Capturing Carrigskeewaun

Townland tales

WILD PLACE Carrigskeewaun under Maol Réidh.  Pic: John O'Callaghan

Mayo townland a muse for many

John O'Callaghan

If you walk across Silver Strand at low tide, handrailing the dunes north/northwestwards, and then follow the coast after exiting the beach via an inclined sandy corridor, you are now in Lackakeely, (?)Leac an Chaolaigh, ‘Flat Stone(s) of the (?)Twigs’, an uninhabited townland, nestled between Dooaghtry and Dadreen. ‘There are no dwellings in Lackakeeley and the name may have fallen into disrepair’, according to Fiachra Mac Gabhann in ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo 2’.
The meaning of the townland name is obscure. What is clear to anyone who walks this lovely stretch of coastline between Silver Strand (Trawleckachoolia = Lackakeeley Strand) and the White (or ‘Big’) Strand, there are lots of flagstones (leacanna) along the shore and inland there’s a marshy area where reeds/wattles (caolach) grow. There is also a narrow sea inlet, named Keclawra (Caoil Mhara?) on the OS map, 10m wide and about 50m long, translated as a ‘strait’ or ‘narrow’ for caol.
Dooaghtry, (?) Dumha Eachtra, ‘Sandbank of the Expedition’ or Dubh-Eachtraighe, ‘Black Thickets or Brambles’ is another troublesome name. Together with Lackakeely, it was part of the vast ‘farm’ rented by Captain William Houstoun from Lord Sligo in the late 1800s. I would propose a combination of dumha and machairí (the predominant grass on the dunes): ‘dumha-na-(m)achairí’/Doo-ach-(t)rí?) with a silent ‘t’.
Continue to Tonakeera Point and Allaran Point (Aill an Reanna aka Súmaire, ‘the Cliff of the Promontory/Swallow Hole’). Tonakeera, Tóin na Caorach, or ‘the Sheep’s Behind’, is a promontory, about 100m long and 30m wide that juts into the sea, where the coastline first swings round from a westerly to a northerly direction. When standing in the middle of this rocky promontory and gazing seawards, the narrow green sward can look like a large sheep’s tail lying between two flanks of rock!
According to Michael Viney, ‘the corner of sand below the rocks at Allaran Point is the otters’ regular pathway from the sea.’  Carrigskeewaun is next, another townland name with many possible meanings.    

Carrigskeewaun, Carraig an Sceamháin, ‘the rock of the (?) wall fern (or polypody)’ holds the distinction of being the Mayo townland with the most poems composed about it. The renowned Belfast-born poet, Michael Longley, has written extensively about Carrigskeewaun. In 2010, he estimated that one-third of all his poems were inspired by Carrigskeewaun and other local placenames, some cited above.
Longley and his family have been coming to ornithologist David Cabot’s house in Carrigskeewaun for the past 50 years. In ‘Above Dooaghtry’ from Longley’s ‘Snow Water’ (2004) he gives instructions for his funeral and describes the promontory fort where he wants his ashes to be scattered. In the poem he also name-checks Allaran Point and Tonakeera.
All told, almost every topographical feature in the vicinity of the cottage features in one poem or another. The original owners, the O’Toole family, who built the cottage after moving from nearby Inishdeigil (possibly from ‘téigle’, calm/still) Island, are not forgotten, and Longley tells us the house was famous as a céilí house in their day.

Dooaghtry Lake is a haven for over-wintering whooper swans, and all three townlands teem with wild animals and birds. Significantly, the name Carrigskeewaun itself recognises the indigenous flora, the polypody or wall-fern, and this has become the ‘accepted’ meaning.
However, the Irish words ‘sceamh’, ‘sceabha’ and ‘sceamhán’ have many other meanings. For example, ‘sceabha’ can be translated as a ‘skew, slant or slope’ and ‘sceamh’ means a ‘bark, yelp or cry’ – perhaps a reference to the migratory birds (?). ‘Sceamhán’ is another name for a ‘fox’, and sciathán, ‘a wing’. Not to mention how the name sounds when pronounced locally and that ‘waun’ at the end is very resonant of ‘bán’/white. This is what makes deciphering logainmneacha so interesting, the whole process is fraught with ambiguity.
The Owenadornaun River, Abhainn na dTornán, ‘the River of the Round Stones’ divides Carrigskeewaun from Thallabawn, the next townland to the north that I will look at in detail in another article.
Rising south of Lough Cunnel, possibly from coinneal/candle, the river enters the sea south of Templedoomore Graveyard (Teampall an Dumha Mhór, ‘Church of the Big Sandbank’). ‘Tornán’ is an alternative form of the word dornán, ‘fistful, handful’. The word dornóg, which is still used in Inishturk English, means ‘big rock’ or ‘boulder’.
If you get this far on your walk, you can return via the inner green track across the ‘dumhach’, through or to the rear of the sand-dunes, or alternatively retrace your steps across the White Strand.

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’.