Éanna O Murchú is enthralled after a visit to Westport in County Mayo, a town steeped in heritage, and a great base from which to explore spiritual Ireland
Approaching Westport from the direction of Castlebar there is a sign that proudly greets you, proclaiming the Mayo town to be the ‘best there is to live in’. A maiden visitor to this Connacht settlement nestled in the south-east pocket of Clew Bay might consider it a bold claim, one that arose after an Irish Times ‘Best Place To Live In Ireland’ competition run in 2012, and from which Westport emerged victorious. Having spent a few days in the oft-labelled ‘Venice of the West’, clarity descends on why the townsfolk have unshakeable confidence in this entrance statement.
With residents that are consistent exponents of genuine Irish welcomes (yes, they still say hello to strangers walking down the street), and no end of activities to occupy you and your travelling companions on whatever road you choose to follow that stretches from the town’s heart, Westport is a destination you will leave with a definitive note to self that “I’ll be back”.
Spirituality, in its many guises, pulses through the town’s heartbeat. Towering over the Atlantic Ocean is the formidable Croagh Patrick, which provides a stunning backdrop to the daily hive of activity as residents go about their business below. Religious, patriotic and community spirit have long fused in this blissfully preserved region of Ireland, with the pride of its people driven by the history from which they have evolved.
Whether you choose to visit Croagh Patrick or the poignant Famine Memorial at its foot; should you opt to explore the impressive Ballintubber Abbey which celebrates its 800th anniversary this year, or take time to learn how our ancestors made skilled use of the land simply to survive, in the National Museum of Country Life located outside Castlebar, Westport delivers an enhanced understanding of what it means to be Irish. If it’s adventure you seek that will allow you to lose yourself in our mystical past, a temporary escape from troubles and foibles of today, then a trek along Westport’s spiritual trail is highly advised, and the following are some highly recommended stops that you should make.
(eight kilometres from Westport)
Croagh Patrick, the world famous place of pilgrimage, is a majestic landmark that soars 764 metres towards the heavens. It has been a place of worship since ancient times, dating back to 3,000 BC. Prior to Christianity reaching Ireland, the Celtic people viewed Croagh Patrick as the dwelling place of the deity Crom Dubh (the Chief Celtic Idol of Ireland).
The harvest festival of Lughnasa, which is traditionally held at the beginning of August, drew local people there for a magnificent celebration of the fruits of their year’s labour. Since the time of Saint Patrick, pilgrims have been making their way to the mountain top in their millions; those on a pilgrimage of penance do so barefoot.
Legend also has it that it was from atop Croagh Patrick that our patron saint ‘banished the snakes’, a metaphor for many meaning he replaced paganism with Christianity. The Book of Armagh claims that Patrick fasted here for forty days and nights, and also built a church there.
Each year, on the last Sunday in July, thousands of devotees from all around the world visit the mountain for what is known as Reek Sunday (the mountain is colloquially known as ‘The Reek’), a day of worship in honour of Saint Patrick. Outdoor masses are held throughout the day, along with confessions at the modern-built church at the summit.
From the peak of Croagh Patrick, pilgrims can enjoy a breathtaking view of Clew Bay. The story runs that Clew Bay has 365 islands, a different island for each day of the year.
In the sixteenth century, the famous pirate, Grace O’Malley, and her clan commanded its waters.
Nearby Westport House is built on the spot where Grace built one of her castles. The bay is also home to Dorinish island, purchased by The Beatle, John Lennon, in 1967. After his death, Yoko Ono sold the island for close to £30,000 and donated the proceeds to an Irish orphanage.
The village of Murrisk, which rests in the shadow of Croagh Patrick and poises on the shoulder of Clew Bay, is home to the ruins of a mid-15th century abbey, built by the Augustinian Friars. It replaced the Tóchar Phádraig as the preferred starting point for pilgrimages up Croagh Patrick. The friars were forced to leave in the late 16th century when the Reformation swept through Europe. Locals still use the cemetery on the grounds of the abbey’s ruins.
In Murrisk village you will also find the Famine Memorial, a striking monument which pays silent tribute to the millions of people that perished in the Great Famine of 1847.
A bronze creation designed by John Behan, the sculpture depicts a ‘Coffin Ship’ with skeleton bodies in the rigging. The National Famine Monument was unveiled in 1997 by President Mary Robinson. It is located across the road from the car park at the foot of Croagh Patrick, overlooking the drumlins of Clew Bay.