In sight of Croagh Patrick
Wandering western Ireland
First thing I checked each morning, out the upstairs window facing west: Can we see Croagh Patrick? Is its elegant triangle on the horizon? Do shrubs point their shadows across the fields in its direction? Or is it obscured by the weather?
It’s Ireland, mid-September.
Croagh Patrick is Ireland’s holiest mountain. Its nickname is “The Reek,” coming from the Irish Cruach Phádraig, meaning Patrick’s stack. Saint Patrick fasted there for 40 days in 441 AD; pre-Christian artifacts show activity centuries before, when it was called Cruachán Aigle or high mount. At 2500 feet, it’s not the tallest mountain, even in County Mayo, but each year a million pilgrims come to climb partway or to the top. On the last Sunday in July, “Reek Sunday,” pilgrims number over 25,000.
We hear it’s a hard-scrabble climb, steep and then steeper, over rocks both round and flat that slip and cut. Some pilgrims climb barefoot. Helicopters come as needed, should someone need to be carried down. Thanks to our sad knees and the mountain’s reputation, my husband Jake and I have walked up only to the first station. But staying in a house within sight of it, we looked for it each morning to gauge the coming day.
The house was in Moyhastin, a tiny community in County Mayo (Mhaigh-Eo), just outside the town of Westport. It’s an airbnb, called an EcoHouse and built as the dream house of a woman who only visits, now that she’s moved to Wales to be with children. The hot water is solar-assisted; there are energy savers here and there. It’s a cozy house with warm wooden trim and folksy paneled cabinets, dimly lit at night, reminding folks they should be going to bed.
The house has no wi-fi, which was a surprise for us since we usually filter our airbnbs for wi-fi. It comes instead with Tasks of Sorting. According to various books of instructions and posted labels on the walls, we sorted our waste into bins for:
- recycles (plastic, glass, tin, and glossy paper, all of it clean and dry);
- compost (that’s raw vegetables, never citrus because the acid kills the helpful bacteria);
- paper and cardboard (no glossy paper, thank you, it won’t compost);
- a specific list of leftover cooked food for the chickens: vegetables, bread, cheese, eggs, egg shells, banana peels, apple cores, pates and spreads, yogurt and cream and take-away foods (I guess the chickens don’t eat citrus);
- bits of leftover meat and fish (for cats and dogs);
- landfill (citrus goes here).
Confused? I had to read the instructions again and again to get it right. I always double-checked when adding egg shells to the chicken food bucket — do chickens really eat egg shells? But our host Trish said the calcium does them good. When we carried our bucket up the hill to the chickens, they came running. The hens were eager, the roosters polite.
Neighbor Trish, whose husband built the house, takes care of it. On our first morning, she brought us fresh-picked blueberries and seven eggs (one courtesy of a duck). In the evening she returned for a glass of wine and to answer questions about the Tasks of Sorting, which are a bit of trouble but exactly what we should all be doing. She’s a lovely woman: tall and slender, in her late forties perhaps, with long hair the color of my own before it grayed — called “dishwater brown” when I was growing up. Trish is way lovelier than dishwater and excellent for conversation, filling in for us the story of the house, as well as news of her third son, who plays for County Mayo’s Gaelic football team. They often play to the finals but never win.
I hesitate in saying Trish is lovely, it being perhaps a vague and over-used word. But it has a lovely ring in Ireland, despite its frequent use. I passed behind a man and woman, both middle-aged, at the sliced ham counter in the SuperVal and overheard their conversation.
“And how are you keeping yourself now, John?” she said after expressing surprise to meet him there.
John said, “Lovely, Mary, everything’s lovely. And how be ye?”
“Oh lovely, John, we’re keeping well.”
It’s spoken with the warmth and sincerity of a welcoming embrace. The kind we felt two years ago when Jake met Father Charlie, his second-cousin-once-removed whom he hadn’t even known he had. Father Charlie brought us home to all his family like long-lost kin. Seeing Father Charlie this time too, he’d ask us our plans and invariably would reply, “Oh lovely!”
No one looked askance when I threw in my own “oh, lovely!” here and there, or even a “brilliant!” or two, leaving me with the feeling of success in a foreign language.
Our house was out a lovely skinny road, a tiny portion along the way to Toormakeady if you go the long way there. The road is sometimes wide enough for two cars to cross, but long sections of it narrow down to a single lane. Locals drive it fast, practiced as they are at deciding who goes first and who should wait. A little way out, at the dead end sign right after the house with the long stone wall and a shed, we turned left into a lane with two ruts and a high grassy center. Bushes on the left cleaned my side of the car as we passed.
The house overlooks fields dotted with rocks that could be sheep if they moved together and apart throughout the day. Ours didn’t; they were rocks. Off in the distance were patches of rockless green — fertile fields and lawns.
Just before our final turn down the hill to the house, most afternoons we passed a neighbor working on a patch of ground beside the lane. We heard from Trish that he’s a Welshman who bought land from the woman who owned our house. He’s a medley in brown — brown hair pulled back to a shoulder-length tail, a ragged beard, brown v-necked shirt, brown jacket, loose-cut pants, and boots — and travels with two companions, a black-and-white sheep dog and a big, gray-faced sheep. Trish says the sheep roamed away from where it belonged, and no one came to find it, so the Welshman took it in, sick and injured. When an owner finally turned up and discovered the situation, he allowed the sheep to stay. The Welshman takes the sheep with him in the car when he goes out. As I walk by, the dog barks a greeting and then retreats; the sheep stands firm, moving only when it’s called.
The Welshman barely lifted his head when we drove by, but if I was walking, he’d nod. One day, I asked him what he was up to. He said the spot used to be a dumping place, and he’s trying to clean it up.
“I’ve taken away everything that was dumped here and put all the rocks over there,” he said, gesturing toward two elongated piles of rock, each 12 feet long and 3 feet high. “Except, yesterday I found a car. I don’t know what I’ll do with it.”
Following his gesture to the edge of the patch he’d raked clean, I could see a carseat half-submerged. On second glance I noticed it was upside down. He’d carefully cleared the dirt to reveal a seat of dirty-green vinyl complete with seat belt for the upside-down driver. There was plenty more digging ahead, while contemplating what to do.
It appeared the Welshman also hadn’t decided what to do with two large rocks he’d unearthed. One was huge, three feet in all directions and sitting three feet down in the center of a smooth-walled well big enough for a man to walk around inside. A smaller rock was in its own well the day we first arrived; within a day, it had moved to the surface, and its well was gone without a trace. Next day, it was sitting up on several logs, and each day after, it moved a foot or two. By the time we left it hadn’t reached a destination. Like many episodes of travel, it’s a story without an end.
One day as we drove out, instead of turning right toward town, we turned left and took the long way to Toormakeady, winding through pastures filled with sheep that looked like rocks. Except they moved. For 20 kilometers of curves and hills, it’s mostly a single lane. Happily, we didn’t meet anyone coming from the opposite direction; twice we pulled into a driveway to let a speedy driver pass. Out there, it’s sheep and a rare farmhouse, without much coming and going.
Tourmakeady’s a tiny Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) village of about 1,000 people. Signage all in Gaelic. No one was out and about. There was one English sign pointing to a ruin, so we walked out to see it, and then we drove the shorter way home — two paved lanes with a center-line, sometimes even a shoulder.
One morning when Croagh Patrick was in the clear, with blue sky all around, we headed south to catch a ferry from Cleggan to Inishbofin, a tiny island Trish pointed us toward. The crossing was chilly but dry. On the far end, we rented two of three electric bikes on the island and took the only road, looping up the hill, around to another bay, and back down to the buildings clustered by the ferry.
The sun stayed with us through the day. We were home in time to see it set to the right of Croagh Patrick and then sleep solidly under the orange of the harvest moon. As the sun came up next day, the moon was over the mountain.
Another sunny day we headed for Sligo, a county and town north of Mayo which claims W. B. Yeats as its own. Born in Dublin, Yeats spent his childhood summers there, returning in his poems. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree…) is in the middle of Lough Gill, a lake in Sligo County. And, following wishes he expressed in “Under Ben Bulben,” Yeats is buried near the town, in Drumcliffe churchyard, in the shadow of the mountain of that name. The town has a Yeats museum, poems and portraits of Yeats on buildings, and a statue of Yeats by the river in the center of town.
It also has oysters, served in the W. B. Coffee shop just behind the statue of Yeats. Oysters aren’t new to Sligo, but they’ve been making a comeback. The Gaelic word for Sligo is Sligeach, meaning “Shelly River,” referring to an abundance of shells to be found along the banks of the Garavogue River that runs through town. Oysters were harvested for generations before the stocks became depleted in the early 20th century. Of late, they raise Pacific oysters, calling them Wild Atlantics, now that the oysters have made themselves at home.
We were served ours by Emma, a university student from Athlone interning in Sligo. She was a welcoming young woman, with a round face, short blond hair, a full body, and a fuller smile. She talked with us while preparing our oysters. She told us she’s been doing everything there at W. B. Coffee — coffee, food, oysters. She’s even worked in the oyster beds in nearby Strandhill.
“Is it beautiful out at Strandhill?” said Jake, always quick to engage.
“Oh, savage!” she said, keeping a watchful eye for customers in the front of the shop. “Savage! It’s a savage place out there. I loved it. If you’re in the community, people really take care of you.”
“You look to be having fun.”
“I have the craic in here, that’s what I have,” she said, starting a video about oystering for us and then talking over it. “I’m having great craic.” That’s craic, pronounced ‘crack,’ meaning fun.
She told us about school in Athlone and Sean’s Bar, her favorite in Athlone and Ireland’s oldest.
“Shall we go while we’re cruising the Shannon River?”
“Should you go?” she said, setting the oysters at our table. “What time are you leavin’?”
The oysters were perfectly shucked, with not a morsel stuck to the shell. They came with three different choices: sliced lemons, a mix of wine vinegar and onion, or a bright green sauce made from local seaweed. Sliding the oysters onto our tongues, we both liked the seaweed sauce best. Its salty tang surrounded the smooth chill of oyster with an extra taste of the sea.
As we ate our oysters, Emma’s talk turned to football. Gaelic football and the curse on County Mayo.
“Oh, there’s a curse, you know. It’s been on ’em for years,” she said, pausing in her clean-up. “As the story goes, there was a time long, long ago when County Mayo won the All-Ireland finals, but, you know, as they were driving home from Dublin, through Swinford I think, there was a funeral, but they were celebratin’ and partyin.’ Their truck drove right past without stoppin’ to pay their respects. They should have stopped. So a witch put a curse on Mayo — that they’d never win again until everyone on that team had died.”
Beginning to wipe the counter again, she said, “County Mayo hasn’t won the finals since. They make the finals every year, but have never gone all the way. Now only two of the original teammates are still alive.”
Turns out it’s common knowledge, the curse, with various iterations. It happened in Foxford, not Swinford. It was 1951. Or maybe it’s nonsense and didn’t happen at all. Maybe the priest at the funeral or the widow made it up. There’s only one survivor left — a Mr. Paddy Prendergast from County Kerry. The second-to-last survivor called the story nonsense. He’d moved to L.A. but always kept in touch with Mr. Prendergast. He died last year.
Meanwhile, there’s no evidence that Mayo isn’t cursed, since they haven’t won the All-Ireland finals since 1951, despite playing in the finals nine times since 1989. Most recently, when they lost in 2016, they had kicked two goals through their own goalposts.
Emma’s accent and energy were ringing in our ears as we headed off toward Carrowmore, three kilometers west of Sligo. It’s a megalithic cemetery on a plateau between three mountains. The furthest mountain to the west and by the sea is thought of as the warrior queen; the nearest to Sligo is the princess; and a row of six peaks to the south is called the witch. Across the expanse of the plateau, there are various circles of stones, arranged in a gigantic circle around one imposing, flat-topped pile of rounded rocks. This central mound has a walkway into its core, where a huge flat stone rests on top of several others, with a triangular rock at the front. Each Halloween, the sun rises first in the lowest point between the two northernmost peaks of the witch, and its light shines straight into the flat-topped mound at the center— not unlike megalithic monuments we saw in Malta, built in the fourth millennium B.C.
A guide, who’d just finished a tour and grabbed a cup of coffee, gave us a quick overview so we’d know what we were seeing as we walked the plateau. Like Malta’s, the stone formations were indeed built more than 6,000 years ago…
“…by a people with black skin and blue eyes who came from Africa,” he said, setting his coffee down and letting it go cold as he got going with his talk. “They were built as cairns on the spiritual grounds of the hunter-gatherers already here — a common practice when taking over — to usurp the spiritual places of the people already there.”
After he talked, we walked the fields from one strange formation of rocks to the next. We didn’t reach them all; one we saw was labelled #58. But we gazed over horses and farmhouses toward stones that were out of range or nestled next to someone’s home. And we looked beyond— to the warrior queen, the princess, and the witch.
We walk. We look. We eat. We talk with folks we meet. We banter back and forth.
One day Croagh Patrick was lost in the clouds. It rained. The wind blew. We stayed home and built a fire in the wood stove. And we agreed that there in Moyhastin, it felt like we really were in Ireland, without going anywhere at all. Like Croagh Patrick, Ireland was out there, waiting to show us more.