Continuing along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, rain and low grey cloud were my only companions as I headed into this remote Irish-speaking part of County Mayo. Although visibility was reduced it was still possible to enjoy some lovely sights. The Irish-only road signs were something of a challenge at first, even though I am used to our bilingual signs here in Ireland and Irish-only signs in Donegal, and other Gaeltacht areas, these places were not familiar to me. However, once I figured out that ‘An Fod Dubh’ meant ‘Blacksod’ and that therefore ‘Chuan and Fhóid Duibh’ was Blacksod Bay, I chugged along happily in the beautiful Mullet Peninsula that protects Blacksod Bay from the worst of the Atlantic weather.
This eye catching beach is one of many big sandy beaches in the area. It sports the Blue Flag, one of the world’s most recognised eco-labels, indicating that it complies with a specific set of criteria on water quality, information points, environmental education, safety and beach management. Raining or not, this is a good beach for swimming!
Tír Sáile – the North Mayo Sculpture Trail –is the largest public arts project ever undertaken in Ireland. Several of these sites are located here on the Mullet peninsula. This work is entitled ‘Deirbhile’s Twist’ and I like that it was formed by raising large granite boulders already lying around on the ground and arranging them into an eye catching feature. This is located at Falmore which is a beautiful location, even in the mist!
Saint Deirbhile (Dervilla) is a local saint who arrived at Falmore in the 6th Century. Arriving by donkey she was pursued by an unwanted suitor who,so the story goes, was very attracted to her beautiful eyes. Rather drastically she plucked them out to discourage him and he left, heartbroken. Water gushed from the spot where her eyes fell and after bathing her sockets her sight was restored. The ruins of her convent are here near the seashore with Deirbhile’s Well nearby. Modern day pilgrims believe that water from the well can help cure eye complaints and they come here for special devotion on August 15 each year.
And then on to the site I was particularly interested in – Blacksod weather station, situated at the end of the peninsula.
This is Blacksod Lighthouse, looking very unlike a traditional lighthouse, perched atop an old granite building that dates from 1864. This is a very significant place because it was from here that a weather report issued on 3rd June 1944 changed the course of history. The World War 2 D-Day landings scheduled for June 5th were delayed because of the hourly weather report lodged by Irish Coast Guardsman and lighthouse keeper Ted Sweeney, which indicated that there would be adverse conditions in the English Channel for the following few days. Blacksod was of particular significance because it was the first land-based observation station in Europe where weather readings could be professionally taken on the prevailing European Atlantic westerly weather systems. Ted’s report on June 3rd mentioned a rapidly falling barometer and strong winds which would have augured badly for the planned invasion. A further report from Ted at 12pm on June 4, said ‘heavy rain and drizzle cleared, cloud at 900 feet and visibility on land and sea very clear’. This meant that better weather was on the way for the south of England, and so Operation Overlord went ahead on June 6th 1944 with calm clear conditions in the English Channel.
There is a nice little harbour alongside the lighthouse, Termon Pier, which was almost totally deserted when I was there with only rain and wind to be heard and seen and a few currachs pulled up out of the water.
Winds were picking up the rain was relentless so it was time to leave. I was delighted that I had made the trip out here and discovered a few sights, in spite of the conditions. Suddenly there was an incredible noise that almost deafened me and for the life of me I could not figure out what on earth it was. On turning round I saw a helicopter had just taken off from right beside me, as there is a Helicopter Landing base beside the Lighthouse!
I left here very pleased with my foray into this area, and with the few treasures I had discovered. However, the Mullet Peninsula had one more surprise in store as not far along the road I came upon Ionad Naomh Deirbhile, a local Visitor and Heritage Centre.
Although they were about to close I was invited in for tea and a homemade scone and here discovered the story of The Tuke Fund assisted emigrants. It is not always recognized that hunger in Ireland did not end with the famines of 1845- 1852 and 1879. Hunger and deprivation were a fact of life in poorer districts of the western seaboard in particular, with hundreds of families needing relief into the mid 1880s and beyond. James Hack Tuke (1819-1896) was an English Quaker who made it his mission to aid people suffering from starvation and deprivation in the West of Ireland. One of the features of the Tuke Fund assisted migration was that only entire families would be facilitated, thereby freeing up smallholdings for another family. The emigrants were provided with the fare and money to enable them settle in their new locations. In 1883 and 1884, 3,300 emigrants left North West Mayo and Achill, boarding ships in Blacksod Bay. They sailed on 10 separate voyages, for Boston and Quebec. There are impressive storyboards at the centre, where descendants of those who left here almost 140 years ago are welcomed. One such family arrived while I was there. It is reckoned that over 2 million people are descended from these North Mayo emigrants
The research on the Blacksod Tuke Emigration scheme was carried out by Rosemarie Geraghty, I believe for her thesis. Rosemarie has researched the 10 ships manifests that carried these families to their new lives in what she describes as the time of the ‘forgotten famine’ and is absolutely delighted when descendants arrive here in search of their roots. I asked her what the charges are for family research and she said ‘They left here with nothing, we are never going to charge them to know where they came from.’ Rosemarie is ably assisted by Norah Cawley, a superb scone maker who makes visitors feel very welcome indeed. I have been to many a family research centre before, but never one like this – with such enthusiasm, warmth, passion and great scone making!
All of this information with family names is available free to view, and is searchable under various headings, at http://www.blacksodbayemigration.ie . They just love to hear from anyone wherever in the world whose ancestors may have left this beautiful place over 130 years ago.
On what was a miserable wet grey cloudy day, how lucky was I to discover such wonderful silver linings at the Mullet Peninsula and on the shores of Blacksod Bay! More treasures of the Wild Atlantic Way – Beidh mé arais arís!