Collooney to Aughris, a ride across the Ox Mountains of Sligo
Last Friday there was a family party in Aughris – a wedding anniverary (I won’t mention how many years). Aughris is a tiny village on the coast of Sligo. But how to get there? As usual, I don’t do things the easy way. I thought I’d get the 7.05am train from Dublin on Friday, then cycle from Collooney town along the Ox Mountains, up over the Ladies Brae and down to Aughris, via Farranyharpy and Skreen, where my father and grandparents came from. And I’d also visit a few spots I knew well from when I was little, going there every July on holiday. The plan was to follow minor roads west from Collooney, to the equally small town of Coolaney (easy to confuse those two, even their ghost estates look alike). These roads follow the southern side of the Ox Mountains, which form a ridge east to west, slicing Sligo in two. There are only three roads that cross over the mountains. I later found out that the route I chose more or less follows the Sligo Way long distance route.
After a very brief few metres riding on a main road, the cycle was mostly on quiet local roads, paralleling the line of a disused railway between Collooney and Coolaney – it would be an ideal cycle/walk route if anyone ever got around to clearing it out.
The road climbs steadily up and over the Ladies Brae, although all the road signs mentioning that name have been removed. I assume its because it was just too tempting for the local wits to do what they’ve been doing for decades – painting out the ‘e’ in ‘brae’! Now its just an anonymous pass with a little picnic table at the top, providing great views out towards Sligo Bay, with beautiful Knockarae (with the warrior Queen Maeves grave on top), and Benbulbin in the distance. It was cold and damp on on the pass as expected – the name ‘Ox Mountains’ is actually a mistranslation from the original Irish – Slieve Ghamh for Slieve Dhamh – the Stormy Mountains. The latter is a much better name, they seem to attract every dark cloud coming over the Atlantic.
The road drops rapidly down south then west into the townland of Farranyharpy. This is where my father was born and my grandparents lived for most of their lives, until they got a new farm a few kilometres north in Skreen, thanks to Land Commission policies in the early 1930’s. The old farmhouse now is apparently all gone, apart from a wall. I’d hoped to find it, but I didn’t succeed.
Farranyharpy lies at the foot of Knockalongy, the biggest of the Ox Mountains. At the base of the mountain is Lough Achree (Lake of the heart), a mysterious deep lake at the foot of the quartz rich mountain behind it. There are several stories told about how it got its name, this is the one my father told me when I was little:
A long time ago there was a farmer with a beautiful white stallion. But the stallion was wild and could not be tamed, he kept breaking the farmers fences. Other farmers told him the horse should be killed, but he loved him, and could not bear to do this. Instead, he decided to let him free on the mountain above Lough Achree, which did not have that name in those days. Every day he would come out and see the horse in the distance (there is a distinct white outcrop half way up the cliff behind the lake). One day, he went to see the horse, but to his horror saw that he had only been looking at a rock of quartz. He climbed down to the lake to see his beloved horse had fallen down the cliff into the lake. All he could find was the mighty heart of the stallion floating on the surface. Since that day, the lake has been called Lough Achree, the lake of the heart.
There is another similar story, told in the Annals of the Four Masters, the last great document from Celtic Ireland, written in the early 16th Century. The story has quite a precise date.
In 1490 a great local chief had a great white horse, which he kept in a field under Knockalongy. One day a great eruption occured, spreading smoke and sulferous fumes over the countryside. When he went to the field he saw the land had sunk and there was now a lake there. All that could be found of the horse was its heart, floating on the surface. Since that day, the new lake has been called Lough Achree, the Lake of the heart.
I’ve read several times that this is a true account of the last major earthquake and volcanic eruption in Ireland, and that this lake is in fact a caldera. I am pretty sure I’ve read that in repectable geology books (although I’ve not been able to pin down the source). According to the Geological Survey of Ireland in their survey of the geology of Sligo, it is a typical corrie lake (in other words, a small lake formed on the north side of a mountain at the end of a glaciation). From my limited knowledge of geomorphology, this is exactly what it looks like – the marshy ridge along the front of the lake looks like a typical terminal moraine of the type invariably found at corries.
It was a gentle ride of just a few kilometres before reaching the first main road since I left Collooney, the N69. Not a pleasant road at all to ride, but it was only for a few hundred metres.
I skipped off onto minor roads again to have a look at my great-grandparents grave, in Skreen graveyard.
From there, I cycled down to the coast, to Dunmoran Strand, where we went for family holidays every July when I was little. On the way I passed the sad sight of the tiny ruined cottage of Mrs. Brehany, the old lady who ran the nearest shop to the beach. The chocolate had usually been sitting out in the sun for who knows how many years before a few kids came along to buy it. I remember she used to sit just inside the door, with a few bars of Cadburys Milk Chocolate and a few sweets on the table in front of her.
I wasn’t far from Aughris, but I decided it would be nice to take a detour north to visit a place known locally as the Puffin Hole, a sea cave where you get spectacular ‘puffs’ and a deep roar that can be heard for miles around when the waves are right.
I looped back down south and west back to Aughris, passing….