Day 3: Sligo to Westport (114 miles)
In momentary morning sunshine, I head south past rocky dairy farms on the R293, a road flanked by stands of ash, sycamore, and beech. On the outskirts of nearly every village I pass through, I note a belt of new buildings gradually thickening around the historic town center. This is not bucolic or beautiful, but it’s hard to see how to avoid it: farming is no longer the dominant source of income around here, and you can’t expect people to choose a drafty thatched cottage to come home to after a day at the office.
My goal this morning is the village of Gurteen and its Ceolaras Coleman Music Centre. A 1999 brick structure in a village of painted stone, the center has classrooms, a small shop, and a 120-seat concert hall offering performances by some of the region’s tried and true masters. More and more, the rural traditions of Ireland will be sheltered in places like this.
I chat over tea with the center’s James McCarrick, a tall writer-farmer who has been a close observer of the countryside over the course of several decades. As the generations that handed down traditions in kitchens and parlors fade, he tells me, today’s Irish families are becoming as overscheduled as their American counterparts. Meanwhile, the social and geographic isolation that once preserved local customs has been erased by technology and economic improvements. One can hardly begrudge the rural Irish their wider roads, their new houses, their smoke-free pubs and mobile phones and broadband access. The country no longer seems frozen in time, and that’s a good thing—isn’t it?
From Gurteen, I head west to County Mayo by way of the beautiful Lough Talt and the Windy Pass through the Ox Mountains. At Bangor, I turn south toward Westport and soon, straight ahead, looms the distant cone shape of Croagh Patrick, which thousands of pilgrims climb each year to reach the shrine of St. Patrick at the summit.
My own Westport pilgrimage—after a lonely drive through the wilds of coastal West Mayo—is to Matt Molloy’s pub, owned by the flute player of the Chieftains and famous for virtuoso trad sessions. There is no session in progress on this Thursday at 11 p.m., but in the capacious back room, a pianist, an accordion player, and a fiddler are set up on a stage playing ceili-style dance music for a roomful of eager listeners.