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Seven of the Coolest, Strangest and Most Captivating Things in the Irish County of Mayo

Seven of the Coolest, Strangest and Most Captivating Things in the Irish County of Mayo

Stuart Marley |

County Mayo, on the Atlantic north-west coast of Ireland, is one of the Emerald Isle’s largest counties. It’s also home to a wide range of strange and wonderful things. Here are seven of the most surprising objects, locations and traditions you’ll find in Mayo.

1. Relics of the Stone Age at Céide Fields

Beneath the untamed beauty of Mayo's northern boglands lies a hidden treasure trove of ancient wonder. This breath-taking landscape is a time capsule stretching back more than 5,000 years, making it one of the ultimate Stone Age hotspots on earth.

Imagine, for a moment, wandering through fields of rugged stone walls, buffeted by the wind and weather of the Atlantic, and tracing the footsteps of ancestors who worked this land so long ago. It’s like stepping into the pages of the oldest history book you've ever seen.

At Céide Fields — translated from the Gaelic “Achaidh Chéide”, which means “flat topped hill fields” — megalithic tombs are scattered about like ancient breadcrumbs.

Céide Fields is one of the most extensive Neolithic sites in the world, and its five millennia of history give it a similar timeframe to Egypt’s great pyramids — although there’s no doubt that the paths to the remote coast of Mayo are much less worn than those in Giza.

Indeed, at first glance the modern day visitor center at Céide Fields might resemble those ancient pyramids. This award-winning center is ideally positioned to soak up the jaw-dropping scenery of the waters and the wild.

The visitor center at Céide Fields. Image via Heritage Ireland / OPW

2. The Glorious Sea Stack of Dún Briste

Dún Briste, or the "Broken Fort" in the Irish language, was once connected to the mainland but it’s now a towering sea stack reaching a staggering 45 meters — 150 feet! — into the sky from the Atlantic Ocean below.

Legend has it that in the late 14th century, during a particularly abrasive Atlantic storm, the arch leading the rock to the mainland plunged to the ocean floor, giving Dún Briste its present day solitary splendor.

The rock is a haven for a wide variety of seabirds, including puffins, kittiwakes, gannets and several species of gull.

While no human can safely get there these days, the viewpoints on the mainland are also a haven for a different type of species: photographers, serious professionals and aspiring hobbyists alike. Witness, for example, Peter Krocka’s phenomenal composition at this link.

Dun Briste Sea Stack. Image via

3. Barefoot Hikers on The Reek

Ireland’s Holy Mountain, Croagh Patrick, is in County Mayo, just a couple of miles outside the popular destination town of Westport.

With its silver quartzite peak Croagh Patrick, known as The Reek in local parlance, lends a gorgeous backdrop for Westport weekenders and locals alike.

There’s many a nearby resident who walks the Reek every week, its four-hour round-trip — and that’s for the fit folk! — providing a stiff “constitutional” that could keep all sorts of ailments at bay. 

At the summit is a small chapel dedicated to St Patrick, who is believed to have spent 40 days fasting on the mountain during his lifetime, and on the last Sunday of July every year, thousands of walkers, hikers and pilgrims gather for the ascent to test their fitness and offer up a prayer for themselves, their loved ones and whatever else is on their minds.

Many of the hardiest or most devout pilgrims and hillwalkers choose to make the trip barefoot.

Given that the final stretch before the summit is across loose and often sharp quartzite rock, for anyone without footwear this particular hike will be more meaningful, more memorable, more painful, or all three combined!

The crowds turn out en masse for Reek Sunday. Image via

4. The Castle of the Pirate Queen

Grace, or Gráinne, O'Malley is arguably the most famous and the most fierce Irishwoman in history.

The “Pirate Queen” was chieftain of the O'Malley clan who, it is said, started her apprenticeship in seafaring, marauding and general pirate mayhem at the age of just 11. 

Her father had denied her permission to join him on his, er, travels, so she took matters into her own hands, dressing up as a boy to pass inspection and stow herself on board.

These capers with her appearance gave Gráinne the nickname which would last forever more: “Gráinne Mhaol”, or “Bald Grace”, sometimes shortened to Granuaile. 

After Grainne’s many years of seafaring and voyaging were done — a career which included a diplomatic meeting with Queen Elizabeth I at Greenwich Castle, a summit of two of the world’s most powerful women — she returned to see out her days at Carrickahowley Castle.

Often anglicized as Rockfleet Castle, this “tower house” building, standing four storeys tall and over 18 meters — or 50 feet — in height, sits near the small town of Newport.

After her death Granuaile’s skull was preserved and kept on display for curious visitors, apparently adorned with colorful ribbons!

Legend has it that her body was buried at the Cistercian Abbey of St Brigid on nearby Clare Island, but no one really knows for sure, and there are even stories that her remains were raided in the 19th century by some enterprising Scottish folk who had taken to using ground-down bones as a land fertilizer.

5. John Lennon’s Hippie Island

Croagh Patrick overlooks Clew Bay, where it is said there is an island for every day of the year.

One of those islands is Dorinish or Dornish — in the Irish language, Deoirinis, which might translate as “island of tears”.

In the 1970s, Dornish achieved a level of international acclaim and attention hitherto unknown among the many islands around Ireland.

At the height of The Beatles popularity in 1967, Lennon scooped up this uninhabited little paradise for just £1,550, seemingly with a view to using it as a haven of peace and serenity away from the madness of Beatlemania.

He welcomed several friends to the island, including Sid Rawle, an English activist and organizer of so-called “free festivals”, who was styled by the British tabloids as “The King of the Hippies”, and for a couple of years Dornish became home to a self-sustaining hippie commune known as “the Diggers.” 

Rawle himself is said to have later called Dornish both heaven and hell, and disaster struck in 1972 when a fire tore through the island's supply tent. Later, the commune having dissipated and following Lennon’s tragic murder, his widow Yoko Ono sold the island for £30,000 and donated the proceeds to an Irish orphanage. 

It’s known that Lennon briefly visited the island at least twice, and this whole episode is the subject of a reimagined fictional history by the award-winning Irish writer Kevin Barry in his 2015 novel Beatlebone, when a struggling Lennon travels to Dornish for an episode of screaming, or “primal scream therapy”, a slightly controversial and possibly useless form of psychological intervention developed by the psychologist Arthur Janov in the 1960s.

The islands of Clew Bay, as seen from Croagh Patrick. Image: Wikimedia Commons

6. The Lost Valley’s Echoes of the Irish Famine

Designated as an “Area of Special Scenic Importance” and “Special Area of Conservation” under the European Habitats Directive, the Lost Valley of Uggool just outside the town of Louisburgh is a stark reminder of one of the darkest episodes of Ireland’s history.

The name, Uggool, is derived from the Gaelic term “Ubh Iolair” which translates as Eagle’s Egg.

The Lost Valley of Uggool is a poignant remnant of a time when Irish families toiled the land, their laughter, work and footsteps now no more than whispers echoing in the Atlantic wind.

The site bears witness to the devastating impact of the Great Famine, which began in the 1840s and lasted for several years, resulting directly in the starvation and death of an estimated 1 million Irish people and the forced emigration of 1 million more.

Sitting under the highest mountain in the west of Ireland, Mweelrea — meaning “the Bald King” — the Lost Valley is a place where an eerie silence remains among the ruined houses and forlorn potato ridges of some of those who battled the great hunger and lost.

7. A Ghost Turnip To Put the Shivers Down Your Spine

As we saw in our history of Halloween article, the Halloween turnip tradition had earthier roots back in old Ireland.

Irish emigrants who left in Famine times brought with them the tradition of carving vegetables and lighting them with candles for ritual celebrations.

Turnips, much more readily available to Irish people than the relatively exotic pumpkin, were the vegetable of choice, and one of the best examples can be seen at one of Ireland’s true hidden gems, the Museum of Country Life near Mayo’s largest town of Castlebar, which offers a never-ending supply of wonderful insights and memories of life in the Irish countryside down the centuries.

While the turnip on display at the museum is a plaster-cast model recreated and painted by artist Eileen Barnes, that doesn’t make it any less spooky to behold.

The model is based on a real turnip lantern which was donated to the National Museum of Ireland by a schoolteacher in County Donegal in the 1940s.

Remnants of an old Irish Halloween. Image via the Museum of Country Life

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