Ballycastle, the gateway village to the wild wilderness that is North Mayo, has one of the most scenic looped walks in Ireland.
The Sralagagh Loop Walk is just one of a number of tourist attractions, including the Céide Fields Visitor Centre, and Downpatrick Head blowhole, which is conveniently located near the pretty seaside village of Ballycastle.
The start of the Sralagagh Loop Walk is well signposted and is located a few hundred metres outside Ballycastle, heading North along the R314, one of the most scenic routes along the Wild Atlantic Way.
Old flax mill
After crossing the small bridge over the Ballinglen River, the walk takes about two hours over country lanes and forest paths. The gentle climb is worth it for the magnificent views over the heathered hills and bogland where the Neolithic discoveries at the nearby Céide Fields have revealed this part of North Mayo’s 5000-year history of human habitation.
The ruins of an old flax mill beside Ballyglass bridge echo a time in the 19th century when North Mayo produced flax fibre for the linen industry in Northern Ireland.
The mill was reopened by some local businessmen during World War 11 when it gave much-needed employment. Today, it is one of the few reminders of how the cultivation of the blue flax flower once contributed to the income of the North Mayo farming community.
Crossing Ballyglass bridge at the start of the walk, you are reminded that the history of human habitation and agriculture in this area that is dotted with Megalithic Tombs stretches back at least 5,000 years, linking it to the Céide Fields Neolithic field system located just beyond Ballynock Hill in Behy and Glenulra.
In 1970, Seán Ó Nualláin RIP, formerly Chief Archaeologist Ordnance Survey Office, in excavating the nearby Ballyglass Court Tomb, found the remains of a large rectangular timber-framed Neolithic house underneath the tomb. It measured 13 x 6 metres and radiocarbon testing dated the structure to the second half of the 4th millennium BC.
It is fascinating to discover how these ancient dwellings were constructed.
Jonathan Bardon in “A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes” (Gill Books), explains:
“At Ballynagilly, near Cookstown in Co. Tyrone, the oldest Neolithic house in either Britain or Ireland was found in 1969. This rectangular dwelling, six metres by six and a half metres, was partly made of wattle-and-daub walls, the remainder consisting of radially split oak placed upright in trench foundations. Substantial posts evidently marked the position of thatched roof supports.
“During construction work on a natural gas pipeline at Tankardstown in Co. Limerick in 1988 a similar house was unearthed, except that it was built entirely of oak planking with corner posts and external roof supports. Even more sophisticated dwellings were excavated at Lough Gur in Co. Limerick. The largest possessed a stone-lined damp-proof course and cavity walls insulated with brushwood and rushes.”
Fruit and Nuts
It’s a beautiful and peaceful walk along the narrow road which winds its way uphill through the wooded glen between Ballyknock Hill to the West and Agoo Hill to the east.
The soothing sounds of the Ballinglen River greet you at Ballyglass Bridge, and later, you cross further bridges spanning the Bellananaminnan River (Irish: Bella ana Minnaun) as it races down from the surrounding hills between steeply wooded banks of deciduous trees before it, too, gently flows into nearby Bunnatrahir Bay.
In Autumn, the abundant nuts and fruits of the hazel trees and blackberry bushes along with the plentiful supply of rosehips are a reminder of how the earliest inhabitants of this part of North Mayo were able to forage for food and natural remedies.
One of the highlights of the Ballycastle Loop Walk is the panoramic views of Ballycastle, and Downpatrick Head, as you reach the summit of the walk.
The gentle descent on the return journey brings you along winding country lanes which in the autumn are lined with delicious blackberries for your enjoyment.