County Mayo is on Ireland’s north-western edge and is one of the island’s largest counties, although often ignored by tourists. With its ancient history, breathtaking scenery and excellent facilities, there’s every reason to visit before the crowds arrive.
People have lived in County Mayo for at least 10,000 years, with evidence of the earliest hunter-gatherers strewn around the county. Mayo has more than 160 megaliths and tombs, with many clustered around Kilcommon, Achill and Ballyhaunis. The early Christians built towers and monasteries, many of which survive in some form at Aughagower, Killala and Meelick.
The Normans arrived in the 12th Century and established churches and castles around the county, including Rockfleet Castle near Newport, which was used as a base by the infamous pirate queen Grainne (Grace) O’Malley in the 16th Century. Mayo was badly hit by the Great Famine in 1845 and thousands fled starvation to North America, Australia and New Zealand. As a result, many people with Irish heritage trace their roots to County Mayo, and there are several genealogical resources available for visitors.
Mayo has a huge variety of landscapes, with the bogs and mountains of Ballycroy National Park, half a dozen sizeable lakes and salmon-filled rivers, as well as the spectacular coastal cliffs along the Wild Atlantic Way. Ballycroy is home to the Nephinbeg Mountains, a green-topped wilderness of outstanding beauty, and the Owenduff Bog where geese, plover, grouse and otters live in the peatlands.
Achill Island is the Ireland’s largest island, where you can find the Croaghaun cliffs rising 2,257 feet out of the sea – the second-highest cliffs in all Europe, from where you can see dolphins, basking sharks and killer whales in the ocean below.
The waters of Lough Conn feed the river Moy, which teems with salmon, and the town of Ballina is famous for its salmon fishing and delicacies. There can be few more lovely villages than Cong, famous as the location for the John Wayne movie The Quiet Man, where you can find the perfectly manicured Ashford Castle and intriguing underground streams that connect Lough Mask to Lough Corrib. And no guide to County Mayo would be complete without a mention of Knock, a small village with a Catholic shrine to Mary that attracts thousands of pilgrims each year.
There’s no shortage of things to do in County Mayo. The Irish are keen to share their love of horses, with equestrian centres offering pony treks through the most scenic parts of the county. Cyclists have the Great Western Greenway, a 26-mile road reserved entirely for bicycles that traces the route from Westport to Achill. The hills of Achill are perfect for hang-gliding and paragliding, and the wild Atlantic ocean is a great challenge for wind surfers. Surfers have several blue flag beaches around Achill and Louisburgh to catch a wave. Golfers could play a round a day and still not complete all of Mayo’s courses in a fortnight, including the championship course in Ballinrobe. And if all that’s not enough, there’s the chance to catch a salmon at Ballina.
The towns of Castlebar – Mayo’s county town – Westport, Ballina and Foxford all have a great selection of shops, and other towns also have regular farmers’ markets. Castlebar is the biggest town in County Mayo and hosts festivals devoted to Irish culture, hillwalking, music and Grainne O’Malley.