Below me Portacloy’s golden strand, from where I had set out on my trek over Benwee Head (An Bhinn Bhuí), sparkled under a September sun and all around stretched the epic landscape of the North Mayo cliffs; the dizzying heights, at once, an awe-inspiring and terrifying experience.
On this beautiful morning, there was no better place to be than standing near the cliff edge along the Benwee Head Loop marvelling at the majesty of the walls of vertical cliffs; shorn-off mountains dropping 255 metres into the depths of the North Atlantic.
Serene and deceptive; gentle swells sedulously nudging the cliffs; the calm before the raging winter storms that continue to erode and sculpt this magnificent seascape. A vista of immense grandeur to feed the imagination; a giant sculptor’s scrapyard of precipitous promontories, sea arches, sea caves and rocky reefs, crowned by the soaring Stags of Broadhaven, their jagged peaks an unmistakable emblem of the natural beauty of the wild and remote North Mayo coastline.
For most of the year, it’s an unforgiving coastline besieged by winter sea swells where lobster fishermen from Porturlin and other nearby harbours eke out a precarious living. Epic sea journeys have taken place in sight of these cliffs as far back as the 6th century when St. Brendan sailed by here in a wooden boat on his remarkable journey to North America, long before the Vikings and Christopher Columbus. It was off the North Mayo coast too that the Ciervo Volante and its crew of 200, part of the fleeing Spanish Armada of 1588, were lost, somewhere in the fathomless depths between Benwee and Downpatrick Head that aircraft carrier shaped headland I could faintly make out as I looked back along the cliffs.
At the end of a narrow heathery promontory above Portacloy, work is underway to rebuild the World War 11 lookout post where coastwatchers kept guard during the Battle of the Atlantic. It was here that local volunteers once looked skywards to see Allied warplanes fly out into the Atlantic to protect convoys of vital supplies from North America to the UK. The warplanes played a deadly game of cat and mouse with German U-boats off the Mayo coast. Many German submariners and brave British sailors lost their lives off North and West Mayo during the Second World War.
The lookout post got me thinking about a chance meeting I had some years ago, on a visit to the English city of Bath, with a most interesting gentleman, a former World War 11 pilot, who flew one of the RAF seaplanes from the flying-boat base at Castle Archdale on Lower Lough Erne. His missions took him far out into the North Atlantic in search of U-boats. And over 60 years later, he could still vividly recall the spectacular beauty of the North Mayo coastline. After the war, he told me how he studied aeronautical engineering and went to work for the legendary aviation tycoon, Howard Hughes, in Los Angeles. What an eventful life!
My reverie didn’t last long as I turned to look at one of the tiny offshore islands that dot the coastline. The Buddagh like some pyramidal-headed prehistoric, humped-backed monster, rising 76 metres high from the ocean depths, is another one of the sculptural shapes that give the North Mayo coast its unique character.
Beneath such towering cliffs, perspective changes and size becomes relative to the enormous scale of your surroundings; everything seemed so tiny. The fishing trawler, hundreds of meters below me, bobbing like a cork on the gentle undulations of the swell as the gulls, mere white dots, wheeled and wailed, effortlessly gliding the thermals along the cliffs. Just beyond the Stags, the tiny, yet unmistakable shape, of a passing yacht came into view, the sun catching its snowy canvass. All these mere passing actors on this majestic stage were created from fire and ice and still being sculpted by the bashing waves.
Over 160 years ago, Caesar Otway (1780-1842) amazingly climbed from the rocky shore far below where I was standing and was inspired to write:
“I had thought when rowing along this sublime coast, that nothing could exceed the view upwards from the sea level; and now I considered again, when on the top of the cliff, and just at the place where we had reached the high land, that the sight was finer; for here in the centre of a crescent, of which Doonminalla formed the right horn and Benwee Head the left – was the whole semi-circle between the two headlands composed of the most shattered, broken down, ruined cliffs that can possibly be imagined; just as if the mountain had been blown up with gunpowder, and masses of huge ruins of rock lay tumbling all around.”
Perched on a cosy bank of sheep-cropped heather beneath pillowy clouds floating in the blue of the endless sky, I lunched while drinking in the magnificent, unbroken cliff amphitheatre that stretched out before me; the empty vastness of North Atlantic dissolved into a thin fringe of blueness along the distant horizon where the sapphire of the sea met the robin’s egg blue of the sky.
Ahead of me, the climb up gently sloping Benwee Head; across sheep-grazed heather, a coarse mat of subdued greens, browns and greys, flecked with spots of purple and vivid red strands of moor grass, topped off with a sprinkling of the warm yellows of tormentil.
Emerging onto the summit, the sun was still in the bog pools and the vista to the south was a magnificent, unbroken panorama across Broadhaven and Blacksod Bays. A semi-circle of breathtaking scenery from the inner reaches of Broadhaven, along the sinuous, glistening waters of Sruwaddacon Bay, leads the eye beyond Rossport to the backdrop of the Nephin Begs. Further, in the distance across the silvered, shimmering vastness of the sea, Achill was shining in the luminous afternoon light with Slievemore and Croaghaun capped in beaming white clouds.
My descent to the Children of Lir sculpture opened up wonderful views of Kid Island and the spectacular walk along the Dun Chaochain cliffs.
By the time I reached Ceathrú Thaidhg on my walk along the road back to Portacloy, the weather had changed, but no matter how much it rained my spirits couldn’t be dampened after such a wonderful morning walking over Benwee Head