A circuit of Glennacally, our Hag’s Glen

Townland tales

Glennacally Bridge

Mayo’s third-largest townland is full of magical streams, hills and valleys

John O'Callaghan

If you ever climbed Carrauntoohil, then the chances are you visited the Hag’s Glen, the so-called ‘tourist route’ to the mountain, between Cronin’s Yard and the Devil’s Ladder.
The Irish word cailleach can mean a nun, any ‘veiled’ person, or simply an old woman or hag. In Irish mythology, An Cailleach Beara or the Hag of Beara, in Cork, was believed to herald the approach of winter. Many hags resembled witches or shamans in their behaviour. Some valleys were haunted by hags and so became ‘Hag’s Glens’, possibly to scare younger folk from wandering too far up the glens and getting lost in the surrounding hills.  
There are two ‘Glencallys’ in Mayo, both in the Barony of Murrisk. The smaller one is in the Kilsallagh/Cuileen area, southwest of Croagh Patrick. The other Gleann na Caillí, or Glennacally, is located between Erriff Bridge and Glennacally Bridge on the N59 linking Westport and Leenane. With 5,247 acres (21.3 square kilometres), this is the third largest townland in Mayo, and it is full of streams and hills and subsidiary valleys. A circuit of Glennacally is no mean undertaking and makes for a fine hillwalk on a dry, calm day.

Peaks and hollows
I have visited the area many times over the years and on August 14, 2020, when I commenced my research into Mayo’s townlands, my first port of call was to the farm of Brian Reilly in Glennacally. I remember arriving at the Reilly home, looking for Srahatloe, which together with Letterass, formed the subject of the first Townland Tale. Brian made me very welcome and explained precisely where Glennacally ended and Srahatloe began.
The mountains surrounding Glennacally were once known as the Formnamore Mountains (from formna mór, ‘great shoulder’), but this name appears to have fallen out of usage sometime between the geological surveys of the 1870s and the early 20th-century maps.
Nowadays, the range is more commonly referred to as Devilsmother, Maumtrasna and the Partry Mountains. The highest point is Benwee, Binn Bhuí (Yellow Peak), at 682m. The trigonometric pillar found on top of the Maumtrasna Plateau is nine metres lower, at 673m.
Glenagleragh Hill, from Gleann na gClérigh (Valley of the Clergy), is next lowest at 621m, followed by Gowlan, Gabhlán (Fork), at a similar altitude.
Binn Garbh, ‘Rough Peak,’ and the Devilsmother (or Magairlí a’ Deamhain) are often confused, and everyone refers to the whole ridge to the right as you look up from Glennacally Bridge as the Devilsmother. In fact, it is only the first two peaks at around 600m that constitute the actual ‘Magairlí’, and Binn Garbh is the highest peak at the back of the valley, at 645m.
The ‘middle hill’ east towards Maumtrasna is appropriately named Knocklaur, Cruach Láir, ‘middle peak,’ topping out at 518m.
Down in the valley proper, the two contributary rivers flow from Glenfree, Gleann Fraoigh (‘Heather Glen’), and Glennaglearagh, Gleann a Cléirigh, to make the Glennacally River, that in turn flows into the Erriff River.
Further north/northeast in the townland, three ‘hollows’ or luga(s) are found, named Luga Kippen (Lug an Chipín, ‘Hollow of the (?) Little Plot’), Luga Gowlan (Lug an Gabhlán, ‘Fork Hollow’) and Luga Buidhe (Lug Buí, ‘Yellow Hollow’).

Keane’s Field
On the main road, Gowlan bridge is found near an old schoolhouse, sited across the road from ‘The Field’ – the one used in the filming of the Richard Harris movie of John B Keane’s eponymous play. As if to confuse any would-be townland researchers, the stone plaque on the wall reads, in ‘old-Irish’ script: ‘Scoil Naisiunta-Airim-A.D. 1929’. The middle word is actually ‘Oirimh’, the Irish for Erriff.
Alexander Nimmo was the engineer responsible for the construction of all three bridges in Glennacally townland – Erriff, Gowlan and Glennacally – as well as Srahlea Bridge, encountered earlier on the N59.
If you would like a shorter walk in this area, you could always consider parking near the Carraig (Rock) Bar, between Aasleagh and Leenane, and approaching the Binn Garbh ridge via Glennagevlagh (Gleann na nGeimhleach – the ‘Glen of the Prisoner or Captive’).
Cross the tiny bridge and proceed up the second of the tarred boreens to the top of the glen, where the road becomes a green, grassy track that will eventually take you onto the long Binn Garbh to Devilsmother ridgeline.
You may then descend with all due care and caution from the 645m peak to a gate, about 200 metres east of where you parked your car.
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’.