The standing stones of Deirbhile’s Twist, the wall where her eyes reputedly hit the ground and the church beside her grave are truly majestic.
Folklore and mystery abound in the Barony of Erris
We travel the world to see the sights, but sometimes aren’t aware of the wondrous things on our own doorstep. I’m a proud son of Erris – the place of legend and lore; language and laughter. We’re very proud of our heritage, resilience, talent, spirit and above all else – our people. The bond of Errisness is strong in the barony, and unbreakable across the world where two or more of us gather. Being of Erris is a proud and cherished birthright.
Therefore, when set the task of finding somewhere to write about for our summer series I immediately plumped for a day in Erris. However, where does one go to highlight the beauty of the barony? There are so many options; so many experiences and undoubtedly so many people capable of creating a symphony of stories for the soul.
I delved into the memory bank and found hazy, decades-old recollections of a visit to a ‘holy place’ where a woman got her sight back after somehow losing her eyes. How someone could mislay their eyes riddled my boyhood mind with puzzlement for a few days, but those thoughts were soon overtaken by a football match or something on the telly. Losing one’s optic orbs couldn’t compete with the real-life shenanigans of a five-year-old.
On Thursday, I decided to retrace that hazy journey and find out what really happened in the ‘missing eyes’ story. Research with brilliant local folklorist, Emma Fallon, told me I should turn the chariot towards Belmullet and onwards to the peninsula where I would find St Deirbhile’s Well.
The woman herself was said to be of noble lineage, daughter of the warrior chief Cormac Mac Daithi from Meath. She received unwanted amorous advances from a young fella around Tara and when he wouldn’t take the hint, she headed for Erris on a donkey.
One can only imagine that sixth-century trip across the country and the adventures had along the way, but Deirbhile and her trusty steed eventually rode into Faulmore at the edge of the known world where the ocean kissed the clay.
Legend tells us that Deirbhile settled in before meeting up with two other saints, Geidh from Iniskea and Muredach from Ballina and they all headed off to Ballisodare to meet St Colmcille. After that, she came back to Faulmore where the lad from Tara was waiting for her.
She was sickened to see him and couldn’t understand why he still fancied her. She told him to go but he pleaded his case and said he’d gladly move to Faulmore too, but she had no heed on that.
“What do you like about me?” she asked. “It’s your eyes, they set my heart on fire,” he answered, not realising the temper Deirbhile possessed. She immediately ripped her eyes from their sockets and threw them on the ground and a spring well burst into life from where they fell. The Meath lad was stunned and headed for home as fast as he could. That evening, Deirbhile went and washed her eye sockets in the new spring well and her sight immediately returned.
On Thursday last, I drove through Belmullet, crossed the bridge to the peninsula, turned left, drove through Binghamstown, on into Elly where the Olieach tribe roamed the land long before the Vikings. In Aughleam I took a right towards history and a place of wonder and lore.
As the road hugged the coast an interesting two-storey square-shaped former signal tower sat on a hillside in Glosh. Built in 1805, the tower is one of 82 around the coast to warn of a French naval invasion. They were built by the British at a time of high tension in the aftermath of the French landing in Killala in August 1798.
After that, the road moved on and took me to where Deirbhile had last encountered the amorous Meath lad. The well which sprang from the rocks where her eyes landed was still there – lovingly cared for by the locals and surrounded by seats dedicated to the memory of departed loved ones, including Ciarán Smith who died when Rescue Helicopter R116 crashed nearby on March 14, 2017.
In truth, however sceptical one is about the legend, there is something special about the place. Sitting quietly over the ocean, one can almost feel the spirit of the thousands who made their way there over the centuries hoping for a cure and seeking enlightenment.
Down the road is St Deirbhile’s Church, one of the most ancient in Ireland. It dates from the sixth century; however, the current construction was erected 600 years later. It truly is a place where peace and beauty merge and the worries of the world melt away.
Local béaloideas (folklore) has it that anyone who passes through the small east window is guaranteed a seat in heaven while seven squeezes through the window protects one from drowning.
Needless to say, I didn’t manage to book my ticket to eternal summer on Thursday last, nor did the three Cork women I met at the church. All of four us tried to squeeze through the window (individually, may I add) but met with varying degrees of failure. The result means we will have to negotiate with St Peter when we meet him at heaven’s gate, while practising our swimming will remain high on the list of priorities.
At the side of the church lies St Deirbhile’s grave where she watches over the land which welcomed her in times of strife. Close by can be found the stone on which her much-travelled donkey found rest. That four-legged hero had some stamina.
Soon, it was time to leave the barony behind and return to more mundane matters, but there truly is nothing to match a day in Erris where legends and lore of the past merge with the beauty of today in a unique and magical setting. Sometimes we travel the world and fail to see what’s on our doorstep.
Erris can be a land of opportunity
It’s wild and wonderful, magical and mythical. Erris is like no other part of the planet – some places come close, but nowhere can provide the full package in quite the same way. In these days of ‘outdoor’ summers and exercise revolutions such as sea-swimming, paddle-boarding, sailing and hiking, the barony on the edge of the Atlantic is the perfect destination for those looking for something different, natural and authentic on their own doorstep.
It is now time for the people of Erris to grasp this opportunity and establish the area as a unique and perfect destination for those looking for beauty and brilliance in terms of landscape and people.
For generations the roads through Bellacorick and Mulranny have been an emigration trail as young Erris people went in search of employment, but finally the wheel is turning full circle and the unique offerings of the five parishes have the potential to provide employment and job opportunities in the local community.
In recent years, Erris was named at the ‘Best place in Ireland to go wild’ by The Irish Times and that certainly is the case according to the paper’s feature writer Rosita Boland. “A glorious, wild, uniformly unspoilt and stunning little-known area.” Her words echo those of naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger who, in the 1930s, wrote that Erris is a place where ‘you are thrown at the same time back on yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature’.
Those thoughts are expanded upon by Cheran Concannon who moved to Belmullet in 2005.
“I grew up in South Africa and this is the only place in Ireland that brings me closer to home. I love the openness of the countryside here,” she says. “And the beaches. I live on the Mullet peninsula, and every time I cross the mound to go over to the rough side of Elly Beach – every time I hear the waves pounding on the sand – it takes me home immediately.”
The barony is a huge area from Ballycroy to Blacksod and is a mix of vast wilderness and modernity. If one wants to get lost in Ballycroy National Park – Ireland’s only true designated wilderness or learn to sail in the nearby Bellacragher Boat Club or visit uninhabited islands off Belmullet with local boat operators, then Erris is ideal. If one wants to play golf on one of the finest links courses in the world or experience the luxury and hospitality of top-class hotels and genial publicans, then Erris is also ideal. It is now up to the businesses and the people of Erris to grasp this wonderful opportunity and firmly establish the region as the greatest place to go wild in the country.
It has all the beauty of a Paul Henry painting and more cliffs, beaches and glorious walks than one could imagine. The chance to spot dolphins and puffins, peregrine falcons and minke whales is as regular as sunrise while endless inlets and coves are there to be explored in a kayak.
There’s a sense of wonder, opportunity and magic in Erris. Now is the time for the locals to spread that magic and take it to a level never experienced before.