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An Afternoon Walking in the South of France

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.

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”…

An afternoon walking in the south of France

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.

An afternoon walking in the south of France

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 September 8 to 15, 2019, please drop me a line to info [at] tourismpurewalking.com.

You may also enjoy reading these little anecdotes from walking in France.

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Coastline of County Mayo

The Spectacular Coastline of County Mayo

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.

coastlinbe of county mayo iniskea north

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.

coastline of county mayo downpatrick head

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

coastline of county mayo benwee head

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

5 Abbeys : Murrisk, Burrishoole, Rathfran, Moyne, Rosserk

Get in your car or, even better, on your bike and enjoy this wonderful coastline of County Mayo at your leisure.

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Urlaur Priory in East Mayo

Urlaur Priory near Kilmovee, East County Mayo

Dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, Urlaur Priory (Urlaur Abbey) was founded in the early 1430s during the last years of the pontificate of Martin V. This foundation was ‘irregular’, as no permission had been obtained from the Holy See. The new pope, Eugene IV, then instructed Murchard O’Hara, Bishop of Achonry, to legalise the house in 1434 and it was established for “novitatae” (novices) of the Order. It would, however, also attract others from around Connacht.

The friary’s founders, the Nangles, were descended from the Anglo-Norman family of de Angulo who had arrived in Ireland during the late 12th Century. This branch of the family came west from county Meath during the 1220s and would later become the MacCostellos, after whom the Barony of Costello in east Mayo is named. They also founded St. Mary’s in Ballyhaunis around the same time.

Urlaur Priory (Urlaur Abbey)

In 1577, the ‘frierie’ is listed as being still in the tenure of the ‘friers’, namely Teig Og O Mara and others.

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. However, while Urlaur would be dissolved in the early 17th Century and its grounds granted first to Sir Edward Fisher and later to Lord Dillon, it was re-established and friars remained throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries.

“Under the Cromwellian regime, the abbey was one of the last to be deserted, if it ever was so, for we find that in 1654 eleven fathers were able to meet here and hold the provincial chapter. After the Restoration, a large community was formed here again and a noviciate was established. The general exile in 1698 drove the fathers away for only a short time, for, when Father Ambrose O’Connor, the Provincial, made his visitation in 1703, he found five fathers here. In 1756, there were six fathers here and seven in 1767, of whom one was parish priest.” [Coleman, 1902]

The last friar, Patrick Sharkey, said to have lived in a nearby cottage, passed away during the 1840s and is buried inside the Priory.

Structure of the Buildings at Urlaur Priory

Urlaur was built in the Gothic style of the 15th Century, with its characteristic pointed arches, doorways and windows. These are mixed, however, with flat-lintelled windows, both plain and ogee. The buildings are constructed of rubble masonry, coursed at corners and rough elsewhere, with rubble infill. Lower down the walls, some very large boulders were used. Ashlar masonry (cut stone) is employed around some doorways, window frames and on arcade columns.

Today’s roofless ruin includes much of the chancel, nave and the domestic ranges, including four partly repaired barrel vaulted cells and what was presumably the upstairs dormitory. There are no remains of the cloister or bell tower.

The main church, aligned slightly off east-west, measured 30m x 10m externally, with a northern aisle section (like at Straide) measuring 15m x 4m. There is no trace of transepts at Urlaur Priory and the church was not ‘divided’ between nave and chancel.

To the south of the eastern end of the south wall, there is a 20m x 9m domestic range, which in turn has a 3m x 4m tower abutting its southeast end.

While all of the above appear contemporary, at the southwest end of the main church (western end of the south wall), there are the remains of another, later building, with what partially stands today measuring up to 6m long and 5m wide. This was a two-storey range, as remains of the staircase can be seen within one of the walls. Apparently, it was typical that the west wing was built to house lay members of the community and that this wing tends to have been more poorly constructed than the rest and, subsequently, the first to collapse.

All walls on the site are between approx 1.0 and 1.5m thick.

Entry into the church is by the west door, which has a gothic style pointed arch, at the top of which was a carved face, now missing. The doorway is decorated with several orders of sculptured pointed arches, but without decoration. Above the doorway is a twin-light window, with intact mullion and tracery in good condition and giving a clue as to what the triple-light east window must have looked like.

Urlaur Priory west gable

On entering the church, to the left there was an aisle with arcade of pointed arches separating it from the main nave, but all arches and columns have disappeared. From a late 18th Century sketch, however, we know that there were three pointed arches supported by two stand-alone columns and two further columns integrated into the walls of the church, parts of which remain. These were constructed of ashlar masonry.

In the eastern of these two integrated columns, we can still see some foliate decoration in relief. Both ivy and vines were useful decorative features found wound around pillars and curling around stonework in medieval religious houses like Urlaur.

Within the main church, there is no trace of the bell tower. The large east window was triple-light, but neither of the mullions remains and only parts of the tracery. To the right, in the south wall, are two piscinae, each with a four-leaf shape making up the sunken bowl.

Urlaur Priory piscinae

Jutting southwards from this southeast corner of the chancel is the domestic range, entered through a pointed arch doorway to the right of the piscinae. Four barrel vaulted cells remain (repaired), each measuring between 3.5m x 5.5m and 4.0m x 6.0m. The slightly smaller ones are so because they have space given over to stairways leading to the upstairs dormitory (one each in the SW and NW corners). This measures 20m x 8m. Upstairs, the roof and much of the walls are no longer extant.

Based on the two that are extant, each of the cells presumably had a simple rectangular narrow single-light window looking east, each with a plain lintel. The cell located furthest from the church, presumably the refectory, has a fireplace and chimney in the southeast corner. The cell closest to the chancel was presumably the sacristy.

Abutting the southeast corner of the domestic range is a tower, with a wide round arched opening to the south at today’s ground level. This is presumed to have been a boat house, as it faces the lake just a few metres beyond. The tower also housed the garderobe.

There are no traces of the cloister, which can be reached through a second pointed arch door in the south wall of the main church. Unlike the doorway into the vaulted cell, this one has a keystone. To the west of the cloister and the south of the west façade of the church, however, are the remains of a later addition to the priory. This now roofless barrel vaulted cell measured at least 6m x 5m.

Nor is there any sign of further buildings to the south of the cloister, which might have enclosed it on that side. Some piles of rubble in this area are evident in a second late 18th Century sketch, however.

One of the more interesting features at Urlaur Priory is a small stone-carved winged monk, or angel, on the underside of the keystone above the south door leading to the cloister. While the ‘monk’ holds his left hand open across his abdomen, his right hand is held up, with two fingers pointing upwards and the other three folded in over his palm, perhaps indicating God’s blessing.

A second interesting feature is the early 18th Century commemorative plaque to the Duffys, evidently a family of blacksmiths, which stands on the same south wall. Note the anvil, tongs and hammer (l to r) in the detail below.

Urlaur Priory Duffy Plaque

“Whilst the friars were living in that house, there was happiness in Ireland”

Douglas Hyde’s wonderful collection of folktales, “Legends of Saints and Sinners” (Every Irishman’s Library, 1915), includes a story entitled “The Friars of Urlaur”, which may be accessed freely online. Grab yourself a coffee and enjoy the read.

Around Urlaur Priory (Abbey)

Urlaur Priory is located on the northern side of Urlaur Lough, immediately by the water. It is 8km SW of Kilmovee, 9km SE of Kilkelly and 15km N of Ballyhaunis. If you’ve decided to discover the abbey for yourself, then be sure to check out some other local sights while you’re at it, especially Kilcashel caiseal at Kilmovee. Please note that you must request permission from the landowner to access this magnificent stone ‘fort’, located in a private field.

For upcoming guided walks of mine in the Mayo and Connemara area, please check events (scroll down below images).

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Keenagh Loop Walk in the Bogs of West Mayo

Keenagh Loop Walk

If you’re looking for a walk that represents west Mayo well, without the extra effort of climbing a mountain, then Keenagh Loop Walk may fit the bill. Be sure to bring along at least one walking pole to test the ground’s solidity in front of you as you go, as some sections can be extremely wet.

The trailhead for Keenagh Loop Walk is located on the left hand side along the R312 from Castlebar towards Bellacorick, approximately 7km after the left turn to Newport (R317) and immediately before the right turn for Crossmolina (R316), at grid ref G 067 067.

By no means the most spectacular location the county has to offer, nevertheless this loop walk brings you into (or, more accurately, beneath) Mayo’s Nephin Beg mountain range, with the added attraction of a very pretty mountain river along one section.

To begin, I’d suggest you walk the route in an anti-clockwise direction rather than that which the signage and Mayo County Council’s mayowalks.ie website invite you to. In this way, you get the bit of a pull up to the highpoint of 250m over and done with early on. This is also the least inspiring section of the loop, apart from the wonderful display of wildflowers along the laneway during the summer months. Enjoy Purple Loosestrife, St. John’s Wort, Selfheal, Dandelion, Herb Robert and more.

Keenagh Loop Walk heather, bracken and rowan tree

Once up and over the highpoint, we descend to the very lovely Glendorragha River and begin to admire the excellent Birreencorragh Mountain to the right, which has now come into view beyond the scree-covered southwestern face of its satellite, Knockaffertagh. At the head of the valley, this is one of Mayo’s finest mountains to climb, so you can come back another day and tackle that.

But the main attraction of the Keenagh Loop Walk is the stretch along the banks of the river. Descending the valley from our right, the little river tumbles down various small waterfalls and over boulders in its journey as a tributary to the Newport River. Watch a Dipper, as it follows the river downstream, jumping from rock to rock, with its feet in the water, before diving under the surface in search of insect larvae. He’s very amusing, sometimes even choosing to float along awhile.

Keenagh Loop Walk oak tree

There are also Otter, Pine Martin and Heron around these parts, along with the occasional Goat among the Sheep. And guess what? There are even some Oak trees along the banks, a rare sight indeed around west Mayo.

Leaving the river bank, we cross the wettest of the numerous boggy stretches on this walk, before meeting an seanbhóthar from Derreen to Newport, where we turn left for home. On arrival, your feet might be wet, but you’ll have enjoyed this hidden corner of wild Mayo.

Keenagh Loop Walk

12 km; 4.5 hours; climb 150m; watch out for very boggy parts.

As you should everywhere you encounter it, do avoid walking through the bracken on the higher sections. It might just contain ticks that you really don’t want on your body. It’s better to leave the track when you see large swathes of the plant and find your own way around.

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Spanish Armada and Mayo

1588 – The Spanish Armada and Mayo

In May 1588, King Philip II of Spain sent his armada of ships towards the English Channel, under the command of Alonso Pérez de Gúzman, Duke of Medina-Sidonia (a municipality near Cádiz in Andalusia). Of the 130 or 132 that departed the ports of Spain (and today’s Portugal), just 67 would ever see home again. The connection between the Spanish Armada and Mayo is a story of wrecked ships and substantial loss of life.

“Take heed lest you fall upon the island of Ireland,

for fear of the damage that might befall you upon that coast”

(Medina-Sidona)

Having failed to achieve their objective of collecting soldiers in Spanish Netherlands (today’s Belgium) and invading England, what was left of the armada fleet headed north into the North Sea, then west around Scotland and down along the west coast of Ireland, aiming for A Coruña and safety. Many no longer had anchors, having cut them loose in trying to escape England’s fireships at Calais. Of the 65 ships lost, whether due to damage from battle or weather, somewhere between 17 and 24 ships are believed to have met their end in stormy waters around Ireland. Perhaps 5 of them lie off Mayo.

spanish armada and mayo

Spanish Armada and Mayo – the ships

1. La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada (carrack; 820t; 279 men; 35 guns; Alfonso Martinez de Leiva; Squadron of Levant)

Ran aground at Fahy Strand, Ballycroy.

2. (El) Gran Grin (carrack; 1160t; 329 men; 28 guns; Pedro de Mendoza; Squadron of Biscay)

Smashed on rocks at Clare Island.

3. San Nicolas (Prodaneli) (834t; 355 men; 26 guns; Maria Prodanelic; Squadron of Levant)

Possibly ran aground within Broadhaven Bay, perhaps at Inver or Toorglass.

4. Ciervo Volante (urca; 400t; 189-222 men; 16 or 18 guns; Juan de Peranto; Squadron of Urcas)

Lost between Downpatrick Head and Benwee Head.

5. Santiago (urca; 600t; 86 men; 19 guns; Juan de Luna)

There were several ships of this name in the armada, one of which may have been lost off Mayo, possibly in Clew Bay, south of Corraun or by Burrishoole.

spanish armada and mayo route

Another ship, the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, is said to have entered Broadhaven Bay. However, she proceeded southwards and reached Spain safely.

La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada

Of all the stories concerning ships of the Spanish Armada and Mayo, this seems the most concrete. Probably already damaged at some stage, whether during the battles off south-east England or later due to weather and conditions at sea, the Rata was blown into Blacksod Bay and ran aground at Fahy Strand, near Ballycroy, on September 21st, 1588. The crew is said to have burned the ship to avoid its salvage by the British and headed to nearby Fahy (Doona) Castle. The captain, de Leiva, eventually met up with survivors from other ships (presumably including the one that ran aground at Inver / Toorglass) and they made their way to Donegal on board the Duquesa Santa Ana, which had moored in Blacksod Bay and was still seaworthy. However, the Duquesa appears to have floundered in Donegal, with the result that all boarded the Girona, which had moored at Killybegs, apparently with rudder damage. Rather than heading west and south to Spain, they decided to aim for Scotland, a Catholic country, but crashed on rocks off Lacada Point in Co. Antrim, with the loss of all but 9 of the estimated 1,300 men on board.

Losses of Men

In his book, Downfall of the Spanish Armada in Ireland, Ken Douglas identifies 23 ships wrecked in Ireland and estimates the total losses at around 5,000 men, of which the following are attributed to the Mayo boats :

La Rata Santa Maria Encoronada – 448 (on the Girona)

(El) Gran Grin – 336

San Nicolas (Prodaneli) – 294

Ciervo Volante – 171

Santiago – 65

For a total of some 866 in Mayo’s waters and a further 448 who had been on Mayo soil.

Notes

Very little is known as a matter of fact about the fate of armada ships (and their men) that attempted to sail down the West of Ireland coast. There are several issues. First, there are very few contemporary records still extant, if indeed any ever existed. Second, numerous ships had similar names, some in Portuguese and some in Spanish, and names have been ‘warped’ over time and through translations into English or French. Third, so many ships have no record whatsoever as to their fate that this can add to the confusion about those that appear to. Regarding the number of men lost, the musters taken at Lisbon and A Coruña differ, plus many would have been transferred between ships at various stages of the disastrous expedition. In addition, Richard Bingham, Governor of Connacht at that time, may have captured and killed unknown numbers of Spaniards and their Irish sympathisers, so the figures given above can be taken only as rough estimates.

Fahy Strand and Castle are just west of Ballycroy

If you’re in the area, don’t forget to visit Ballycroy National Park. If you’re into hill walking, you could choose to climb Slieve Carr, Ireland’s most remote mountain.

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Balla to Ballintubber Walk

From Round Tower to Abbey

Our round towers and abbeys are among the most visible still extant reminders of early and medieval Christian Ireland. While the former date from the 9th to 11th centuries, what remain of our medieval abbeys tend to be from the 12th to 15th. This Balla to Ballintubber walk links examples of both.

In Mayo, we have five remaining round towers and multiple abbeys and friaries, including the most magnificent of them, like Rosserk, Moyne, Murrisk and Burrishoole. Just across the border in north Galway is perhaps the finest in the West of Ireland, at Ross Errily.

This first section of the 60km+ Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail almost links Balla round tower with Ballintubber abbey, although a diversion is required. An easy trail, we traverse nice small sections of broadleaf woodland, fields and numerous interesting sights. Unfortunately, almost 50% of the route is on roads, minor as they are.

Balla to ballintubber walk

Mixed woodland at Balla

The abbey at Ballintubber was founded by Cathal Ó Conchobhair, King of Connacht, in 1216 and recently celebrated its 800 years. An abbey of the Augustinian Canons Regular, it was substantially destroyed by Cromwellian forces in 1653, but continued in service while roofless and has been rebuilt, most notably in 1966 to celebrate its 750 years.

Balla to ballintubber walk 2

Ballintubber Abbey

Although by no means a spectacular walk, this 15.5 km from Balla to Ballintubber is nonetheless a pleasant stroll, taking 4 to 5 hours. Along the way, you’ll see ringforts and ruined castles, notably the one at Donamoma. It was here that numerous Gaelic lords submitted to the authority of Richard Bingham, Lord President (Governor) of Connacht, in 1588.

A tougher walk in winter than in summer, due to waterlogged and boggy stretches, this season does, however, bring the additional attraction of numerous turloughs along the way. Mind you, you’re unlikely to keep your feet dry!

Somewhat bizarrely, once you’re at Ballintubber Abbey, you have the choice between two paths if you wish to continue onward towards Croagh Patrick and Murrisk. You can either regain and follow the Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail, or simply depart the abbey on the Tóchar Phádraig.

Balla to Ballintubber Walk

15.5 km; total ascent 88 m; approx. 4.5 hours.

The route is well marked (if not entirely accurately) on OSI Discovery map sheets 31 and 38. You can make do without the latter, as it only covers a little bit of the trail.

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