Wild Atlantic Way walk of unmatched elemental beauty

Walk for the Weekend: Downpatrick Head, Co Mayo - This wild headland is a place of raw sea energy and dizzying drops

This wild headland on the north Mayo coast is not what one would call a "nice" place. It carries to its visitor a palpable psychic burden, seemingly born out of memories and tales of violence and death and isolation and rebellion and saintly anger.

Its mythology too seems haunted by ogres and giants and druids and snakes and killer midges. And, as if to mirror an unsettling psychic aura, it presents an equally unsettling physical space, one of wild, raw sea energy, dizzying drops and chaotically shattered stone.

It is and always has been an intimidating place. Sea sounds funnelled up on a fine mist from an eerie subterranean world soon greet its visitor. These “voices” of the headland have, together with its abrupt cliff faces, probably created a spiritual space within which myths and stories of violence have come to populate its history and prehistory.

Even the name of the broken sea stack, Dún Briste, the star attraction of any visit, evokes violence and catastrophe. But for all that, this is a place of unmatched elemental beauty, and is a must-see attraction on our Wild Atlantic Way.


So, before my godson’s wedding on a November day in Ballina, we made a quick smash-and-grab visit there! Soon, we two wedding guests were passing through the stile/gate from the car park and entering an unremarkable uphill slope, with curious mounds and walls and standing stones breaking the skyline ahead of us.

The first of these enthralled us. A ring mound has been built around a great chasm, a deep enclosed rip in the centre of the headland, from whose depths a continuous sea roar and a fine mist greeted us, the latter shining in the weak November sun. The Hole of Old Fire, it is called – after the smoke-like mist or the fires of an ancient ogre.

St Patrick

And here, in a beautiful limestone shelter, almost like an altar or offering to the spirits of the “blowhole”, are inscribed the interpretations and meanings attributed to the place by local school children, geologists, philosophers and historians. These tell the stories of St Patrick and his travails with recalcitrant local ogres and other unsavoury characters, and of his role, before the science of geology, in creating the most dramatic sea stack in Ireland.

We stayed there awhile picking up from these stories the interpretations, enthusiasm and wonder the writers and storytellers felt for, and in, this place.

And then we pressed on to the main spectacle, the sheer cliffs above a churning sea and the free-standing sea stack of Dún Briste with its vertical geological signature stories of ancient seas, rivers and estuaries. Normally coated in summer sea pink, this wild elemental place is one to linger in, admire the coastal vista away out west out to the Stags of Broadhaven, and take shelter if needs be in the second World War look-out, whose door is conveniently unlocked!

Then it was back to wonderful Mount Falcon Hotel, a quick change and the different world of my godson’s wedding.

Map: OSI sheet 23

Start/finish: Car park 4km north Of Ballycastle, Co Mayo (signposted in Ballycastle)

Effort/suitability: easy, about 2kms, virtually no climbing

Caution: extreme care needed at all times (especially for children) near cliff and blow-hole edges