Of Ireland’s western counties, all blessed with wild drama and wistful beauty, County Mayo is one of the lesser known. Ashford Castle is just on its edge, across the border from its more famous neighbor, County Galway, and thus privy to the serene loveliness of Mayo as well as the must-see sites of Galway. Within reach are freshwater lakes perfect for fishing, mountains to hike, the mystical bogs of Connemara, cultured cities and tiny fishing villages, and areas where Gaelic (Irish) is still the lingua franca.
Just up the river from the castle, the village of Cong made its name as the location where John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara filmed the Oscar-winning classic, The Quiet Man. Aside from the house used in the film, the village is home to the ruins of a 12th-century monastery and a fishing house used by monks.
A hub of music and arts, Galway is a vibrant contemporary city with a medieval heart. The Galway Arts Festival is a major draw every summer, and pubs and boutiques draw visitors into its winding, cobbled streets year-round. From here you can catch a ferry to the Aran Islands, an archipelago where Irish culture holds strong and a Celtic ring fort can be found among dramatic limestone landscapes.
Stretching more than 1,500 miles from County Cork into Northern Ireland, the Wild Atlantic Way is a scenic route that follows the glorious Irish coast over sheep-dotted emerald hills, past vertical cliffs and long beaches, and through fishing villages and lively towns. Whether you drive a segment or the whole thing, the route is within an easy drive from Ashford Castle.
West of the castle, the haunting landscapes of Connemara begin. This is a great spot for walking or hiking, and the castle can arrange a visit to a border-collie trainer in Connemara for a sheep-herding demonstration and a glimpse into the history of the area.
Lough Corrib is the second largest lake in Ireland, covering some 68 square miles and harboring 365 islands. It is connected via an underground channel to nearby Lough Mask. Both lakes are home to brown trout and salmon. Ancient woodlands surround the lake and Ashford Castle, but the landscape changes quickly the further you travel. To the west, the rugged quartzite summits of the Twelve Bens rise over Connemara’s lake-dotted peat bogs and rare flora, and Lake Mask is home to the unusual phenomenon of limestone pavement, a vast expanse of eroded rock covering the earth.
Neolithic and early Christian ruins are scattered across County Mayo, and Saint Patrick is said to have ministered here. This is the birthplace of pirate and chieftain Grace O’Malley, one of Ireland’s great legendary figures. The area was badly hit by the Irish potato famine, and more than a century and a half later, Mayo remains an area of small farms, plenty of sheep, and seemingly not many people.
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