Drowning in Galway’s annual torrent of festivals celebrating film, the arts, poker and horse racing, I pack Blue Bag and head northwest, to celebrate Charlie’s Annual HeadFest.
The sky is a burning blue, the tarmac is melting and after a couple of hours I stop in Bangor for a coke and a sarnie. The girl in the local shop is incredibly friendly, and the waitress in the café lets me off 25c with a smile, forgoing her tip.
Has Bailout Ireland once again become the land of Céad Mile Fáilte, the Hundred Thousand Welcomes?
On Belmullet’s pier a sign declares a littering fine of €125. Below there’s a picture of litter bin. I walk up to use it, but there is no bin; just a sign.
Escaping the late afternoon heat, I go into a pub where some of the locals have been hiding for possibly a little too long. The exuberantly cheerful barmaid keeps them ordered, as a conductor in front of a raggedy yet benign orchestra.
We’re hearing about her visit to the fortune teller who has pitched up outside the pub.
“She told me I had a bubbly personality and that I work most nights! Sure, there I was all smiles, and hasn’t she seen me coming and going out of here at all hours? I think I’ll set up outside here too, and tell you all about yourselves. I know everything about ye all!”
We all laugh but a couple of the regulars look faintly nervous.
“Did she say if Mayo’d win Sam?”
“No, I didn’t ask her.”
Much general male groaning.
Stumbling back out into the glare of the low evening sun, I skip and dance across the road, avoiding the constant convoy of tractors towing trailers full of cut turf. A father and his young red-headed daughter empty their trailer into their back yard, turn the tractor around and head straight back out to the bog. There’s something wonderful about the way that even in the height of this heat wave, the Irish are preparing for the cold long nights of Winter.
The thrill of a true Blue Bag trip is to have no route planned, no end in mind. Like life itself, the best journeys evolve, just as this one has become a coastal tour of Bangor-Erris and my beloved north Mayo.
The following morning a thick sea fog clings low to the coast. Undeterred, I pootle around the Pollatomish loop and then drive north again to Rossport and beyond. Rolling grey white and black waves of moisture cascade over the clifftops, falling onto the searing heat of the grasses and boglands. The high views down to virgin sandy shores and distant craggy headlands are impressive enough, but driving through this natural battle between water and steam, heat and cool, the ethereal air of a dream envelopes me.
I am blissed out. Alone, free, aimless and ecstatic, I pootle back towards the Ballycastle Road, but have a lingering memory of a tiny bog road that goes all the way to Belderg, and yes, lovely, there it is!
Hanging a left, I experience what has become a rare treat in this modern world: for 20 minutes I drive slowly along the tiny road, during which time I see not one house, nor a car, nor a single human being. The only evidence of people occupying this planet are the hundreds of bags of turf left drying on the bogs and the recently-sheared sheep sporting multi-coloured paint brands.
On a day such as this the drive is pure pleasure, but were the car to break down, I’d be a heck of a long way from help, and wouldn’t fancy trying to explain my whereabouts!
Back on the main road, the fog clears just as I pass the Céide Fields, revealing a view of Downpatrick Head, prominent and pristine, as green as the ocean licking it is blue.
Forget the Giant’s Causeway: with a gentle breeze carrying 23°C, Downpatrick Head with its glorious sea stack Dún Briste is more impressive, more beautiful and more unspoilt.
Perched on the corner of the clifftop, I’m sitting at the same level as the grass atop the stack, 200 metres away across the ocean. Between us, a sheer and deadly 45 metre plunge, waves out of sight far below.
Up here, level with the flying gulls, my eyes are drawn to the wondrous layers that build the stack. It feels as if I’m looking at the history of the world in those slices of rock. I’ve seen sedimentary layers elsewhere, but how many centuries of seismic and volcanic upheaval does that thick pink stone layer represent? What cataclysmic event was happening to this planet during those thousands of years?
Today these gentle waves are simply nibbling at its base, yet one of the wonders of the stack is how it’s still evolving. When I lived down the road, I often came up here in Winter, lost somewhere between King Lear and the French Lieutenant's Woman, braced fearful and inspired against the ferocity of a storm. Gigantic waves swallowed mouthfuls out of stack and cliffs alike, salty spume filling the air, as nature’s full power relentlessly ripped out stones, created new arches, undermining the stability of the pile.
If it were like that today, those tourists walking back to the car park could not so easily ignore that fenced-off tidal pool in the middle of this grassy field. They’d stop in their tracks, transfixed, as the roar of water exploding on rock boomed and a plume of seawater rose majestic and incongruous from the blowhole.
Now I’m a tourist too, but with the benefit of local knowledge, I can today fully appreciate the magnificent views of north Mayo’s stunning landscape, because I have often been up here when all is grey, dull, soaked and deadened by days of dreary rain. Now, as Summer delivers joy to the landscape, it soothes my spirits and calms my brain.