An Arctic scene of snow, frost and ice by the shores of Lough Cullin; it was more reminiscent of Lapland in December than winter in Mayo. The freezing air was so cold it numbed my face like a dentist’s anaesthetic, making it difficult to speak without sounding like a recording in reverse.
A lone cyclist slowly wheeled left and right as he made his way towards us across the frozen expanse of the Mayo lake; ghost-like out of the gloaming. Behind him a white prospect all the way to an apricot sunset along the snowy Pontoon hills fringing the distant horizon.
Peddling over the ice that had turned the peaty waters of the lake under Drummin Wood into a habitat fit for polar bears, the cyclist headed in our direction to offer us his mountain bike for a daredevil pedal out onto the frozen lake.
We stood in wonder gazing out over this long and remarkable view across a frozen Lough Cullin, a fur of snow covering the layer of ice that had formed during that never-to-be-forgotten Arctic winter of 2010.
A treacherous, but transiently beautiful landscape. The country shivered to a standstill twice in 2010 bringing hardship to the elderly and isolated and misery to motorists who had to drive over roads like skate rinks as local authorities ran low on ice and grit supplies. For many others 2010 evokes only monstrous memories of loved ones who lost their lives in ice-related falls; there were over six such deaths in Mayo alone that winter.
A 2-act glacial winter that opened with a Polar freeze in January and ended with Mayo setting a record coldest temperature – minus 17.5 Celsius. It was the coldest temperature ever recorded since the foundation of the Irish State, registered by Martin Sweeney at his Straide synoptic weather station in the early hours of Christmas morning, December 25th 2010.
Big freeze 1963
Not since January 1963 had we experienced such cold when lakes and rivers had also frozen over. My own childhood memory of the big freeze of 1963 is of a Monday morning trying to walk to the Convent Primary school in Ballina, but having to turn back for home at Humbert Street in the face of a worsening blizzard. The Western People of January 19th 1963 reported that the River Moy froze over at the Quay and I can recall ice floes on the river.
As for cycling on a Mayo lake, well that also happened in 1963. The Mayo News reported in its edition of January 19th 1963:
“Near Bangor Erris, bicycle races were held on the frozen surface of Carramore Lake”, and in Westport, a frozen Mall River “was turned into a Winter Wonderland by scores of youngsters who availed of the ice carpet as a skating rink.”
The last rays of an Arctic-like sunset were falling upon Nephin’s snowy canvass as I set out on my icy adventure making sure to stay close to Lough Cullin’s foreshore that I know so well.
That was all the thrill I needed to create a once-in-a-lifetime memory.