In Mayo, quintessential Ireland holds on
Fishing boats by Clew Bay, Mayo, Ireland (Amy Mulcair)
Despite Ireland's once again gloomy economy and record levels of emigration not seen since the Great Famine of the 1840s, the country has not lost sight of how to be welcoming, drole and charming while maintaining a balance between being authentic yet still open for tourism. Since hotel and food prices have fallen since the Celtic Tiger boom of the 90s, the Irish have had a tough reminder that they need to hang onto what they do best, welcoming visitors -- especially in places off the beaten tourist path such as County Mayo.
Mayo possesses the perfect mix of culture, history, food and drink, scenery and the experience of what traditional Ireland can still offer visitors. Located in the west of Ireland, the region has rugged mountains, salmon-filled lakes and 13th-century abbeys and castles. Pubs serve fresh seafood chowder, Irish brown bread and a slow-pulled pint of stout next to real peat fires. Art galleries show local work, clearly inspired by the colours and textures of the surrounding countryside. Nothing feels hurried in Mayo and that is part of its charm. Tourists share winding mountain roads with farmers and sheep. Some areas have no mobile or radio reception.
The small village of Cong, for example, has a main street that has changed little in the 60 years since it and nearby Ashford Castle was the setting for John Ford’s classic The Quiet Man, starring John Wayne.
Returning visitors to Mayo might be surprised to find quite a few bar doors locked during the early part of the week or, at best, with limited opening hours. The Irish simply do not have as much money to spend and high emigration numbers mean there are even fewer people to go to the bar. But when they are open, the bars still pull great pints of stout, serve hearty food and remain the extended living room for locals ready to chat about the weather, Irish football and maybe the economy. Many pubs have live traditional Irish music at weekends.
Situated just inside the Mayo border is the locality of Delphi, which shares the stunning scenery of nearby County Galway’s Connemara National Park. The mountains, lakes and vegetation have a myriad of colours from greens to blues to reds depending on the season, and the horizon is unadulterated nature, not a house in sight. Most visitors approach Delphi through the Galway village of Leenane – the location of Ireland’s only fjord and the setting of the Richard Harris film The Field. Hike mountain trails or simply stroll the narrow roads and watch the colours of the sky and lakes change throughout the day. The Delphi Mountain Resort offers balcony views of the scenery from many of its rooms in the alpine-inspired building. The food is homely and plentiful, the staff are very welcoming and there is a mist-covered mountain view from the breakfast table. Alternatively, the Delphi Lodge is an upscale accommodation – an old fishing lodge from the 1830s with incredible views of the surrounding mountains and lakes. Dinner is served around a large table with all guests gathered together, a taste of how things were in the lodge’s previous life. Guests back from outdoor pursuits such as salmon and sea trout fishing, are welcomed with log fires in various reception rooms, and there is an honour bar system, a library and comfy sofas.
Westport, a 30 minute drive from Delphi and one of Co Mayo’s main towns, is a great base to visit many local attractions. It has a range of cafes and bars offering fresh coffee and scones in the day, switching to menus of local fish and beef in the evening. There is nightly Irish traditional music in Matt Molloy’s pub in the town centre, which fills with international visitors who come for the rare chance to see Molloy, the flute player for the internationally renowned Chieftains.
Two miles outside of town is Westport House, an 18th-century residence owned by descendants of Grace O’ Malley, the famous 16th-century pirate queen. The house is open to the public and the rambling grounds have a number of easy walks though ancient forests. The house will host its first annual music and arts festival on 23 and 24 June this year, a move that will help with the cost of the house’s maintenance. The nearby accommodation at the Carlton Atlantic Coast Hotel has beautiful views across the birders paradise of Clew Bay.