aigli or ‘mount of the eagle’. Back then, people would climb it on the first day in August as part of the Celtic harvest festival Lughnasadh, celebrated in thanksgiving to the Celtic deity Crom Dubh. This all changed with the arrival of Christianity around AD441, when St Patrick climbed the mountain, fasted for forty days and forty nights on the summit, and was said to have banished ‘snake-like demons’ into the sea. Today, a chapel marks the summit. Built in 1905, it is said that hundreds of cement bags were wheeled to the base of the mountain and carried by dedicated men to the top.
This out-and-back ‘tourist’ path is situated in Murrisk. Broad and stony, the path to the mountain’s upper reaches sees hundreds of thousands of walkers annually. The final section to the summit is very steep, traditionally consisting of loose scree and quartzite rock. However, lately the Croagh Patrick Stakeholders Group have hugely improved the path on the cone of the mountain by clearing loose stones, gathering nearby stones and positioning them as shallow and higher steps to provide a more stable footing.
The view from the top is stunning – Clew Bay with its archipelago of drumlin-studded islands with mountains and plains gracing the horizon to the north and south, and Clare Island with its shapely summit of Knockmore in addition to the hilly profile of Achill Island out to sea.
Ben Gorm and Ben Creggan
This walk links a trio of summits – Ben Gorm, Ben Creggan South Top and Ben Creggan – as an out-and-back route from the bend in the road along the R335 near Aasleagh Falls (Eas Liath, meaning ‘grey waterfall’). The falls with its picturesque backdrop is well worth a stop. Popular with visitors, Aasleagh Falls gained international fame when it was featured in the 1990 Jim Sheridan film The Field. With a bit of luck, you might see salmon leaping from its waters too.
Climb a stile beside the falls, then veer left and uphill, keeping a fence to the left. Persevere with the thick tussock grass until height is gained. On reaching the top of a slope, turn left to begin your ascent of the curving southwest ridge. When the ground levels out, you’ll find yourself on an eroded and peaty plateau before reaching the summit cairn of Ben Gorm. You’ll be amazed by the views (especially toward Killary Harbour and beyond) when you get there so reserve this for a clear day and you’ll get your just rewards!
From Ben Gorm, you’ll have a direct view to the north toward your two remaining objectives – Ben Creggan South Top and Ben Creggan. Both tops are separated by saddles so you’ll have drops and rises to negotiate (and re-negotiate on the way back) if you choose to continue. However, the view from Ben Creggan – with its sweeping panorama of Mweelrea, Doo Lough and the Sheefry Hills – is worth the effort.
Mweelrea from Doo Lough
Mweelrea is a proper mountain and right up there as one of my favourites. There are not one but three distinct summits (and two other subsidiary ones making it five in total) in its massif that takes up an area of nearly 40 square kilometres between the beaches of Silver Strand, Thallabawn and Uggool out west and Louisburgh to the north.
Mweelrea itself rises to 814m (2671 feet) making it the highest peak in all of County Mayo and the province of Connacht. This route tackles this mighty mountain range from the northern shore of Doo Lough, a site of tragedy during the Famine of 1847 where few dozens of impoverished men, women and children were blown to their deaths by freezing cold gale-force winds. Today, you’ll find a simple plaque on the roadside commemorating the dead of this tragedy.
There are two streams to cross at the start, with stepping stones or a makeshift bridge you can use for the second. At some old sheep pens, follow a stream into the atmospheric corrie of Coum Dubh. At the end of the corrie, you’ll need to pick your way up a path known as ‘The Ramp’ – steeply rising on grass and scree between fierce crags and vertiginous cliffs. Near the top, the Ramp narrows and there’s a really steep drop to your right – so do take care.
Once you top out by a cairn, you can breathe easier before turning right and ascending the rocky slopes toward Ben Bury. Keep to the ridgeline until you get to the top of Mweelrea (avoid cliff edges keeping in mind there are very steep drops to the left/east). The view from the top is simply stunning with the Atlantic, Killary Harbour and all the distant mountain ranges of Connemara to be rightfully admired.
Remember Mweelrea is not an easy mountain to climb in poor visibility or bad weather. There are a lot of dangerous cliffs and steep ground around the massif so make sure you have proper route finding and navigation skills to tackle whatever the mountain throws at you.
You’ll notice Nephin from anywhere within north Mayo. Its solitary, imposing presence without any doubt, dominates the skyline. The mountain must be a gift of the gods for its summit is reputed to be where the legendary Fionn Mac Cumhaill shouted out ‘…this is paradise!” And so, the mountain was called Neimh Finn or ‘Finn’s paradise’.
A paradise it sure is. On reaching the summit (and yes, save it for a clear day!), you will be rewarded with what must be one of the most spectacular 360° vistas in all of Mayo. Lough Conn looks monstrously huge down to the east, the mountainous landscape of the Nephin Beg range dominates out west, then there’s the unmistakable conical shape of Croagh Patrick across Clew Bay to the southwest. It doesn’t end there, on a very clear day you’ll be able to see as far as the Slieve League cliffs and Bluestack Mountains of Donegal, Benbulbin and Dartry Mountains, Mweelrea, the mountains of Connemara and even the plains of Roscommon! Did you know Nephin is Connacht’s second-highest peak and Ireland’s highest standalone mountain?
This approach is via a waymarked trail from a car park at G 109 104 near the village of Lahardane. Follow a forest track initially, then later pick your way across some heather before the terrain turns from grass to scree as you begin to ascend in a southerly direction along a spur all the way to the summit. As you ascend, look out for a cross visible in the forest on Trista hill which marks the site of a holy well.
About The Blogger
Adrian Hendroff is a qualified Mountain Leader and a Mountaineering Ireland approved course provider. He is a fully-insured mountain guide and runs regular navigation and Mountain Skills courses. Adrian has written several Irish walking guidebooks for the Collins Press and is a regular contributor to newspaper/magazine features. He also runs outdoor photography workshops. More on Adrian see www.adrianhendroff.com or www.fabulousviewpoints.com