Placing Mweelrea, Mayo’s massif

Townland tales

Silver Strand and Mweelrea.  Pic: John O’Callaghan


John O'Callaghan


I have climbed Maol Réidh (Mweelrea) about 50 times and it is among my top three favourite mountains in Ireland. The other two are Mt Brandon, overlooking my father’s birthplace in Ballinahow, west Kerry, and Croaghaun on Achill Island.
Mweelrea is more than a mere mountain or mountain-range. It is a massif. A massif is an elevated area that is surrounded by faults. With Doolough and Delphi valley, where the Bundorragha River flows, and Killary Fjord and the ocean, there are enough faults in this part of southwest Mayo to adequately qualify Mweelrea as a massif.
Mweelrea is also the highest mountain in the province of Connacht. It rises to 814 metres north of the entrance to Killary Harbour. The massif comprises of three summits, Ben Lugmore and Ben Bury (or Oughty Craggy) being the other two, in a range that occupies a total area of over 48 square kilometres between the beaches of Uggool, Thallabawn and Silver Strand to the west and Louisburgh and environs to the north. The Doolough Pass and Delphi River separate it from the Sheeffry Hills, Ben Creggan and Ben Gorm to the east, and the lovely Killary Harbour cradles it to the south.
There are numerous approaches to the principal eponymous summit, the most westerly of the three peaks of Ben Bury, Ben Lugmore and Mweelrea itself. Just above sea-level, in the wonderful sounding townland of Dadreen, that always makes me smile and think of ‘a doddery person’. Of course, it has absolutely nothing to do with ‘doddering’ and is the anglicisation of the old Irish territorial division of ‘dhá-thriain’, meaning ‘two-thirds’ of a division, in the same way that ceathrú/carrow denotes a quarter.
Dadreen is the place to start an ascent if time is limited and you simply wish to ‘bag’ the main summit and return to your car within three to four hours. Just off the road to Silver Strand, there is a mountain track leading upwards to the left, about a kilometre inland from the car park at the beach, where the main road ends.
You have a choice, you may park your car in this sizeable car park, and retrace your steps back to the trailhead or alternatively, you may park considerately at the trailhead itself, where there is sufficient space for three or four cars. (I cannot emphasis that word ‘considerately’ enough, as I have sometimes passed this little junction on my way to the beach in summer and been appalled at the quite indiscriminate and inconsiderate way in which walkers have abandoned their vehicles, barely leaving room for the hill farmers who may wish to use the side-road to check on their flocks and livestock.)

‘Exterminated inhabitants’
The mountain’s name, pronounced ‘mweel-ray’, has been famously, yet understandably, mistranslated as the ‘Bald King’. The Irish word maol means bald and rí is a king.  Coincidentally maoil is a rounded summit, hillock or knoll. PW Joyce, in ‘Irish Names of Places’, states that it means some sort of toponym and réidh or ré is the Irish for smooth or level, easy-to-traverse ground. One could argue the name derives from the Christian name, Maolra or Maolre, meaning Myles. This in turn comes from Maol-Mhuire or ‘the servant of Mary’. Who knows?
In the Memoirs of the Geological Survey, an Explanatory Memoir to accompany certain sheets of the Geological Survey of Ireland, by GH Kinahan, MRIA et al, printed and published in Dublin in 1876, there is a footnote on page 10, referring to ‘the Mweelrea mountains from the name of the highest summit’, that states:
‘As the inhabitants of these hills have been exterminated, the name of the group seems to have been lost, it however receives various names from the people now inhabiting the neighbouring countries, namely: Mayo hills, Mweelrea mountains, Lugmore mountains, Kilgeever mountains, Murrish (sic) mountains, the Doolough mountains, according to the side they are viewed from.’
‘Exterminated’ is a very unusual choice of verb but in this case, it serves to bluntly describe how much of this part of the Barony of Murrisk was ‘cleared’ of its inhabitants, to make way for the ‘Killary Farm’ of Capt William Houstoun in the 1850s.
The whole mountain range encompasses a full 13 townlands: Glencullin (Gleann Cuillinn),‘Valley of the Place of the Holly’; Kinnakillew (Cionn na Coilleadh), ‘(?)High Ground of the Wood’; Glenconneely (Gleann Choinnile), ‘Conneely’s Glen’ or ‘Valley of the Stubble or Bluebells’; Tawnynoran (Tamhnaigh an Fhuaráin), ‘Mountain Field of the Spring’; Tonatleva (Tóin a tSléibhe), ‘Back of the Mountain’. Dadreen (Dhá dTrian), ‘Two-Thirds’; Bundorragha (Bun Dorcha), ‘Dark Mouth’ (of the river); Mweelin (An Mhaoilinn), ‘(?) The Ridge’; Uggool (An tOgúl), ‘The Hollow’; Derreenawinshin (Doirín na bhFuinseann), ‘The Little Thicket of the Ash Trees’; Derry (Doire), ‘Little Thicket’; Derreennanalbanagh (Doirín na nAlbanach), ‘The Scotsman’s Little Thicket’; and Doovilra (Dumha Bhiolra), ‘Sandbank of the Cress’.

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’.