The lockdown continues. Confined to within 5km of home I am unable to go fishing. I despise the 5km rule; I pose no threat to anyone when I am fishing alone on the pike lakes 20km from town but the idiot politicians in Dublin have dreamt up this insane rule so I must abide by it. There is no guarantee the lockdown will be eased on 2nd December and it could be next year before I am out with the rods again. That is a sickening thought.
Since there is no fishing now I thought some of you might like a quick look around my adopted home town of Castlebar here in county Mayo. How I came to end up here would require a large book on its own but suffice to say it involved a potent mix of fishing, pretty Irish girls, a disaffection with my then circumstances and the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Anyway, I moved to Castlebar initially in November 1997. I left again in late 2004, went to university in England and ended up in London only to return to Ireland again in 2008 and I have been here ever since. It is home to me and I have no wish to leave this small Irish conurbation.
Castlebar is one of the main towns in county Mayo the others being Westport, Claremorris and Ballina. Westport is a very attractive town and its economy is based on the huge numbers of tourist who flock there every year. Ballina was always a popular town for anglers as the river Moy flows through the middle of it. Castlebar on the other hand had a reputation as the business heart of the county but sadly this has changed over the last couple of decades with the loss of many employers. It it the administrative centre for the county and the headquarters of the county council is situated in the town. Both Castlebar and Ballina have populations of around 10,000 people, Westport and Claremorris are a bit smaller.
From an angling perspective, Castlebar is ideally placed in the middle of the great western lakes. The northern end of the Corrib, loughs Mask and Carra are all within 40 minutes drive to the south of the town, while roughly the same distance to the north lie loughs Conn and Cullin and the river Moy. My beloved River Robe flows quietly to the south of me within easy striking distance. Lough Beltra is near at hand to the west and Carrowmore Lake and the Owenmore river are about 45 minutes away by car to the north-west. Add to that a large number of small lakes and rivers, most of which I have yet to explore. There is even some coarse fishing around Claremorris. For sea angling the delights of Clew Bay and Achill Island are nearby. I am pretty sure I could fish a different place every day of the year if I wanted. I really am very, very lucky to live here.
So what is it like living in a small Irish town? I am sure for many of you this sound like an idyllic existence and to a large extent it is. Having said that, life here does not suit everyone and there are some limitations which need to be considered. The main one is work. There are limited opportunities unless you work in the hospitality or medical devices manufacturing industries. There are a few factories in the area but they are almost all involved in pharma or life sciences. Construction has its peaks and troughs but it is a big local employer. Being a largely rural county many people work the land with beef and sheep farming being by far the most common use of the land. Working from home is growing here just like everywhere else but high speed broadband coverage is poor. Personally, I have at different times worked in local factories, run my own business and (most often) worked away from home.
You also need to get to know what it takes to fit in to a society which is quite insular and self-aware. People here want to know who you are, who you are related to, where you work, who your friends are etc. It can come across as being nosy but in truth this is just the most obvious facet of the ‘glue’ which binds this society together. Up until relatively recently this part of the world suffered from war, hunger, foreign ownership and all the panoply of hardships these things bring. The potato famine, the black and tans, emigration, you name it the chances are the Irish were on the wrong end of it. It all combined to leave its mark on the people and while they themselves don’t see it I can, as an outsider, traces the hurt in them all. The need to know who you are is born of this background. My guess is that the younger generation, who have known much more affluent times, will be more open to new experiences. Ireland has changed enormously even in the twenty years I have lived here, some of it for the better but in some ways for the worse.
Ireland as a country is a very expensive place to live. Taxes are high and basics such as housing and transport are eye-wateringly pricey. After a while you sort of get used to it but visitors are frequently shocked by huge price tags. Again, living in the rural west has some benefits and the cost of living is cheaper here than in Dublin. My biggest gripe is the cost of running a car here. You pay VRT (a tax on every imported car) and an annual motor vehicle tax (commonly referred to as road tax). My ancient and basically worthless VW is taxed at €760/annum! Healthcare is another area where the bills soon rack up and most people have health insurance but this too is very expensive.
What about the weather, doesn’t it rain all the time? No it does not, but we do see a a fair bit of rain compared to lots of other places. Today for example is very wet and windy but dry weather is promised for the end of this week. We tend not to get extremes of any weather in Ireland because it benefits from being on the edge of the Atlantic and the warming effects of the gulf stream. Temperatures are generally between 10 and 20 degrees with a mixture of sunshine and rain. We do get prolonged periods of precipitation, usually in autumn and again in the spring but to be honest we just get on with it here. You can buy good waterproof clothes now to keep you dry. Winters are variable, some being open and mild while some are very cold if high pressure from the continent gets ‘stuck’ over the country. I have seen -20 degrees a couple of times but that is rare.
Let’s take a look around, here are a few photos from around the town.
The main street has the same mix of banks, small shops and businesses as any other similar sized town in the country. Sadly, we have more than our fair share of derelict buildings even here on the busiest street. I can remember when the main street was bustling and vibrant but these days things are different. The big nationwide supermarkets are largely grouped around a redeveloped part of town off of Market Square. Tesco, Aldi, Argos, Boots etc. are all here.
Socialising is a big part of life in Ireland and Castlebar has its fair share of pubs and restaurants to pick from. There are not as many pubs as there used to be and those that are left have often changed to include serving food as well as drink. Being of a certain age(!) Helen and I enjoy a meal out and maybe a couple of drinks in one or two of the pubs in town of a Friday night but that is about our limit. Big drinking sessions are a thing of the past for us! Here in the west we speak about going ‘out’ for a night which means a few drinks then home at a reasonable hour, or going ‘out out’ when all bets are off and you have no plans to return home until the early hours (if at all). Younger people must find small town Ireland difficult and many move away for employment but also to enjoy greater freedom and entertainment in the cities. Galway city has always had a huge draw for Mayo people and many leave to work there and never return.
The big sport in Mayo is football. GAA football that is! The county team evoke huge passion and the supporters are known across the country for their fierce loyalty and willingness to travel anywhere to watch their heroes in action. McHale park is where the big games takes place and although I take only a passing interest in the game the town is always buzzing when Mayo are playing at home. Unlike soccer in the UK football fans here revel in the bonhomie when rival teams meet.
A popular walk is around Lough Lannagh on the outskirts of the town. It was developed a few years ago and has proved to be exceedingly popular with walkers, joggers and cyclists. You often see fishermen trying their luck for the small pike which infest this shallow lake. There are shoals of tiny roach in there too. The best part for me is the view out west to the reek, it is magical as the sun is setting.
The town river flows from Lough Lannagh and winds its way to a confluence with the Manulla river east of the town. Both rivers have healthy stocks of brown trout. Salmon run the Moy and up the system as far as the meetings of both rivers but don’t make it to the town. A path was created recently which stretches from the town to the National Museum of Ireland out at Turlough, most of it hugging the river. It is a lovely walk on a nice day.
The mall is situated at the end of the main street. It was originally laid out as Lord Lucan’s cricket pitch. The Lucan family owned large tracts of western Ireland and made their money from the rents paid by the crofters. Nowadays the mall is a pleasant open space for a stroll and in the winter an ice rink is erected here.
The courthouse is on the Mall, scene of much drama over the years. I was only ever in it once, to get divorced (another long story). Just along from the courthouse is the Garda barracks. An Garda Siochana are the Irish police force.
Mayo University Hospital is always busy and even more so during the pandemic. Those whom are too ill to be treated here are moved to Galway or to specialist hospitals in Dublin.
The rebellion of 1798 was partially played out in and around Castlebar. French troops disembarked at Killala and they marched to confront the English garrison in Castlebar. Here they fought a running battle with the redcoats who were driven from the town. The English departed in such haste and with the French on their heels it became known as the Castlebar races. Much of the fighting took place on this small hill called Knockthomas. There are monuments all across the area to the rebellion which was really just an extension of the wider European wars of that time. The French had no real interest in Ireland breaking away from the British Empire, they simply saw an opportunity to tie up significant numbers of English troops in Ireland. As is the way in all wars, many innocent people lost their lives while the leaders played out their games.
When I fancy a pint of porter I usually head here, to Johnnie McHale’s pub. A lot of work has gone into expanding this fine old establishment and the back of the pub is now a popular spot for the younger set. The front of the pub though remains unchanged and you could say the same for the ‘mature’ clientele who frequent it. If you ever find yourself in Castlebar you simply must visit Johnnies for a pint of Guinness, it is as good as any I have tried in Ireland (and I have tried a few let me tell you).
The biggest pub in town is Rocky’s, owned by that great fisherman Rocky Moran. A larger than life character, Rocky owns a few businesses in the town including a Funeral Director’s. This was a very common combination in rural Ireland for many years and Rocky is carrying on the tradition set by his father. Rocky’s is hugely popular and always busy what with sports on the telly or live music in the evenings. When he is not making lots of money in the pub you can usually find him on the banks of a river or out on a lough.
As I said earlier, we do enjoy an occasional meal out and out favourite restaurant is Al Mureto. Great food, lovely staff and a relaxed atmosphere add up to a lovely spot for a night out. Café Rua do some lovely food and they have two outlets in the town. Of course there are plenty of cafes and coffee shops scattered around too so there is always somewhere to stop for a coffee.
While a number of different faiths have places of worship in the town the catholic congregation are served by the impressive church.
I am no expert but I am told that Castlebar has the best shopping in the county. The usual suspects have shops here for those who enjoy that sort of thing.
The only shops I have any real interest in are tackle shops. Pat Quinn on the main street has some tackle downstairs and this is where you can buy the salmon licence. Frank Baynes presides over the most eclectic tackle shop I know of there on New Antrim Street. It always looks as if he has three times as much gear as the shop can hold with stacks or rods, piles of boots and shelves overflowing with reel, hooks and lures. Frank himself is a mine of local angling knowledge, always helpful to visiting anglers.
Transport to and from Castlebar is hugely reliant on roads. The N5 stretches from Longford to Westport and it passes the edge of town. There is a railway connection on the line between Dublin and Westport but as with the rest of the country many of the old railway lines were ripped up many years ago.
Of course, St. Patrick’s Day (17th March) is an excuse for a parade and some serious revelry. It is all very professional in the cities like Dublin and Galway but it is a wee bit more homespun in Castlebar. The parade consists largely of a few tractors, some floats put together by local businesses and a couple of young marching bands from the schools and youth clubs in town. here are a few snaps from the parade a few years ago.
So there you are, a wee look at the place I call home. It has its faults but then you can say that about anywhere. It is largely peaceful and quiet here, the people are friendly and the weather is mild. I have lived in so many places over the years and I could have settled down in any of them but somehow I gravitated to this small county town on the edge of Europe and don’t regret that decision. I recall popping over to Mayo while I was living in London, I was just taking a short break away from the city and the west was calling. It had been three years since I set foot in Castlebar. I parked the hire car and set off down the main street but every 20 or 30 yards I was stopped by someone for a chat or just to say hello. Coming from London where nobody makes eye contact let alone talks to you, this felt like an assault on the senses. But that is the west of Ireland for you, one of the nicest places I have been and the place I call home.