Trail blazers

Living

FINDING THEIR FEET Holy Trinity NS pupils out and about, scouring Westport for Crows’ Feet.

Local schoolchildren devise exciting new heritage trail in Westport

Ciara Moynihan

Our heritage, our sense of place, is deeply rooted in our landscape – and in the marks we humans make upon it.
Sometimes those marks are obvious – here in Mayo we could point to our landmark buildings, like our abbeys and round towers, or to distinctive features, like the simple stone walls that line our fields.  
Other times those marks are less conspicuous, such as the Sheela-na-gig set into the side of St Patrick’s Bath in Aughagower, or the ancient Ogham inscription that lay hidden on the the Currower Stone in Attymass until an inquisitive local teacher, Mr Cunney, had the stone cleaned in 1940.
In Westport, a local teacher could be described as the contemporary embodiment of the curiosity-filled Mr Cunney. A chance discovery of a crow’s foot marking at the rear of her school building led Meriel Donaghy, a teacher at Holy Trinity NS in Westport, to start a school project that saw pupils set out discover crow’s foot markings around their town, and then devise a fun way to share their newfound knowledge. The result? A wonderful Crow’s Foot Treasure Hunt that anyone can do while exploring Westport, learning about the town’s built heritage as they go.

Heritage Keepers
For the uninitiated, crows’ feet markings are elegant symbols carved into the stone façades of the buildings. These simple crows-foot-shaped marks started to appear on stone walls in built environments all around the country during the early 1800s. Their purpose? To benchmark the height above sea level at particular locations. They were used by ordnance surveyors to map the terrain.
Chatting to The Mayo News, Meriel describes how the idea for the project came about. “People from the Ordnance Survey came into our school one day looking for our benchmark… They knew where it was and wanted access to the back of the building, and that was the first I knew of it.
“They showed it to me and explained to me what it all was about. So then I went hunting for more around the town, and I was thinking it would be a lovely project to do with the kids – but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. And then the Burrenbeo and Heritage Keepers programme came up.
“It was up to the children to come up with a project that they wanted to do, and they suggested a treasure hunt of heritage buildings around the place.
“I then showed them the crow’s foot on the school, and when they saw that we opted for the idea of putting it all together, and instead of doing buildings specifically we’d do the crow’s feet as a trail, and then they could incorporate the history of the buildings as they went along.
“It was really the fact that we had one on our own building that was the starting point.”
With funding from the Heritage Council of Ireland, the fourth- and fifth-class pupils took part in the Heritage Keepers programme, a free programme for schools or communities helps them work together to explore the built, natural, and cultural heritage of their local place and then plan action or actions to enhance their place.
Heritage Keepers was run for the first time this school year by Burrenbeo Trust (burrenbeo.com), a landscape charity dedicated to connecting all of us to our places and our role in caring for them. “A facilitator from Burrenbeo did five workshops with the class, then we decided upon our action, and finally we did the work,” Meriel explains.

Children’s passion
The classes discovered 12 crow’s foot marks still in existence, beginning with the one on their own school building, then they mapped them and wrote clues for each one to create the Crow’s Foot Trail of Westport.
They have also written an accompanying information guide, explaining what crow’s foot markings are and giving brief histories of the historical buildings and places where some of the benchmarks can be found. In a charming touch, the guide includes the children’s thoughts about the benchmarked buildings and places, in their own words, as well as some of their illustrations.
Reflecting on the Octagon monument, for example, Leo Janczak and Larysa Kierkowicz say, “We like the Octagon because it’s a landmark in the town and a great meeting point. We also like it because we can enjoy and ice-cream and watch people go by.”
Meanwhile, Charlie Pepper-Hobbs, Harriet Conway and Holly Feehan are impressed with the Quay Wall, the benchmarked boundary wall to Westport House. “We think it’s cool that this big wall was made from a hole lot of random rubble and it’s still standing today. Children used to call the grounds inside ‘Bluebell Land’ in springtime!”
Children’s passion is always infectious, and the colourful guide and the tempting treasure trail are a wonderful way of making local history and heritage accessible and interesting to young and old.
“I’m really proud of the work that they’ve done,” Meriel tells The Mayo News. “It’s a fantastic way for people to explore the town. The historical maps [which the children used to find the town’s benchmarks] are so interesting. The Crow’s Foot Trail that we’ve made is nice in its own right, but if it got people looking at the heritage maps – the 6-inch one and the 25-inch ones from the 19th century – they are fascinating, and they reveal so much about the past.”
These old maps really appealed to the children’s imagination. “The children just love looking at those on the iPad,” Meriel says, “they’d be at it the whole time! It makes them ask questions, like ‘What’s a smithy?’ and ‘Why were there all these wells?’, and they’d be looking up the pumps and other things.…
“And of course anyone can do it then, explore the maps of their own area… much more interesting than the modern Google satellite view!” In fact, the kids enjoy switching back and forth between the two, the old maps and the new, and being able to pin point features and work out what occupies those positions now.
“We didn’t find all the benchmarks that are shown on the maps because some have been plastered over or the building has been demolished,” the children say in their information guide. “We’ve written clues to guide you to the ones we did find. And maybe if you are really eagle-eyed you will discover some others along the way. We hope you enjoy exploring our town along the Crow’s Foot Trail.”  

Have a go
The guide, as well as the Crow’s Foot Trail map and clues, will be officially launched in September. They can be viewed now on the school website, www.holytrinityns.com – and they’re also available on Instagram at @crowsfoottrailwestport. The school’s budget stretched to a small print run of 200, and these printed copies are available at Wesport Library, Westport Town Hall, the Clew Bay Heritage Centre and the Custom House Studio and Gallery.
Happy hunting!