The Wild Atlantic Way – Part 3
A series of articles about locations along this 2500km marked tourist route, which runs from Derry in the north to Kinsale in the south
Sligo and Mayo
by Ian Middleton
The Plain of Moytura is a vast expanse of rolling green hills and meadows. Beautiful to the eye, but more importantly it holds a special place in Irish folklore. To get to this viewpoint I’d had to turn left out of the Cromlech Lodge and then take the next left. A short way along this road I pulled up beside a sign for the Sligo Way walking trail (a wooden post with a painted image of a yellow man walking). To the right a trail led up over a hill to where I was standing now, Barroe North Round Cairn, a small grassy cairn that sits on a ridge, 745 feet above sea level, and is identified by an ordinance survey triangulation pillar.
Both the counties of Sligo and Mayo are packed with ancient historical sites and breathtaking landscapes, and this is a great place to start.
The Second Battle of Moytura
According to folklore, the Tuatha de Danann warrior Lugh of the Long Arm stood here and directed the great second battle of Moytura between the de Danann and the Formorians, in which they won back control of Ireland and the seat of the High King at Tara. It was also here that the other story of Lugh confronting his grandfather Balor of the Evil Eye and fulfilling the prophesy played out.
It’s easy to see how this would be an excellent spot for directing a great battle. Not only does this location give you a perfect clear view of the whole plain, but you also get a commanding view of the whole of Sligo. All the region’s most important megalithic monuments are visible from here: the massive burial cairn of Queen Maeve on Knocknarea mountain, the caves of Keshcorran, Carrowkeel and Carrowmore, Lake of the Eye. Even Croagh Patrick’s distinctive conical shape can be made out in the far distance.
Down below is a massive megalithic cairn in the village of Heapstown. The story goes that underneath this great pile of rocks is a magical well where the Tuatha de Danann’s chief healer immersed dead and wounded soldiers to revive them and send them back into battle. Ultimately the Formorians learned about this and took control. Obviously common sense wasn’t their strong point, because instead of using it on their soldiers, they threw stones into it until it was completely covered and is now the huge pile of stones you see today.
Lake of the Eye.
The large lake visible below is Lough Arrow, but just north of this is a small round lake. This is the Lake of the Eye. On this spot, Lugh’s warriors formed a protective barrier around him, but when Balor arrived Lugh came down to confront his grandfather. Balor’s evil eye was an incredibly powerful weapon. Legend says that he could shoot poisonous rays from it that killed anyone in its path instantly.
But Lugh also had a great powerful weapon, the magical spear, Slea Bua. He had earned his name, Lugh of the Long Arm, because of his ability to throw this spear at such great distances and with such great accuracy. On this day, his aim was long and true and the spear flew straight into Balor’s evil eye, pushing it back out through his head. Balor fell and the eye flew onto the ground behind, where it burned a great crater which formed the Lake of the Eye.
The battle was won, and Lugh rode to Tara to reclaim the throne that had been stolen by the Formorians, and the Tuatha de Danann ruled Ireland once again.
Knocknarea and Queen Maeve.
The great cairn on top of Knocknarea mountain is a distinctive view visible from many places around Sligo County. The best view is from Rosses Point at sunset, where you get to stroll along the waterfront and look across Sligo Bay with this mountain dominating the view. There is also a great view of Benbulben Mountain from here and a great campsite to stay in.
Queen Maeve was the greatest Queen of Connaught (the province in which these two counties lie). She is buried under this great pile of rocks on top of Knocknarea, and was buried standing up with her sword in her hand facing her enemies in neighbouring Ulster..
You can park in the car park at the foot of the mountain and then it’s a 30-minute walk to the summit and the cairn. The cairn is 200 feet in diameter and 35 feet high. Over 40,000 tons of rocks make up this great burial mound and modern archeology has dated it at 6000 years old. You also get a spectacular view across Sligo Bay from here.
As you head west from here along the coast you will cross into County Mayo. At the first big town, Ballina, head north along the coast for the magnificent Downpatrick Head near Ballycastle. Downpatrick Head is a stunning outcrop of cliffs standing 126 metres tall and jutting out into the wild Atlantic Ocean. It got its name, as many other places did, due to Saint Patrick visiting the area and establishing a church here. You can still see the remains today.
The most distinctive sight of Downpatrick Head.
Sitting out alone in the sea nearby is a massive sea-stack known as Dún Briste (broken fort). The story goes that Saint Patrick created this when a local pagan chieftain rebuffed his attempts to convert him to Christianity. In anger, the saint struck the ground with his crosier and the chunk of headland where the chieftain was standing split open and drifted out to sea, with the poor chieftain stuck on top.
As you continue on around the Mayo coast you eventually come to the town of Westport, a vibrant little town sitting beside Clew Bay. As you approach Westport you get your first view of Croagh Patrick. Its distinctive conical shape is the most prominent feature on the horizon. The best view though, is when you go through Westport and arrive at Westport Quay. When the tide is out it reveals a vast expanse of glistening mudflats and tiny islands. From Westport Quay the reek, as the locals call it, is a dominating presence on the horizon, and a breathtaking sight with Clew Bay at its forefront.
I love Westport. I’ve stopped here many times before. It’s an attractive, colourful town with a vibrant nightlife. Despite being a major tourist destination, I feel it still retains the charm and character of a small town. It’s never dirty. Every time I visit I find the clean streets lined with flower boxes, and all the colourful shop-fronts impeccably maintained.
In pre-Christian times Croagh Patrick was the sacred mountain Crochan Aigh, (the mountain of the eagle) associated with Lugh of the Long Arm. Lughnasa assemblies occurred every year on the last Friday of July. When St Patrick came, he climbed to the summit and fasted for 40 days in order to win some concessions from God, which he apparently succeeded in doing. Whilst up there, he banished all the snakes from Ireland.
They renamed the mountain Croagh Patrick, and now the annual Christian pilgrimage replaces Lughnasa, and takes place on the last Sunday of July (Reek Sunday). On this day the pilgrims gather at Murrisk Abbey, and start their ascent. They do this barefoot.
You can climb the reek at all other times of the year for religious purposes, or simply for the sheer enjoyment of it (with shoes of course). But it can be very dangerous. The weather and the trail itself can make the hike quite treacherous. The village of Murrisk is also the start of the tourist trail. There is a car park next to the pub there. It takes about 2 hours up to the top. It’s quite tough going but well worth the effort for the amazing views.
There is also a 5th century chapel on the summit and a series of stations, one called Saint Patrick’s bed, where pilgrims must perform many acts of contrition. Signs everywhere explain what you have to do.
The first battle of Moytura
As you head to the south of county Mayo, bordering County Galway on the shore of Lough Corrib you’ll come to the little village of Cong. It was here on the plains where the first battle of Moytura was fought.
The Tuatha de Danann first arrived in Ireland on the shores of Galway Bay, and a fierce battle ensued between them and the Fir Bolg, the occupying race at that time. The Tuatha de Danann were a far more powerful race, possessing many magical powers and weapons and easily overpowered the Fir Bolg.
Just like the rest of Counties Sligo and Mayo, prehistoric graves and megalithic monuments litter the area, including the Glebe Stone Circle, just north of Cong. It’s actually one of five stone circles in the area, but the only one you can get to.
The village of Cong sits on a river running between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. It’s a lovely little waterside village with one main street, a couple of pubs and cafes and its most distinctive feature, Cong Abbey. It’s the perfect spot to rest your feet before heading on to the next wonder of the Wild Atlantic Way: Galway and the Aran Islands.
Read more about Ancient Ireland, check out my book: Mysterious World: Ireland