Clew Bay, including Westport and its surrounds, has been a spiritual mecca since time immemorial. Christians, pagans, shamanic healers, hippies and ordinary people searching for something more – all have all been drawn here seeking contact with the spiritual. Whether you are one such traveller or you simply appreciate the history of spiritualism, you’ll find something to move your soul when you visit Westport. Here are just six spiritual sites to whet your appetite. There are lots more out there for you to discover.
Six spiritual sites to see while visiting Westport
1. Croagh Patrick
Yep, we’re going to start with the Big Kahuna. How could we not? Westport’s most-famous spiritual attraction is undoubtedly Croagh Patrick, or The Reek as it is known hereabouts. A hugely important site of pilgrimage, every year the holy mountain attracts thousands of pilgrims who climb its sacred stoney path to the summit, following in the footsteps of St Patrick.
But Croagh Patrick’s status as a spiritual site goes back even further than 441 AD, when the patron saint spent 40 days and nights fasting on its slopes. In fact, it has been a site of worship since 3000 BC, when pagans would go to the mountain – then called Cruach Aigle – to perform sacrificial rituals to their gods in a bid to get in their good books and ensure a good harvest.
2. Ballintubber Abbey
Not far from Westport lies a world-renowned example of religious architecture, a Christian spiritual centre with an awesome history: Ballintubber Abbey. Since it was built in 1216 by Cathal Crobhdearg O Connor, King of Connacht (also known as Cathal of the Wine Red Hand), this spectacular abbey has been through A LOT. It was ravaged by an inferno during the 13th century, Henry VIII ordered its suppression in 1524, it was assaulted by Cromwellian soldiers in 1653 and it suffered the brutal effects of the oppressive British Penal laws in the 18th century. Despite the extraordinary odds that have been stacked against it over the centuries,Ballintubber Abbey is the only church in the country founded by an Irish king that is still in regular use as a place of worship – and it’s a popular wedding venue too. There must be an angel watching over it.
Killadangan, just 5km west of Westport along the coast road, held special spiritual significance for the ancients. Located on a salt marsh, this megalithic complex includes an earthen enclosure, a fulacht fiadh (cooking site), a possible stone circle and, crucially, a stone row and three standing stones. The stone row is made up of four stones that increase in height as they point towards a small niche in the eastern shoulder of The Reek. The axis of the three standing stones also points to this spot on the mountain. Why? Well, from this view, the sun appears to settle in this niche every year on the Winter Solstice – a hugely important event in the pagan calendar, marking the symbolic rebirth of the life-giving sun god Dagda and longer days at last. Just like the axis of Stonehenge, the Killadangan axes were carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to this solstice sunset and reversal of darkness into light. Turns out the ancients loved a grand stretch in the evening as much as we do!
Looking for somewhere tranquil, where your spirit is soothed by the calming balm of serenity? Where the sole purpose is soul nourishment? Well look no further than the Clew Bay island of Inishraher. Wholly dedicated to peace, it has been renamed Maharishi Island of World Peace by the practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who frequent it. Basically, it’s 30 acres of pure spiritual tranquility. This magical island’s purpose-built retreat centre, or Peace Palace, attracts guests from all over the world, who go to experience peace through Transcendental Meditation, while also getting to gaze at stunning views and enjoy easy days of calm, rest and refreshment. What a perfect place to leave the worries of the world behind, reconnect with nature and find inner peace.
You’ll find the charming heritage village of Aughagower just 6km from Westport. While dominated by the impressive ruins of an elegant medieval abbey and an awe-inspiring round tower that was built between 973 and 1013, there’s more to find here too. The village lies mid-way along the spiritually significant Tochar Phádraig route, which runs from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick. St Patrick stopped off here in 441 on his way to Croagh Patrick, and his bed, ‘Leaba Phádraig’, is still visible – as is another monument, ‘Dabhach Phádraig’ (St Patrick’s Vat), a well where the saint is said to have baptised Aughagower’s first Christians. Be sure to search for the defiant-looking little Síle na Giġ (Sighle na gCíoch, Sheela-na-Gig) inserted into the well’s walls. She’s a little weather-beaten and hard to spot, but worth the effort. She’ll definitely raise your spirits.
6. The Boheh Stone
Roughly 6km south of Westport, just off the Leenane Road, rests the ancient Boheh Stone, one of the finest examples of neolithic rock art in the country. Its surface is carved with cup-and-ring marks and keyhole motifs – about 250 engravings in total – hewn into the rock by sun- worshiping ancients around 3,800 BC, proving their astronomical credentials yet again. Every year, on two dates only – April 18 and August 24 – the setting sun appears to roll down Croagh Patrick’s northern shoulder when viewed from the Boheh Stone. This ‘Rolling Sun’ phenomenon may have sparked awe or even fear in the ancient peoples, who then embellished the stone with the decorative markings to win favour with the gods. The stone is also known as St Patrick’s Chair. Whether the busy saint actually sat on the rock and watched the sun roll is anyone’s guess. But isn’t it a nice thought?