Grab paper and pencil. Write this down. Take the N59 (the Westport/Clifden Road) out of Westport toward Leenaun and Clifden. Several kilometers outside of town make a right turn to Drummin (the L1824). This is the start of one of the most spectacular inland drives in Ireland. From the haunting passage through Sheeffry Hills to the stark and brutal beauty of Doolough from the lush and verdant Delphi Valley toward Ireland’s only fjord, Killary Harbour, it’s sure to become one of your most memorable journeys.
A mix of both blue sky and brooding cloud are needed to sense the majesty and the menace of these ancient hills, streams and lakes. The first part of the drive moves through bucolic settings that combine modest country homes and small farms. But before long, the rise begins toward the Sheeffry hills. Once over the Erriff River, the road’s precipitous climb will bring you to a panoramic view back toward the N59. By all that’s good and holy, make sure you stop and take some pictures.
Continue along and come to Tawnyard lough. Get out of the car and survey the wild grasses and torture trees, and walk to the edge of the cliff for the breathtaking scene of the lake below you. There are some picnic tables there; take out that hamper you got in Westport and have a bit of snack.
Now that you’ve eaten and enjoyed the sun of a beautiful Irish midday, you’re praying for clouds to roll in for our ride through the Sheeffry Valley. On our last visit to the area, the weather was by no means fair; we had very few clear and distant vistas. These fortunate atmospherics helped us in understanding the powerful pull imbuing the land with mystery and magic. High cliffs and mountains emerge from heavy mists, bubbling waterfalls spring from stone, areas of light and dark chase away as the sun plays behind the clouds. Several areas will remind you of ancient Japanese rice paper drawings of remote mountain settings, infinite shades of grey. Others are a riot of every possible shade of green.
Sheeffry is derive from the Irish Cnoic Shiofra, literally translated as Hills of the Wraith. The word wraith had me pulling out my dictionary for a precise definition – “an apparition of a living person that appears as a portent just before that person’s death.” It didn’t take much imagination to understand why ancient peoples might have seen such visions in these haunting hills.
You’ll find a mix of desolate terrain, the occasional house, a lovely fast-running river, and an abundance of sheep as you continue your journey toward Doolough – the “black lake.”
Doolough, a world famous fishing destination, is the scene of one of the most callous and heartbreaking tragedies of An Gorta Mor - the Great Hunger. In the year 1849, toward the end of the period of the most significant Irish Potato Famine, English officials responsible for distributing aid to the starving people of southwest Co. Mayo had posted that they would be in the town of Louisburgh to determine if local residents had continued need for relief in the form of food rations. The officials, wanting to ensure their own comfort, decided instead to travel to the opulent accommodations of Delphi Lodge, a renowned hunting/fishing lodge twelve miles south of Louisburgh. They left instructions that anyone who wanted to continue to qualify for relief needed to appear at the lodge at 7 a.m. the next morning.
A few hundred set out on the journey in harsh and punishing weather and walked through the night in the hope of receiving this meager but critical assistance. And by 1849 few individuals had the strength and stamina to make the journey without great peril. As one might expect, the journey was too much for many people and a number of bodies were found on the banks of Doolough.
From a letter to the Editor of the Mayo Constitution dated 10 April 1849 – “the relieving officer, a person of the name of Carroll, ordered the poor creatures forthwith to follow him to Delphi Lodge … and in obedience to this order hundreds of these unfortunate living skeletons – men, women, and children – might have been seen struggling through the mountain passes and roads for the appointed place. The inspection took place in the morning, and I have been told that nothing could equal the horrible appearance of those truly unfortunate creatures, some of them without a morsel to eat, and others exhausted from fatigue, having traveled upwards of sixteen miles to attend the inspection.”
Th writer implored the editor for some effort toward justice. “Now, Sir, I call upon you, as the sincere friend of the poor … to demand a searching inquiry into this melancholy affair, and prevent, if possible so many of the poor being sacrificed.”
As you approach Doolough, make sure to turn right on the road which runs along the shore. Rive past the lake and up the hill a bit to pay your respects at the rough-hewn stone cross memorializing these wretched souls. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa visited the lake in 1994, and there are annual walks from Louisburgh to Delphi in memory of the people who died.
Have a moment of silence and say your prayers of respect and forgiveness. You’ll take your best pictures from this spot, and then you’ll head down the hill and straight toward Delphi.
In our next post, we’ll take you through Delphi, around to Leenaun and back home to Westport.