Meet the Doolough Spirit in Connemara

Doolough - County Mayo - Thin Places Tour 2012

Connemara has the most amazing light. This region follows the Atlantic coast between Galway and Mayo in the West of Ireland, and is often damp and cloudy. I have never driven through Connemara when it hasn't rained at least once. But the rain, and the dampness it brings, makes for the lush green countryside with its stunning and subtle shades.  The rain brings the rainbows and powerful moments when moving clouds open and let the sun pour through. The shadows shift, sometimes fly across the sides of the mountains and the valleys. The colors in the Connemara landscape seems to be in perpetual motion. Nothing stays the same.

I took the image above with my cell phone camera. The man, dwarfed in the landscape, was one of our guests on the Thin Places tour of 2012. Our bus stopped at the scenic northern side of Doolough pass, and the guests got out to explore and snap pictures. This guest was exploring the hills along the roadside when the sun broke through a previously dismal sky and he turned to face it. It was the perfect moment in a perfect setting, and one of the best moments I've captured with a camera.  The views from where this man is standing are some of the best in Ireland, and some of the most photographed.

Doolough pass - from the Louisburgh - Delphi Road

The Doolough Tragedy - 1849

This area is sadly remembered for those poor, exhausted, starving people who walked this road on a journey from Louisburgh to Delphi lodge in March of 1849 in desperate hope of finding hunger relief.

The actual number of people who made this walk is undetermined, but it is estimated to have been  between 400 and 600. They were the recipients of "outdoor relief," a program that distributed food to people who did not work in the workhouses and owned less than a quarter acre of land. In order to receive the relief, they had to show up for inspections where they would receive food and sometimes clothing or money. At the inspection in Louisburgh, the hungry poor were told they had to report to Delphi Lodge if they wanted to continue to receive their benefits. In harsh weather with little to protect them from the elements, hundreds of weak and hungry families trekked a rocky and soggy 12 mile goat path through the mountain passes, crossing the Glankeen River at flood stage. Many died from exhaustion along the way.

Those who made it to Delphi waited hours outside the gates of Delphi lodge while the Board of Guardians ate an afternoon meal. Then the hungry poor were turned away and told to return to Louisburgh. They were given no explanation, no food or promise of assistance, and no direction on how to get the sustenance they craved. On the return trip the exhausted travelers were caught in a hailstorm that produced so much wind in the mountain pass, that many were blown off cliffs or  drowned while crossing the Glankeen River. More collapsed on the roadsides - including women and children.  They were left along the route like breadcrumbs marking the trail.

The Irish authorities buried hundreds of bodies where they fell  - with no coffins, markers or ceremony.
Famine Memorial Cross at Doolough.  Pilgrims have piled stones at the base.

A Celtic cross was erected to honor the memory of those lives lost and all of the world's hungry.  There is an annual Famine Walk that draws people from many nations who march against hunger and famine.  It traces the same path of those who made this fateful journey in 1849. An inscription on the base of the cross reads:
 How can men feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow human beings.  ~Mahatma Ghandi

My First Visit to Doolough - 1998

Sitting in the backseat of my friends' rental car, I watched the rain falling against the mountains as we drove into a valley on the road from Louisburgh heading toward Delphi.  The mist from the clouds and rain reminded me of thin places.  The mist looked just like a transparent veil  - just like a veil that might separate the present world from the eternal.

We came over a hill ... and there it was - the Doolough pass with the lake at its base.  I didn't know it then, but this is one of the most photographed spots in Ireland.  It was a pity that our view was dominated by the grays and blacks of a rainy day.  There wasn't much color, but the scene was remarkable in its monochrome state.  We saw the famine cross on the roadside and pulled over to take in the views.  The rain had slowed to a drizzle, so I got out and walked down the hill to see what this Celtic cross was marking and take a few pictures.

I was trudging around in a boggy muck when the rain started to get heavier. Wanting to protect my camera I started back up the hill to the car.  When I was about halfway up, I heard shouting.  I could see my friends at the car.  They had gotten out and were waving and yelling at me.  I could also see cars parked behind them.  Everyone was getting out.  I finally made out what my friend was shouting .... "Turn around!"

Lake at Doolough during a respite in the storm

The image above is what I saw.  Two distinct rainbows above the lake.  These weren't like normal rainbows.  They were pulsing, beating .... moving toward me and than back again.  It was raining and dark where I was standing, while a surreal light wove in and out of the mist above the lake.  The light was so strange.  The rainbow faded and then it came back again.  Everyone was out of their cars watching.  I often wonder about all those tourists on the road that day - and my friends ... if they remember Doolough the way I do.

The Spirit of Doolough

Every time I'm in Mayo or Galway, I try to get out to Connemara and drive this pass.  I don't really know why.  Maybe I'm just trying to re-live the 1998 rainbow moment, but this area has a significant draw - a magnetic pull. 

There's a sense about the region especially in this particular spot near the cross.  When the Westport newspaper reported on the famine tragedy here, the article stated that many of the travelers stopped here to rest. Some lay down and fell asleep... and died.  The bodies of men, women and children were found still in sleeping positions and were buried on site.  Later the cross was erected here.

There's a feeling about this part of the trail.  Every time I come through this pass I stop here, by the cross and get out and take in the views. And I'm always filled with an almost palpable sense of place…. as if the earth, sky, hills, stone, and water are all part of one body that is its own separate entity, charged with all energies of the area coming together as one being.

I love that spirit of Doolough. 

Doolough Cross  - 1998


  1. Anonymous1:29 PM

    Wow, those are some great pics of Doolough! The first time I was there was the summer after my son's high school graduation about 10 years ago. We happened to catch it near sunset in a golden light and a farmer was herding his sheep up the road. we pulled off at the shrine to those who died on the walk to and from Delphi and just breathed it all in. I have a few pics someone. It's a magical plce for sure, and all around there are stone circles, standing stones, and, of course, crough patrick itself an ancient pilgramage site which still draws 60,000 climbers on "reek Sunday" in July, I think.

    Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks, Susan. I don't think anyone can go to Doolough and not be changed just a little. There's a sense that you coming into someplace special as soon as you drive down that stretch of road. Glad you shared your experience. mb

  2. Wonderful pictures Mindie. I had only recently heard about the Doolough tragedy. It is amazing how a place of such tragedy can provide such beautiful photographs of Ireland. It is no surprise that it is one of the most photographed Irish places, but it would be difficult to tire of the beautiful light and landscapes. Thanks!

    1. True, David. It is a magical place. What light. Thanks for stopping by the blog.