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Unspoiled Beauty And Holy Spirits

County Mayo Retains An Old Irish Feel, From St. Patrick's Sacred Mountain To Breathtakingshoreline Cliffs

March 19, 2000|THOMAS KENEALLY | Thomas Keneally is an Australian writer of Irish descent whose books include "Schindler's List," "A River Town" and "The Great Shame."

These days Dublin is not the "dirty old town" of the Irish love ballad. It is a city of commercial confidence, the trendy young, BMWs and mobile phones. The boomtown of the new Ireland does its best to contradict the tales our grandparents told of Irish want and desolation. Even Frank McCourt's Limerick, in "Angela's Ashes" the grayest of Irish towns, is now doing its best to reverse the picture of melancholy, congenital want, hunger in the bone.

It would be churlish of any visitor to want Ireland to retain the picturesque squalor that drove so many immigrants to the New World. Nonetheless, right or wrong, if I'm in Dublin and only have time to visit one other place, the county I head for--across the pleasant midlands and into the western limits--is Mayo, where the old Ireland can be tasted. Though the remaining County Mayo farmers are better off than ever, the chief impact of the new Celtic tiger economy on the area so far seems to be that Dubliners are going there looking for vacation homes on such perches as the awesome cliffs of Achill Island.

Mayo is a county of small market towns, of mountains and bogs. Its coastline is august, and its rivers are sacred to salmon fishermen. There is an exceptional concentration of Stone Age sites. And there are some splendid country estate houses turned into hotels. Ashford Castle, for example, is a lavish 19th century castle built by the Guinness brewery family on the ruins of a more ancient one. It sits on the Galway-Mayo border at Cong and was the site of the classic film "The Quiet Man." Others are Belleek Castle, which lies in northern Mayo near the county seat of Ballina, and Newport House to the west on Clew Bay. And, of course, the county is studded with genial (and less expensive) bed and breakfasts.

But in Ireland, it's more the people that influence my journeys there. I have always stayed at Constance Aldridge's guest house, Mount Falcon Castle, on the Moy River, a stretch of water beloved by salmon fishermen, of whom I am not. Constance is, in fact, English, but came to Mayo "as a child bride" in 1930 and combines her husky voice, her energy, charm and jolliness in a stocky frame that 70 Irish summers as an innkeeper have not depleted.

Mount Falcon Castle sounds grand but is simply one of those "big houses" in which the most prominent landlords of Ireland lived in the 19th century in a land of peasants whose own claim on their rented ground was tenuous and who sometimes brought their discontent to the doors of such houses. Aldridge and her now-departed husband, an enthusiast for salmon fishing and Stone Age mound graves, acquired it for five pounds more than the wrecker offered.

Mount Falcon's appeal was always its atmosphere--a lived-in country house filled with family heirlooms rather than an intimidating luxury hotel. In the evenings, Constance's communal dinner table--where Germans, French, Irish, English and Constance herself sat--was stocked with splendid local fare: richly flavored salmon, wonderful beef Wellington, capons done in wine, robust potatoes, much of the produce off her land.

The Continentals come to Mayo to fish, and go off with one of the gillies--a sort of fishing wrangler--for the day. Other guests just move on, since Ireland is dense with things to see, and many of its visitors are never in the same place two nights running. But the Mayo fanciers go out, as my wife, Judy, and I do, walking and exploring. In fact, the stories I tell here are the gleanings of many such day excursions from Mount Falcon, the thought of whose evening table always added valor to such adventures. (Sadly, I learned in recent days that Constance, now 90, has decided to sell Mount Falcon Castle because of advancing age. I can only hope the new owners continue to run it as a country guest house with equal appeal.)

I often seem to find myself in Mayo during a change of seasons, so the prime goal of any visitor to Mayo--to climb the mountain named Croagh Patrick--eluded me for some years because storms and mists concealed it. Croagh (pronounced croak) Patrick is Ireland's holiest mountain. From its summit, St. Patrick, the Celtic hero who introduced Christianity to Ireland and is known to have cast out the snakes and the toads, spent 40 days fasting and praying. It is astonishing how this mountain, at 2,500 feet, small by the standards of the Alps or the Rockies, dominates the landscape of northern Mayo.

Beyond the charming town of Westport, one of Ireland's most beautiful, Croagh Patrick rises up over Clew Bay on the Atlantic with the authority of a mountain six times its size. It is atmospheric; it is a presence. Like the Indians of North America, the ancient Irish were animist and believed in a spirit-inhabited landscape. Those of us with Irish peasant or small-farmer ancestors can be pretty sure that they, too, harbored a sense of Ireland of the spirits, of holy stones and wells, of "little people."

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