Blanemore Forest Archaeological Walk near Moygownagh is another gem in Mayo’s treasure chest of extensive Neolithic sites – the best known of which is the Ceide Fields near Ballycastle.
Fortunately, my Monday morning visit was accompanied by warm sunshine and blue skies as I discovered, not just the pre-historic ruins, but the natural beauty of Blanemore. The trailhead is well sign-posted off the R315 near the pretty village of Moygownagh.
The forest trail is a 5Km walk in coniferous woodland, owned by Coillte, where stone structures have been uncovered beneath the bog revealing further evidence of how Mayo’s earliest settlers lived 5,000 years ago.
The Neolithic and Bronze Age remains show that this boggy upland was once a fertile and lush landscape, similar to the conditions worked by the Neolithic farmers who settled the nearby Ceide Fields.
The trail’s many stopping points are imaginatively laid out with two-sided information boards that also include the more colourful folklore relating to each location.
I learned that as far back as 3,800 BC, Stone Age farmers looked out from this elevated site over the River Moy Valley towards Nephin towering over North Mayo; a sight no longer to be enjoyed because of the tall conifers.
Mayo’s ancient past
The Neolithic settlers are believed to have arrived in Ireland from Britain over a land bridge that once connected Antrim to Scotland between 3900 and 3000 BC. They cleared the upland forests with stone axes, and also by burning it, in order to rear livestock and grow crops.
For the Stone Age settlers, it was back-breaking work, reclaiming the land from the vast tracts of deciduous forests of pine, elm and oak.
They must have worked in large family groups to build the stone walls needed to fence in their cattle. And they still found time to erect court tombs from huge boulders to honour their dead. The remains of two of the tombs can be seen along the trail.
In later centuries, Bronze-age farmers erected their own monuments from the granite they had cleared off the land. One such remaining relic is the impressive Standing Stone in a Sycamore grove near the start of the trail.
The trail leads you to another interesting relic – a stone alignment that points in the direction of Nephin. Archaeologists believe that it could have been erected to mark the winter solstice.
The ruins that we see today were erected during a 500-year period before the early inhabitants had to abandon the site about 3250 BC as the climate became wetter and the bog started to form. The deforestation carried out by the Neolithic farmers is also thought to have contributed to climate change.
As I made my way along gravel paths, I was delighted to see that there are also raised rubber mat walkways over the wetter parts of the trail, which are a welcome feature, ensuring that you don’t have to get your feet wet in trying to see the archaeological ruins.
What I loved about my walk was how it gave me further insight into North Mayo’s ancient past, but it also brought me closer to the sights and sounds of nature.
It was a most enjoyable walk listening to the delightful ambient mixture of the sounds of nature from the birdsong to the buzzing of the bees; only occasionally interrupted by the discordant sounds of the transatlantic planes overhead.
I was able to relax and enjoy these delightful sights and sounds of the forest when I stopped at Lough Naweela (The Lake of the Seagulls). Standing on the lakeside viewing platform, I discovered that Lough Naweela has a mysterious quality about it. More on that subject when you read the information sign!
Near the lake’s picnic table, the many Red Admirals were busy feeding on flower nectar preparing for their long migration to the Mediterranean for the winter.
Like the butterflies, the Bumble Bees were also taking advantage of the warm day feeding on the nectar of the last of the Devil’s-Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis).
Not surprisingly, the shady and damper parts of the forest are home to different types of fungi, including the poisonous fungus, Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) whose clumps of yellow domed caps caught my eye.
I also encountered a Grey Heron sunning itself in a small pond along the trail and before I finished my walk I got a fleeting glimpse of one of the many deer that roam this part of North Mayo.
The Youtube video about Blanemore Forest Archaeological Walk, presented by historian, Liam Alex Heffron, one of the prime movers behind this community project, is both educational and a delight to watch. The video is a valuable resource that could be very helpful to students working on local history projects.
It is difficult to comprehend the physical exertion it took the pre-historic communities with Stone Age tools to tame and develop the land at Blanemore in order to create Mayo’s earliest homesteads.
It was undoubtedly a communal effort 5,000 years ago that thankfully has echoed down the ages and is evidenced today in Blanemore Archaeological Forest Walk, the fruits of community and corporate cooperation.