With early Christian and medieval ruins as well as megalithic tombs dotted about the countryside, this stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way is steeped in a rich history, as well as being one of the most scenic coastal routes in the country. Early settlers farmed its clifftop slopes, evidence of which was discovered in the 1930s by a local man cutting turf. Seamus Heaney’s poem Belderrig describes the sight:
A landscape fossilized,
Its stone wall patterings
Repeated before our eyes
In the stone walls of Mayo
Under the blanket bog which preserved the area for thousands of years lie rich pickings for archaeologists and historians in a 5,000-year old field system, where evidence of human and animal dwellings, burial tombs, stone walls and more offer a glimpse into the life of prehistoric man. Known as Ceide Fields, it is the oldest known field system in the world and of international importance.
A few miles from the town is another spectacular natural phenomenon. Downpatrick Head is a headland and sea-stack which were said to be separated from each other when Saint Patrick struck the ground with his crozier, leaving doomed Chieftain, Crom Dubh stranded as punishment for refusing to convert to Christianity. On the last Sunday of July, known as Garland Sunday, mass is celebrated on the ruins of a church, stone cross and holy well mark the site of an earlier church founded here by St Patrick. Mass is on the last Sunday of July ('Garland Sunday') at Downpatrick Head. Remnants of a lookout post from the Second World War have found a new purpose: to view the many species of birds and wildlife along the cliffs.
Due to the unspoilt nature of this area, wildlife is abundant. A wide range of birds, from gulls to cormorants to ravens live on the cliffs and in the the blanket bog and rocky terrain one might encounter rabbits, badgers, otters, foxes or hedgehogs. Among the many birds which nest here are Reven and Peregrine Falcons.
Ballycastle offers sandy beaches and coves for swimming, fishing and scuba diving; cliffs with ample bird-watching opportunities; hills, bogs and unspoilt coastline for walking and cycling and periodic art exhibitions. One of Ireland’s most ambitious and certainly its largest public art project spans a large swathe of north Mayo. Inspired by the Neolithic find at Ceide Fields, the Tir Sáile Sculpture Trail is a site-specific trail with fourteen sculptures positioned along the North Mayo Coast. Between nature and man, both ancient and modern, ballycastle offers much to see and contemplate on the wild and beautiful coast of North Mayo.