(These pages linking Westport and Sligo Town are under construction)
The Great Western Greenway
The Great Western Greenway is a 42 km / 26 mile long off-road walking / cycling trail along the route of the once famous Westport / Achill Railway line, which was constructed by the Great Western & Midland Railway Company in the 1890s and closed in 1937. The resurfaced route retains fine engineering structures along gentle gradients overlooking outstanding scenery.
One of the ‘Balfour Lines’, so called after Arthur J Balfour, Chief Secretary for Ireland 1887-91 and UK Prime Minister 1902-05, who introduced the Light Railways (Ireland) Act 1896 which provided state assistance for the construction of narrow gauge railway lines to disadvantaged areas such as West Mayo, the Westport / Achill facility was indeed a great social and economic asset to the area. Individual towns and villages benefited from the ease of access provided by train, but the line’s promoters’ high hopes were disappointed as passenger numbers never reached anticipated volumes, and the development of road traffic in the 1930s sealed its fate.
The full Greenway route, opened in July 2011, by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, TD for Mayo, is used by an estimated 300 people each day in season. €1.8 million has reportedly been made available to extend the trail from Westport eastwards to Castlebar and westwards to Croagh Patrick. However, large sections of the trail wa severely damaged by storms in early January ¡014.
Newport (Co.Mayo / West)
Newport (Baile Uí Fhiacháin) (pop. 600), historically known as Ballyveaghan and Newport Pratt, is picturesquely set on the Newport / Black Oak River, flowing into Clew Bay from its source at Lough Beltra in the Nephin Mountains. Long a popular destination for anglers and walkers, the little town has two good hotels, several B&Bs, excellent pubs and decent eateries.
Newport was founded in the early C18th by the Medlicott family, who commissioned James Moore to lay out the Quay. Though subject to tides, it was more than sufficient for most shipping at that time, and soon became significant commercial hub. Boats from Britain, Spain, France and further field imported wine, spirits and tobacco, while timber, hides and wool were among the exports.
In 1719 the Medlycott family’s lessee, Captain Pratt, introduced linen manufacturing to the town and encouraged Quakers from Ulster to settle locally and work as linen weavers. Unlike most Society of Friends’ settlements, the Quakers in Newport were regularly reported to be in poor circumstances, frequently seeking support from their brethren across Ireland and further afield. The Newport Quakers appear to have been an unfortunate community with no Meeting House, gathering instead for religious worship in each other’s homes. While older members of the community began to die off, necessitating a new cemetery, the younger ones had no hope of meeting and marrying co-religionists in such a remote location.
The linen business prospered only sporadically, and by 1736 the Newport Quakers started to think very seriously about moving. They struggled on for a few more years and eventually bought some land closer to the next nearest Quaker community at Ballymurray, Co. Roscommon. The last Quakers left Newport in the winter of 1739/1740; many later made new lives for themselves in America.
Newport’s linen industry picked up in the mid-C18th and the town prospered for over forty years, with brisk trade and increasingly sophisticated construction services. Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists all erected churches in the town. The Medlycott Estate was taken over c.1780 by Sir Neale O’Donel, Bart, who built Newport House overlooking the harbour.
Thousands of refugees from Ulster flooded into the Newport area following the 1795 Battle of the Diamond. The early C19th saw the district’s population explode to over 12,000 people. However, the town was soon superseded as a port by Westport, especially after much of the Irish linen business was killed off by British legislation. The Great Famine left the community shattered by emigration.
Slater’s 1881 Directory records that “Sir George O’Donnell, Bart., who is proprietor of the town, has greatly improved it, as well as the land in the neighbourhood, which naturally is remarkably productive. The same gentleman, in connection with some of the merchants here, erected the pier” (but the 1846 Directory credits this work to his predecessor Sir Richard Anneslay O’Donnell, 4th Bart)
The Sisters of Mercy opened St Joseph’s Convent National School in 1887 and also set up a centre to train girls in lace making, which became an important local industry for over half century.
Newport’s commerce was largely rejuvenated by entrepreneur Martin Carey, who was responsible for several fine late Victorian and Edwardian buildings visible today, notably the Grain Drying Store. In his will of 1910 he generously provided over half the costs of the future St Patrick’s church.
A Republican account of events in the Newport area before and during the War of Independence and the Civil War can be read here.
Newport Harbour, leading out to Newport Bay on the wider Clew Bay, was described as “A Miracle of Beauty” by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in 1843. By the late C19th Newport was quite a fashionable bathing resort.
The Newport / Black Oak River, Lough Beltra and the nearby Burrishoole Catchment are strictly controlled fisheries, highly prized by anglers for wild salmon (and formerly for sea trout, currently prohibited).
Newport House was long home to the O’Donel family, descended from Hugh Mór O’Donnell, a mid-C18th County Mayo claimant to the chieftaincy of the Clan Ó Domhnaill, Gaelic Lords of Tyrconnell, whose 1601 rebel leader Red Hugh was immortalised by Walt Disney Productions in The Fighting Prince of Donegal (1966). (Photo – www.tripadvisor.ca)
The O’Donnel Baronetcy, of Newport House in the County of Mayo, was created in December 1780 for Neale O’Donnel, who renounced Roman Catholicism and acquired large tracts of land in the area. His sons Hugh and James Moore O’Donnell, who sat as Members of the Irish House of Commons for Donegal Borough and Ratoath respectively, both opposed the Act of Union and predeceased their father, who was succeeded by his third son, Neale Beag. The title became dormant in 1889 on the demise of Sir George Clendining O’Donnel, 5th Bart. The WWI death of Captain George Frederick Thomas O’Donel, MC, killed at Ypres in 1915, ended the family connection with Newport; his widow sold the estate and fisheries to an Irish-American businessman.
An Cathach ( ‘the Battler’) a C6th AD psalter believed to be the handiwork of Saint Columcille / Columba (d. 597 AD), himself allegedly a scion of the Ó Domhnaill clan, has traditionally been identified as his copy of a version of the Book of Psalms lent to him by Saint Finnian, the subsequent copyright dispute over which led to the bloody Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561 AD. Long borne into battle to guarantee victory to the family, it was carried into exile in France by an O’Donel who had fought at Limerick in 1691, and brought back 100 years later to Newport House, where it remained until 1842, when it was deposited at the Royal Irish Academy. It is the oldest surviving manuscript in Ireland, and the second oldest Latin psalter in the world.
The estate was purchased in 1945 by Henry Mumford-Smith, an English angling enthusiast who spent many years restoring the house, grounds and fisheries, as did his son Francis. Since 1985 the present owners, Kieran and Thelma Thompson, have run Newport House into one of Ireland’s top Country House Hotels, famed for its superb restaurant and bar, open to non-residents.
Princess Grace Park, formed from part of the former demesne of Newport House, is named after Grace Kelly (1929-1982), the Irish-American Hollywood star who married Prince Rainier of Monaco. Her maternal grandfather was born locally, and she occasionally visited the area. The lovely woodland park is best accessed at the point of the Quay.
The Newport Viaduct, a fine cut-stone seven-arch railway bridge spanning the Newport / Black Oak River, features in many publicity shots of the town. No longer used by trains, it is currently a well-maintained pedestrian alternative to the more modern road bridge linking the two riverside districts. Accessed via an attractively landscaped riverside park area, the views to be enjoyed from the elevated walkway will be greatly appreciated by cyclists and trekkers on the Great Western Greenway when it incorporates the structure.
The Grain Drying Store houses a display of historic artefacts in the Furnace Room, which has arching walls designed to spread the heat from the central fireplace to dry the corn spread on the porous floor in the room above.
St Patrick’s church (RC), so imposing that it is often referred to as ‘Newport Cathedral‘, was designed in 1914 by Rudolph M Butler in a “Hiberno-Romanesque” style, with its main entrance modelled on the one in Clonfert, Co Galway and lots of intricate Celtic carvings throughout. Completed in 1918 on the site of its predecessor St Joseph’s (1803), the newer church has a wonderfully luminous interior. The magnificent stained glass east window depicting The Last Judgement was the last piece completed by Harry Clarke in 1930.
Medlicott Street features some of the first houses built in the town, and is the venue for an Artesans’ Street Market on Fridays.
Striking modern architecture in Newport includes a former seaweed processing plant converted into a dockside apartment block.
The Hotel Newport***, especially highly rated by cyclists, is probably best known for its excellent Seven Arches Bar & Bistro.
Walsh’s Bridge Inn is an attractive pub & restaurant with full Guesthouse accommodation facilities.
Kelly’s Kitchen serves delicious homemade food, including the famous Newport putóg (black pudding made with seaweed).
The Blue Bicycle Tea Rooms are run by Phil Chambers at DeBille House on Main St, built with funds from King Christian VII in gratitude to the McLoughlin family for looking after Captain Mathias De Bille of the Danish Naval Frigate Bornholm, which limped into nearby Melcombe Bay following a storm in 1782, with many on board suffering from an unknown tropical disease, of which several died, including the skipper.
Newport’s Grainne Uaile Festival takes place every August Bank Holiday weekend and includes live music, a street barbecue, crafts display, raft race, fancy dress etc.
Newport was the birthplace of John (Juan) King (1800-1857), who with Admiral Brown of Foxford was one of the founders of the Argentine Navy.
Dominick Murray of Newport founded the historic Murray Hotel of Mackinac Island, MI, USA in the mid-C19th, and his descendants are still prominent in the Straits of Mackinac region.
Newport is the hub of number of pleasant signposted Loop Walks taking in sites of historical interest and stretches of great scenery. (One route takes in Carrickaneady, mentioned by Lewis (1837) s the location of one of the castles said to have been built by the Burke clan).
Newport is not far from Cloondaff and Lough Beltra on ByRoute 14.
The Great Western Greenway‘s first section to be opened, linking Newport and Mulranny along the coast of Clew Bay, was constructed at a cost of €3 million and inaugurated in April 2010.
Burrishoole Friary, aka Burrishoole Abbey, is a ruined medieval monastery. Set close to the shore of Clew Bay, only the church and the eastern wall of the cloister remain. The grounds are an actively used cemetery. (Photo by TFa Muc)
The Friary was founded c.1470 for the Dominican Order by Richard de Burgo of Turlough, Lord MacWilliam Oughter, who gave up his worldly good to spend the last four years of his life as a friar. Built without episcopal permission, it was in danger of closure until Pope Innocent VIII instructed the new Archbishop of Tuam, William Joyce, to forgive the friars in 1486.
Almost all the abbeys across Ireland were suppressed in the wake of the Reformation and King Henry VIII‘s 1539 Dissolution of the Monasteries. Perhaps due to its remote location, Burrishoole Friary was active for over 300 years and featured prominently in the troubled history of the region. The collapse of its roof in 1793 hastened its demise.
Burrishoole Bridge, a seven-arched stone structure spanning the Burrishoole River channel below Lough Furnace, was built at a medieval fording point. (Photo – www.runireland.com)c
Burrishoole, originally called Ceann Trachta (“Head of the Strand”), was a port of some importance before the first Normans invaded the district in 1185.
Lough Furnace & Lough Feeagh
Lough Furnace (130 ha) and Lough Feeagh (320 ha) are the largest of the seven lakes interconnected by rivers and streams in the Burrishoole catchment / fishery and form an integral part of Clew Bay. (Photo)
Lough Furnace, one of very few permanently stratified lakes in the British Isles, has a lower layer of salt water which ebbs and flows with the tides and an upper layer of lighter fresh water. It supports a high diversity of fauna. Saints Island is colonised by nesting black-headed gulls.
The Marine Institute Catchment Research Facility at Furnace is at the forefront of maritime research in Ireland, particularly in relation to Atlantic salmon, having tracked the species for over 50 years.
Salmon Leap Bridge spans the meeting point of Lough Furnace and Lough Feeagh. The salmon leap provides the last hurdle for fish returning to spawn upstream after their 1000 mile migration across the north Atlantic.
Lough Feeagh, overlooked by Buckoogh (Boc Umhach – “eminence rich in copper”) (587m) and Bengorm (an Bhinn Ghorm – “the blue peak”) (580m) in the Nephin Beg mountain range, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a wanton girl called Reenie who, believing herself impregnated by a Pooka, walked into the icy lake water and drowned at dawn.
Traenlaur Lodge, built c. 1833 as a fishing lodge for Lord Sligo, with its own private pier on Lough Feeagh, is an elegant if austere An Oige Hostel at the meeting point of the Western Way and Bangor Trail long distance walking routes. Nearby Letterkeen Woods is a good place for spotting bats.