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Lough Avoher – What’s in a Name ?

To the south of Nephin Beg mountain and just east of The Bangor Trail (though barely visible from it and missed by many walkers, I would guess) lies the small Lough Avoher.

You might think I should have added “and irrelevant” to my description. This is not a Lough Feeagh, Furnace or Carrowmore, greater lakes of this part of boggy, rocky west Mayo. But to do so would have been an error, for irrelevant this little body of water most certainly is not. In its very name lies a clue to the lives of our ancestors, men and women who passed this place in harder times. Much harder.

Lough Avoher by the Bangor Trail

Lough Avoher by the Bangor Trail

The anglicised form of the name of this little lake, you see, reveals its original name as gaeilge, “Loch an Bhóthair”, meaning ‘lake of the road’. Therein we discover a beautiful and important testimony to the history of this place and the age of The Bangor Trail. A drover’s path from the outlying areas of north Mayo when that bog-saturated land was still roadless, the Trail witnessed many people bringing their animals down to market in the towns to the south. Perhaps they stopped for refreshment at Lough Avoher. They may even have passed the night by its shores.

I’ve known about Lough Avoher since I first laid eyes on it while reading Joe McDermott’s excellent little guidebook to the Trail, back in the mid 1990s. From that same time I’ve known that the lake is incorrectly named “Lough Aroher” on Ordnance Survey Ireland’s Discovery Series maps (sheets 23 & 31 ; grid ref. F94 07). Unfortunately, I now realise, I did nothing about it at the time. I should have picked up the phone and let OSI know about the error and to have it corrected. I could have done it, I now know, because I finally did a few weeks ago. I received OSI’s agreement and was helpfully told that it will be changed in the next version of the map.

Except …

Over the intervening years, a walking trail has been developed nearby the lake (as a loop off the Bangor Trail) and a mountain bothy structure has been put in place, both employing the incorrect name for the lake. Happily, I’ve been assured that the bothy mistake is to be rectified this winter. I’m appreciative of that.

The problem here is a lack of cultural awareness for what people are dealing with. Loch an Bhóthair stands as a witness in the bog, the rain and the wind to the very history of this part of the world. To a people who tried to eke out a miserable existence, without today’s fancy waterproof hiking boots or jackets to shield them from the elements of west Mayo.

A quick glance at McDermott’s book, or an attempt to involve members of the local hillwalking community would have avoided these mistakes being made. Either myself or Joe, and presumably plenty of others also, would have put the authors of the walking trail or builders of the bothy straight.

There is a general carelessness about Irish language place names creeping in that bothers me. Just a short distance away from Lough Avoher, out past the wonderful ringfort at Lios na Gaoithe, lies a lake whose county council signpost declares it ‘Lough Bunaveela’ in English and ‘Loch Bunaveela’ as gaeilge. In other words, no attempt whatsoever was made to identify its true name in Irish. Lazy.

Before I end, I should admit that my own Irish is very poor. However, I like to think I have an appreciation of our history, our heritage and what the French call our “patrimoine”. Lough Aroher is dead; long live Lough Avoher.

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Ringfort in Mayo – Lios na Gaoithe

Hidden in the middle of one of Mayo’s countless conifer plantations lies one of the true jewels of the county. Lios na Gaoithe (The Fort of the Wind) is a large ringfort constructed sometime from the late Iron Age to the early medieval period. Scholars now tend to lean towards the latter being more likely as the period of ringforts in Ireland (500 to 1,000 AD).

Standing at a maximum of almost 4m from bottom of ditch to top of enclosure bank (see picture, below) and forming a circle of roughly 26m diameter, this structure has a circumference of around 82m. It would originally have had wooden stakes placed vertically around its perimeter, probably for keeping animals within and predators without. Note that present-day opinion is that ringforts were unlikely to have been in fact ‘forts’, in the sense that they probably did not serve any real defensive purpose. They were not constructed particularly high above the surrounding ground level and a ring of stakes might not have kept any would-be attackers at bay for very long. They were more likely to be status symbols of local chiefs or powerful clans, perhaps representing their control over surrounding lands.

Lios na Gaoithe ringfort Ireland

Standing in the ditch at Lios na Gaoithe

Lios na Gaoithe was excavated in the 1950s and among the findings discovered was a cist, a burial construction made of stone slabs arranged in a box-like shape. Coloured glass beads were within, along with the bones of the deceased. How blue glass beads came to be in a West of Ireland ringfort is a matter of conjecture – some have suggested they may have come from as far away as north Africa, maybe via numerous trading posts along the way.

The ringfort is the most common remaining ancient type of homestead in Ireland – there are estimated to be around 40,000 of them dotted all over the country. They consisted of a raised mound within a sunken ditch and an elevated outer bank. Indeed, sometimes there are more than one ditch and associated bank, the latter built of the material removed in order to dig out the former.

An entire earthen ringfort is called a ‘ráth’ and the dwelling enclosure within the ‘lios’, although in the case of Lios na Gaoithe, the latter term has come to refer to the whole. Were it made of stone, the structure would be known as a ‘caiseal’ or ‘dún’, such as the famous Dún Aenghus of Inis Mór in the Aran Islands.

Interestingly, ringforts are often built in prominent positions and / or on good quality ground. Today, however, neither of these attributes applies to Lios na Gaoithe, located as it is in classic Mayo boggy terrain. Having said that, it does command a strong (though not elevated) position in a valley running from northeast to southwest through hilly terrain and is close by a small river.

Ringfort, Ireland - Lios na Gaoithe

Looking into the Ditch

My map below shows the location of the fort in relation to the landscape around it. Areas coloured brown are at 200m altitude or above, while the green areas are at 50m elevation and lower.  You can see two entrances into this terrain from the north, marked A and B. Entrance A comes from what is today a vast open, low-lying bog. This is very wet, inhospitable country and, even 1,000 years ago, unlikely to have been much crossed by men on horseback or foot. Entrance B carries a track today and keeps relatively high above the surrounding bog. Assuming there was already some traffic through this area over a millennium ago, we can see how Lios na Gaoithe would have commanded the pass to the rivers, lake and sea (out of picture) beyond, to the south.

 

Lios na Gaoithe ringfort, Mayo

The ringfort in its landscape

 

Ringfort Excavations in Ireland

Read about some ringfort excavations at other sites on Heritage Ireland’s website.

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The Bangor Trail – Remote Hiking Trail in Mayo

The Bangor Trail sinews its way from Bangor Erris in the north to Newport in the south, running for some 26 km* through the relentless Atlantic blanket bog of north Mayo.

Winter on Ireland’s most remote, tranquil and wet walking route is a great treat. Why ? Because you’re not in charge. Nowadays, the human is in charge of almost everything. He controls the environment to a worrying degree, if you think about it. Not out here, not in winter, not anytime.

 

Bangor Trail Mayo

The Bangor Trail in the Nephin Beg Mountains

 

The Bangor Trail is Ireland’s outstanding ancient trail. For centuries, the Trail was used by drovers bringing their animals from the wilds of north Mayo down to the coastal market town of Newport. This is extremely remote country – you won’t see a house or soul. In winter, the crazy weather adds hugely to the experience. Here, you’ll find yourself very much out of your comfort zone.

This is rarely visited bog and mountain terrain. It’s a maze of tiny streams that find their way down from Glennamong, Nephin Beg and Slieve Carr to the wet Owenduff bog below – Ireland’s largest intact Atlantic blanket bog system. Half the time, we are walking in water. The other half, we are between rocks laid down centuries ago to make a semblance of a path and pure, unadulterated peat bog ! Very special.

 

Bangor Trail

The Bangor Trail, West Mayo

 

What’s great about the Bangor Trail is its isolation, but also the fact that, at the time it was ‘built’, those involved had an inherent sense of practicality. It wasn’t future adventure-seeking hikers they were concerned with. No, the track was laid down for the very real-world reason of getting animals to market. They laid it down not too high up the hillsides, to avoid unnecessary climbing, but not too low, to avoid sinking into the tremendous bog.

What would you need ? A very good level of fitness, great stamina, very good waterproof hiking boots, waterproof clothing, gaitors, courage, lots of food, a camera, lots of water, map, compass, head torch, etc. And a sense of humour. This is the outdoors at its best – wild and wonderful.

* The 26 km indicated is from Bangor Erris as far as the Brogan Carroll Bothy at Letterkeen Wood. Much of the remaining way to Newport is on tarmac, so not terribly attractive to walk.

The Bangor Trail 2012 Update (with Lenny Antonelli, journalist)

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of accompanying freelance journalist Lenny Antonelli on The Bangor Trail. We had beautiful weather for our hike, especially considering it was the middle of winter. Reproduced below is Lenny’s lovely article from the Irish Times.

Discover Lenny Antonelli’s website.

 

The Bangor Trail in Mayo Ireland

Irish Times article, part 1

 

 

The Bangor Trail Ireland

Irish Times article, part 2

 

The Bangor Trail Hike

27 km, allowing for a 500m (each way) diversion to view the Scardaun Loughs; total ascent 815 m; allow 10-11 hours.

Discovering The Bangor Trail (high point 246 m) is finding a part of Ireland that you thought no longer existed. Set in the remote Nephin Beg mountain range of west Mayo, this is a place where you’re unlikely to encounter anybody else. From the Brogan Carroll Bothy to Bangor Erris village, the Trail meanders through blanket bog and mountain scenery.

This is a strenuous day out in demanding wet bog – not for the faint-hearted!

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