Hags, testicles, and a slide to hell

Townland tales

Two Mayo coastal townlands: Srahatloe and Letterass

John O'Callaghan

A townland is a sub-parochial geographical division, unique to Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland. Most townlands, or ‘baile fearainn’ in Irish, have names of Irish origin. Mayo has 3,422 townlands listed on townlands.ie. About 370 of these have a coastline.
Aside from their ‘official’ usage during planning or voting, townlands generally don’t always get the recognition they deserve, despite their uniqueness to Ireland as a descriptive geographical term. In this series of articles, I will highlight the usage of individual Mayo townland names and present something of significance that sets each townland apart from all the others.
Tracing the origins of the ‘logainmneacha’ or townland placenames has become a fascination for many people. How the original Irish names have become corrupted and anglicised over the course of many centuries continues to puzzle and mystify many scholars.
Linguists, anthropologists, writers and historians, among others, have often collaborated with the Ordnance Survey office in order to come up with a plausible origin for a particular placename, and yet, to this day, many logainmneacha remain ‘non-validated’.
The coastal traverse begins, just inside the Mayo-Galway border, in the two townlands of Srahatloe and Letterass. They share a common border on the Erriff River, that culminates at Aasleagh Falls. Both townlands are contained within a designated geological zone known as the Mweelrea Formation or South Mayo Trough.

Srahatloe
The Irish name for Srahatloe is ‘Sraith an tSlua’, the river meadow of the host/force. A little contentious perhaps, as ‘slua’ has several meanings. I tend to favour ‘force’ over ‘host’, as a reference to the force of the ‘eas’ (waterfall) in full spate.
This townland has a very short coastline, running from the Galway-Mayo county boundary on the N59 to Aasleagh Bridge. Walkers have the option of following the Western Way trail from here to Houstoun’s Bridge, 9km north along the east bank of the Erriff river. Aasleagh Lodge is a long-established centre for salmon fishing and the Falls are a Wild Atlantic Way ‘Discovery Point’. The nearby Church of St John the Baptist (Church of Ireland) and its adjoining cemetery are worthy of exploration.
The predominant feature of the townland is  a mountain that reaches an altitude of 645 metres, the Devilsmother – ‘Magairlí an Diabhail’ in Irish, and therefore, more correctly, ‘The Devil’s Testicles’. (This latter translation’s descriptive accuracy is also mentioned by Tim Robinson, who noted ‘two swellings high over the Leenaun-Westport road [that] an inflamed imagination could indeed see as a pair of giant testicles.’)
The Devilsmother is a fine climb and the ridge leading to it, called Binn Gharibh, is often combined with the neighbouring Maumtrasna plateau to complete a fine ‘horseshoe’ walk, starting and finishing at Glennacally Bridge. Glennacally, or Gleann na Caillí – the valley of the hag or old woman – is the third largest townland in Mayo after Sheskin and Tarsaghaun More.
There was a small orphanage, known locally as ‘The Bird’s Nest’, located about 1.5 km from the junction near the church, on the left side of the Westport road, opposite the entrance to Glennanean, ‘Gleann na n-Éin’, or the valley of the birds. This was run by the Irish Church Mission Society in the late 19th century, closing down in the late 1920s. No trace of the building survives today.  

Letterass
Letterass, ‘Leitir Easa’, means the ‘(wet) hillside of the waterfall’. The highest point in Letterass is the summit of Ben Gorm (700m) that rises to the north behind the car parks at Aasleagh. This car park is also the starting point for anyone intending to climb Ben Gorm and its neighbouring peak to the north, Ben Creggan, providing an excellent day’s walking.
The Devilsmother isn’t the only ‘satanic’ reference in these townlands. Another notable topographical feature, located at the extreme western end of Letterass, where it borders with Lettereeragh townland, is Skirragohiffern, or Sciorradh go hIfreann, ‘slide-into-hell’, a deep gorge-strewn area on the lower slopes of Ben Gorm, just above the main road, approximately 3 km west of the Aasleagh car parks. This is one of the few placenames, wholly located within Mayo, alluded to by Tim Robinson in Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008).
There is also a children’s burial ground or ‘Cillín’ in Letterass, located just above the shoreline. The day we visited, a local man whose brother owns the field in which the Cillín is located, willingly granted us access to the tiny enclosure, marked with a cross and a relatively recently erected headstone, inscribed ‘In loving memory of all the unknown children and adults buried in this graveyard – Rest in Peace’.

John O’Callaghan MA MBA PhD is a mountain walk leader and has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.