The spirits of Erriff

Townland tales

Lough Glennawough from the south

John O'Callaghan

Erriff: ‘An Oirimh’, literally means ‘the arable’ or ‘arable land’. It is a large townland located mainly in the south-eastern part of the parish of Aghagower, on the northern slopes of the Partry and Maumtrasna range. The Erriff River rises in Rooghaun, flows west of Cailleach Hill, and on to Killary Harbour. The river is called the Owenmore north of Gowlan Bridge.
For the past six months I have been relieving the ennui of the pandemic by taking a virtual walk along the 1,168 km coastline of County Mayo. My journey has been punctuated by townlands, or ‘baile fearainn’ as they are called in Irish and I chose the townland as it is the smallest administrative area into which our baronies and parishes have been divided and is unique to Ireland and the western isles of Scotland. With 371 townlands making contact with a stretch of sea or river estuary, there are plenty to choose from.
For the purposes of this essay, and to add a little more variety to my peregrinations, I have taken a slight detour inland to the townland of Erriff, in order to revisit one of my favourite wild places in southwest Mayo and what is, arguably, one of the finest and least visited corrie lakes in all of Ireland, Lough Glenawough.
The derivation of this placename is difficult. Suffice to say, the experts on Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo (Placenames of Mayo), ie, Fiachra Mac Gabhann and Prof Nollaig Ó’Muraíle, include a question mark with their interpretation,  “(?) Loch Ghleann na bhFuath / Gleann na bhFuath, “lake of Gleann na bhFuatha” / “lake of the valley of the phantoms.” I like that nebulous word ‘phantom’. Already we’re talking about a lake that may not exist at all, as the valley in which it is located is so full of ghosts and spirits that it may even be a figment of the imagination. It is a truly mystical prospect, whether viewed from above, around the rim of the corrie, or when circumnavigated at lake level. This locus is all genius/genii!
The Cross River rises in the northeast end of Lough Glenawough. It is located to the south of the townland in a large mountain coum between the Partry and Maamtrasna mountain ranges. Uí Niadh’s Irish form is based on the plural genitive of the word fuath meaning ‘a hideous or supernatural form, a spectre, apparition, monster’ or ‘a shape, a figure, a design; a phantom’. The translation to ‘Victory Valley’ should also be considered, from ‘bua’, the Irish for victory.
At the top of a narrow but not-too-steep grassy gully on the southeast ‘corner’ of the corrie rim there is a memorial cairn or ‘leacht’ known as ‘Beálóg na Croise’ where an inscription on a plaque reads ‘In Memory of the Man who Died here during the Famine Years, RIP.’ This was brought here by some people from the Joyce Country to replace an old cross, made from bogwood, and inscribed ‘ar dhéis Dé go raibh a h-anam’ that had been broken and storm-damaged over the years. It is very difficult to obtain any concrete information on the identity of ‘the man’. Some say he was from the Gleann area of Oughterard, others that he came from An Spidéil. What is remarkable is that it has survived at all at such an elevation and in such an exposed place. This point is on an ancient ‘Tochar’ or pilgrim path from Connemara to Croagh Patrick and has been traversed by a number of pilgrims for centuries. Up to two dozen people in some years have used this route on Reek Saturdays to walk from Cornamona/Clonbur and other parts of the Joyce Country and north Connemara to the top of Croagh Patrick. In true ‘Camino’ style, they stay overnight at the farm of Pat and Marian O’Malley in Carrowrevagh/Carrowkennedy, returning home on foot again the next day, Reek Sunday. This tradition was largely unbroken until the pandemic hit in 2020. What is also interesting is that there was an old RC church, located on another ancient track, immediately behind one of the quarries in Erriff. This is marked on the ‘Cassini’ map, available online on the OSi website. It is believed to have been replaced by the more modern church in Cushlough.
Many roads lead to the Reek, and as there are many ‘caminos’, so there are many ‘tochars’. The tradition of walking to the Reek via the Partry Mountains is a noble one, long may it last.

Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who 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’.