He asked where I was headed. I explained that I was trying to
get to the Lough Avoher shelter before sundown. “You’ll make
it easily,” he said. “And you’ve picked the right day to come. The
winds are blowing the clouds away. The rain has passed. You’ll
see stars tonight.”
I asked where he was headed. “Home,” he said, pointing his
walking stick toward the cleft. “Over those hills.” Then he was
o= — rapidly ascending. Within minutes he and his flock were
mere specks flitting across the hillside.
The sun dropped rapidly and the light took on a golden hue.
Against Chambers’s advice, I made things easy on myself and
stuck to the trail, arriving at the shelter in a little over an hour.
As I approached the structure, something seemed askew. The triangular walls of the wood bothy remained standing but the roof
had peeled away and lay shattered ten or fifteen yards from the
shelter—testament to the fearsome winds that frequently rake
the hillsides in this part of Ireland.
No matter. The sidewalls remained standing and seemed
sturdy enough. The floor was still level and dry and o=ered a fine
sheltered place to pitch a tent. Even though the site sat at a mere
six hundred feet above sea level, the area had a similar feel to a
high basin in the Colorado Rockies. Small stunted trees, resembling the gnarled krummholz pines found at high elevations in
the Rockies, threw up their twisted limbs. The sun descended,
illuminating the tops of the Nephin Range in purple alpenglow.
After I erected my tent and cook stove, I nibbled on English
cheddar and chorizo and sipped red wine (all procured at a gas
station in Sligo) as I read a few passages from a quirky interpretive
map of the Bangor Trail by Joe McDermott and Robert Chapman
given to me by my hosts. The section where I was holed up,
according to the map, lay near two former town sites, Scardaun
and Maumaratta. Curiously, the names were printed on my topo
map, too, though there were no signs on the landscape (none
obvious from where I stood, anyway) that suggested that these
settlements had once existed near here.
In 1841, the population density of County Mayo was 180 peo-
ple per square mile, three times as great as it is today. Hundreds,
perhaps thousands, once lived within a one-mile radius of where
I was now camped. But nearly all evidence of that tenure had
been erased from the land except for a few faint green scars on
the surrounding hillsides, remnants of “lazy beds,” traces of a
farming technique in use across Ireland in the early nineteenth
century. The method was simple and e=ective. Seed potatoes
were buried under a shallow layer of manure and seaweed. In
these impoverished districts, the lazy-bed technique was prefer-
able to conventional farming methods since it didn’t require a
horse and plow and because it greatly increased yield.
The lazy beds were also susceptible to Phytophthora infes-tans, the potato-blight fungus that destroyed potato crops
across Ireland during the 1840s and led to widespread famine. In a nearby village called Treanbeg, now vanished, every
single resident perished and was buried in a mass grave.
Had the residents of Scardaun and Maumaratta met a similar
fate? Between 1841 and 1851, the population of Mayo fell from