The beautiful Early Marsh Orchids greeted us by the
sparkling lake shore at Errew.
We fancied a day out by Lough Conn and had come to discover the ruined medieval Augustinian Priory at the end of the wonderful peninsula that juts more than half way across the lake. On this sunny early summer’s day, the place was resplendent, with its ungrazed fields of long grass, lakeshore Alders and wildflowers galore.
To reach Errew ‘Abbey’, turn right at the sign for Errew, along the road heading north from Lahardane towards Crossmolina. If you reach the entrance to Enniscoe House, you’ve gone too far. The pleasant drive down to the very end of the road includes passing by the impressive ‘big house’ of Errew Grange, a late 19th Century Knox house with interesting châteauesque features, now seemingly unoccupied. It would make a great backdrop for a haunted house movie. Interestingly, the Knox family only held it for less than 10 years, before its cost apparently contributed to their bankruptcy. See its entry on the excellent Buildings of Ireland website.
Park your car at the very end of the laneway, where you’ll see a sign for the abbey. Cross the style and traverse a field to discover the ruin. Maybe bring a stick, in case you’ve to ward off some cattle. While not as impressive as Moyne, Rosserk or Urlaur, the priory does boast one very nice intact side of its unusual cloister walk, complete with roof.
Having wandered around the ruin for a while, especially
enjoying the wonderful views across the lake from the upstairs of the eastern domestic
range, we rambled across another field to the much-ruined Teampall na
gCailleach Dubh, the Church of the Black Nun.
It was on our return that we were enchanted by the Alders
and Orchids all around.
We rewarded ourselves with a trip to the aforementioned Enniscoe House, just a few km to the north. In the afternoon sunshine, we enjoyed coffee and cake, while admiring its lovely walled garden. Later, we took a stroll to the lakeshore, along its pleasant woodland trails, before heading for home after a lovely day out by Lough Conn.
Flowing just 103km from source to sea, the modest Moy isn’t the longest river found entirely within Connacht. That title belongs to the Suck, which runs for over 130km before entering the Shannon below Ballinasloe. Along with its salmon fishery, however, it is the medieval Monasteries of the River Moy that makes this water very special.
Ireland has no remaining wooden churches. While some examples exist from as early as the 8th to 9th Centuries, the ruins of stone-built stand-alone churches and oratories we see throughout the country today generally date from the 10th and 11th Centuries onwards. The larger, more complex ruins of mendicant monasteries, such as these Monasteries of the River Moy, mostly date from the 13th – 15th Centuries.
Religious orders came to Ireland from the 12th
Century, with the Cistercians founding their first house at Mellifont, County
Louth, in 1142. The Dominicans arrived in 1224, the Franciscans around 1231 and
the Augustinians around 1280.
Monastic houses across Ireland and Britain were dissolved
during the 16th and 17th Centuries, as a result of the
Suppression of the Monasteries, a series of decrees enacted by Henry VIII from
1536 to 1541 and followed up upon by Elizabeth I and through to Cromwell’s time.
From its source 4km east of Lough Easkey in the southern slopes of the blanket bog capped Ox Mountains, the Moy is still young when we visit Court Abbey at Lavagh. I should admit straight away that it’s a bit of a cheat including Court as one of the Monasteries of the River Moy, given that it’s situated 4km away. But here goes anyway …
This 15th Century Franciscan Friary was
established by O’Hara for the Third Order Regular, consisting of both friars
and sisters. While the building is much ruined and its remains heavily covered
in ivy, nevertheless it boasts two features of notable interest.
First, like Moyne and Rosserk, there is what appears to be a secretarium (a type of anchorite cell) inside one of its walls, measuring approx 2m x 1m, with a small window to the outside. Anchorites were people who withdrew from secular life, to lead instead a life of prayer and confinement. The cell’s doorway is currently blocked by a late 19th Century tombstone.
Second, some of its still partially plastered walls show
traces of medieval murals, including, again like Moyne, etchings of ships. The
various colourations on the wall may be, at least in part, remaining paint from
these wall murals.
Following the dissolution of monastic houses during the 16th
Century, Court Friary was in a state of ruin by 1586.
Among these Monasteries of the River Moy, the first genuine riverside site is at Banada. This Augustinian Friary, dedicated to Corpus Christi, was founded in 1423 by O’Hara and was the first foundation of the Observant Movement that was sweeping through the Augustinian order at that time. Banada was dissolved around 1613. Very little remains, although it too has some interesting features, most notably part of the stairs to the dormitory which, despite the almost complete collapse of the higher sections of the chancel walls, has managed to survive within them.
As a side note, it was a Banada friar, Hugh O’Malley, who
was tasked with establishing the well-known abbey at Murrisk, sometime around
Our third house is, once again, admittedly a few km from the river. The Priory of the Holy Cross at Straide was established by the Jordans (De Exeter) around 1240 for the Franciscans and was the first mendicant house in Mayo. Around the time of a fire in the 1250s, Straide was transferred to the Dominicans. It would be suppressed around 1578.
Indeed, the story goes that Basilia de Birmingham, wife of
Jordan de Exeter, “having invited her father to a feast, refused to eat
until such time as her husband replaced the Franciscan community with a
Dominican one. He agreed and envoys were dispatched to Rome ‘with a great sum
of money’ to confirm the arrangement.”
Its highlight is the superb sculptured tomb in the north
wall of the chancel.
Ardnaree Abbey in Ballina town is situated just beside the modern cathedral (and the river) and was founded sometime prior to 1400, perhaps by the O’Dowds. It was the first Augustinian priory in the West of Ireland. Its remains are scant, though it does retain a very beautiful west door. One curious feature of Ardnaree is how we can see the degree to which the ground level has changed over the centuries, with the door half buried nowadays.
Ardnaree (Ardnary) was suppressed around 1580.
The superb Rosserk Abbey stands right beside the estuary of the river and is one of the finest in the country. Like Court, it was established for the Franciscan Third Order Regular. Founded around 1441 and suppressed around 1578, its very impressive and extensive ruins feature foliate decorations on pillars, the famous depiction of a round tower on its piscinae and its ‘cell’. Its east window is also still in unusually good condition, while its residential wing includes the kitchen, refectory, barrel vaulted rooms, etc.
Challenging the claim of Rosserk is the remarkable Moyne Friary, a mere 5km further west. Built by MacWilliam de Burgo around 1455 for the Franciscans, this exceptional ruin boasts an intact cloister and ship murals on its walls, along with a superb secretarium. Moyne was suppressed around 1590. While there is no carpark and the abbey is not the most easily accessed, a stroll through fields with cows will get you there.
Finally, nothing but the impressive round tower remains of the earlier monastic settlement that must have once stood in Killala town.
As a footnote, while not really on the Moy, or even its estuary, the remains of nearby Rathfran Dominican Priory, dedicated to the Holy Cross, are also well worth a visit. This house was established in 1274 by de Burgo and appears to have been suppressed around 1577.
Distances to visit the Monasteries of the River Moy
Court Franciscan Friary is 9km north of Tubbercurry and 41km
east of Ballina, just outside the village of Lavagh.
Banada Augustinian Friary is 16km southwest of Court Friary.
Straide Dominican Friary is 31km southwest of Banada.
Ardnaree Augustinian Priory is in Ballina town centre, 25km
north of Straide.
Rosserk Franciscan Friary is 11km north of Ballina.
Moyne Franciscan Friary is 6km north of Rosserk.
Killala town, with its round tower, is 4km north of Moyne.
Rathfran Dominican Priory is 8km northwest of Killala and
21km from Ballina town centre.
A wild, windy and often wet coastal county, boasting particularly spectacular sea cliff landscapes, Mayo is also home to some of the finest beaches in Ireland.
Caressed (more often, pounded) by the North Atlantic, 8 of these 9 great beaches of county Mayo offer fabulous sea views. As for the ninth, read on.
They may not all be particularly long stretches of strand, but wonderful they most certainly are. So, in alphabetical order, here are 9 great beaches of county Mayo, plus a bonus each from 2 of our neighbouring counties.
Back Strand at Lacken/Kilcummin
A beautiful, north-facing beach in north Mayo, beyond Killala. Feel the full brunt of any north winds at this strand. Shake the cobwebs away! Then continue around the dunes to the protected side. Both wonderful.
Back Strand, Kilcummin
Cross to Caisleán, The Mullet Peninsula
SW of Belmullet, this beautiful series of interconnected beaches boasts stupendous views out towards the uninhabited islands of Iniskea and Inishglora. With a neolithic stone circle at its southern end and offering fab views of diving Gannets, this is a great place to walk for hours on sand. Choose low tide for this walk, then go ahead – take the North Atlantic’s winds straight in the face. Invigorating.
The beach at Cross
Doo Lough, between Louisburgh and Leenane
It’s small and not on the sea, but it’s still jaw-droppingly beautiful. At the southern end of this most poignant of lakes, get out of your car and stand on the tiny stony beach. Admire the magnificent mountainous terrain all around. Spine-tingling.
Doo Lough beach
Strictly speaking not in Mayo, this gigantic West Sligo strand seems to go on forever. Not counted among the nine, for tribal reasons. Ditto for Lough Nafooey, below.
Keel, Achill Island
The stand-out feature here is the epic backdrop of the Minaun cliffs beyond. Fix your eyes on them and off you go down the 3km beach, letting your gaze drift off across the sea and towards Clare Island as you go. This is the only one of these nine great beaches of county Mayo that is a short skip and hop from accommodation, restaurants and pubs.
Keel Beach, Achill Island
Keem Bay, Achill Island
A very small beach, Keem is unrivalled for its awesome location. Wedged between the high cliffs to its south and the pull towards Croaghaun to its northwest, the drive or cycle down to this very remote beach is worth the trip alone. This place is the most enchanting beach in Mayo and certainly one of the most magical places in Ireland. If it’s a long beach walk you’re looking for, then this is not the one. But if it’s a spiritual experience by the sea you’re after, come here.
Note that back around 2016 there was a dreadful idea to build some type of hideous tourism structure above Keem Bay, as part of the Wild Atlantic Way (to have been plopped in the top right of my pic). I haven’t heard anything of it since and let’s hope that it never materialises.
Keem Bay, Achill
Lough Nafooey, near Finny
Like Enniscrone, above, this beach isn’t actually in Mayo, but we won’t squabble over a few hundred metres. This gorgeous little sandy beach is at the western end of this north Connemara lake, in a stunning location.
Lough Nafooey in Connemara
Mulranny Golf Course
At low tide, this is one of the best beaches in Mayo for you, your buddy, two hurls and a sliotar. Drive the ball as far as you can, on flat, hard sand. This is my favourite Clew Bay beach. Magic place.
Mulranny (golf course) Beach
Rinroe, beyond An Ceathrú Thaidhg
This lovely spot looks out across Broadhaven Bay towards the Mullet peninsula beyond and boasts a beach on either side of a small peninsula. Extensive dunes make for a spectacular backdrop to this wild spot.
The twin beaches at Rinroe, near An Ceathrú Thaidhg
Surgeview, The Mullet Peninsula
Another couple of km south of Caisleán and around the corner brings a small beach of no more than a few 100 metres in length. This little strand, however, affords extraordinary views of the rugged coastline of Achill Island to the south, with its majestic finger of Saddle Head jutting out into the foam. Not to mention the Duvillaun Islands and their rocky outcrops. Sublime.
Achill, from Surgeview on the Mullet
White & Silver Strands, south of Louisburgh
Two very remote strands, of which the first goes on and on, incorporates the quickly disappearing remains of an ancient graveyard and is surrounded by sand dunes. The second is small and bordered by rocky outcrops on both sides. Look out towards Caher, Inisturk and Inishbofin islands, south to the Connemara coastline and behind you to Mweelrea, Connacht’s highest mountain. If you’re lucky, the wind will be up when you visit and you’ll know afterwards that you had been walking one of these 9 great Mayo beaches along the Wild Atlantic Way.
White (r) and Silver (l) Strands
Great Beaches of County Mayo – Location Map
These great beaches of County Mayo are scattered around our wonderful land. Why not make it a goal for the coming year to visit and walk as many as you can manage? And let us know if your favourite hasn’t been included. By the way, here’s an article on the varied coastline of county Mayo.
When I plan a day out in North Mayo, my mind usually pictures a great long hike along its spectacular ocean cliffs.
But it’s sometimes fabulous to simply jump in the car and take in more of this little-visited but wonderful part of the country. So, the other day, that’s just what we did.
Our first stop was to hike the beautiful and more-or-less flat trail at Erris Head, 10km beyond Belmullet, in the very NW of the county. This loop is 5km long, takes 2hr and boasts great cliff scenery at its climax, looking out over Pigeon Rock and Oileán Dhabhaic. Be sure to visit the little World War II Look Out Post (LOP) and its associated EIRE 62 stone marker while you’re there.
Taking a detour off the road towards Ballycastle, we visited the small but beautifully located Dooncarton Stone Circle. There are many more impressive in the country, but few can match the stunning setting of this one, perched above Srahwaddacon Bay.
Then onwards to An Ceathrú Thaidhg and our second hike of the day. With occasional short climbs, this 13km trail will take you 4 to 4.5 hours. One stretch of cliffs, heading northwards from Rinroe Bay towards Kid Island, is perhaps the most photogenic in Ireland.
“The finest sustained coastal walk in western Ireland, with a profusion of precipitous cliffs,
crags, caves, chasms and islands along the remote North Mayo coast”
[Lonely Planet, 1999].
Driving further eastwards along the coast road, we made a quick stop at the impressive cross-inscribed stone pillar at Doonfeeney. It’s well worth the short detour – don’t miss it. Short of time, we skipped past the Céide Fields, the world’s most extensive Neolithic stone field system, just allowing ourselves a quick photo stop at the magnificent stratified cliffs across the road.
Our target instead was the singular Dún Briste sea-stack at Downpatrick Head, beyond Ballycastle. On this autumn day, we had the place virtually to ourselves. Here is quintessential Mayo, an icon of the Wild Atlantic Way and the pride of the North Mayo tourism offering. One minor complaint, however. I don’t like at all the modern glass and steel structures put in place a few short years ago. They do nothing but detract from this otherwise glorious natural site.
We were short of time and out of light. On a longer day, we’d have continued onwards to enjoy Killala’s round tower, the ruined monasteries at Moyne and Rosserk and the red squirrels at Belleek Wood in Ballina.
But not today. Instead, we headed southwards from Ballycastle, through extensive blanket bogs towards Lahardane and Castlebar, leaving lovely, wild North Mayo behind. Until next time.
Day Out in North Mayo – what to do and see
To learn more about what to do and see in North Mayo, visit the region’s tourism portal at www.northmayo.ie.
Having exited our gorgeous forest track, a lovely quiet car-free road led us the last 500m into Varaire. As we dawdled by its cute little houses and their wonderful gardens of fig trees and flowers, we were ready for a café and Perrier.
We had walked 7 km on this lovely lazy day and would have another easy-going 6 to do later. An afternoon walking in the south of France is a beautiful thing.
Jean-Claude, in his 70s, was pottering about outside his house, when he saw this gaggle of women approach (I was somewhat behind, taking pictures of doorways). They were chatting away as I arrived on the scene, the ladies full of praise for his beautiful garden, pretty old house and the trees offering shade from the midday sun. I joined in, helping with the translation, and enjoyed the friendliness of this lovely man. This is what the south of France is all about, I reminded us all.
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Suddenly, this smiling lady appeared from nowhere, joking that she had seen all these women hovering around her Jean-Claude. “Il fallait bien que je vienne, au cas où vous me le piqueriez” … “I had to come, in case you were stealing him from me”…
We moved on to the village square for refreshments and joined a big group of cyclists at the one and only bar. Looking out to the impressive medieval square tower and the old public washing pool, the setting was ideal for our break. The cyclists were one of many groups of friends out on the vélo that day, clad in bright yellow, blue, white and orange tops, so typical of that sport.
Around the Monument aux Morts, we nibbled half our packed lunches before moving on, back into the fabulous oak-dominated forests. A few km further along, we stopped for the remainder of our lunches on a fallen tree trunk by a little crossroads of forest tracks, truly in the middle of nowhere. The silence and calm here is beautiful.
This gentle day of walking brought us 13 km along mostly forest tracks and took us 6 hours, including various stops.
If you would like to enquire about joining our small group from 13 to 20 September 2020, please drop me a line to info [at] tourismpurewalking.com.
From the Killary fjord in the south to the estuary of the River Moy in the north, the coastline of County Mayo is a magnificent mix of awesome cliffs, dry-stone walled fields, blanket bog, mid-sized mountains and stupendous sandy beaches.
Rising to 814m, Mweelrea is Connacht’s highest mountain and stands guard over the southwest of the county. The wonderful views from atop this sandstone and conglomerate mountain include beautiful sandy beaches to its west and the fjord, forming part of the Mayo Galway border, to its south.
Mostly comprised of gorgeous beaches, the low-lying coastline below continues all the way north and around Clew Bay to the Corraun peninsula and Achill Island beyond. This stretch boasts two of the prettiest towns in the county, in bustling Westport and cute little Mulranny with its lovely beaches.
Along the way, catch a ferry at Roonagh (west of Louisburgh) to either Clare Island or Inisturk.
From the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain, enjoy views of the nearly 100 islands in the bay below. Clew Bay is among Ireland’s most impressive post-glacial landscapes. Along with countless other drumlins on land, the islands here, often referred to as ‘drowned eggs’, were formed as the dying glaciers entered the open ocean to the west. These glaciers came across Scotland, then Ulster and Connacht, heading in a southwest direction until meeting the Atlantic.
Achill, Ireland’s largest island, is a wonderful walking destination, with Slievemore (671m) and Croaghaun (688m), both schist, the highlights. The latter has lost its western half, long since collapsed into the North Atlantic below, resulting in Ireland’s highest cliffs. If you fancy a hike, go visit Lough Annagh, Ireland’s lowest lake, perched just metres above the sea level on Achill’s unroaded north coast.
North of Achill and Corraun, we enter the little visited but beautiful barony of Erris. Take some time at Ballycroy National Park visitor centre and discover the flora and fauna of our Atlantic blanket bog landscapes.
The finest beaches in the county are waiting to be discovered along The Mullet peninsula, beyond Béal an Mhuirthead (Belmullet) in the far northwest of Mayo. Walking on sand from Cross beach to Eachléam, look out to St. Brendan’s Inishglora, where the Children of Lir lie, and the twin islands of Iniskea to its south.
Iniskea North Island, with thanks to Damian McDonagh, a guest on one of my guided trips
From Belmullet, head yet further north, to find the finest sustained sea cliff scenery in Ireland. Placenames like An Ceathrú Thaidhg, Porturlin, Portacloy, Belderg and Céide call you to this extraordinary landscape of blanket bog that runs right to the cliff tops, before falling vertiginously to the foam below. At Benwee Head (sandstone), the cliffs are 255m high and offer wonderful views over the ocean to the remote Stags of Broadhaven (schist) beyond.
Straight across the road from the Céide Fields, the oldest field system in the world, a nice viewing platform gives great views of the stratified rock in the vertical cliff faces. These layers of sandstones, limestones and shale are also wonderfully evident at nearby Dún Briste.
Dún Briste sea stack at Downpatrick Head
Further eastwards, the cliffs give way to beaches and fertile fields, where the ruined Moyne and Rosserk Abbeys may be visited. Beyond lies the lovely town of Ballina, built on the famous salmon fishery that is the River Moy. With its pleasant Belleek Forest on the bank of the estuary, this fine town brings to an end our quickfire tour of the beautiful coastline of our County Mayo.
Coastline of County Mayo – Highlights
Ireland’s third largest county, Mayo boasts the longest coastline of any in the country. There are endless things to see and visit, but here are some I’ve picked out for you.
1 National Park : Ballycroy
2 Mountains : Mweelrea and Croaghaun
2 Woodlands : Old Head, Belleek Forest
2 Castles : Those of Gráinne Uí Mháille at Carrickahowley and Kildavnet
3 Towns : Westport, Belmullet and Ballina
3 Islands : Inisturk, Iniskea North, Inishglora
3 Pubs : Matt Molloy’s (Westport), McDonnell’s (Belmullet), Úna’s (Blacksod)
5 Beaches : Mulranny, Keel, Keem, Cross, Lacken
Benwee Head, with the Stags of Broadhaven in the background
5 Cliffs, accessible without a long hike : Far side of Inisturk, above Keem Bay, Benwee Head, Céide, Downpatrick Head
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