Ballycastle is located along the Wild Atlantic Way on the rugged and rural West Coast of Ireland. Its name means “Town of the Castle,” though the castle is nothing more than a ruin today. There are only about 450 residents of the area within a five-mile radius of the town itself. The former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, once described the Ballycastle area as “the periphery of the periphery.”
Its remoteness has made Ballycastle and its surrounding environs an inviting escape for foreign visitors and city-bound Irish nationals. The naturally beauty of the area is surpassed only by heartfelt welcome of the local people who live in the region. They are delighted to see visitors embracing the lands where they call home.
Coastal Mayo offers a myriad of diverse activities and attractions for visitors, including walking trails, world-ranked golf courses, unsurpassed fishing, golden beaches, cycling, bird-watching, art galleries, museums and even archaeology.
There are several marked walking trails in the region, some of which trace the perimeter of local cliffs, providing panoramic views of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Downpatrick Head is one of the favorite spots to take a walk along the ocean near Ballycastle. It is a Discovery Point along the Wild Atlantic Way and lures visitors from near and far. Dun Briste, as it is also known, is a sea stack that stands about 300 feet tall. It is actually cut off from the mainland, separated by about 100 yards of the Atlantic. There is a blowhole on the walk out to Downpatrick Head that allows visitors unique views to the water below. A sentry post on the headland that was built during WWII to monitor the ship and air traffic is still standing. Legend has it that Downpatrick Head is where St. Patrick cut off the head of a snake with a giant sword, thus dividing the Dun Briste from the mainland and driving all snakes from Ireland.
Stella Maris is equidistant from two of the finest links golf courses in Ireland—Enniscrone and Carne in Belmullet, both of which are about 40 minutes driving time. Rosses Point, another world-class links course in neighboring Sligo, is less than 1 1/4 hours away. All three offer a true golf challenge, as well as some of the most beautiful ocean vistas in the world. Other nearby golf courses are Ballina and Westport. In the summer, the days are very long. Since there is still light up to 11:00 p.m., it is not unusual to find golfers playing 18 after an early dinner.
Carne Golf Links, which is located on the Belmullet peninsula about 40 minutes west of Stella Maris, is the legendary Eddie Hackett’s final links design. Before his death, Hackett said: “If ever God intended a piece of land for golf, this is it.” While the windswept Carne is less than 20 years old, you’ll feel the course has been in place for an eternity. Carne boasts 27 challenging, different and very memorable holes.
Enniscrone Golf Club, located 40 minutes east of Stella Maris, is another Eddie Hackett gem. The host of several national championships, Enniscrone offers 27 holes by Hackett and Donald Steele, who updated the original layout. The Dunes, the championship course, offers five par-5 holes, and is an unusual par of 73. Playing through towering dunes and along the Killala Bay coastline, visitors are left with a memorable round, regardless of the score. There is a less-challenging 9-hole Scurmore course for those golfers so inclined.
Rosses Point, approximately 75 minutes northeast of Stella Maris in Sligo, is one of the most panoramic golf courses in Ireland. The facility originally opened in 1894, and the championship course was re-designed by Harry S. Colt to prepare for the club’s launch of the West of Ireland Championship in 1923. Rosses Point juts out into the bay, offering one spectacular view after another. There is also a less intimidating 9-hole course on offer for visitors.
Fishing the Atlantic, by boat or off a pier or cliff, can bring a variety of fish to the table. Mackerel, mullet, pollock and haddock are just some of the sea’s offering. For fresh-water enthusiasts, the River Moy is considered the greatest salmon grounds in the world. The Moy Weir is located in Ballina, a short ride from Ballycastle. Permits for fishing the rivers and lakes in Ireland can be purchased nearby.
There are many species of birds that breed and nest in the area, including several varieties of gulls, puffins, cormorants, herons, kittiwakes and peregrine falcons. Stormy weather brings species such as the great northern diver, razorbill and storm petral to the area to rest. Swallows, house martins and finches are all part of the local population.
Cycling is another favorite pastime of visitors to Ireland. The terrain offers all types of riding for the serious enthusiast. While the roads are narrow, the drivers are very careful and cede the right of way to cyclists. There are many scenic spots to stop and gaze at the unpretentious beauty that the Wild Atlantic Way has to offer.
Swimming in the Atlantic can be treacherous, but Bunatrahir Bay offers protection from the rough surf. Ballycastle Beach is clean, roomy and quite sandy. It is not unusual to find locals out searching for succulent mussels when the tide is out along Ballycastle Beach, which is across the bay from Stella Maris. Other wonderful beaches dot the Mayo coastline along the Wild Atlantic Way.
SCUBA diving in Bunatrahir Bay is considered among the finest in Europe. The water is extremely clear, and the bay provides a defense against the open seas. The Gulf Stream, which crosses the North Atlantic and comes down along the West Coast of Ireland, brings unexpected warmth to the ocean. Thousands of years of history will envelop you in the crystalline waters off Ballycastle.
Artists from all parts of the globe have found a treasure trove of subjects in and around the Ballycastle area. The vivid colors of the plant life, the stark beauty of the ocean, the serenity of the glens and mountains, Downpatrick Head and the ever-changing skies form a natural canvas upon which professional artists from around the world capture the beauty of Ireland. Ballycastle is home to the not-for-profit Ballinglen Arts Centre, which provides a studio workshop and gallery for an eclectic gathering of artists who flock to this Mecca of natural backdrops for their works. Some of their works are on exhibit in Ballycastle shops, providing a gallery of talent that can be seen throughout the town. Other talented art groups in the area have their works on display as well.
Tír Sáile, also known as the North Mayo Sculpture Trail, is the largest public arts project ever undertaken in Ireland. It entailed the putting in place of 14 site-specific sculptures along the Wild Atlantic Way. Visitors to Ballycastle and its surrounds, who marvel at the art and the interpretations of the artists, drive from one art work to another along the North Mayo coastline. The project was undertaken in 1993.
Ceide Fields offers a great deal to the history buff, including a look into Irish civilization more than 5,000 years ago. The Ceide Fields Interpretive Center was built by the Irish government after archeological digs discovered stone walls believed to delineate the first farms in Ireland thousands of years ago. Visitors flock to Ceide Fields each year to gain an insight into the roots of European civilization. The 400-foot cliffs at Ceide Fields rival any other in Ireland.
Organic Food and the Secrets of Eire
Professor Seamas Caulfield, retired Professor of Archaeology Emeritus at University College Dublin, offers a personal, limited-guest excursion back in time 6,000 years when food gathering was transitioning to food production, when farms began to grow food for others, and all food in Ireland was organic.
Dr. Caulfield, who with his father discovered the nearby Ceide Fields where Europe’s largest Neolithic site resides, personally escorts no more than eight persons on these wonderfully insightful and sometimes humorous expeditions. These discerning outings range from one to three days in the North Mayo, Ireland, area that was first identified with civilization as we know it today.
Dr. Caulfield, ably supported by his son Declan whose expertise lies in the field of the Bronze and Stone Age farming methods, brings to life the history of the earth and the sea in the area that man first tempered the need to conquer his neighbor. By creating walls and cultivating their own individual food products, these early settlers were able to help one another flourish.
For additional information: www.belderrigvalley.com