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2005-07-19 Céide Fields bog covers ancient farms

There are certain things in life which defy explanation. Why does Ireland continue to shatter young wannabe popstars' dreams by awarding them with Eurovision embarassment? Why are fresh apricots less tasty than tinned apricots? And why does our friendly local Tourist Office close on Saturdays?

 

Maybe Sligo is a tourist-free zone at weekends? Perhaps tourists do all their research and questioning on weekdays? A few weeks ago, I called in to chat to the ever-welcoming Tourist Office staff, but to my surprise I discovered the doors were firmly locked at weekends.

 

By way of a protest, I decided to cross the border into Mayo, to pay my first visit to the famous Céide Fields. Described as the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world - the Céide Fields is four square miles of farmland trapped in time. 5000 years ago, herds of cattle grazed in regular rectangular field-systems, similar to our own.

 

Assorted dwellings and boundary walls have been preserved in a peat time capsule for fifty centuries. As we know, much of Sligo, Mayo and Leitrim is blanketed in hundreds of square miles of bog. Partially-decayed plants have continued to amass over thousands of years, each layer representing a page in time, showing us what our land looked like when the Vikings invaded, or at the time of Christ, or when the pyramids were constructed.

 

Bogland can appear lifeless, and yet, several metres below the surface we find life preserved from 5000 years ago. We try to imagine our modern landscape as wilderness, and yet, in the case of the Céide Fields, today we have wilderness where once there was thriving life.

 

It makes you think about the endless miles of bogland elsewhere in Ireland, and what perhaps lies beneath. And if that is not enough to get your head around, the geological history of the area is even more mind-blowing. The magnificent cliffs at Céide are 300 million years old, but the rocks just down the road at Belderrig are twice as old as that again.

 

And if you travel right out west to Belmullet, the rocks are even older - perhaps 1000 million years old. If we are to take an average lifetime to be 100 years (perhaps a little ambitious, but easier for tenor multiplication), then I estimate 1000 million years to be 10 million lifetimes.

 

Ok, so Maths is not my strong point, but it is a hell of a long time. The scenery of this ancient coastline, from the golden strand of Lacken to Downpatrick Head to Belmullet is awesome. When you leave Ballycastle, the scenery changes rather abruptly from green fields to blanket bog. The 370 ft high limestone and shale Céide cliffs display their incalculable layers, and have more or less the same rock formation as our own Benbulben. In the case of North Mayo, the unyielding waves continue to erode and sculpt the coastal profile, leaving such distinct features as the Downpatrick Head seastack. The Céide Fields Visitor Centre is friendly, helpful and informative. The Céide story is told clearly by means of a short film and a permanent exhibition, as well as by experienced guides. Light snacks are available at the Céide Cafe.

 

The main features of this bog- covered hillside above the North Mayo coast, sprinkled with wispy bog cotton, are simple stone walls. Of course, the cynic within me began to conjure up images of entrepreneurial Mayo farmers jumping on the bandwagon, piling up a few stones on their less arable land, and charging an admission fee. But a walk around these ancient fields at Céide show that Céide is the real thing, revealing an oval dwelling enclosure, an animal shelter, pottery, arrowheads, and a primitive plough. Down the road at Belderrig, in the Mayo Gaeltacht, excavations since 1971 have revealed evidence of Bronze Age tillage farmers having reclaimed Neolithic farms.

 

Belderrig harbour seems somewhat hidden, and after twenty minutes of wrong turns and reversing up single-track cul-de-sacs, I plucked up courage, and asked directions  `as Gaelige'. But the `feirmeoir' I asked, well, `ní raibh focal amháin aige (buíochas le Dia)'. By the way, what is the position on foreign tourists in a Gaeltacht area, speeding past a sign saying "Taisteal go mall" or "Tabhair Aire"? I suppose they could always consult their local Tourist Office&&.if it was open.