Most guidebooks will give you a few sentences about County Mayo in northwestern Ireland. They call it inaccessible, and recommend skipping it, preferring other, more touristed areas. Thankfully, our Granny O’Toole lobbied furiously the entire time we knew her. County Mayo is one step from heaven. Granny was right.
Granny was born and raised in Ballindine, Co. Mayo. It was a sleepy little town until the EU, working diligently to promote better infrastructure in Ireland, ran a highway right through the middle of town in the 1990s. Granny’s parents owned the local grocery store, with an attached pub. Her mother was an outgoing woman, and the first time I visited the town, one local remembered that she used to sit in one of the windows of their apartment over the store, singing with an angelic voice. A little angel, a little devil, too: Granny and her brothers (and their mother!) would wait until their father went to bed. Once he was snoring soundly, the cards would come out and a rollicking evening would ensue.
My mother spent vacations and summers in Newport, Co. Mayo, with her Uncle Michael. She and her brother and sister were shipped back to Ireland after getting flashed on their way to school one day in White Plains. Pagan country with pagan rituals. Back to Ireland you go, and that was how the three kids landed in poor Uncle Michael’s lap. You see, Uncle Michael was a priest, quite uncertain of what to do with ‘tweens and teens. He could figure his way around a prayer book, even walking while praying with his head down. But children? With emotions? With a certain amount of mischief inherent in them? (It’s genetic…)
We based the first part of our Gathering in Westport, where we were able to find a guesthouse with apartments that could accommodate our group of 25. Ballindine and Newport were a short drive away.
County Mayo shone, as Granny often remembered it. A group of us biked from Achill Island to Westport. The brochure listed it as a 25 mile ride, but our equipment came up with 28 miles. The majority of the ride was on the new Greenway, a prior rail bed that has been recommissioned to allow tourists to experience the spectacular beauty of County Mayo. Gates were a constant, but as Stephen pointed out, with every gate we passed, the scenery changed entirely! We also met sheep and cows on the Greenway, but they cannot negotiate the frequent gates. Stephen terrorized the occasional sheep… he made one wooly fellow roll down a ravine after hollering a loud BOO as the unsuspecting sheep munched some hillside grass.
There was also a group that climbed Croagh Patrick. This is the mountain in County Mayo where Saint Patrick banished all snakes from Ireland. It is a serious mountain, and as my sister pointed out, the Irish do not waste time on switch backs. It is straight uphill. And a priest walks up that darn mountain every morning in July to celebrate noon mass. Halfway up my climb, typical Irish weather struck: rain, with some sun, then sideways rain with a significant chill, then suddenly the skies cleared and it was once again beautiful. The views from Croagh Patrick were worth each and every aching muscle the next day.
And then there was Westport itself… a town maybe similar to Bolton Landing, but with a larger constant population. There were some anchor stores we visited: a butcher that provisioned our cookout with Irish steaks, pork chops, and cheeses; a fresh grocer with fruits and vegetables, not too common a site in most Irish meals; and SuperValu, a grocery store with just about everything EXCEPT artichokes. Not fresh, not canned. Not nowhere. It took me about five laps around the store before I finally believed there were no artichokes anywhere in the store. We substituted parsnips, another whitish vegetable that would take on the flavors of the seasonings.
We cooked out twice as a group while in County Mayo. My nephew Joe was a fantastic young kitchen collaborator. He doesn’t try to dominate the kitchen, but instead listens to ideas and offers his own. I would cook in a kitchen with him any day. Bridget joined us one evening, too, showing us how she is starting to enjoy cooking and seasoning, and how she is sometimes (often) challenged living now in Texas.
The pub at our guesthouse…. That is a post of its own.
County Mayo – wild and wonderful, family friendly and fun, sheep and cows galore, scenery you will never forget.
Mayo – the place to be. Thank you Granny for insisting we know that!