“Take it in mate. Nobody ever spends enough time taking it in.”
Wise advice arrives from a friend who’s just seen my photo of Lacken Back Strand.
From the low cliffs beneath my feet, the sand stretches out ahead of me for over half a mile, its grain barely interrupted by footprints.
The tide is out and on the turn, so there’ll be a firm flat surface to walk along, just by the water’s edge. Better watch the waves though, or my boots will get a wash of salt water.
When the golden strip is edged near the towering dunes by a high tide, the sand becomes deep and soft, turning a fairly gentle walk into a proper sweaty workout.
This beach and me are old friends. Soon after moving here to North Mayo I explored every boreen, alley, mud track and gully around, and will never forget the joy that filled my heart as I crested a hill and saw below a vista that summed up everything we love about this country.
A golden horseshoe bay with (the only apt word) emerald strip fields running vertically down towards the sea, along the headland opposite. This side, ancient cliffs, with seams of eras, lie under my feet.
I walked -alone - here on a Christmas morning, so cold that ice sheets made the climb down to the beach a perilous journey.
I walked - alone - here at dawn on a Summer morning, encountering a perfectly intact extremely dead dolphin perched on top of a dune, fifteen yards from a family of seals.
I stood there staring at that massive mammal, as the seal pups watched me with similar fascination.
Take it in? No need, my friend.
North Mayo takes me in.
That’s the way it works.
While living in West Connemara in the early 90s, I discovered my ideal cocktail: 9/10ths living in the glorious countryside of the West of Ireland; 1/10th a couple of dashes to Galway City, where like angostura bitters in a pink gin, everything subtly changes colour and becomes excitingly dangerous.
Six years later, I set off to find a home further north. After a night sleeping in the car, enveloped by the wind-whipped wilderness of Ballycroy, I drove on through Belmullet, around the stunning coastline of Ross Port and Pollatomish.
Onwards past gigantic cliffs, past Belderg, past mile upon mile of intact wilderness, where save for bags of turf on the bog, human life remained invisible. Past the Céide Fields, through Ballycastle, and on, into the village of Killala.
It was pretty much love at first sight. With its twisted hilly street, its splendid round tower and ancient cathedral, Killala immediately offers more to the eye than most drive-straight-through Irish villages. Beyond that, there’s a feeling to the place: an indefinable quality that attracts strange ones like me.
I put up a card in the supermarket window, mature professional seeks quiet home, and a few days later I was thrilled to receive a response. Enlisting the Snapper for support, we drove to meet the farmer landlord and his wife.
Sitting in the conservatory we drank tea and no, don’t worry about a deposit, Charlie, he said. Ye’ll have another sandwich, she said.
A handshake. Pure old school: pure wonderful.
Off the main road, beside a beautiful river, the house ticked every single box I’d requested from the universe. Equally excellent, several other slightly eccentric blow-ins had recently arrived in the area, so there was a crew with whom I could share my assimilation into this rural community.
More than anything there were the unique land and seascapes of North Mayo. As well as the marvel I wrote of above, I found many white sand beaches, untouched by mass tourism. At Downpatrick Head there are blowholes and the astonishing sea stack, Dun Briste, a sight that never fails to make my jaw drop.
North Mayo has the lot: rolling green pasture and barren ancient bog; drumlins and mountains; flatlands and cliffs; subterranean galleries and ancient abbeys, where you can stand on a quiet cloudy afternoon, feeling and seeing what the monks of the middle ages felt and saw. Stone circles rub shoulders with ogham stones, while wildlife thrives in North Mayo’s ecosystems.
Before we get too lost in the flora and fauna, I have to say that the people are mighty fine too. The great thing about North Mayo is the worst thing: it’s a hard place to make a living, a region familiar with emigration and poverty.
What survives is a population who are genuinely pleased to see you. They’ll not change for you, but once they like and trust you, they’ll be friends for life.
North Mayo doesn’t have try to be anything apart from the essence of itself. While West Cork panders to the English and Germans, while Kerry turns towns like Killarney into Irish theme parks for American tourists, North Mayo is what it is: a wonder.
This trip was originally intended to be a few days of peace and reflection, time to sit and stare. Happily however, I’d forgotten how many people I know here.
There were a couple of friends I very much wanted to see, who sadly yet inevitably were the ones I spent the least time with, but if I didn’t end up with much restorative time, my heart and soul are rekindled and aglow after so many encounters with locals.
I’d formed an idea that I’d only ever socialised with the blow-ins up here, but evidently, as I end up chatting in the garage, the café and shop, I’m better known here than I thought.
Despite that though, they all seem relatively pleased to see me.