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County Mayo

County Mayo sits on the western coast of Ireland, just to the north of Galway and to the southeast of County Sligo. It is home to several important religious sites, reminding the visitor that the history of Ireland is interwoven with religious involvement. County Mayo also offers a number of quaint towns that are very popular with tourists, rivers that boast superb salmon fishing, and, just off the coast, Ireland’s largest island, Achill. County Mayo is the third largest of the 32 counties in Ireland. Its name is derived from that of an early Christian monastery that was established here, and the diocese that followed. Remnants of the community can still be seen on the “plain of yews”. The Mayo region has a scenic, rugged coastline, cliffs and bog lands, mountains, inlets and bays. The diversity of landscape makes it a popular place for hiking, boating, angling and other outdoor pursuits. 

County Mayo Highlights

Clew Bay is scattered with intriguing islands, the largest of which is Achill Island, also Ireland’s largest. It features tranquil beaches nestled among spectacular cliffs and an abundance of birds and wildlife. A number of megalithic tombs and castle remains invite explorers to be adventurous. Nearby Clare Island is more remote, a perfect place to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Church Island, which served as a place of extended retreat for a number of saints, is overflowing with ecclesiastical ruins, monuments and relics of interest to religious history buffs. County Mayo is rich in religious history, partly because of its connection to St. Patrick. A popular pilgrimage route, known as Tochar Phadraig, leads to Croagh Patrick, the patron saint’s holy mountain and one of Ireland’s most sacred sites, and draws thousands of visitors each summer. St. Patrick also established Ballintubber Abbey –the surviving church there dates back to 1216 and has a history steeped in both fact and legend. Knock Shrine is another popular site for pilgrims, and is visited often by the infirm and disabled. It is a site of hope due to the miracles of healing that have been reported here. County Mayo beaches are excellent, of blue flag quality, and offer spectacular swimming, surfing, wildlife observation and breathtaking natural dunes. Popular historic structures include Westport House, an attractive limestone structure built upon the remains of a castle that once belonged to Grace O’Malley (the Pirate Queen), whose story is one example of the fascinating historical lore of the region. Perched on a hill overlooking the Carrowbeg River estuary, the Westport House collections of art and artefacts are world-class, as are the grounds and the dungeon museum. Designed by architect James Wyatt and built in conjunction with nearby Westport House, the town of the same name is one of many scenic County Mayo locations, featuring a busy quay, markets and examples of fine Georgian architecture. Westport Town is especially busy in late July during the annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick.

County Mayo History

Visitors to County Mayo see the evidence of the long history of humanity in the region in archaeological ruins, particularly megalithic tombs, blanket bogs which have hidden Stone Age monuments, stone circles from the Bronze Age, Iron Age Forts and crannogs  -- ancient wooden dwellings --  on its lakes. Christianity came to County Mayo at the end of the fourth century, and St Patrick arrived here sometime during the fifth. The beloved patron fasted and prayed atop Croagh Patrick, a tradition that continues to this day. He was instrumental in the establishment of several monastic communities in the region before moving on in his mission to bring Christianity to the entire Island. The Vikings arrived in County Mayo in the early ninth century, attacking and looting monasteries and establishing their own settlements. The Norman Conquest followed in 1235. The Norman invaders later intermarried and blended cultures with the Gaelic people of the area, and proceeded to establish towns, harbors and markets. They influenced trade and farming practices within the region. Religious architecture flourished during this period, as many of the monastic communities left in disrepair by the Vikings were renovated by Augustinian, Franciscan and Carmelite orders. The communities thrived until the suppression that took place following the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Many citizens of County Mayo were uprooted during the Cromwellian settlement, a period of history when lands were turned over as a reward to soldiers of the successful forces and to displaced landowners who came from the east. The centuries that followed were marked by suffering due to the Penal Laws, and emigration began slowly and then gathered intensity as the Famine Years began. When the potato crops began to fail in 1845, County Mayo, as a prime potato producer, was devastated. Over 100,000 died and emigration was massive, with citizens fleeing to America, England, Canada and Scotland. 

Popular Mayo Surnames

Common surnames in County Mayo include:

  • O’Malley
  • Kelly
  • Jordan
  • Dugan
  • Costello
  • Burke


Achill Island, Mayo by Katy Kildee


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