Tag Archives: Mayo

Landslide! Pullathomas Co. Mayo.

Visiting the uniquely interesting Ceide Fields was a damp experience and as I left there heading west on my trip along the Wild Atlantic Way in June of this year, conditions became even wetter, with persistent view-blocking rain. It was disappointing to be in this beautiful area for the first time in inclement weather but I saw enough to be sufficiently captivated to resolve to return again….sooner rather than later.

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The rain was lashing down..

As I drove along with Sruwaddacon Bay to my right, windscreen wipers at full tilt, I came across a very ‘odd looking’ graveyard on the side of the hill. I pulled up to investigate and couldn’t quite make out why this place did not look ‘quite right’ for want of a better term.

Something didn't look 'quite right'

Something didn’t look ‘quite right’

I was quite amazed then to discover that this beautifully situated graveyard had suffered after very heavy rain some years ago when a landslide send thousands of tons of mud down the hill and carried coffins into the sea, never to be recovered. This catastrophic event took place in  September 2003 and the signs of it are clearly visible today.

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The catastrophic landslide was blamed on overgrazing by sheep as the heather and upland plants were no longer able to bind the peaty soil together. The torrential downpours came after a particularly dry summer and the hillside was turned into mud that slid down the hill into the sea. I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for families whose graves had vanished under the tons of mud.

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A plaque commemorates the awful event in 2003

There are three distinct sections to the graveyard at this site, but only the one in the foreground was affected by the landslide.

imageSteps have now been taken to make sure that there will be no repeat of this awful event,with  barriers installed to hold back any further soil slippage.

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The location is quite beautiful, with the seashore only feet away.

This graveyard is also known as Kilcommon graveyard or  Pollatomish graveyard. There is an excellent website here that has details of those buried there and, unusually, includes people for whom there are no headstones.

Had it not been pouring rain, I may not have noticed this site as I drove by.  A beautiful place for sure, one that reminds us of the power of nature which we should never underestimate.

 

Further reading:

http://goldenlangan.com/graves-pt.html

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The Céide Fields: The World’s oldest known field system

A Pine tree that lived in Mayo 4,300 years ago

A Pine tree that grew in Mayo 4,300 years ago and lay preserved in bogland.

In Ireland we have an annual celebration of our Heritage during National Heritage Week, part of the European-wide ‘European Heritage Days’, that promote every aspect of our wonderful, varied heritage. During this week there are hundreds of events showcasing the richness that we have inherited in our natural surroundings, our landscape our buildings and in our literature, history legends, and culture. This is an excellent time to make new discoveries and to revisit favourite places.

This year I will mark Heritage Week by recalling my visit just a few weeks ago to one of the most unique landscapes anywhere in the world that is to be found in North County Mayo, along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. This place is called The Céide Fields, (pronounced Kay-Ja), a one thousand hectare monument that is the world’s largest dated Stone Age or Neolithic site. 5,500 years ago, a farming community lived, loved and worked here, raised their children, reared cattle, made pottery, grew crops, built homes, made gardens and buried their dead.

Blanket bog protects the site

At first sight, there appears to be very little here on this barren landscape –  all the more bleak on the morning of my visit with strong wind and driving rain! The land that stretches up over the hill seems to be flat and featureless, and will be recognized by Irish people as ‘just bog’. Bog is an emotive type of wetland landscape here in Ireland.  For centuries peat bog has provided fuel for our homes  and in recent times efforts to conserve some of this type of endangered habitat have become politically charged and confrontational. But here near Ballycastle in Mayo, this very landscape has protected a way of life for thousands of years, covering features of times past with metre after metre of protective vegetation.

In Ireland we have two types of peat bogland covering 1/6th of our land mass – smaller scale ‘Raised bogs’ which are the subject of conservation restrictions, and the more ubiquitous ‘blanket bogs’ found in much of the West of Ireland and here at the Céide Fields. These wetlands have evolved over aeons as can be seen in the diagram below demonstrating the evolution of blanket bog from the past, when the land was farmed; bog formed and enveloped the area; then peat removal for fuel resulted in the ground being used for growing again.

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Peat is formed from dead plants that have not fully decomposed due to the lack of oxygen in very wet soil. Sphagnum which has water retention properties is a key component of bogland as it keeps oxygen levels low and steadily the dead plant matter of the sphagnum accumulates. The bog can grow to many metres in depth as the vegetation keeps building up. Here at the Céide Fields, the blanket bog covered over the remnants of the prehistoric farms to a considerable depth, smothering trees and other vegetation that once grew there.

The bog covered and concealed evidence of early life.

The bog covered, concealed and protected evidence of early life

In this representation of a turf bank below, it can be seen that over the centuries the depth of the bog increase. Today where is 1.5 metres high; 2,000 years ago, at the time of Christ, it was 0.9 metres high; 4,000 years ago at the time of the Egyptian pyramids it was 0.3 metres deep and a thousand years earlier people lived and worked in this fertile area.

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

This remarkable landscape was first noticed by a local man in the 1930s when he was cutting turf for his home fire. He noticed piles of stones as he cut deeper into the turfbank and felt that they were so orderly that they must have been placed there deliberately by humans. Years later his son, Séamus Caulfield an archaeologist, conducted  an investigation and discovered the series of walls, houses and tombs deep below the bog. The site has now been extensively explored and excavated to a limited degree, enough to show that the community of farmers who lived here 200 generations ago had reclaimed their ground by clearing vast expanses of pine forest. Seeds and pollen found at the site have been identified and dated and this with other dating methods has enabled scientists to determine the age of the site, the type of crops grown and the implements used.

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

There is a splendid award winning interpretive centre here, with guided walks available. There is a wealth of flora and fauna at this site unique to the habitat.  Unfortunately on the day of my visit inclement weather prevented such exploration, but by studying  the excellent exhibits I was able to et a great understanding of the treasure that is here.

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

The centre has a viewing platform that on better days than this, affords fabulous 360 degree views of the entire area.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

In spite of the inclement weather I did venture outside on to the viewing area and was very happy to have a rail to hang on to in the very blustery wind and driving rain!

 

Steps leading to the Heart of the Céide Fields.

Steps leading to the heart of the Céide Fields, from where the guided tours begin.

It was a real thrill to finally visit this incredible site with an extraordinary and unique history. Irish Heritage at its best!

 

References

Home

Irish Peatland Conservation Council. http://www.ipcc.ie/

The graphic on the evolution of bogland is from the website http://www.irelandstory.com, which at time of writing is no longer available.

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Postcards from the Wild Atlantic Way: Kilalla to Downpatrick Head

Making my way for the first time ever along the beautiful north Mayo coastline I had many ‘wow’ moments as I turned corners to meet with spectacular views. This part of Mayo is one surprise after another and was an eagerly awaited part of my 3,000 kilometer trip along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.

My first stop was at Killala, a picturesque little village with a 12th Century Round Tower that vies with the nearby 16th Century Church and steeple.

Killala Round tower and church

Killala Round tower and church

The scenic little harbor looks across at the sandy shore of Bartragh Island once owned (and possibly still owned) by premier golfer Nick Faldo who had plans to make a championship standard links there.

Killala is a popular tourist destination, with many attractions such as pristine beaches, walks, fishing, historic sites and archaeology and the bay itself is a treasure trove for birders with many unusual species to be seen here.

Further along the coast is the breathtakingly magnificent Lacken Strand – a huge expanse of sand sheltered by high sand dunes. The Lacken Salt Marsh is a protected area of special conservation  and the tidal bay again hosts many wading birds. It was near here on August 22, 1798 that General Humbert landed at Kilcummin Harbour with over a thousand French troops, in support of the United Irishmen Rebellion against the British.

One of the most remarkable features between the road and the sea just beyond Lacken Strand on the minor coast road, is the prevalence of long narrow strips of land running towards the coast. The Rundale System of farming predates the Famine in Ireland and was a method of land management determined by land quality, that was shared out and rotated among many families. The parallel lines of these fields can be clearly seen on the map above by enlarging it slightly. Just a short drive along the coast I arrived at the excellent B & B accommodation (Creevagh Heights B & B ) overlooking the Atlantic Ocean which I had selected for its proximity to Downpatrick Head.

I first heard of Downpatrick Head during one of our Atlantic Storms when photographs of huge waves breaking over it made the news. (See here for Irish Independent News). It was late evening when I arrived in the area but as the weather forecast was poor for the following day, I decided to go and have a look around. There was a lack of ‘wild’ on my entire trip along the Wild Atlantic Way as there was hardly a breeze, so I saw none of the spectacular wind-driven seascapes that I love so much. As it turned out, the rugged beauty of this particular spot was best enjoyed in calm conditions given that I was alone when exploring a hazardous landscape. The sign at the entrance to the head announced that the site was unsuitable for children and that dogs should be kept on leads! I couldn’t help wondering why there would be such signs, but very soon I was to find out that it was indeed good advice!

 

I was pleased to note that there was some fencing on the site and that some wire mesh had been inserted on the ground –  I presumed this was to prevent walkers slipping on wet grass. As I stood on it I  became aware of noise beneath my feet and on looking down I was horrified to find myself looking into a dark chasm with a heaving mass of water. I was standing on top of a blow-hole!

This site is a lesson in coastal erosion. The cliff tops look soft and crumbling and the blowholes are testament to the fact that waves cause caves to penetrate the cliff and the tops eventually collapse. There was a constant sound here that can only have come from the waves rumbling beneath the land I was walking on, which gave me a definite uneasy feeling. I walked on up the hill towards a large grassy mound, and what looked to me like a possible hill fort, but when I  arrived there I was astonished to find that the mound of earth is a man-made raised walkway that surrounds a vast blowhole known as  Poll a Sean Tine ( Hole of the old fire or old wave).

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The cavernous hole has been made accessible to the public by the installation of a protective steel fence and reinforced plate-glass. It must be some spectacle to be here when the thunderous waves are throwing vast plumes of spray high into the air.

There is tragic history here too. When the 1798 Rebellion failed, English troops were rounding up rebels and their French helpers. Locals descended into the hole with ropes and hid on ledges below. The Redcoats however stayed in the area for longer than expected, the weather changed, a storm blew up and many were drowned.

All calm at Poll a sean Tine

All calm at Poll a Sean Tine

The name Downpatrick Head derives from Saint Patrick  of course. There are ruins of a 5th century monastery here, with the ruins adorned (spoiled) by a statue of St Patrick. It seems that the usual and only acceptable representation of the Saint is sporting 17th Century ecclesiastical garb.

St Patrick in 17th Century garb at his 5th Century Church

St Patrick in 17th Century garb at his 5th Century Church

This area was an area of significance long before the arrival of Christianity as the ancient landscape predates Patrick. Legend has it that Crom Dubh, a pagan god, occupied this area and St Patrick came to confront him. Crom Dubh tried to throw Patrick into the ‘eternal fire’ but Patrick drew a cross on a stone and threw it into the fire which collapsed into the sea thus creating Poll a Sean Tine. Crom Dubh retreated to his fort but Patrick  hit the ground with his crozier and created Dun Briste or Broken Fort, a sea stack that stands about 100 metres from land. It’s a great story and possibly the first recorded ‘belt of a crozier’ by an Irish bishop!

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Dun Briste or Broken Fort is a sea stack that has been separated from land by wave erosion. There are remains of two dwellings and farm walls apparently still to be seen on the stack.

The effect of erosion is plain to see here with the soft top soil falling away. Up here there are no protective fences, so great care is required. It is a good demonstration of the danger of venturing too close to the edge!

But the discoveries continue.

There is a Lookout Post here, one of many around the coast of Ireland dating from about 1939. At these lookout posts in 1942-43, ground markers were etched out spelling EIRE and with a number  – this one is 64 – to alert  aircraft to the fact that they were now over neutral Ireland. These markers are now being restored at many of the 82 locations around the coast. This one at Downpatrick Head was recently restored.

As darkness was falling I made my way back to the carpark, over the fascinating tufted surface of seapinks and wondered what it would be like to return to this fascinating and special place on a good windy day. Downpatrick Head is a ‘signature’ point on the Wild Atlantic Way and was one of the highlights of my entire trip. I will be back!

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A soft tufted carpet of sea pinks

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For those who wish to know something of the REAL St patrick, Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland blog has posted this essay from Terry O’Hagan, who is doing a PhD on Patrick at the moment. It is a ‘potted history’ of what is known about the real St Patrick.

Pilgrimage In Medieval Ireland

So today is the feast day of St Patrick, Ireland’s national saint. It is incredible to think that celebrations in the saints name are taking place all over the world today.  This post was written by  Terry O’Hagan  blogger and archaeologist . Terry is near to completing a PhD thesis on St Patrick at the school of Archaeology at UCD and  is one of the country’s experts on the saint.  Many thanks to Terry for taking the time to write this post and share his knowledge of the saint with us.

St. Patrick: A Man on a Mission

St. Patrick is a man of many faces: missionary, mascot, legend, figurehead, saint, sinner, superhero and saviour. Over the 1500 years or so since his death; successive generations have chosen to remake and remodel his life according to ever-changing concerns and  climates. Ongoing adaptation, along with the passing of the centuries, has…

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