Mayo Walks Nature Trail

Under Downpatrick Head

Like the Dead Sea parting for Moses, the ocean had obligingly receded so we could scramble down the cliff and over the steep stairways of shell-encrusted sea ledges to the cathedral cave beneath Downpatrick Head that frames one of the most exciting vistas in Ireland.

I was about to say it’s a view to die for, but then that is exactly the fate that awaits anyone foolhardy enough not to take the necessary precautions before descending the cliff face to stand within a stone’s throw of Dun Bríste under the 50-metre headland.

Dun Bríste from under Downpatrick Head. Photo: Anthony Hickey

On this day, the sea was as calm as a mill-pond; a requisite of those rare days when tide, swell, wind and weather must all combine, making it safe and possible for my companion and myself to warily walk in excitement and trepidation the few hundred yards to our much-anticipated destination under the headland.

Under crumbling sandstone cliffs riveted with horizontal seams of jagged rock like the battlements of some medieval city walls, our mood was a mixture of nervous silence and awe at our magnificent surroundings; our every cautious step accompanied by the sound of countless crunching seashells underfoot where an ephemeral marine world revealed itself.

Star Fish

The entrance to the cave under Downpatrick Head. Photo: Anthony Hickey

Rockpools with barnacles, mussels and limpets dotted the tiered shelf of rock protruding from the cliff; and closer to the headland this ethereal world that would shortly be reclaimed by the sea became more wonderful as we marvelled at the starfish in the deep, limpid ponds, sea-sculpted aquariums, one of the highlights of the trek to rival all its other thrilling moments.

Soon we were carefully making our way up onto the ledge that we had to climb before turning the headland to gaze skywards at Dun Bríste; an incomparable view of the 45-metre high sea stack that broke off from the promontory in 1393.

A star fish in a rock pool under Downpatrick Head. Photo: Anthony Hickey
A starfish in a rock pool under Downpatrick Head. Photo: Anthony Hickey

The stack was a breathtaking sight from sea level, a giant monolith of sedimentary rock, rising majestically from a gently lapping sea and throwing its shadow in the puddles on the watery ledges that were laced with tangled layers of sugar kelp.

Into the Cave

Opposite Dun Bríste, beneath Downpatrick Head, a Roman basilica of a cave; a giant pillar of wave-battered rock, all askew, propping up and dividing the cave’s enormous entrance. Quiet and almost welcoming, at this moment, but, at high tide, the booming waves that hollowed the cave from the steep cliff race through its tunnels to make eerie echoes in the blow-holes up on the headland.

We made our way into the wave-surged cave over sheets of millions of mussels, their tinctures beautifully staining purple and violets on its cavernous walls. The cave’s lofty, mossy ceiling was dripping water into Dun Bríste’s mirror, that small pool that brings photographers from all over the world to capture the stack’s reflection inside the cave.

Cliffs like the battlements of some medieval city walls, Downpatrick Head. Photo: Anthony Hickey

The cave’s enormous entrance framed Dun Bríste against the soft Autumn light drawing the full range of colours from the stack’s interbedded rock strata of shale, sandstones, and limestones; a layered cake of yellows, tans and greys marked with the sea-sculpted textures and patterns created by 350 million years of erosion.

On other days, I have watched in wonder the huge sea swells, stirred up by the North Atlantic’s fearsome winter storms, propel mountainous waves 50 metres skywards over Downpatrick Head submerging the foreshore where I was standing beneath fathomless depths of a raging sea.

A chastening thought and a reminder not to dally beneath Downpatrick Head; the turning tide was our signal to return to the safety of the headland.

By Anthony Hickey

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

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