Only an hour’s drive from Westport, Cong is a small village in south Mayo famous for its 12th century abbey, the lavish gold and silver processional Cross of Cong from 1123, the magnificent Ashford Castle, the village’s links with Oscar Wilde and, most popularly, its association with the John Wayne classic movie, The Quiet Man.
The Irish Gaelic name for Cong, Cúnga Fheichin, meaning Saint Feichin’s narrows, reveals much about the geography of the area. The village is built on a narrow isthmus of cavernous limestone between Lough Mask and Lough Corrib. No trace today remains of the monastery that Feichin founded in the 7th century. Cong Abbey, the ruins of which are in the centre of the village, was first built in the 12th century, burned in the early 13th and rebuilt between the 13th and 16th centuries.
From the abbey grounds, a footbridge spans the river, passing the monk’s fishing house pictured above, probably built in the 15th or 16th century – fish would have been an important part of the monks’ diet. This small house is built on a platform of stones over a small arch that creates a passage for water to flow under the floor. A trapdoor in the floor may have been used to allow a net to be cast into the river, and a fireplace kept the monks warm while they waited for their catch. It is said that a line was strung from the fishing house to the abbey kitchen, to alert the cooks when there were fish to be cooked.
This footbridge leads to the Cong Forest Nature Trail.
A walk along the dry canal rekindles memories of the great Irish famine of 1845-1848. The canal was a famine relief scheme that never quite fulfilled its promise in any sense of the word. At completion of the project, because of the limestone terrain, the water disappeared immediately into the ground like water gurgling down the plug hole of a bath.
The Market Cross on Cong’s main street is the first historical feature you encounter in the centre of the village. The decorated limestone cross is said to mark the completion of the Royal Abbey of Cong in the 12th century.