It’s great fun to create a looped walk from scratch. Spread the Ordnance Survey Map out on the kitchen table and, as the radio jingle used to say, “let your fingers do the walking” while you set about discovering somewhere new to explore.
And that’s how I discovered the circular route that takes you along the east shore of Lough Feeagh (Irish: Loch Fíoch) on the road to Srahmore, sometimes known as the Nephin Drive, and often referred to locally as ‘The Wires’ in reference to the electrical wires that criss-cross the slopes.
For my money, this is one of the most beautiful walks in Mayo along quiet country roads in a lake-filled valley where you are surrounded on three sides by the Nephin Beg mountain range.
You won’t find this lakeside looped walk, known as the Treenbeg Loop, listed among the designated walking trails in Mayo. Not surprisingly, it’s popular with local people and families out for a Sunday stroll from nearby Newport.
It’s an unforgettable walk in Mayo’s lakeland country and I’m surprised that I hadn’t come across it before as I have walked the nearby Burrishoole Loop Walks many times.
The walk does not circle Lough Feeagh as this is not possible, but it brings you along two roads – one skirting the lakeshore – and the High Road on the slopes of Buckagh Mountain with wonderful elevated views in all directions.
You’ll find the Lough Feeagh walk by taking the road to Mulranny and turning right off the N59 for Lough Furnace, about 1km outside of Newport.
I parked at the Salmon Research Station at Lough Furnace, but there is a small parking area at the crossroads just before that, at the signpost for Srahmore, where this walk starts and finishes.
Starting the circular route on the ‘low road’, I was immediately enchanted by the beautiful vista of Slíabhraon towering over Lough Feeagh, as I came over the brow of the hill, before turning the corner to see the full expanse of the lake almost surrounded by the Nephin Beg mountains.
In mid-March, the rocky, glacial landscape was even more tundra-like. The grasses, rushes and bracken were scorched to various shades of red, yellow and brown after an unusually long and harsh winter of frost and snow.
The yellow flowers of the whins added vibrancy to the earthy browns and grey of the rocks and the scene was perfectly complemented by the expansive backdrop of a blue sky.
History and Legend
Sheltered between the mountains from the bitingly cold east wind, I was reminded that this U-shaped valley was formed at the end of the last Ice Age, about 15,000 BC
The retreating glacier created Lough Feeagh and Lough Furnace before sliding into the nearby Atlantic Ocean where the melting ice dumped huge amounts of boulder clay known as drumlins forming Clew Bay’s hundreds of tiny islands.
History is all around you here – and not just in the reminders of our geological past.
One of the great love stories of prehistoric Ireland was played out on the shores of Lough Feeagh.
As you walk downhill, you will notice a promontory known as Diarmuid and Grainne’s Bed (Irish: Leaba Diarmuid agus Grainne) where the two fabled fugitives slept as they stayed one step ahead of Finn Mac Cumhaill and Na Fianna.
There are the remains of an Iron Age promontory fort here too – a sign that this remote area has been inhabited for thousands of years.
Spinners and weavers
In more recent times, local people eked a living from this barren mountainside by creating a craft industry that was admired throughout Ireland.
Up to the 1950s, wool spinning and weaving were thriving cottage industries in Buckagh, Srahmore and Shraloggy areas where blankets, tweed, flannels, and bainin jackets were produced in the homes of local people.
Rose Anne Murray, writing for Newport Historical Society, fondly recalls the Buckagh Mountain weavers:
“Back in the 1940’s, a Margaret Murray of Shramore specialised in using plants to dye her home-spun wool indigo blue and she had a special fleck put in the weft of the wool which was woven for her by Edward Mulchrone in Buckagh. What is not generally known is that a piece of her exclusive tweed is on exhibition at the National Museum in Dublin.”
Another memento of the skill of the spinners and weavers of this area is part of the folklife collection at the Museum of Country Life, Turlough Park.
“The red woollen quilt which was created by Mrs Patrick Chambers of Shramore is impressive. The front of the quilt is of a plain weave and dyed with the aniline dye known as scarlet which was used for colouring the infamous red petticoat, so favoured by 19th-century artists. The back of the quilt was dyed with heather and is of a twill weave.” (Anne O’Dowd: Fifty Years of Collecting Folklife -The National Museum in Mayo 1947-1997, writing in Mayo History and Society).
Sheep are still the farming mainstay, but sadly the soothing sound of the weaving loom is just a memory.
By the lakeshore
Further along the winding road, you come to one of the fish monitoring stations run by the Marine Institute with a nice pier and access to the lakeshore.
The building is a reminder that Lough Feeagh, the largest of the lakes in the Burrishoole catchment, is a popular salmon fishing water. Connected to Lough Furnace by a 20-metre man-made river, the lake waters drain through the short Burrishoole Channel into Clew Bay.
The two lakes are among the best salmon fishing waters in Ireland. Lough Furnace is the lower Lough on the Burrishoole salmon fishery. It is tidal unlike Lough Feeagh, a freshwater lake that is of much interest to scientists studying climate change.
It’s interesting to discover that Lough Feeagh is making an important contribution to worldwide climate change studies, specifically the effects the warming climate will have on freshwater lakes.
Lough Feeagh is one of 235 lakes worldwide that have been monitored observed and studied by the Global Lake Ecological Observatory Network (GLEON).
The observations have concluded that the surface water of Lough Feeagh has warmed at a rate of 0.35° C per decade between 1985-2009, although the rate of warming was lower than some other northern hemisphere lakes.
A wonderful wilderness
With only birdsong, it’s easy to let the mind wander. It’s only a few kilometres outside Newport town and yet you are on the verge of Ireland’s greatest wilderness, Wild Nephin.
The views in every direction are majestic. Slíabhraon, at 345m, towers over the lake as you continue your walk and the cone-shaped Lettertrask (279m) stands out even if it is dwarfed by the bigger peaks rising in all directions over this mountainous wilderness.
Overlooking the lake along this stretch of wooded road where a crystal clear stream cascades down the steep and rocky mountainside towards the lake is the former An Oige Hostel, known as Treanlaur Lodge.
Now empty, the word locally is that stately old building is to reopen as a hostel which will be welcomed by the many walkers who visit this part of Mayo for a hiking holiday.
Just beyond the hostel, you turn right uphill to start the return leg of your walk along the High Road.
This is part of the Western Way – Bangor Trail, soon to be upgraded by the Parks and Wildlife Service making it more accessible to walkers planning to hike all the way to Bangor Erris on the western side of the Nephin Beg mountains.
Walking the tarred road that is cut into the side of Buckagh the view over the lake below and surrounding mountains is magnificent.
Near the road’s highest point the ruins of Treanlaur school come into view. Its remaining gable now a lonely reminder of times past when many more people lived here.
Set amongst a few wind-ravaged hawthorn bushes that cling to the rock-strewn hilltop, the ruins make you think of the individual spirit of self-reliance, and the wider community support system, that once existed in this beautiful but harsh environment.
There is a grand finale to the finish of this walk as the vista to the southwest of Clew Bay and Croagh Patrick come into view beyond Lough Furnace shimmering under a sinking sun.
I can think of no better way to spend a couple of hours – it’s an easy walk that will suit people of varying fitness levels.
As I finished the walk, I couldn’t help but think of the words of “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, the well-known traditional Scottish song.
You’ll take the high road and I’ll take the low road,
And I’ll be in …..
In this case, Newport for fish and chips!