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Mayo’s Celtic Rainforest

Cong Wood is one of Mayo’s temperate rainforests – typical of lush, green and mostly deciduous woodlands found along the wet and mild Atlantic coastal counties of Ireland and the UK. These beautiful native and ancient woodlands are commonly known as Celtic Rainforests where nature abounds.

In Cong, this exciting and wonderful ecosystem can be enjoyed along the magnificent 4km looped walk that starts and finishes at the entrance to Cong Abbey and in between winds its way along a nature trail where evidence of the Celtic Rainforest is all around.

Cong Wood. one of Mayo's temperate rainforests, where underground rivers from Lough Mask have eaten through the soft limestone as they flow into nearby Lough Corrib. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Cong Wood. one of Mayo’s temperate rainforests, where underground rivers from Lough Mask have eaten through the soft limestone as they flow into nearby Lough Corrib. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Celtic Rainforests are woodlands that are found along the western coasts of Ireland, Scotland and Wales and share many characteristics of biodiversity with wet and cool woodlands in places as far away as the Pacific Northwest of the United States and New Zealand.

Celtic Rainforest

In Mayo, we are lucky to have a number of Celtic Rainforests at Brackloon, Enniscoe and Tourmakeady.

These are woodlands teeming with life-supporting habitats where an underworld of ferns, mosses, lichens, fungi and a variety of insects such as beetles, moths, dragonflies and butterflies live among the dead and rotting vegetation beneath the shady canopy of mostly deciduous trees on whose branches cling varieties of lichens.

Cong Wood is a mysterious and ancient place. Its karstic terrain gives the forest an otherworldly aura that is unique among Mayo woodlands. I left the well-trodden trail to explore deeper into the woods and see all the diversity that makes up the Celtic Rainforest.

The Cong Wood nature trail passes under stone viaducts that carry the road from Cong to nearby Clonbur. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Cong Wood nature trail passes under stone viaducts that carry the road from Cong to nearby Clonbur. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Camera in hand, I trod carefully for fear of twisting  an ankle over the rutted and pot-holed woodland floor sprung like an old mattress under countless years of rotting leaves and vegetation scattered between dead tree stumps, rocks and old stone walls that provide a home to the new life of ferns, mosses and lichens that are everywhere.

As I emerged from the dappled shade of the forest to the brightness of the trail, a brief encounter with a fellow walker added to the fairyland atmosphere of this place where it’s easy to imagine you have entered an enchanting and timeless world.

It’s a temperate rainforest,” commented the woman with the English accent after we exchanged greetings as our paths crossed along the trail.

Had she read my mind?, I wondered. What a strange and yet such an apt comment to make as we both strolled off in opposite directions.

Rich in history

Fishing near the Monk's Fishing House at the entrance to Cong Wood. Photo: Anthony Hickey
Fishing near the Monk’s Fishing House at the entrance to Cong Wood. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Had it been 900 years earlier, I might have run into a High King of Ireland for it was here that the high-king of Connacht Toirdhealbhach Mór (Turlough) O’Connor commisioned one of Ireland’s national treasures The Cross of Cong in 1123 and his son, Rory O’Connor (Irish -Ruaidhrí Ó Conchobhair) was the last High King of Ireland and died in Cong Abbey in 1193.

And long before the High Kings, as far back as 623, Fechin of Fore founded the first monastic settlement at Cong which became one of the great monasteries of Ireland, a place of learning and pilgrimage. Today, the monastery’s impressive architectural 14th-century ruins form the gateway to the woodland walk.

Built on the finger of land that divides Mask and Corrib, Cong was an important highway between the western seaboard and the east of Ireland for centuries drawing kings and invaders from the Normans to the English who settled in this beautiful place between the great lakes of Mask and Corrib, loughs that since the last Ice Age have been constantly shaping this landscape above and beneath the ground.

Geological wonders

The Pigeon Hole Cave leading to the subterranean waterways of Cong. Photo: Anthony Hickey
The Pigeon Hole Cave leading to the subterranean waterways of Cong. Photo: Anthony Hickey

In human terms, the landscape and buildings of the area have also been fashioned by generations of the Guinness family ever since they bought the Ashford Castle estate in the middle of the 19th century. The trail passes under two stone viaducts over which the main road to Clonbur passes. The  20 metres high Guinness tower is one of the woodland’s landmarks, but no longer accessible.

It’s likely an ancient forest existed here for thousands of years although the earliest maps show only nearby Clonbur Wood. But we do know that it was the Guinness family who created the present woodland and its nature trail that meanders beneath a forest canopy of deciduous trees. Rare specimens for Mayo such as Sequoia, Monterey pine and Redwoods thrive among the more common Hazel, Birch, Horse Chestnut, Douglas fir, Oak and Yew.

Subterranean Explorers

Along the trail, there are many geological wonders such as dark and brooding ponds that are really big holes where underground rivers from Lough Mask have eaten through the soft limestone. It makes Cong Wood a haven for potholing and caving, wooing scuba-divers from all over the world who explore the dark and hidden subterranean water world that flows under our feet.

Further along the trail, we were greeted by a scuba-diver from Cork sitting on the bench near the Pigeon Hole Cave, one of the wonders of Cong Wood. Wisely, he had cut short his hazardous subterranean exploration of the underwater passageways, caves and caverns when he began to feel exhausted.

A graceful swan taking flight on the Cong River. Photo: Anthony Hickey
A graceful swan taking flight on the Cong River. Photo: Anthony Hickey

As he waited for his colleagues to return from the water-filled underground world he led us carefully down the steep flight of 61 steps to the cave floor and showed us the surprisingly small sinkhole entrance to the foreboding subterranean world criss-crossed by passageways and caves eroded over the millennia by the waters of Lough Mask flowing into the lower level Lough Corrib.

As we neared our journey’s end, a swan rose gracefully from the Cong River, its perfect reflection in the still waters echoing a timeless scene witnessed by generations in this lush, green habitat that can truly be called a Celtic Rainforest.

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.