North Mayo is full of history, heritage, natural beauty and culture. Head due north from Westport and discover another world of jaw-dropping scenery, as well as a few surprises. Like a stunning state-of-the-art museum of contemporary art in a small village on the edge of the Mayo Gaeltacht.
Ballycastle is just over an hour’s drive from Westport. Nestled between Downpatrick Head and the Céide Fields, this lovely village has been attracting visual artists for decades. These artists have been drawn not only by the inspirational, history-soaked, wild and rugged landscape but also by the thriving Ballinglen Arts Foundation at its heart.
Now the foundation has added another gemstone. Opened in July 2020, the Ballinglen Museum of Contemporary Art is a beautiful two-storey gallery that showcases artwork from the Ballinglen Permanent Collection – a growing contemporary-art collection that is already one of the largest in the country.
Just five miles west of Ballycastle lies the oldest known Stone Age field system in the world. Prepare for your mind to be boggled as you contemplate field systems, dwelling areas and megalithic tombs that go back almost 6,000 years.
The visitor centre at the access point to the Céide Fields is a sight to behold in and of itself. Winner of Ireland’s prestigious Gold Medal for architecture, it rises regally from the earth like a crystal emerging from an ancient mound. A magnificent 4,300-year-old Scots Pine tree that was preserved in local bogland stands at its heart.
A viewing platform on the edge of the 110-metre-high cliff in front of the centre will help you make the most of the breathtaking scenery. If you’re lucky you might also see peregrine falcons, a pair of which have nested on the sheer cliff face.
Majestic and awesome, stunning Downpatrick Head is only over an hour’s spin from Westport or ten minutes from Ballycastle. Here, the headland falls away into the Atlantic to create sheer vertical cliffs that soar 40 metres above the waves. As if that weren’t dramatic enough, just 50 metres out to sea lies Dún Briste, a spectacular sea stack that rises 5 metres higher than the cliffs.
And then, just when you think you can’t take any more mind-blowing photos, you spot the massive blowhole close-by. When the Atlantic gales are howling, seawater is blasted up through it, creating an incredible natural spectacle.
Belleek Forest Park
If the cliffs give you vertigo, you could always head inland to walk the beautiful Belleek Forest Park on the northern outskirts of Ballina.
Hugging the banks of the River Moy, the forest and is crisscrossed by paths and nature trails, peppered with historical features and monuments. Find Sir Arthur Francis Knox-Gore’s ‘fairytale castle’ (now a hotel) at the heart of this sylvan wonderland, and his extraordinary mausoleum in the woods, where he is buried with his beloved horse.
Native red squirrels were reintroduced here in 2007, and these lovable little acrobats can be seen scampering through the woodland. The woodland is also home to hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, pine martens and stoats – and along the riverbank, otters and seals often make an appearance.
The picturesque fishing village of Killala lies just seven miles northwest of Ballina. The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive is a round tower dominating the skyline. Dating to the 12th century, it is one of the finest round towers in Mayo.
There is also a Church of Ireland cathedral, which was built in 1670 on top of the remains of a ruined Catholic cathedral that had stood on the same site. The adjoining graveyard has a 9th-century souterrain with numerous chambers. So spooky.
Killala is also famous as the landing point for General Humbert and his French troops in the ill-fated 1798 Rebellion.
After wandering around the lovely village, soaking in all the amazing history, you might feel like a soak yourself. Killala’s Ross beach – a beautiful Blue Flag beach with a long, soft, sandy strand and crystal clear water – is just the trick.