Because it’s a rural county with no major cities or many large towns, County Mayo feels a bit like a place without a center. Towns such as Castlebar, Claremorris, and Ballinrobe in the southern part of the county, and Ballina in the northern reaches, make good places to stop, refill the tank, and have lunch, but they offer little to make you linger. The county’s attractions lie in the countryside, and in smaller communities like Foxford, Ballycastle, and Louisburgh.
County Mayo's loveliest town, Westport (Cathair na Mairt), nestles on the shore of Clew Bay and makes an excellent touring base. Once a major port, it was designed by the famed architect Richard Cassels (he of Leinster House and Powerscourt House with a tree-lined mall, rows of Georgian buildings, and an octagonal central mall. From here, you can take a scenic drive west to Achill Island (An Caol), or catch a ferry to the bay’s Clare Island, once the home of Mayo’s legendary “Pirate Queen,” Grace O’Malley. Southeast of Westport, Croagh Patrick, a 750m (2,460-ft.) mountain, dominates the views of western Mayo for miles. St. Patrick is said to have spent the 40 days of Lent praying here in the year 441. To commemorate that, on the last Sunday of July, thousands of Irish people make a pilgrimage to the site, which has become known as St. Patrick’s Holy Mountain.
A short drive inland from Westport, in Castlebar, you can pick up the R310 road, which swings north past the clear, mountain-ringed waters of Lough Cullin and Lough Conn and eventually to Ballina (Béal an Átha). A dramatic coastal drive runs along the R314 from Ballina to Downpatrick Head, passing through the secluded harbor village of Killala (Cill Alaidh or Cill Ála). Outside Killala on the road R314, several ruined friaries are worth a stop, particularly Moyne Abbey and Rosserk Abbey about 3km (2 miles) away. Sitting at the edge of the River Rosserk, the abbey is in much better shape than the Moyne: Its chapel windows are well preserved. You can climb a winding stone stair to look out across the bay. The piscina of the church (once used for washing altar vessels) is still here, carved with angels, and on its lower-left-hand column is a delightful detail: a tiny, elegant carving of a round tower that recalls its 23m-tall (75-ft.) counterpart in nearby Killala. The Rosserk Abbey was built at the same time as the Moyne and also destroyed by Bingham's troops.
A Trip to Achill Island
The rugged, bog-filled, sparsely populated coast of counties Mayo and Sligo makes for scenic drives to secluded outposts. Leading the list is Achill Island, a heather-filled slip of land with sandy beaches and spectacular views of waves crashing against rocky cliffs.
Once you’ve crossed the bridge from the mainland, follow a winding road across the island to the little town of Keel, a trip that requires patience but rewards you with a camera full of photos. About 5.7km (3 1/2 miles) west of Keel, you’ll find the secluded Blue Flag beach of Keem Bay (it was once a major fishing ground—basking shark were caught here commercially up until the 1950s—but no more). You can reach the bay along a small cliff-top road, which passes by cliff faces containing rich seams of glittering amethyst. Apparently it’s not uncommon to find chunks of the stuff lying loose after heavy rainfall.
Speaking of remarkable finds: Hidden on the slopes of Mount Slievemore, Achill’s tallest mountain, are the remains of an abandoned village. The hundred or so crumbling stone cottages of the nameless ghost town date back to sometime around the 12th century. It was deserted during the Great Famine, although some cottages are known to have been in occasional use until the very early years of the 20th century, a traditional practice known as “booleying”—seasonal occupation by farming communities, which continued here long after it had died out in the rest of Ireland. Mount Slievemore is between Keel and Doogort, in the central northeastern part of Achill Island.
At Kildavnet, between Derreen and Coughmore, in the southeastern corner of the island, you’ll find Granuaile’s Tower. This impressive 15th-century tower house was owned by Grace O’Malley, the “Pirate Queen,” who caused all manner of havoc for the English around these parts in the 16th century. There’s not a great deal to see, but it’s a stunning spot to admire. Nearby Kildavnet Church is thought by some archaeologists to date from the 8th century.
To get to the Achill Island bridge, take N59 heading northwest out of Westport, then join R319, signposted to Achill. The drive from Westport to the crossing is about 42km (26 miles) and should take around 40 minutes. Once you’re on Achill Island, Keel is about another 14km (8 2/3 miles) down the same road.
RoolaBoola Childrens Arts Festival
Now in its 13th year, RoolaBoola is a festival of children's theater, film, and arts workshops at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar. The festival has been growing in prominence over the last few years and now attracts professional theater companies from all over the world. What particularly appeals about this festival is that, although the plays are aimed very firmly at children, they are intelligent, well-produced pieces of theater that don't talk down to their audience. Recent productions have included a children's opera about the Pied Piper's boyhood and a funny and sensitive play about the Kindertransport. There are also film screenings and workshops, some of which don't need to be prebooked. Expect to pay about €6 to €10 per ticket. Family tickets cost €25 and admit four to any show; a few activities are free. For more information and details on how to book, call the box office at tel. 094/902-3733 or 902-8886, or visit the festival website, www.thelinenhall.com/roola-boola. The festival program runs for a week in late October, and the program is usually announced in early September.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.