Mayo is a land of the ancients, its history stretching back millennia to a time when superstition, magic, dark arts and ritual ruled.
The dead (at least the important dead) were given splendid tombs that took immense efforts to construct, while the living were preoccupied with keeping on the right side of their pagan gods and surviving divine wrath. Evidence of these ancient people is scattered everywhere around Mayo, offering us modern humans a chance to connect with our forebears and wonder at their resilience and workmanship.
Here are six ancient sites that lie close to Westport – visit them and feel the breath of the past on your neck, and the spirit of the ancients in your soul…
1.Srahwee Wedge Tomb
Around 10km south of Louisburgh, amid stunning scenery, lies one of the best-preserved examples of a wedge tomb in the country. The magnificently constructed megalithic Srahwee Wedge Tomb is comprised of a large flat stone, or roof slab, that covers a double-walled tomb chamber. A door stone covers the tomb entrance, which faces west. Traces of a cairn can also be detected around the monument.
To find this walled wonder drive through Louisburg towards Killeen. At Killeen crossroads take a left; after around 200 yards the roads bends sharply to the left – about two miles down this road you will come to a fork in the road, and the tomb is situated between the fork.
2. Aillemore court tomb
Lying 8km west-southwest of Louisburgh (4km west-southwest of the Srahwee Wedge Tomb) near the crest of a ridge overlooking the valley of the Bunsheenshough river, is an almost-intact court tomb in the rural townland of Aillemore.
The tomb’s huge roof-slabs – once supported by massive steeply pitched, tightly packed slabs – have been pulled to one side, while the forecourt at the entrance has been hidden in displaced cairn material. The tomb itself is made up of a two-chambered gallery and a small, almost hidden subsidiary chamber behind. The surrounding cairn rises to the top of the gallery stones (about 1.5 metres high) and is over 16 metres long by 14 metres wide.
3. Nymphsfield Stone Circles
Move over Stonehenge. Here in Mayo, we have a group of four stone circles capable of knocking the socks off any ancient-history buff.
Less than an hour’s drive from Westport, the Nymphsfield Stone Circles stand on the former grounds of an estate known as Nymphsfield or Glebe – about 1.5km north of the entrance to Ashford Castle in Cong, and signposted from the road.
Access to the first circle is a mere hop over a stile from the road, and a short walk across a field. Surrounded by a beech tree, this 14-meter wide circle is in good condition, with 23 of its weathered limestone slabs still in place, though several are broken off at ground level.
In the next field, on the other side of a stone wall, stands the largest circle – or what remains of it (about one third of the original). Hop over another wall to the north, and discover the enchanting smallest circle. Largely intact, though quite overgrown, it is guarded by hawthorn trees – those faerie trees so deeply embedded in Irish mythology.
The fourth circle, the most complete of the four, is the least obvious, as it stands in back garden of a nearby house.
4. Boheh (or Bohea)
Just over 6 kilometres south of Westport, off the Leenane Road, lies the ancient Boheh Stone, one of the finest examples of neolithic rock art in Ireland.
The surface of this stone is decorated with many carved ‘cup and ring’ marks, as well as ‘keyhole’ motifs – about 250 engravings in total – dating from as early as 3,800 BC.
People visit this National Monument all year round to marvel at the work of ancient hands. However, on two dates in particular, these visits take on special significance: When viewed from the Boheh Stone, the setting sun appears to roll down Croagh Patrick’s northern shoulder on April 18 and August 24. This ‘Rolling Sun’ phenomenon may sparked awe or even fear in the ancient inhabitants, who may have embellished the stone with its decorative marks in an effort to appease the gods.
There’s an embarrassment of ancient riches to be discovered at Killadangan, just 5km west of Westport, along the coast road (2km before the village of Murrisk). Located on a salt marsh, the megalithic complex at Killadangan includes an earthen enclosure, a stone row, three standing stones, a possible stone circle and a fulacht fiadh, or cooking site.
The stone row is made up of four stones aligned NNE-SSW, increasing in height north to south, culminating in a 1.2-metre-high stone. Located in the western quadrant of the earthen enclosure, the line of stones points to a small niche in the eastern shoulder of Croagh Patrick where the sun appears to set every year on the Winter Solstice. The axes of the standing stones also point to this special niche.
Between Killadangan and Boheh, the ancients’ fascination with the sun and its behaviour around Croagh Patrick (known then as Cruagh Aigle) is plain to see.
6. Achill Portal Tomb
Portal tombs are mainly found in the northern half of the country, and a fine example can be found on Achill Island. Named ‘Giant’s Grave’ on both historic and OSI maps, it lies on the lower, southern slope of the island’s second-highest peak, Slievemore, overlooking Keel Lough to the south.
The tomb boasts a truly impressive capstone measuring almost 3 metres long, over 2 metres wide and over a third of a metre deep. It’s easy to see how the tomb got its modern moniker – only a giant’s family would be able to move such a weight! The cap has slipped off the structure and now lies to its south, waiting patiently for another friendly giant to lift it back into place. The west portal stone, 2.3 metres in height, is still standing. The west side-stone remains in place, with the east side-stone now lying against it.