Following the Clew trail

 

The Clew Bay Archaeological Trail offers a new way to  discover the beauty of west Mayo, writes Eileen Battersby

On a clear day, and they do occur, the view from Croagh Patrick, seven miles south of the town of Westport, Co Mayo, offers a multitude of wonders, most particularly the beauty of Clew Bay with its array of rounded islands - which may or may not number 365 - dominated by Clare Island. Extending from Achill on the north side, into gracious Westport and on southwards to Louisburgh, Clew Bay is a world unto itself and includes fine beaches.

Six years ago I first walked up this most definitive of holy mountains with photographs rather than prayer in mind. As far as the eye can see lies a subtle blanket bog landscape. It lacks the savage magnificence of Connemara, yet it is lovely, graced by that special light that makes the west of Ireland so seductive.

Most particularly, Clew Bay and its hinterland plots the changing story of human settlement from the Stone Age to the ravages of the Famine and subsequent mass emigration. The layers of this narrative may be placed into context within a relatively small area. Archaeologist Christiaan Corlett has done exactly this in an outstanding study, Antiquities of West Mayo (Wordwell, 2001). A local committee in Westport has come together, intent on sharing this history, and the Clew Bay Archaeological Trail will be formally launched on September 1st. But between now and then, early visitors will be able to explore the trail for themselves.

Signposts are being erected and a guide book has been published. Edel Hackett, who edited the guide book, explains: "The idea is to encourage people to come out of the town and look at all there is to see." Westport, the most attractive town in Ireland, a planned Georgian settlement, certainly draws visitors to its many charms. The problem is, far too many arrive there and spend their break in the local shops and restaurants and Westport House without experiencing the archaeological heritage of west Mayo.

Devised as a way of promoting and sharing the heritage, the trail should succeed. After all, how could it fail? This is the landscape once terrorised by Granuaile, Grace O'Malley, the 16th-century pirate queen who remains associated with Clare Island and, some maintain, is buried there. The Clew Bay area is a place where, over the centuries, thousands, possibly millions of pilgrims have walked, staggered, prayed and celebrated. For all its variety, the trail is far from intimidating and most of the 21 archaeological and heritage sites included on the trail may be viewed in a leisurely day should you decide to reserve the following morning for a civilised trip to - as opposed to frenetic raid on - Clare Island to explore several sites including Clare Island Abbey with its fabulous wall paintings dominated by an Anglo- Norman knight on horseback.

Boheh Stone is an impressive introduction; this site is located about 8 kilometres inland, south of Westport off the Leenane Road. The large rock outcrop is almost completely decorated in cup- and ring-mark carvings dated to the same late Stone Age period as that of Boyne Valley monuments. The dominant circular motifs provide the logo for the Clew Bay trail sites. The stone was later Christianised in name and is still called St Patrick's Chair. In 1989, Gerry Bracken from Westport noted that from this stone on April 18th and August 24th the setting sun appears to roll down Croagh Patrick. The dates may have been selected to mark the sowing and harvesting seasons.

Carrownalurgan ring fort, situated on a ridge to the right of the Westport/Louisburg Road, has a panoramic view. At the site is a limestone slab, possibly an altar stone, dated 1723, and requesting the wayfarer to pray for the soul of Peter Browne.

Nearby is Oughavale (Aughaval) churchyard and the surviving church of what had been a pair on either side of the road. It has an early 12th-century flat-headed lintelled doorway which may have belonged to an earlier church on the same site.

At Gloonpatrick there's a large shallow hollow, believed to mark the spot where St Patrick prayed, called St Patrick's Knee, and tradition maintains that the stone never dries.

Though not included on the trail, Croagh Patrick is central to the story of this part of west Mayo. Across the road from the famous mountain is a wonderful site, the Annagh-Killadangan archaeological complex, lying in what is currently a salt marsh on the south-eastern shore of Clew Bay. The enclosure hosts a row of five standing stones, one of which has fallen. All of them appear to face Croagh Patrick as if they were penitents hoping for forgiveness.

Deliberation marks the site. It is likely that the stones are aligned for the Winter Solstice. On December 21st each year, the setting sun appears to sink into a niche on the eastern shoulder of the mountain. At this point the sun is directly in line with the row of stones. Then the beam departs; as with Newgrange, science and nature have united in creating a miracle.

Not far from this magical site, is another: Murrisk Abbey. Founded about 1456 by the Augustinian friars on land granted by Hugh O'Malley, it soon became popular for pilgrims to begin their ritual here. This L-shaped church, including sacristy and chapter room, possesses a beautiful east window which immediately dispels the odd impression created on approach by the remains of a battlement-like fringe on the south wall. A number of carved human heads survive. A belfry tower was added after the initial building work, but little of it remains. This is a wonderful site, immensely dignified and populated by ghosts. John Behan's bronze coffin ship, the National Famine Monument, shares the site which is overlooked by Croagh Patrick.

By this stage, anyone following the trail will be happily drawn into a heritage landscape of legend, story and rich history. Kilgeever Abbey is another fine church site which includes a pilgrimage station. Srahwee wedge tomb is one of the best preserved examples of one of these early Bronze Age field monuments. The site overlooks a small lake and an ancient forest. Far more recent are two 19th-century features: the Clapperbridge at Bunlahinch, about 7 kilometres south west of Louisburg, which is believed to have built by a reforming religious colony, while the lime kiln at Moneen testifies to methods once used by Irish farmers in the making of fertiliser.

Decorated stones, field monuments, the career of a pirate queen, church sites and a kindly holy mountain, Clew Bay will keep trail-followers intrigued - and busy.

The Clew Bay Archaeological Trail guide book costs €9.95. Inquiries to Edel Hackett, 087-2935207.