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Napoleonic Signal Towers of Mayo

Also known simply as Napoleonic Towers, or Signal Towers, 8 of these structures were built by the British authorities in County Mayo during the first decade of the 19th Century.

The late 18th and early 19th Century was a particularly active period in the fraught history of British-French relations, with wars from 1778-1783, 1793- 1802 and 1803-1814, with Ireland unfortunately by times stuck in the middle.

Following the glorious French Revolution of 1789, anti-British Irish patriots repeatedly sought the assistance of France to help overthrow British rule here. Theobold Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen were to the forefront of this campaign.

Napoleonic Signal Towers of Mayo
Many towers, like this one at Glinsk, had an enclosing wall around the site.

Three times the French navy sailed to the aid of the Irish, without success. The great expedition of December 1796 to Bantry Bay, with some 44 ships and over 12,000 men, ended in disaster without making land. During 1798, a small force did succeed in landing at Killala (3 ships; ca. 1,000 men), but was defeated by the time its remnants reached County Longford, while a later expedition of 10 ships and some 3,000 men met with a swift defeat in Lough Swilly.

Upon his capture in Donegal and his trial by court-martial, Tone (who held the rank of “Adjutant-General” in the French army under La Directoire) declared

“I entered into the service of the French Republic with the sole view of being useful to my country. To contend against British Tyranny, I have braved the fatigues and terrors of the field of battle. I have sacrificed my comfort, have courted poverty, have left my wife unprotected and my children without a father. After all I have done for a sacred cause, death is no sacrifice.”

In response to this threat (as they saw it), the British government ordered the construction of defensive towers along the southern British coast, as well as around much of Ireland.

Variously known as Martello Towers, Napoleonic Towers and Signal Towers (or Stations), County Mayo boasted eight examples.

Running from south to north, the Napoleonic Signal Towers of Mayo were located at Inisturk, Clare Island, Achill Island, Glosh and Slievemore on The Mullet peninsula, Stonefield, Glinsk and near Rathlacken.

Today, almost no trace remains of Stonefield or Rathlacken towers, while those at Inisturk, Clare Island, Achill, Slievemore and Glinsk are in a mostly collapsed state, with just low sections of external walls and their enclosures remaining visible in the landscape.

Slievemore (aka Tipp) : Enclosure wall (foreground) and collapsed tower (background)

Only Glosh, at the southern end of The Mullet, still boasts its largely intact external walls. (If you cross the border to Sligo, you’ll find another well-preserved example at Rathlee, just 23km beyond Ballina)

tower at glosh
The tower at Glosh remains in good condition

While the towers were mostly built between 1802 and 1806, they appear to have been abandoned within a decade or so.

Beside each tower stood a T-shaped signal mast, up which would be hoisted various signals comprising flags and other shapes. This allowed one tower to communicate with its neighbours to the south and north, in case of ‘enemy’ activity being spotted.

Different flag combinations might have signalled, for example, “3 Sail in Sight”, “7 Ships or Brigs in Sight”, etc.

Napoleonic Towers in Mayo, as elsewhere, were manned by a small number of men and consisted of a basement, three or four floors (of which one was sometimes just a mezzanine) plus the roof, from where observations were made. The sole entrance was at the first floor, rather than ground level and was accessed by a retractable ladder.

Tower on Inisturk
Tower on Inisturk

This excellent website from IT Sligo contains more information on the Signal Towers than you could shake a stick at.

Napoleonic Signal Towers in Mayo – Footnote

These large early 19th Century towers are often confused with the mid 20th Century “Look Out Posts”, built by neutral Ireland during the Second World War. The latter, in fact, were much more modest, small single room huts manned by the Coast Watching Service of the Irish Defence Forces.

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Clonfert Cathedral, a Medieval Masterpiece

Clonfert Cathedral is a difficult place to find, but a visit sure is worth it.

Hidden in labyrinthine east County Galway, near the broad majestic Shannon, it was a foggy December morning when I laid eyes on this very special place.

Clonfert Cathedral in County Galway
Decoration on the west doorway at Clonfert

St Brendan’s Cathedral’s 12th Century Hiberno-Romanesque western doorway is one of the great medieval masterpieces of monastic Ireland. Boasting six orders (arches) of decorated brown sandstone and one later (15th C) inner order of blue limestone, the doorway is topped with a superb pediment consisting of triangles with alternating human heads. The decoration of the orders and pediment is simply magnificent, featuring animal heads, human heads, foliage and more. Very much worth the detour to get here.

West doorway detail

The austere interior of this quite small church boasts cross slabs against its walls, along with angels, leaf motifs and a mermaid carved in relief on the chancel arch. The latter is perhaps a nod to St Brendan the Navigator, who is said to have founded the original monastery here in the 6th Century.

The site, however, has much more to offer.

Nearby stands one of Ireland’s many “fairy Trees”, aka “rag trees”, a fine old horse chestnut. Adorned with photos, pieces of fabric, rosary beads, saints’ pendants, small toys, coins and more, there can be no doubt but that people who leave items around and on this tree believe to some extent in its special power. Whether you attribute words like spiritual, pagan, christian or other to this is up to you…

Beyond the rag tree is the short but fabulous yew tree avenue. In an Ireland terribly devoid of great native trees, a stroll here is wonderful. And the fog only added to the experience.

Clonfert cathedral yew avenue
Yew avenue at Clonfert

Now walk the length of the yew avenue, into an open field and gaze upon the ruins of Clonfert Palace. This former ‘big house’ was built in the late 17th Century as the residence of the Church of Ireland bishop of Clonfert. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the mid 19th Century, John E Trench, a local landlord, held the property and his family remained until it was occupied by the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, around 1951. His short stay ended with a devastating fire in 1954 and the house has been derelict since then.

Clonfert Palace

You can read about Mosley and his time in Clonfert here.

If you find yourself around Athlone, Birr, Portumna or Ballinasloe, trust me – Clonfert Cathedral is absolutely worth the detour. Give yourself 3 hours minimum to get there, ramble around and get back out.

And if you’re into visiting medieval monasteries, go check out my article on the Seven Monasteries of the River Moy, here in Mayo.

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Guided Walking Tour in Spain

They start with the kids and it’s wonderful.

The colour is part and parcel of the tradition, with each group displaying its own version of the basic ensemble –tight trousers, bright top and broad black, stretchable waist support band.

guided walking tour in spain

castell is a human tower, traditionally mounted at festivals in Catalonia.

We’re in Olot on the first day of our guided walking tour in Spain – Catalunya to be precise. The local festival is in full flow, with great crowds thronging the narrow streets of the old town. The atmosphere is wonderful and typically Catalan, full of boisterous people having fun.

In front of Sant Esteve, the castell groups have gathered and the banter is in full flow. One by one, they offer up their initial ‘constructions’, with tightly-packed adults forming the solid base and the children, as young as 5 or 6 years of age, starting their ascent to the top. Topped with their rubber helmets, they acrobatically climb the adults’ backs, using the waist support bands as steps. Once they’ve summited, hands are waved in triumphant glee and back down they come at great speed. Their impressive achievement is greeted with well-deserved boisterous applause.

Later in the evening, this joyous celebration of local culture progresses to feature heavier adult women and men at its pinnacle, until the castell reaches a mind-boggling 6, 7 or even 8 ‘storeys’ high. Great stuff!

But we’re getting hungry.

Time to move on to one of the town’s lovely, smiley street-side eateries, where we tuck into some chorizo, bocadillos and more. Standing in this tight little space, beer in hand, we simply enjoy our time people-watching. Bliss!

A pleasant 20-minute stroll through the town brings us to our charming little hotel, nestled down a semi-rural laneway among lovely native trees. Tomorrow, we will begin our walking, among the wooded dead volcanoes of La Garrotxa Natural Park.

Guided Walking Tour in Spain

Provisional 2021 tour dates are September 4 to 11 inclusive, flying from Dublin to Girona (subject to airline schedules).

If you would like to learn about our small-group guided walking tour in Spain, where we spend one week hiking from the Catalunyan interior to its coast, please drop me an email to info@tourismpurewalking.com and I will send you the brochure with all the details.

This tour quickly sold out in 2020, but I unfortunately had to cancel it. The Covid situation has seriously impacted upon all our lives, but I’m now looking forward to hopefully leading a group on this beautiful week of walking in 2021. Why not join us!

To learn more about tourism in Catalunya, you might like to visit the official website for the region.

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Killary Famine Walk at Rosroe

Leaving the N59 between Leenane and Kylemore, we turn right onto the minor road L5102, marked Tullycross, to head to the Killary Famine Walk at Rosroe.

Killary famine walk at Rosroe
Killary Fjord

On the way, we pass Lough Fee and the former house of Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar. Beyond, at Salruck, stands the lovely old Church of Ireland church and, to its side and down a laneway, what was once the “pipe cemetery”.

J Harris Stone, writing in 1906, comments that

“A very curious old custom is associated with interments here…A box of pipes (short clays) is brought with each corpse, and a pipe with tobacco served out to each mourner. The pipes are smoked after the earth has been filled in and a mound of stones raised above the grave; the ashes are knocked out on the top and the pipes broken or left behind…The origin of this singular custom is unknown, but it certainly is very expressively emblematic of ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.”

‘Pipe Cemetery’ at Salruck

Continuing, we reach a cul de sac at the little harbour, where we can begin the lovely Killary Famine Walk at Rosroe.

During the multiple famines of the 19th Century, most notably the Great Famine of the 1840s, the local population would have been hit hard. Part of the route we follow here is what would have been a famine ‘relief’ road. We can see that it was well-engineered, crossing a relatively steep and rugged slope.

The way is punctuated with roofless ruins and long-abandoned potato ridges. Above the old settlement of Foher is a gap in the hills, known as Salrock Pass. Legend has it that the gap was formed when the devil dragged the local St. Roc over the hills with a chain, when enraged by the cross he discovered tied around the saint’s neck.

killary famine walk
Connemara light

While the nicest, unpaved section of this walk only lasts 5.4km, nevertheless it provides great views all around, especially of the fjord itself and Mweelrea on its northern shore. Note how aquaculture does not appear to be permitted in the County Mayo half of the fjord, as all infrastructure ends abruptly midway across the water.

Having gone through a gate, there remains another 2.6km of pleasant (though paved) minor road to the junction with the N59, then 800m on that busy road, before another 7km of off-road track into lovely Leenane village. This last section forms part of the Western Way long-distance hiking trail, coming northwards from Maam and Máméan to the south.

A very nice day’s walking with great views.

Killary Famine Walk at Rosroe – Details

Total 16km; time 6h at a leisurely pace.

You’ll need your bike to get back to the start, a distance of 15km on the roads and 1 hour of cycling.

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Ancient Church at Kilcummin

The little ancient church at Kilcummin, near Killala in North Mayo, is well worth a detour. It was a beautiful crisp day when I visited in January.

Kilcummin (not to be confused with Kilcommon, further west towards Belmullet) is a place of some historical importance, as it was here that General Humbert landed with his small French force on the Concorde, Franchise and Médée in August 1798, in a futile attempt to help the Irish effort during the dying embers of the failed 1798 Rebellion.

But it’s much further back in history we’re concerned with here.

The small ruined church is attributed to Saint Cuimín, who may or may not have been the 7th Century person of similar name associated with Clonfert, Co. Galway.

ancient church at Kilcummin
Looking eastwards through the doorway

This is a stunning church, dating from perhaps the 10th or 11th Century, with massive stones forming the base of its walls (so-called “cyclopean masonry”). It boasts two windows, one each in the east and south walls, along with its entrance door in the west.

Around the church can be found both St. Cuimín’s ‘holy well’ and what is traditionally considered to be his leacht.

Holy well

The setting, too, is very pleasant, with expansive Killala Bay just behind and the picturesque quay in the village.

On a bright, crisp winter’s day

St. Cuimín’s supposed grave site is marked by very nice standing stones and an inscribed slab, showing a cross and circular forms, possibly representing the sun. Just a few metres away is the interesting sundial stone.

Ancient Church at Kilcummin – Location

Past Killala, heading towards Ballycastle and Belmullet on the R314, turn right immediately after the narrow Palmerstown Bridge. Follow the brown “Tour d’Humbert” signs to Kilcummin pier, then onwards a little more and you’ll see the church on your right hand side.

While you’re in the area, go visit Rathfran Abbey.

And visit the Sacred Landscapes website for more early Christian sites to visit in the area.

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Day Out by Lough Conn

The beautiful Early Marsh Orchids greeted us by the sparkling lake shore at Errew.

Day out by Lough Conn Early Marsh Orchid
Early Marsh Orchid by Lough Conn

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.

Errew Priory
The cloister walk at Errew Augustinian Priory

Supposedly founded by St. Tiernan, there were, according to tradition, up to 1,000 students here at one time. Hard to imagine.

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.

Errew nunnery
Teampall na gCailleach Dubh

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.

Enniscoe House Lough Conn
The walled garden at Enniscoe

Visit the North Mayo Tourism website for more things to do in the north of the county.

If you enjoy visiting ruined monasteries, read my post on Monasteries of the River Moy.

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