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The mountains of south Mayo

a close up of a hillside

The mountains of south Mayo and north Galway straddle the border between the two counties, and here, on the rugged Atlantic coast they meet in the vicinity of Killary Harbour, the only fjord in Ireland.

South of the fjord the mountains of the Twelve Bens and the Maumturks dominate, their pale grey quartzite crags a magnet for hikers from all over Ireland and beyond. But here, in Mayo, they are of ancient hard sandstones, which give the mountains a severe and slightly malevolent presence, particularly when under low, glowering cloud.
Magnificent Mweelrea from Ben Gorm.
The best known of Mayo’s mountains, Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain, is to the north. However, here you will find Mayo’s highest and most rugged peak, Mweelrea, it’s 814 metre steep and rocky flanks rising straight from the sea. It is a complex mountain of several summits, and three dark, steep sided corries. It is a mountain not to be taken lightly, and has seen fatalities in the past.
To the east, across the adjoining valley, is the delightful mountain of Ben Gorm, with it’s subsidiary top Ben Creggan. Both these tops offer stunning views, both to Mweelrea and the sea, and to the Sheeffry’s to the north. Ben Gorm is smaller, at 700 metres, and has four stunning ridges leading off the extensive, rocky summit plateau to the east, like multiple tails of a speeding comet.
The start of the long ridge descent from Ben Gorm.
The best of these extends for nearly five kilometres from the summit. At it’s higher, western end, it is a wonderful narrow, rocky, undulating ridge; though never too exposed and rarely needing the use of the hands. The all round views are breathtaking.
Directly north of Ben Gorm are the Sheeffry Hills, perhaps misnamed, as the highest point at 772 metres is higher than many ‘mountains’.
Undoubtedly the best way to see the Sheeffry’s is by a west to east traverse, starting at the famine memorial at the head of Lough Doo, and heading straight up the steep grassy ridge ahead. It’s a tough climb, but well worth it, as once you reach the summit of Barrclashcame you have done the bulk of the days ascent.
The Sheeffry’s are essentially a flat topped ridge, deeply incised by corries and glacial valleys to north and south.
Mweelrea from Barrclashcame, this may be the best view you get.
Heading east the ridge narrows to only a metre or two wide, but after a few hundred metres opens out again to a broad, slightly undulating, and very pleasant ridge walk.
As you would expect, on a good day the views are magnificent, but you are at the mercy of the weather in these parts, and low cloud can rob you of anything but a view of your feet, and will necessitate careful navigation.
Continuing to the eastern end involves two descents and re-ascents, and requires two cars, as it’s a long way back to the starting point via the valley road.
To the southeast of this triumvirate of mountains lies the oddly named Devilsmother, smaller than these three it sits at the western end of Maumtrasna, almost cut loose by two deep valleys, one north, one south.
Killary Harbour and Ben Gorm (right) from Devilsmother south ridge.
As a result it’s whale back ridge runs broadly north to south, before turning west and depositing you in the lovely village of Leenaun.
Predominantly tussocky grass, with no great crags or dark corries, this hill might be overlooked, but can still make for a good shorter day. There are wonderful views down Killary Harbour and northeast to Ben Gorm to be had from here. The ascent is not as tiring as it looks, and the broad summit ridge and the descent are both very pleasant.
So, next time you are planning a hiking trip to the mountains of Galway and Mayo, why not give these special mountains a little of your time?
To find out more about Mountaintrails guided hikes, check out our website.