The ferns, nettles, bushes, and briars now hide much of what was once a 19th-century village on the slopes of the Ox Mountains.
The crumbling ruins of the small stone cottages and outhouses in the deserted village or clachán at Byhalla (Boyhollagh) are all that remains to remind us of the families who lived there.
We can only imagine how they had to toil daily to survive on a small plot of poor, mountain land in the years before Ireland’s Great Famine.
A walk up the Ox Mountains, near the lovely village of Attymass, brought us by the deserted homesteads at Byhalla and as we continued to trek up the mountain, I got to thinking about those who had once lived in this lovely but harsh environment.
Although little is known today about the abandoned village at Byhalla, its story is likely to be typical of so many settlements throughout Mayo and the West of Ireland that fell victim to the Great Famine and were slowly deserted over the following decades.
The few boggy acres that the Byhalla villagers farmed was just enough land to grow potatoes and graze a cow to feed themselves.
The ghostly ruins of the isolated settlement are just one of a number of such deserted villages in Co Mayo which include the deserted village at Glendaduff, not far from Byhalla.
These abandoned villages, the most famous of which is Achill Island’s Deserted Village at Slievemore, are all that remains of a time when small farming communities clustered together in clacháns farming the potato dependent on the Rundale system of land ownership.
The Rundale system of landholding meant that poor quality land was leased by local landlords to a tenant who then sublet it amongst 20-30 others who clawed out a subsistence living from the bog and rock.
Over the years, the plots were divided and sub-divided amongst family members in a form of subsistence farming that is mirrored today in the poorest of Third World countries.
In the foothills of the Ox Mountains, the deserted village at Byhalla would have been full of life up to the mid-19th century before the Great Famine wiped out so many families and drove the survivors to take the emigrant ship to the UK or the United States.
All that remains of the settlement now is a row of roofless cottages and outhouses. Locals believe that the village was abandoned after the Great Famine.
The cottages at Byhalla seem typical of Irish cottages of the 19th century. The small dwellings consisted of a living area in the centre with 2 bedrooms at either end.
With no foundations, the floors were made from compacted mud, clay or flagstones, and the light came in through a small window. The roof was usually stuffed with turf for insulation and thatched with heather and rushes plentiful in the locality.
Abandoned in 1966
Further up the mountain, you pass through a sheltered gorge, forested with beautiful Hazel trees. About a mile beyond the deserted village there are two other more recently abandoned dwellings, not far from the mountaintop.
These abandoned houses were well built; sturdy structures with slated roofs that date from a much later period than the deserted village lower down the mountain. There are a number of outbuildings which also give a fascinating insight into how families survived on this boggy mountain-side.
Locals say that the two families who lived close to the mountain summit both left in 1966 although it seems one person did return to occupy one of the houses in the 1990s, but not surprisingly he did not stay for long in this isolated location.
One of the outbuildings at this location is built into a slope and is quite interesting. My walking companion was of the opinion that the two- storey stone structure was a pigsty over a granary or some type of storehouse that had an enclosed walled area below, possibly for pigs.
There is also a cow byre where one or two cows were kept. A trail leads to the top of the mountain from where turf was harvested.
Life must have been a constant struggle for all those who lived in these Mayo mountain clacháns. Only the old Irish Meitheal spirit of neighbours supporting each other could have compensated for the lonely location and long trek to the local village.
This constant struggle to survive on this tranquil mountaintop, which on a fine day has panoramic views all the way to Lough Conn and Crossmolina, is a reminder of how our forebears struggled during another era when the greed and heartless power of a few caused such hardship for so many.
One of Mayo’s best-preserved island clacháns can be found on the Inishkea Islands.
The earliest settlements on the Inishkea Islands off the Mullet in North Mayo have been dated between 6th and 10th centuries when the islands were noted monastic settlements attracting pilgrims from the mainland.
The last islanders left the Inishkeas in 1934-5 and settled on the Mullet. The death-knell for the community was sounded when 10 young islanders were drowned in the devastating hurricane of October 1927.
The deserted village on Inishkea South is all that remains of the this Mayo island settlement that survived for centuries.
Thankfully, this village has been given the kiss of life with two of the old cottages now renovated by descendants of the original inhabitants for use as holiday dwellings.
Achill’s Deserted Village
Mayo’s most famous and largest deserted village is on Achill Island on the slopes of Slievemore mountain.
The village is the largest and most recently abandoned of a number of such settlements that were as summer ‘booley’ homes The 80 – 100 stone cottages located along a mile-long stretch of road on the southern slopes of Slievemore mountain were occupied up until fairly recent times.
One of the last villages in Mayo to be abandoned was in Cuiltybo between Kiltimagh and Kilkelly.
The village and one of its occupants can be seen in the above photograph taken in late 1937 by Ballina photographer, Tommy Battle. The caption explains that the 15 families who lived in the 21 cottages were migrating to Co Meath.
The caption also says that the location of the village was Cuiltybo near Kilconduff, Swinford, but I have made enquirers in that area and there is no record of such a place or village. It is more likely to be Cuiltybo near Kiltimagh. But, of course, I am open to correction.
The photo was gratefully supplied by Ballina historian, PJ Clarke.