In Mayo, quintessential Ireland holds on
Pilgrims and hill-walkers regularly climb 2,500ft to the top of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain, located about 10 minutes from Westport and overlooking beautiful Clew Bay. It is believed that pilgrims first visited the mountain in pre-Christian times, around 3,000 BC, and St Patrick fasted there in the 5th Century. Every year, on the last Sunday in July, more than 15,000 bare-footed pilgrims make the hike to the top where Mass is celebrated.
In the shadow of the mountain is Murrisk Abbey, built in 1457, with a history of both Catholic and Protestant occupation. It is no longer in use so visitors can wander through the ruins, climb a small tower to see the view and, most days, have the place to themselves. Its neighbour since 1997 is Ireland's National Famine Memorial, which abstractly resembles a coffin ship filled with dying people. Because of its relative poverty and heavy British land ownership, Mayo was particularly affected by the Great Famine which killed an estimated one million people and caused another million to emigrate. It is a reminder of the current, if less deadly, economic emigration affecting Mayo.
On the harbour road between Croagh Patrick and Westport is the Sheebeen, an old thatched roof Irish pub with hidden nooks and snugs, a peat fire, a welcoming host and Michelin- recommended cuisine. It is a cosy spot where locals share news of the day and cookies are served with freshly brewed coffee.
In hard times and good ones, artists have long been inspired by the landscape of the west of Ireland. And for visitors, their work can be found in local galleries, stores and their studios. Joe Hogan has been making traditional and contemporary baskets for 27 years, including the creel, a basket used to bring home peat (turf) from the bog. He runs basket-making courses at his studios on Loch na Fooey, Clonbur, on the Galway side of the Mayo border, and students can visit the willow beds where he grows his own materials.
Tour companies still flock to the Blarney Stone, the Ring of Kerry and Dublin’s Guinness factory, but quieter slices of Irish life remain ready to welcome you with open arms.