The walk up to the base of Slievemore (‘Big Mountain’) in County Mayo is a long hike across green fields dotted with sheep. The wind is constant here, blowing over a collection of 5,000 year old megalithic tombs, making the purple heather tremble, and slapping me in the face with my own hair. A mile away in the opposite direction, sun bounces off the magnificent turquoise sea.

There has been one kind of settlement or another at the foot of this mountain since the 12th century. However, now all that remains sheltered under the grand slope is a ghostly collection of stone houses built in the 1800s, and abandoned during the famine of the 1840s. It is known simply as, ‘The Deserted Village.’ The settlement extends along a mile-long ancient track and consists of somewhere between 80 and 100 stone cottages. No one has ever been able to give me a total count of the cottages, and when I tried, I lost count. Anyway, there’s a lot of them.

Inside, the houses reveal how simple lives must have been lived, far more in tune with the natural world than anything we might be able to imagine. 

Each cottage is a single room measuring a few metres in either direction, with only one or two cubbies in the stone walls to hold the possessions of an entire family. This room was used as kitchen, living room, bedroom, and even stable. The walls are of stone only, no mortar or cement holding them together.

In 1838, before the famine, the Ordinance Survey showed there were 137 occupants in this village. By 1850, after the famine, the whole place was deserted. 
Now, sheep graze among the lazy beds where the 19th century dwellers grew their potatoes. The ridges can still be seen because they were burned into the earth by the potato fungus that destroyed the crops.
So, what happened to these people? Where did they go? If you ask local historians, they’ll tell you some attempted the four kilometre walk (2.5 miles) to Dugort to renounce their Catholic faith in order to get a serving of watery soup from the Protestant Reverend Edward Nangle. Those who were too sick or malnourished to make that journey, simply disappeared. There is a tale of one elderly couple in particular who simply curled up together at the side of the road and died.
But there is another story. One reported in a 19th century newspaper published at the height of the famine. It tells of an unnamed village in County Mayo where a priest travelled to give extreme unction to the entire population, all of whom were dying. That might have been the case here.  
Whatever the ending, the plot of this tale is a reminder of a horrific episode in Ireland’s past when human nature’s greed permitted wholesale eviction of Irish citizens. Many Irish were thrown out of their dwellings by British landlords so those dwellings could be levelled and more cattle could graze.
Unfortunately, modern Irish landlords have learned nothing from that appalling history and the evocative village of Slievemore. Today, landlords in this country don’t topple down houses because, after all, that would be destroying their own property. But they are toppling down lives by getting rid of long-standing tenants and replacing them with new ones who will pay much higher rents. Without proper rent control measures, the current housing crisis is set to continue and escalate.

On my way down the hill, wind screams through the toppled stones, a wild, bone-chilling sound. It makes me wonder . . . What sort of ghost towns will modern greed leave behind?

"Most of your fears are much bigger in your mind than in reality." -- Doe Zantamata

Ghosts in My Attic
Not long ago, I lived in an old farmhouse with a walk-in attic. It was more of a garret than an attic, but I never really used it. One night, I awoke to hear ghosts in that attic. Naturally, with my heart banging in my chest and visions of the old Poltergeist film in my head, fear kept me from sleeping. The next day, I recruited a neighbour to come look in the attic with me.

We did not find ghosts, but there were lots of dead bugs, hibernating flies, and mouse droppings. Ew! The neighbour set a mouse trap for me and, sure enough, the next day, there was a dead mouse in my attic. But this mouse was tiny - a baby mouse to be sure. I felt terrible for killing it. When I looked at it closely, I saw it's long, pointy snout, and realised I had murdered a protected species. A pigmy shrew!

Pygmy Shrews
Pygmy shrews are Ireland's smallest mammal. They have a long, pointy nose and whiskers that twitch as they scramble through tangles of bramble, bracken, and woodland looking for food. Their main goals in life are to eat and avoid being eaten.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about pygmy shrews is that, unlike rodents, they eat only insects. My old attic was probably Paradise for the little family that lived there. Once they had finished eating all the hibernating flies and other annoying critters, they left! I didn't even have to ask. That's probably because these little guys must eat constantly, gobbling up more than their body weight every day, approximately 250 insects in a 24 hour period. God bless 'em! 

The average weight of a pygmy shrew is less than six grams, they have the fastest heart rate (1200 times per minute) and metabolic rate of any mammal, and if they go an hour without food, they die. Their eye sight sucks, which explains why their name in Irish is 'blind animal of the heather,' but their sense of smell is fabulous, which is why they could find food in my dark attic.

They've been around for longer than humans, but the average one of these little critters doesn't live more than thirteen months. 

They are really amazing little creatures. Naturally, I didn't put any more mouse traps in my attic, and I'm very glad these tiny insectivores are a protected species.

Travel Tips

  • In Ireland, music doesn't usually start at the pubs until 9:30 or even 10:00pm. So, don't be afraid to go out at night. That's when things really start hoppin'.

  • When you travel, always consider local customs and ways of doing things. Try to join in and really understand why people do the things they do. For instance, if you're a coffee drinker, when you get to Ireland try a hot cup of Irish tea, made with milk and sugar. It can leave you with a wonderful sense of euphoria, but not all the jitters you can get from coffee. 

 “On the path to whatsoever place one would travel, that place one’s own self becomes.” A.E.

The Welcome of the Door
In old cottages throughout the west and south of Ireland, the earthen floor just inside the threshold was known as ‘the welcome of the door.’ Upon entering, a visitor would stand there and say, ‘A blessing on this house.’ The entrance, an in-between place, marked a sacred space, neither here nor there. A place where the power of the OtherWorld could flow into your world.

Céad Mille Fáilte – One Hundred Thousand Welcomes. Please come in, make yourself at home. Let’s chat.

Once upon a time, Ireland—like most places on the planet—was guilty of treating the female of the species as a second-class citizen. During the ‘Swinging Sixties,’ when women from London to San Francisco were busy liberating themselves from lower wages and confining bras, the average woman in the west of Ireland just wanted to get running water inside the house.

A popular image survives in folk memory of rural women in their headscarves gathered around the parish pump, exchanging gossip until it was time for their husbands to come in to have their tea (dinner) placed on the table. Insofar as this cliché had any basis in truth, the women supposedly loitering at the pump were there because of their husbands. From the moment there was the remotest chance of getting water piped straight into their homes, the vast majority of Irish housewives were ready, willing and eager to do away with their regular treks to the pump to fill back-breaking containers.

It was a daily toil. The ones standing in the way of such progress were the women's husbands. All through the 1950s and 1960s, the members of the Irish Farmers' Association vigorously opposed the direct supply of household water, fearful that it would increase the rateable valuation of their properties, thereby increasing taxes.

In 1961, the Irish Countrywomen's Association organised a Turn on the Tap exhibition at Dublin's Mansion House (Lord Mayor’s house) to support their case that the parish pump had had its day. Their husbands stood their ground. It was a struggle that would go on another two decades and more.

Where I live, in the beautiful remote countryside of the west, indoor water taps were not made available (i.e., accepted) until the late 1970s. Before that, women and children visited the local pump, usually once a day, and carried home as much water as they could. If your family needed more water than you could carry, too bad.

Today, if you visit rural Ireland, look for the water pumps in the countryside. They are dry reminders of the sweat and toil that women had to endure for a mere cup of water, in a landscape dominated by a desert of male oppression.


Up until the 1970s, there were no self-serve grocery stores. Housewives had to shop daily in their local grocery store, giving their written orders or ‘messages’ to the person behind the counter. Today, groceries are still called ‘messages.’ Most items were sold loose, no bedevilment of plastic packaging, and the housewife put her purchases in a woven basket she’d brought with her from home.

Today, grocery stores continue to discourage plastic packaging. That’s why, if you visit Ireland and stop at a grocery store, you will be expected to bring your own reuseable bag. Alternatively, you can purchase a reusable bag for about one or two Euro. You’ll also be ‘bagging’ your own groceries.

For this reason, you may wish to pack a reusable bag to bring with you on your travels. Or buy one here, and reuse it for your shopping when you get back home. 



Are you feeling a burning need to travel but not sure if it’s safe yet? Welcome to my world.

Tomorrow promises to be sunny and warm so I’m going on a personal pilgrimage. That means I will journey somewhere (probably nearby), and make that journey a prayer to the Earth. Here in Ireland there are lots of possibilities for a one-day pilgrimage: curative springs, dark caves, sacred stone circles . . . For hundreds of years, long before Christianity, people made pilgrimages to holy wells and mountain tops where they left offerings and sought assistance for various challenges. 

In many of these places you can actually feel an in-dwelling spirit, or maybe it’s the collective energy of all the people who’ve visited the place before you.

 A pilgrimage is more than just a trip. It’s a soul journey that changes you in some way, gives you a new insight, and maybe the gift of elevating your mood. Going to a new place can also help you find a part of yourself you have lost somewhere along the way.

Recently, I read an article that said in order to slow down time, you should do something different, take a different route, make a different choice, as often as possible. I’m making a suggestion to myself, and anyone who cares to read this. Whether you travel to a distant land or to the park at the end of your block, try going to a different place within yourself while you’re there. Journey ‘through the Earth’ and ‘with the Earth,’ and really listen to what it has to say.

The Magical Holly Tree

Back at the summer solstice, you may not have noticed it, but the King of the Oaks did battle with the Holly King, and lost. But don’t despair. On the Winter Solstice they’ll do battle again, and this time the Oak King will regain his rule. This, according to Irish legend, is why the seasons change.

The holly tree is a native evergreen that stands out at this time of year among leafless hedges and woods, growing from tumbling stone walls, flashing bright, shiny, red berries, and waxy dark green leaves. Those ‘berries’ are actually called ‘droops’ and contain multiple seeds. Only the female holly trees produce the red fruits. The waxy leaves hold water which helps them stay green throughout winter. And each leaf stays on the tree from between five and eight years. Though not a big tree, it’s rugged enough to withstand winter frosts and summer droughts.

Ancient Brehon laws protected trees according to their particular value and utility. The holly tree, extremely valuable, was considered one of only five ‘Nobles of the Wood.’ It was believed to protect against lightning strikes, bring good luck, and enhance dreams.

It was used specifically in the shafts of chariots, but apart from its value to people, it’s great for birds and wildlife, and the tightly packed boughs give shelter to song birds.

In Ireland, it has always been considered a cheerful tree, joyfully flourishing even on harsh, barren land, and when the natural world has gone quiet in winter. To the ancient druids it was esteemed as a symbol of continued life and hope in the heart of winter.

The druids also chose holy for protection from bad spirits and esteemed it as a symbol for continued life and hope in the heart of winter.

So while we’re waiting for the Oak King to prevail and bring summer once more, it’s a good idea to appreciate the hope and mysteries hidden in the red and green Holly Tree.