Saturday, 8 June 2019

In Search of the Irish Summer

Our quest began in Mayo. We rented a cottage near Ballycastle, a small village on the North Mayo coast with three pubs, two shops and a cafe. Our cottage was down a lane that led to the beach; it was quiet and secluded, facing west along the coast towards Belmullet. We were halfway between the village and the beach, with a ten minute walk to either. We had four days of continuous rain, four days of showers and sunshine and two bright but windy days.

We’d come prepared for all eventualities. I’d brought my bike as well as laptop and books. T had brought books, journal and watercolours. Despite the weather we went out every day, if only to walk to the beach after dinner. I did manage four long bike rides of between 50 and 60 miles. It was great to be cycling along the coast road again. I’d last been there 20 years before on a cycle-tour from Sligo to Galway. There were still breathtaking views of cliffs and mountains, expanses of purple rhododendron, wild orchids and wildlife (I saw a weasel crossing the road).

The local landmark is Downpatrick Head, which has a splendid sea-stack called Dun Briste that rises 130 feet above the waves. The story goes that St Patrick detached the sea-stack from the cliff to isolate a pagan chieftain who refused to convert to Christianity. This is a fairytale, as mediaeval documents record the land-bridge between the cliff and the sea-stack collapsing in a hurricane in 1389. But it hasn’t stopped a rather ugly grey statue of St P being erected on the cliff in recent years. We also went to Ceide Fields and Belderrig, where the remains of 5600 year old farm settlements can be seen. Seamus Heaney had visited in 1974 and wrote the poem ‘Belderg’ after this experience.

On one of the wet days we went to Inishcrone Seaweed Baths, which opened in 1912 and claim to be the original Irish seaweed baths. It is a great experience. The rooms are period tiled and there are two huge baths with great brass fitments that you can lie out in fully. In the corner of the room is a steam box. You sit in and close the door so that only your head is exposed, then press the lever inside and you are enveloped in steam. The idea is that you open your pores before getting into the bath with the seaweed. In warm water, the seaweed exudes a clear, silky substance akin to aloe vera and the bathwater turns light brown because of iodine from the seaweed. The seaweed bath is very soothing. At the end you stand under a shower which cleanses your skin with seawater. After a session there your aches and pains have melted away and you feel refreshed.

On another of my rides I went inland to Nephin, the great cone-shaped mountain that dominates the skyline of North Mayo, and did a loop around Lough Conn. On the way, I came across a Titanic memorial in the wee village of Lahardaun. Fourteen villagers had emigrated on RMS Titanic from Queenstown; only three had survived. Proportionally, it was the greatest loss of life suffered by any one place affected by this disaster.  

We’d gone in search of the traditional Irish summer and had found it. T read, wrote and painted. I rode, wrote poetry and read. I also managed to get some good photos; the evening light on our beach walks was often magnificent. On the day of our return it lashed all the way back to Co Down. But never mind. We arrived home refreshed and relaxed.  

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