Walking heads

Townland tales

Stags of Broadhaven

Erris Head and Benwee Head

John O' Callaghan

If for a moment you imagine northwest Erris as a giant crab, then the two pincers enfolding the body of water known as Broadhaven Bay (Cuan an Inbhir Mhóir) are Erris Head (Ceann Iorrais) to the left and Benwee Head (Ceann an Bhinn Bhuí) to the right. As a one-day, double-bill excursion to the extreme northwestern tip of our county, walks around these two heads are hard to beat.
You could start by going to Erris Head in the morning. Proceeding due north out of Belmullet, after 8km you enter the townland of Glenlara (Gleann Lára), ‘the valley of the mare’. This is the 75th largest townland in Mayo, the largest in the parish of Kilmore-Erris and home of the most remote village in the Mullet, also called Glenlara.
Like John O’Donovan of old (1838 OS notes), I would have assumed Glenlara meant ‘middle’ or ‘central’ valley, as in the ‘An Lár’ on city-centre busses. However, etymologically-speaking, Fiachra MacGabhann in ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eó’ suggests: “The historical singular genitive of the word ‘láir’ “lára [...] [means] mare, female of horse. Glenlaragh is suggested as the original form of the comparable name Glenlara in the barony of Burrishoole.”
There’s a small car park at the trailhead with room for about ten cars, and details of the looped walk around the headland are posted nearby. The trail is very well signposted, so you may choose to do it clockwise or anticlockwise. Either way, this section of our Mayo coastline is a little treasure trove of topographical logainmneacha.
The most significant, given that it is where Erris Head itself, is actually situated on the northern tip of the island of Illandavuck (Oileán Dhabhaic), ‘Dabhuc’s (Dabhí Óg’s) Island’, as O’Donovan translates it. MacGabhann adds that Illaundavuck is listed as an island in the Topographic Index (Census 1851) and three ‘Old Foreigners’ and one O’Brien, named Dabhac are listed in the Great Genealogy Book. The translation is open to question as Glendavock, located between Drummin and Doo Lough, is given as ‘valley of the two bucks’ and local inhabitants refer to it as the ‘valley of the two sons’ as in ‘mhác’.
The Danish Cellar is an interesting name marked on the OS Discovery Series, Sheet 22. Westropp notes this was marked on James Wilde’s ancient map of Ireland from c 1837, but the origin is obscure. Canon Power asserts that anything with Dane or Danish in a placename usually meant there was a souterrain present or it harked back to the Tuatha de Danaan.
Daingean (as in Dingle) is a fortress or stronghold and quite a common root word around the country. Joyce attributes Ballindine to the pronunciation of ‘daingean’ as ‘dine’. I suggest that somewhere called Dane (later Danish) could be a mispronunciation of Dean, as in the religious title. If ‘tea’ can become ‘tae’, then why not? There are lots of placenames with ‘priest’ – eg south of Ooghwee is Leamataggart (Léim an tSagairt), ‘the place where the priest jumped’ or ‘the priest’s leap’ (there’s another in Cork of the same name) – so why wouldn’t the Dean have somewhere named after him too?
Gubastuckaun (Gob an Stacáin), ‘the point of the little sea-stack’, is also marked on the modern maps, and Ooghwee (An Uaich Bhuí), ‘the yellow cove’ – ‘a narrow, remarkable inlet extending for nearly 30 chains’, according to the O.S. Name Books (1838) – looks just as impressive today.
Time to move on via Carrowteige (Ceathrú Thaidhg) ‘Tadhg’s Quarter’, to the ‘Quarter of the Stones’ or Ceathrú na gCloch, Carrownaglogh. This is the 37th largest townland in Mayo and one of 13 townlands in the Erris section of Dún Chaocháin, featured in ‘Logainmneacha agus Oidhreacht Dhún Chaocháin’, by Uinsíonn Mac Graith and Treasa Ní Ghearraigh. In this fine work, there are over 250 separate ‘micro-toponyms’ or minor placenames listed for this townland alone.
When I arrive in Carrowteige, I usually drive straight on up the hill, past the post office, and down to the most northerly parking place in Kilgalligan, on the sculpture trail. This is a good starting point for an exploration of Benwee Head, as far as Portacloy, if you’re feeling energetic.
You get great views of the Stags of Broadhaven to the north and the Donegal hills or coastline on a clear day. You could plan your own personal loop walk from here and simply walk as far as your time and energy permit. You may even reach Teachaín a’ Watch, an ‘anglo-Irish’ placename for the small hut at the furthest point at Barr na Rinne, ‘the top of the promontory’, directly north of Portacloy, but that’s a story for another day.

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’.