HISTORIC Guide Denis Quinn leads people towards the derelict early 19th century building on Bartra Island.
Bartra Island in the Moy estuary is a nature lover’s paradise
ARMED with just a soup spoon at low tide, you’ll be amazed what you can discover in the exposed sands around the Moy estuary.
The shore around Bartra island in the mouth of the Moy is awash with fruits of the sea – as I discovered when I joined tour guide Denis Quinn on one of his foraging tours in Killala Bay.
For the Mayo News Summer Series, I decided to check out what north Mayo had to offer, in particular around the Céide Coast. Since the inception of the Wild Atlantic Way, this area of north Mayo has witnessed a renaissance in terms of visitor numbers, with the main attraction being Downpatrick Head and the Dún Briste seastack.
I have to confess I would have as much knowledge on the particulars of North Macedonia as north Mayo, so I had to take to Google to see what is available. A quick visit to the northmayo.ie website revealed lots of outdoor activities to do, while the Céide Fields Visitor Centre is one of the main indoor attractions.
The Wild Atlantic Cultural Tours, led by tour guide Denis Quinn and based out of Killala, caught my eye. Denis brings visitors on guided walks of the coast, and for the summer season he offers foraging tours to the isolated island of Bartra at the mouth of the Moy.
In this era of environmental awareness, climate action and biodiversity protection, foraging has become a buzzword for conservationists, who want to encourage people to grow their own food and avail of what nature has to offer.
As an islander, picking mussels and winkles on the sea shore was something I did quite a lot when I was a child. I haven’t done it for a while though, so I thought it would be one way of discovering the countryside, while doing my bit for the environment and getting a good feed at the same time.
I gave Denis a call, and he informed me his next tour would be at 4pm on Thursday due to tide times. They say time and tide waits for no man, not even a Mayo News journalist on a tight deadline for a bank holiday edition. I signed up, and we arranged to meet at the round tower in Killala.
I decided to take the time to explore some of the Céide Coast en route. I had anticipated taking my bike, but my weather app advised me there would be rain, so I decided to stick with the comfort of the car.
The first port of call was Downpatrick Head, and judging by the amount of traffic on the narrow road leading to it, everyone else had the same idea. Since being added as a Discovery Point for the Wild Atlantic Way, Downpatrick Head is attracting thousands of visitors every year. I don’t think anyone has regretted making the trip.
After weeks of scorching hot weather, the wind was back for my visit, which whipped up the sea. As the waves crashed up against Dún Briste, it made the setting even more spectacular –and a little unnerving as I peered over the edge.
The Travis Price-designed Spirit of Place installation allows you to walk around the blowhole. However, the elements have not been kind to it, and it could do with a touch up.
According to the information board, the blowhole was the scene of a tragedy in 1798, when rebels fleeing the Redcoats following the failed rebellion took refuge at the bottom of the cliff.
I decided to take a spin around Lacken on the way towards Killala and visit Kilcummin Strand, where General Humbert’s French forces landed. Looking out on the Atlantic, you can imagine the awe felt by the impoverished local population when they saw the warships land, and their excitement to see French soldiers come ashore.
Onto Killala where I meet Denis, and we are joined by the Rafter family, who are on holidays from Dublin. Both Kevin and Denise Rafter have connections with the west of Ireland, and they are eager to ensure their three young children get a taste of the outdoors and the countryside.
After a short dive past Moyne Abbey, we parked up by the seashore and put on our wellies, before crossing the sandbank to Bartra Island, less than a mile away. Denis explained that there had been recent speculation that golfer Nick Faldo was behind a consortium that bought the island to turn it into a golfcourse, but that rumour seems to have died down.
The island is home to a now-dilapidated ‘big house’, built in 1832 by Charles Kirkwood, a veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar. (You could indeed imagine it making a fine clubhouse for a golfcourse.) The house is currently open for anyone to wander around. Judging by its current state, it would take a couple of million to get right.
But we didn’t cross over to talk golf. We were soon getting our hands wet, pulling back seaweed while looking for shellfish. There weren’t many, and we wondered if another group had got in ahead of us, and if we’d go home empty handed.
But Denis knew where to look and soon had us at the right location. There was an abundance of mussels, peri-winkles, young crap, shrimp as well as vegetation, such as sea-blite, which can be eaten raw and often features in the dishes of top restaurants.
Spoons at the ready
The over-picking of shellfish for commercial reasons has resulted in some areas being stripped and unable to recover. Sustainability is one of Denis’ mantras, and for that reason he advises us to take only the large shells and only a few from each rock.
Our guide then brought us out onto a sandbank and from his bag took a number of soup spoons. As we look on in puzzlement about they were for, Denis told us it was time to start digging.
We were to look out for two pin-prick-sized holes; under them, we were assured, we’d find cockles. He was true to his word. Under every pin-hole was a cockle, and there were plenty to be dug up.
With the tide starting to turn, it was time to head back to the shore before we got stranded for the evening. It was a quick three hours, with a good mixture of nature, history, humour and manual labour. Just enough to make you hungry for a good feed of shellfish.
Tapping the potential of the Céide Coast
WHEN Travis Price’s ‘Spirit of Place’ installation around the ‘Poll na Seantainne’ blowhole in Downpatrick Head was unveiled in 2014, it is fair to say it divided opinion.
‘The Crossing’, as it is officially titled, was commissioned by Fáilte Ireland and Mayo County Council to become Mayo’s first Wild Atlantic Way Signature Discovery Point. Despite the mixed feelings about the merits of the installation, the idea has worked, and crowds have since flocked to the north Mayo coast.
Mayo County Council reported that almost 30,000 people visited Downpatrick Head in 2015. Last year the attraction experienced its busiest year, seeing an estimated 300,000 visitors.
Denis Quinn, a Fáilte Ireland-approved guide with a degree in Heritage Studies, has been bringing visitors on tours of the Céide Coast for 12 years. He noticed the significant increase in visitors.
“The last two years it has been all Irish people or people living in Ireland because of lockdown. Everyone is discovering the area,” he told The Mayo News, adding that the region has everything a visitor could want.
“People are getting very interested in the environment and the outdoors, which is attracting more people to places like Killala and the Céide Coast. We are lucky because it is pristine around here and visitors see it like it should be.”
The Céide Fields Visitor Centre located on the coast road between Belderrig and Ballycastle was one of the first major tourist attractions for the region when it opened in the 1990s. It is currently closed for renovations but due to reopen in October, with upgraded facilities to give visitors an even better experience.
Monasteries of the Moy Greenway
Denis feels the area needs more accommodation to support tourism. He also would urge completion of the Monasteries of the Moy Greenway from Ballina to Killala, only a short part of which has been developed so far.
“The Greenway will be a great addition if we can get it out towards Ballycastle, because it will be used. It will be a huge improvement to bring it all the way from Ballina to Killala, and hopefully in years to come there is talk of a cliff walk all the way towards Belderrig. If that was to happen it would be a huge addition.”
While welcoming the increased visitor numbers, Denis says ‘things will have to be done right’ to ensure the product is sustainable.
“The area is undiscovered, but that is good in one way, because you don’t want the place overrun. There are places around Ireland and they are jammed, and nobody is happy – tourists aren’t happy and locals aren’t happy.
“Sustainable tourism works, it has worked in other parts of the world and in Ireland. They have shown that it works in places like Loop Head in Clare. Sustainable tourism and eco-tourism is the way to go,” he believes.