Monday May 14, 2012 at 8:08 AM | 1 Comment
Finding the Green: A Visit to the Rugged Coast of County Mayo, Ireland
A recent milestone in life prompted the fulfillment of my lifelong dream of visiting the land of my Irish roots. I’m not really sure how Irish I am, but in my mind I’m as green as the clover. The timing seemed right, so a dual trip to London and Ireland was planned to take advantage of low airfares, since a private jet charter was not an option. For the Irish leg of the trip, we decided to pursue a relaxing pace after the lights and sights of London, so we chose the rugged coast of County Mayo as our destination of choice.
County Mayo’s Star of the Sea, Stella Maris
Since Mayo is rural, we didn’t quite know what to expect regarding lodging options, so we looked to Ireland’s Blue Book as a resource for a place to stay. We decided on Stella Maris Country House Hotel in the village of Ballycastle, County Mayo, touted as a move at your own pace kind of place. After arriving at the small airport in the nearby town of Knock, the claiming of our rental car in the airport parking lot was a stark reminder that I would soon be driving on the wrong side of the road for the first time in my life. It was a nerve-wracking thought, but I needn’t have worried because the roads were rural and we actually encountered more sheep in the road than cars. But nonetheless, I was ready to park it by the time we got there.
Upon arrival at Stella Maris we were greeted like old friends by proprietor Frances Kelly. She and her husband Terry McSweeney couldn’t have been more gracious during our three night stay. The hotel itself is a long stark white foreboding structure positioned in the wide open countryside with visibility for miles around. It began life in 1853 as a Coast Guard lookout post, complete with gun turrets which still remain. During a later stint as a convent and school, then as a private home and inn, the building became the prime gathering place for generations of West Mayo citizens celebrating everything from weddings and funerals to christenings and confirmations. Kelly, a native of Ballycastle who had settled in the US, had grown up with this notion of the building, so when it came up for sale, she and her husband McSweeney, a PGA golfing executive , purchased it with the intent of resettling and sharing the West Mayo area with visitors. After extensive remodeling, it was reopened in 2002 with both gratitude from the locals and acclaim from travel organizations. Because they arrange golfing excursions, plus the fact that it’s conveniently positioned between two championship golf courses, it has encouraged golf enthusiasts to take note as well.
The hotel’s 12 rooms are tastefully decorated, not overly done, and nicely suited for the setting overlooking the north Atlantic coast. All rooms are en suite with high pressure showers, a welcome bonus. For a small hotel, there was always some activity going on, whether in the 100 ft. glassed conservatory overlooking the water or in the pub next to a warm peat fire. We were surprised to hear that this remote hotel’s tiny restaurant had been named one of Ireland’s 100 best, but after eating there several times, we understood why. Frances Kelly oversees the kitchen and she focuses on local and organic when possible, and consistently displays an attention to detail on the plate that is often missed by the finest.
Population: 235 Humans, 11 Pubs
Venturing into the little village of Ballycastle, we asked for and got a list of what to see and who to look for. It is a small place — with the action aligned mostly along one main street just a few blocks long. This is not a tourist town, but a living town for the citizenry. There’s a grocery, a restaurant and a gallery. Plus two churches, a funeral home, a post office and a “victualler” (local term for meat market.) Oh, and several pubs. Nobody could provide an exact pub count, but as plainclothes investigators, we immediately wanted to know more about this rampant pub issue and we gave it our all. Our findings showed that they were very small, they all had great beer, and good stories could be heard and told amongst strangers. One of our favorite experiences was discovering Polke’s, a fifth generation family run grocery and tavern. You enter off the street into the grocery and do your shopping. And then they hold your goods for you while you step through a nondescript door at the back into a tiny pub, finding all of its dozen stools occupied by your neighbors. Who knew? It was definitely an Alice through the looking-glass moment. We kind of liked the idea of buying eggs and popping in for a pint before going back home, and apparently the locals do too.
St. Patrick and the Snakes
Legend says St. Patrick used his sword to cut off the head of Ireland’s last snake at Downpatrick Head, causing the separation of a sea stack from the mainland. Although it is true that Ireland has no snakes, the story has generally been classified as a metaphor for eliminating evil. Our hotel room had a great view of Downpatrick Head so naturally we wanted to get closer. Just a few kilometers away, we pulled the car off to the side of the dirt road and began walking across the barren green field. No visitor center. No directions to speak of, except for a statue of St. Paddy himself along the way. Then the sea stack, called Dun Briste, was suddenly there in front of us. The memory of the 300 ft. cliffs, the sound of crashing waves below and the smell of the salt air will remain for a while. It remains pristine and untouched by development and was a highlight.
Stone Age Ruins, Graveyards & Confessionals
Emboldened by the lack of traffic, we toured the countryside by car, mesmerized by the vibrant green. Several kilometers away was Ceide Fields (pronounced Kay-juh), the oldest Neolithic site in Europe, settled over 5000 years ago. They had an excellent interpretive center and the history there helped us put our short lives in perspective. Beautiful old cemeteries were plentiful along our way and we even visited a tiny country chapel with TWO confessionals. We decided that its architect had been blessed with wisdom as well as forethought.
Connecting with Irish Roots
I did indeed connect with my Irish roots on this trip, real or imagined, and the choice of County Mayo was a good one. As one of the last places in Ireland not overrun with tourists, I recommend it as a comfortable solution when you want to experience the land and the people first hand. That’s what satisfies the travel bug in me.
INSIDER TIP: No matter what the season, Ireland can put a little chill into the bones. Don’t miss Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths in nearby Enniscrone since 1912. Start with a steam in a cedar box with only your head exposed to the cool air then have a hot bath with water piped in from the nearby Atlantic, combined with locally extracted seaweed oils. The bath has the consistency of olive oil. Your skin and your aching body will thank you.
This is a sponsored guest post by Ralph Warren.