Coastal cliffhangers

Townland tales

ON THE SHELF Dramatic and almost inaccessble, Fothair na Manach (the Steep-sloped Pastures of the Monks) dangle on the Dingle Peninsula. Pic:John O’Callaghan

Inaccessible pastures and forgotten fothairs

fothair, f. (gs. foithre, pl. foithreacha). Wooded hollow, dingle, dell; (woodland, mountain) pasture; steep slope towards precipice. Níl fear ná ~ aige, he has neither grass nor pasture, he is a landless man.
– ‘Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla’, Niall Ó Dónaill, 1977

Instinctively, I’ve always known what ‘fothair(s)’ are. Anglicised to ‘foher’, they are invariably located near the sea. I have visited some impressive examples.
John O’Donovan, a place name researcher for the the Topographical Department of the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland, wrote in 1838 that in Mayo ‘‘Fochair’(sic) is generally used to signify a shelf in the face of a cliff’.
A precipice on the north-east coastline of Slievemore in Achill is named Foheraphuca (Fothair an Phúca,‘Cliff-shelf of the Pooka’). ‘Hobgoblin’s, ‘pooka’s’ or ‘puck’s’ have been used to qualify ‘a ravine or deep glen, a grass-grown surface sloping over and down a cliff’ (Dinneen’s Irish-English Dictionary).
These are very precise descriptions, and the English words ‘hollow, dingle’ or ‘dell’ don’t even come close to capturing the essence of a fothair.

Achill’s fab fothairs
Foheraphuca is one of many fothairs on Achill Island. The others are all located in the townland of Keel West. In order of appearance in Fiachra MacGabhann’s fascinating book, ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’, they are briefly as follows:
Firstly, there’s Fagher, the upper valley of the stream called Mill Stream. Then there’s Foherbunnahellia (Fothair Bhun na hAille, ‘Cliff-shelf of the Bottom of the Cliff’), directly northeast of Keem Beach.
Next it’s Fohermore (Fothair Mhór, ‘Big Cliff-shelf’). This is east of Fohernahillina in another cave in the cliffs: ‘Mary’s Cave’. The sea bay is now known as The Mearing Cove, and MacGabhann wondered, “Could it be that the other name is derived from Fothair Mháire and that the official form is based on misspelling?”
Fohernaclihabbary (Fothair na Cloiche Bioraí, ‘Cliff-shelf of the Pointed Stones’) lies east of Fohernacon, a name that has fallen into disuse – its exact origin is unclear and may mean wattles.
On the coast between Foherbunnahellia and Fohernaclihabbary lies Fohernacon (Fothair na gCon, ‘Cliff-shelf of the Hounds’) – ‘Cú’ is the Irish for hound.
Lastly, there’s Fohernahillina (Fothair na hUillinne, Cliff-shelf of the Corner/Elbow), north of a small cove on the coast between Fohernacon and Fohermore. ‘Uileann’ also means honeysuckle.
To discover 21 more Mayo fothairs and five ‘na fothrachaí’ (the plural version), you have to travel to Dún Chaocháin in Erris. I will explore these again another day.

Farther afield fothairs
One of my favourite coastal walks is along the southern shore of Killary Harbour along the old Famine track from Rosroe Pier eastwards into the townland of Foher. Near Salroc, the path overlooks the inlet and goes through the Smugglers’ or Devil’s Pass. It is said that smugglers landing contraband at Little Killary used to carry it over the Salrock Pass, a rugged gap in the hills above Foher. According to legend, the gap was formed when the devil dragged the local St Roc over the hills with a chain.
However, the most unique fothair experience for me is not in Mayo or Galway, but in the townland of Baile na hAbha, Ballynahow, in Chorca Dhuibhne on the Dingle Peninsula.
This was the townland my father was born into, and it lies in the northwestern foothills of Mount Brandon. The actual fothair itself, known as Fothair na Manach, the ‘Steep-sloped Pastures (or Fields) of the Monks’, is a truly unique, special place. It has been photographed and painted, and remembered in two poems by local poets, Caomhín Ó Cinnéide and Bríd Ní Mhóráin.
I have been to The Monks’ Fields, as they are called locally, only three times over the years, and the approach to this almost inaccessible place cannot be undertaken lightly. The ascent from the village of Ballynahow, along a ‘green road’ called the Cosán Bán, takes you to an elevation of about 450m, and then a cautious descent brings you down into the fothair.
Once you’ve arrived in the tiny monastic settlement itself, it will feel like you’re on an island, hemmed-in on three sides by the towering precipices of Másatiompán and Mount Brandon. A precipitous cliff of about 30-metres’ drops from the green fields to the churning sea below.
I have collected a small file of literature references to Fothair na Manach over the years. One of the earliest visitors was a Rev Professor Patrick Power from Waterford, who wrote ‘The Placenames of the Decies’. Incredibly, he claims to have ‘landed’ here from the sea in 1918, before returning the following year on foot from Ballynahow.
I hope these descriptions have given you a good mental image of what constitutes a fothair, and like all good cliffhangers, they have left you wanting to know more – and perhaps seek them out for yourself.

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’.