Uggool, The Lost Valley and The Great Mweelrea Walk of 1971
Fifty years ago, on Sunday, March 7, 1971, 74 people walked from Thallabawn to Bundorragha, along the northwestern shore of Killary Harbour. They were led by Michael Bourke of Uggool, who rose from his sick bed to guide the group.
The details of this ‘extraordinary escapade’ are recounted in an article in ‘An Choinneal’, the Louisburgh parish magazine (issue No 7, Christmas 1971), by Fr Kieran Waldron, who participated in the walk. (Incidentally, An Choinneal may be the longest-running magazine of its kind in the country, having been published continuously since 1959.)
Fr Kieran describes how the ‘idea’ of the walk was ‘born in the heady atmosphere of a tourism meeting in Louisburgh the previous January’: “An inspired Dáil Deputy suggested that the proposed tourist road over this route might materialise if the County Engineer could be persuaded to walk over the rough, eight-mile terrain. Such a road, to open up this beautiful part of the country to the normal tourist routes, is enshrined in the Mayo County Development Plan of 1968.”
Fortunately, the planned road never happened. However, what does exist today, is a beautiful four to 6km track, or ‘green road’, looping around the Bourke farm in Uggool – now known as The Lost Valley (see www.thelostvalley.ie) – near Louisburgh.
This is no ordinary trail. It is a wonderful, living memorial to Ireland’s famine times of the late 19th century when evictions, clearances, starvation and dereliction were the order of the day.
Tours lasting three hours are given by Gerard Bourke, son of the late Michael, accompanied by his wife, Maureen. He describes the truly rich natural and cultural heritage of this outstandingly beautiful townland. The tour culminates in the cottage from which Gerard’s great-great-great grandfather, Pat Burke, was evicted in 1851.
The route of the 1971 walk continued southeastwards along the foot of Maol Réidh mountain, via the three townlands of Doire, Derreenawinshin and Derrynanalbanagh, to finally reach Bundorragha.
The 74 walkers on that fateful day were extremely fortunate to arrive unscathed, in fading daylight, having survived an ordeal that was described by Claude Wall, author of Mountaineering in Ireland (1939) and founder member of the Irish Mountaineering Club (1948), as ‘the greatest gruelling I have ever gone through on a mountain’ when he followed the same route in 1932. “In almost any other nation in the world, such a harbour as the Killery Bay affords, would, in spite of natural obstacles, have made that nation’s fortune; but in poor Ireland its advantages are – excepting for the lovers of the picturesque – almost entirely thrown away.”
So wrote Matilda C Houstoun, who, during the 1850s and 1860s, with her husband, Captain William Houstoun, leased most of the townlands north of Killary Harbour, for the purposes of raising and grazing huge flocks of black-faced sheep. The quotation is taken from her 1879 book, ‘Twenty Years in The Wild West or, Life in Connaught’, written at least eight years after her departure from west Mayo to return to England.
Having waxed lyrically about a boat trip from Bundorragha to the sands of Agoul (sic), she describes vividly what she observed in the three townlands of Derreennanalbanagh, Derreenawinshin and Derry, as she sailed past: ‘the thatched cabins nestling in their utter loneliness [...] were tenanted by our herds’.
And she proceeds to tell herself, and her readers, about the life ‘to which the children born and bred in such a solitude were doomed!’: “Road to such hovels there existed none. Education of any kind was as entirely out of the question as it was sorely needed; and the little savages, for such in truth they were, ‘wild on the mountains ran’, their minds as vacant as their bodies were dirty and unclothed.”
It’s over 150 years since Mrs Houstoun witnessed the absence of roads in these three townlands, and today there are barely any walking trails, let alone roads, here. The scenery remains as sublime and picturesque as ever. Derreennanalbanagh, Doirín na nAlbanach, ‘the little thicket of the Scotsmen’, has been a townland name since 1802 at the earliest and may have been simply known as Derreen in the previous century. Local people recall Scottish landowners living here. Sruhaunglass, ‘the green stream’, marks the boundary between Derreennanalbanagh and Derreenawinshin.
There are four ‘subtownlands’ in Derreennanalbanagh: Bellaglanna, Creggaunlea, Creggaunranny and Malcormick, which may mean ‘Meall Cormaic’ or Cormac’s lump. The Ordinance Survey Name Books call it ‘Cormac’s Cave’, or the ‘Hermit of Glenconeela’s Cave’. The hermit was one Cormac O’Malley, who made the cave a place of refuge to evade the murderer of his sister, who also sought his own life. The cave is four feet high, three feet wide and seven feet long.
Derreenawinshin, Doirín na bhFuinseann, ‘the little thicket of the ash trees’, is listed in the Tithe Applotment Books of Mayo, §47, 1830. Buckaunglass, ‘green little peak’, is located in the east of this townland, adjacent to Sruhaunglass.
Derry, Doire, ‘thicket’, is the most westerly of these three townlands. There is a deserted village here and at least eight distinct logainmneacha, including two streams, two rocky areas and two coastal ‘points’ or ‘gobs’.
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’.