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Collooney to Aughris, a ride across the Ox Mountains of Sligo

September 15, 2011

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.

Signs on the Teeling Cafe, Collooney Co. Sligo. The owner told me they'd been there for at least 50 years.

The Teeling Cafe on Main Street, Collooney. The only place open it seems for a cup of tea and some eggs on a Friday morning.

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 rails are still in place in some sections. In the days of the 'ordinary' (penny farthing) bikes, brave riders would actually 'ride the ties', finding it more comfortable than 19th Century roads. Right now, I'm thinking that filling in the rails with gravel would make a great mountain bike trail.

Section of old railway near Collaney

Towerhouse near Coolaney

There were a few sections of grassy walkway, part of the Sligo Way. I was tempted to cycle them, but I stuck to the paved roads. Maybe another time.

The road climbs gently away from Coolaney, giving views south over the Mayo plains. A local farmer pointed to that distant hill and said 'Knock Airport is over there, you can fly to America!' Maybe another time...

I noticed these name plates along the local roads, giving the name of each little stream (this one was tiny, hidden under the grass and weeds). Its a nice local touch, these minor local names so often disappear, marked only on maps.

The road winding up towards the pass.

There is an old megalithic tomb in that small fenced off area. There is a megalithic tomb in the little enclosure here, guarded by some wary looking horses.

A local traffic jam. Punk sheep

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.

Approaching the top.

Knocknarae and Belbulbin

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.


Knockalongy, with Lough Achree hidden under the khaki green ridge

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.

I was hoping to find the old family farm up here, I thought this might be it, but I later found out its not.

This is Red Hill, in front of the Ox Mountains, my uncle farms land here. I remember making a feeble attempt at helping taking in hay when I was 12 years old up there, my hands cut up from the bailing twine.

According to every textbook I've read the Bluebell is a woodland plant that blooms in April and May. Not in Sligo apparently, where it happily blooms on mountainside ditches in September

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.

This empty building was called the Coragh dTonn, my father very nearly bought this to run in his retirement, thankfully he didn't or this would be my inheritance...!

I skipped off onto minor roads again to have a look at my great-grandparents grave, in Skreen graveyard.

Skreen Church

And here it is.

And the obligatory awkward pic of oneself.

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.

The road down to the beach

The second best place for a bike ride to end - a beautiful beach. There were a few surfers out, despite the calm weather, there were decent waves.

Looking back towards the Ox Mountains

One of the line of abandoned cottages by the beach.  Some surfer dudes had a  party here I'd guess.

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.

The road there always feels like dropping off the edge of the world

I looped back down south and west back to Aughris, passing….

.... a curious cat

and some curious cows.

Aughris Pier

And finally... the best place of all to finish a cycle ride. A really nice bar (Beach Bar, Aughris), by the sea (photographed the next day). I stayed in the B&B behind it and to the right of the photo


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  1. Emily Boland permalink

    Really enjoyed this! I was driving around those same area’s this summer. My family is from there…Boland’s (Tullylinn) and Kilpatrick’s (Carronree, who are also buried at the Church of Skreen.)~Emily

    • Thanks Emily, glad you enjoyed it, its an fascinating area. I see you are from Houston? At least one Davis from Skreen now lives in Houston.

  2. Emily Boland permalink

    Really? That is interesting! If they ever need anything, let me know:) I hope to be back in Ireland in March or if not, this summer for sure.

  3. Hope you make it back then, March can be a bit chilly and wet! But still a nice time for some bracing walks. Drop me a message if you need any help or advice.

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