A walk for the weekend: Gráinne Mhaol Loop, Achill, Co Mayo
A historical walk on the sheltered side of the island covers hallowed ground
Start and finish: Patten’s Pub
If you’ve always wanted to write a novel but didn’t have any ideas, it might be a good idea to set off for Achill Island and do the Gráinne Mhaol Loop Walk. If your novel was to be historical fiction, 6.8km
later you could be back in Patten’s pub, biro in hand, jotting down the plot.
Here are the ingredients: a pirate queen, abandoned settlements, ancient burial grounds, a landlord who valued cows over people and a coffin route.
While the spectacular beaches and mountains on the northern side of Achill Island are a magnet for most visitors, the southern parts remain relatively unexplored.
Realising that not every visitor wants to cavort in the giant waves at Keel Beach or gasp their way from sea level up to nearly 800m, Michael Patten and Vivian Ruddy, a retired school teacher, developed a historical walk on the more benign, sheltered end of the island.
The walk starts at Patten’s pub, not far from Kildownet Castle, which belonged to the Pirate Queen Gráinne Mhaol, who by all accounts inherited a fleet of boats which did business as far away as Spain, owned thousands of head of cattle and sheep, commanded hundreds of men, and met Queen Elizabeth I of England on equal terms, refusing to bow before her.
Commanding the waters of the sound, the castle soon becomes visible as the track winds its way gently upwards, past the deserted villages of Ailt.
A diversion is always good when the track is rising steadily, so the sudden appearance of a group of small standing stones on a level windswept piece of ground is a great reason to pause. This was the leacht or burial ground of an ancient people, different from the cillíni, the graves of infants who died before being baptised, on other parts of the island.
The path now begins to head north and crosses long grass and heather, a possible cushy place for a sit down to contemplate the vast ocean below and the sea cliffs above Keem Bay, visible on a good day.
Depending on the season you might see some wild orchids, eat a few bilberries, or watch some flies being devoured by the carnivorous Butterworths or Sundews.
Onwards and upwards, the track eventually meets up with the Old Coffin Road. The would be historical novelist might now envisage Count Dracula’s coffin being galloped along on a dark winter’s night, but the real story is that bodies were being taken over the hills for burial at Kildownet Cemetery.
This was the nearest piece of hallowed ground back in the 19th century. What hardships our ancestors suffered for the sake of their religion.
Making a wide circle around the hillside, the track begins a gentle descent, passing above the ruins of ancient cottages, nestled perfectly into the landscape and a telling contrast to the hideous overblown house being built nearby, yet another black mark against Mayo County Council’s planning department.