View across Erris
Erris (Iar Ros – ‘western promontory’) is an ancient region and medieval barony comprising over 210,000 acres (850 km2) of bleak countryside, mostly mountainous blanket bog. It is sometimes inaccurately called the Erris Peninsula due to its extensive western and northern sea coasts, which themselves feature dramatic capes, headlands, and full blown peninsulas, of which the most remarkable is The Mullet. The main towns are Belmullet and Bangor Erris. Several parts of Erris are Gaeltacht areas where Irish Gaelic is still widely spoken.
Old histories describe the region as divided by two tuatha known as the Damnonii and the Belgae, aka Gamanradaii. Early Annals state that Fiachrian O’Caithnaidh was the chief of the Belgae and Lord of Erris in the late C12th, but that his clan lost power to the O’Dowds in the next century.
By 1380 the Hiberno-Norman Barrett family had seized control of much of Erris, remaining in power for over 250 years. Sir Edmund Barrett, a renowned landlord, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for services to the Crown. In appreciation for their loyalty, King James I granted them more lands in Erris, but the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Cromwellian land redistribution and the Restoration saw much of the barony pass to Sir Robert Viner, a London goldsmith owed money by King Charles II.
Viner quickly sold the land on to Sir James Shaen, Surveyor General of Ireland, whose son, Sir Arthur Shaen, leased most of the good land to English settlers at a nominal rent. He left his estate to his two daughters, Frances and Susannach, who respectively married John Bingham from Newport and Henry Boyle Carter from County Kildare. The names Bingham and Carter were to dominate land ownership in the Erris region over the following two hundred years.
In The Way That I Went (1937) Robert Lloyd Praeger described Erris as “the wildest, loneliest stretch of country to be found in Ireland” where “your feet never leave the heather, save that twice you cross a road, fenceless, winding, like a narrow white ribbon through the endless brown bog“. There were in fact no roads at all in Erris before the C18th.
Major landslides in the area include the 1817 tragedy at Laragon, when some five acres of bog moved down the mountainside, overturning every obstacle in its course, and carried away three houses, one of which was inhabited by a family named O’Hara, whose bodies were carried downriver to be found in ‘Tallaghan Bay’ about 12 miles away some days afterwards, along with the corpses of two off-duty Scottish soldiers; and the Glencullen landslide in February 1931, when Lough Boleynagee slid down the hillside, pushing mountains of soft bog in front of it down the river, carrying away Glencullen Bridge and destroying the dwelling-house, cattle and possessions of Mr Patrick Moran – fortunately he and his two sisters had seen the approaching mass of mountain and rushed to a neighbouring hill.
Bangor Erris (Co. Mayo / Northwest)
Bangor Erris with Carrowmore Lake (Photo by Brendan Hegarty)
Bangor Erris (Baingear / Beannchar, from Beann Chor – “Ridge of Mountain Peaks”) (pop. 500), a small crossroads town on the banks of the Owenmore River, marketed as “the gateway to the Erris Peninsula, “is a well known holiday destination for walkers, cyclists and anglers.
Bangor Erris was founded by “Major” Denis Bingham, who (having exited the British Army with the rank of lieutenant) inherited almost half of the barony of Erris from his mother Frances (née Shaen) and came to live here c.1796. Wisely establishing his new settlement at the sheltered riverside junction of tw0 recently upgraded regional roads, his first move was to introduce the Revenue Police to stamp out the distillation of potín (hooch) in the area. He then obtained a seven-day licence to sell intoxicating liquor and placed a Protestant settler called Robert Bournes as innkeeper of the first legal bar in Erris. Regarded as an oppressive landlord, Bingham later got a patent to hold regular fairs in the village, which with the 1820 completion of the Central Road from Castlebar to Erris grew further to become a small town.
The church of the Sacred Heart (RC), serving the parish of Kiltane, was built in 1947 as the third on the same site in the townland of Ballybeg; the first, a mean thatched chapel erected c.1835, was permitted by landlord Robert Savage against the wishes of his father-in-law Bingham, who was determined not to allow the building of a Roman Catholic church in Bangor and vowed ‘never to afford the slightest accommodation to a Catholic priest’, forcing the parish incumbent to commute seven miles from Sheskin (owned by J Mc Donnell, MP for Mayo). On the Night of the Big Wind, 6th January 1839, the roof was blown off and mass was celebrated in a hedge school while repairs were taking place.
(Bangor’s mid-C19th Anglican place of worship is vestigially recalled in the name of Church Road)
Friendly pubs in Bangor Erris include the Talk Of The Town, the West End Bar and the Kiltane Tavern, which has won many awards for hospitality.
Bangor Erris is linked by road to Doolough Point and the Doohooma Peninsula
The Bangor Trail is a 22-mile waymarked walking route along an old cattle drovers’ trail from Bangor over the Nephin Beg mountain range to Newport. This route was travelled in 1752 by Dr Pococke (who called it “The Pilgrim Way”), in 1837 by Caesar Otway and in the C20th by Robert Lloyd Praeger.
A megalithic Court Tomb situated in a sloping pasture field between Carrafull Hill and the Owenmore River is in a very ruinous condition.
About a mile west of Bangor are three huge stone forts said to have been built by the Tuatha De Danann. One is situated in the townland of Shramore and the other two are on the south side of the river.
Cill tSeadna (“the church of Seadna”), a ruin west of Bangor said to date from the C7th AD, gave its name to the parish of Kiltane, a late C19th subdivision of the ancient parish of Kilcommon, which once comprised the whole of “mainland” Erris and was the largest parish in Ireland (the others are the present-day parishes of Kilcommon, Belmullet and Ballycroy).
Carrowmore Lake (Loch na Ceathrú Móire), two miles north-west of Bangor, is over 4 miles long and nearly 3 miles at its widest part, though it narrows to ½ mile at one point. The slopes of Knocknascallop (237m) rise up along the west shore. Carrowmore is widely considered the premier spring salmon fishing lough in the country, and also holds brown trout. Some of the many islands in the lake are thought to have been crannogs in use as lake fortifications through from the Iron Age to as late as the C17th. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.ie)
Rathmorgan, a townland at the south west corner of Carrowmore Lake, is the location of Dun Fliadhais, scene of the Iron Age battle climaxing the Táin Bó Fliadhais cattle raid on Erris, recounted in the Ulster Cycle of legends, in which Queen Meadh and her army from Cruachan (Co. Roscommon) succeeded in killing Oilill Finn, releasing Fergus Mac Roigh and carrying away Fliadhas Foit Chearn and the hornless cow after demolishing the fortress around the C1st AD.
Glencastle & Bunnahowen (Co. Mayo / Northwest)
Glencastle is a mountain valley sometimes known as “the gateway to the Mullet Peninsula“. At its western end rises Glencastle Hill (228m).
Thomas Johnson Westropp, the leading antiquarian and folklorist from Limerick, wrote of Glencastle in 1911: “We suddenly dip into a stream runnel and, without preparation drop into a lovely wooded glen, at first so narrow that there is barely room for the road and the brook; we pass a regular brown dyke of volcanic rock and a thickly-wooded hillside, hovered over by hawks, and reach the more open valley, the “Gates of Erris’. In its centre a grassy moat-like mass of rock was upheaved by some remote eruption. The east face is covered with hazels and birch, the upper trees growing out of the side to keep the shelter of the fort rising over 90 feet above the stream. To the north, a great mountain swells up for 760 feet facing the glen and its keeper. A second mound, like an overturned boat lies further down the valley“.
Sadly, this former ‘beauty spot’ is now barely recognisable, as the entire hillside on the left hand side as described above has been mechanically removed in the course of massive quarrying. Such Latino-style philistinism is not new; engineer Patrick Knight recorded that in the 1820s the builders of the Bangor / Belmullet road “unnecessarily destroyed the fine dolmen in the glen rather than divert the road a few feet to one side“..
Dundohmnaill / Dun Donnell, an ancient fort standing in the middle of the glen, is named after Domhnall Dual Bhuidhe, the “High King of the West of Elga” and ruler of the Gamanraige tribe, who used to close the Gates of Erris at night, levying tolls on ptrvellers.
Domhnall Dual Bhuidhe was the father of Oilill Finn, who was married to Fliadhais. When Domhnal heard of the cattle raid and of the death of his son he collected his forces, went in hot pursuit and overtook Meadh’s army at Barooskey, north-east of Bangor, and a fierce battle ensued. It is said that Domhnall was slain by Fergus Mac Roigh at Tamhnaigh Leacht Fhearguis.
The remains of this once-great fort are now three very large mounds close to the road, which have never been archaeologically investigated. (Photo by Comhar)
The O’Caithnaidhs had their stronghold in Glencastle until they were defeated by the O’Connors who then took over the fort until 1303 when it was conquered by the Norman Barretts, who extended their rule over Erris from a castle also known as Dundohmnaill, demolished in the early C19th.
There are records of several earlier archaeological monuments in Glencastle, but it is doubtful if these sites are still in existence.
The Atkinson family of Dublin, who owned large tracts of land around Glencastle in the C19th, found themselves at frequent loggerheads with land reform campaigners and nationalist clergy until they sold their estate to the Congested Districts board for division amongst the tenants.
Bunnahowen / Bunmahowen (Bun na hAbhna – “Mouth of the River”) was the home of Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh, a C17th scholar whose family, chiefly his ancestor Giolla Iosa Mac Fhirbhisigh, created the Yellow Book of Lecan, which preserved the Tain Bo Cuailgne. The Mac Firbis castle can be seen to this day.
Bunnahowen is the gateway to Belmullet & the Mullet Peninsula, and is also within easy reach of Srah, Doolough Point and the Doohooma Peninsula.