I’m standing in the most remote lands of Ireland. Heathers are windswept, skylarks are flitting in the gusts and ewes are grazing the boglands — purely indifferent to the drama of their surrounds.
Here, on the fringes of Ballycroy National park in North Mayo, there’s said to be nowhere less trundled in Ireland and — even in these howling gales — few places more serene. Not as celebrated as the national parks of Killarney or Connemara, Ballycroy together with the recently added Wild Nephin region covers over 100 square km of Atlantic blanket bog and hilly terrain in what is considered to be Ireland’s greatest wilderness.
And as our search for great escapes become ever-increased, I'd headed to North Mayo to discover Ireland’s ultimate location of remote control.
Our largest county after Cork and Galway, Mayo ranks a lowly 17th in terms of population, ergo it’s home to the most sparsely populated swathes of Ireland — if not Western Europe. The park’s Bangor Trail, which winds its way across the Nephin Beg mountain range, is where fewest souls wander. Once used to drive cattle across the region to the market in Newport, today the route is frequented by Ireland’s most hardcore hikers. I took a rookie wander in, feeling a sense of raw, unplugged escape with every boggy step. And this was just 1km deep — to think it continues for 40!
Beyond Ballycroy, the North Mayo coastline offers a 100km stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way, from the far-flung Mullet peninsula eastwards to the Sligo border. The route is stacked with sights — high on drama and low on tourists — which on the likes of the Ring of Kerry would surely be blockbuster attractions. No more so than the Céide Fields which I arrive to horse-shoed by a screensaver rainbow. The ancient site plays host to the oldest known field systems in the world and I wander its boggy pastures in awe of walls, cattle pens and enclosures which date back a mind-blowing 5500 years. If the landscape won’t make you feel small here — the heritage will.
Further along its shores, I arrive at Mayo’s most trending attraction, Downpatrick Head.
The last year has seen this pocket become a popular Instagram hit — not least in thanks to its massively photogenic sea-stack, Dún Briste. But today’s influencer photo-shoots were mercifully cancelled — and even for a Sunday afternoon the sight remained wonderfully unfiltered. After a weekend of touring, I could simply lie down at the precipice and enjoy the golden hour gilding the broken fort. The Wild Atlantic Way rarely looked so on point. Maybe consider your next road-trip with a side of Mayo?
North Mayo offers an eclectic range of accommodations from cosy cottages to grandiose country estates. The Ice House in Ballina boasts one of Ireland’s best boutique spas, while suites’ floor-to-ceiling windows create a calming in-out-flow to the beautiful River Moy (B&B from €132pps; icehousehotel.ie). Luxury lovers can hit the eiderdown at the period paradise of Belleek Castle (€90pps; belleekcastle.com) while for self-catering, The Cottage in Kilcummin is a restored 18th century abode, just a short stroll from the strand. Sleeping four, it’s excellent value at just €100 per night; (airbnb.com #16602047).
Mary’s Cottage Kitchen is a blissfully traditional locale in Ballycastle and a must-stop dining experience along the Wild Atlantic Way. I enjoyed a delicious crab salad with shellfish sourced locally from Porturlin served with salad and floury spuds. In Ballycroy National Park, the visitor’s centre features the gorgeous Ginger & Wild café where you can enjoy fresh fare with panoramic vistas. I ordered an impromptu hiker’s brunch to-go, namely a delicious frittata with greens and a slab of gluten-free coconut cake. For dinner in Ballina, Luskin’s is a Mayo-inspired bistro run by long time local food champion, Gary Luskin.
North Mayo does culture too. In Ballycastle, I discovered the remarkable Ballinglen Arts Foundation who have just opened a stunning new museum of contemporary art showcasing work from fellows of Ballinglen’s artists residency (ballinglenartsfoundation.org).
In Ballina, the Connaught Whiskey Company are the first distillery to open in the province in over 150 years. Their Mayo Magic experience includes a guided tour chased by tastings of everything from Stawboys Vodka to Concullin gin (connachtwhiskey.com). For outdoor pursuits, Denis Quinn of Wild Atlantic Cultural Tours offers a range or guided excursions across the area from the Céide Fields to seashore foraging.
Entry to Ballycroy National Park is free while their charming visitor centre is open daily from 10:00 to 17:30. The centre features a very accessible 2km boardwalk loop which offer a beginner’s taster of Mayo wilderness while experienced hikers can tackle trails elsewhere from one of the park’s Letterkeen Loops (from 6km) to the overnight Bangor Trail (ballycroynationalpark.ie). Beyond the park, Mayowalks.ie is a comprehensive source of all-level walks with brochures and maps available for download.
For more info, see mayonorth.ie