Or you could plan an itinerary and make the most of your time. Here are three scenic routes which yield spectacular scenery, history and beauty:
Westport - Louisburgh - Leenane, with Croagh Patrick, Mweelrea, Doo Lough and Killary Harbour.
One of the most stunning drives anywhere is between Westport and Leenane, via Louisburgh. From Westport, you pass through Westport Quay with its heritage centre. The road hugs the jagged coastline, passing Murrisk with Croagh Patrick to your left, looming large over the bay. Directly across from the mountain’s car park is the National Famine Memorial--a stark and dramatic sculpture of a ‘coffin ship’ (as famine ships were known), with skeletal bodies hanging on to its sails. Set against the backdrop of Croagh Patrick, the sculpture commemorates the victims of the Famine of 1845-49. Murrisk Abbey framed by the blue and green colours of Clew Bay with its many drumlin islands are just beyond the monument.
From Louisburgh, the road through the Tawnymacken Bog is a sparse landscape with ever-changing shades of browns, greens, yellows and reds. Passing Mweelrea, Connaught’s highest mountain travel on through narrow, winding roads and sheep-populated hills, with traces of long ago dried-up potato beds etched into them. Stone ruins recall the people who dwelled in this remote place. You finally reach the brow of one last hill before the Doo Lough Pass opens up before you--scene of one of the great tragedies of the Famine--which in any weather is something to behold.
Before descending the steep decline to Ireland’s only fjord at Killary Harbour and Aashleigh Falls waterfall on the way, stop to look at the lonesome Celtic cross which stands on the left hand side of the road with the words of Mahatma Gandhi inscribed on it: "How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”The cross commemorates the dark moment in history, when, in 1849 several hundred famine-stricken souls walked the 19 km trek to Delphi from Louisburgh to satisfy a bureaucratic requirement. Many of the desperate, starving people did not survive the day.
Newport - Mulranny - Achill Island - Atlantic Drive
The small town of Newport, with its striking seven-arch viaduct bridge, is a good place to begin the drive to Achill Island. From Newport head west on the N59 to Achill via Mulranny or just outside Newport, you could turn right for the Nephin Drive, which takes you to a remote and beautiful area with Lough Furnace and its small beaches, framed by the Nephin Beg Mountain range behind it. Here you will enjoy views of mountains, forests, rivers and lakes alongside sparsely populated undulating hills.
Back on the N59, a slight detour off the main road to Mulranny takes you to Burrishoole Abbey, the 15th century Dominican Friary, which was founded by Richard de Burgo without the permission of Pope Innocent VII, who took 17 years to forgive the friars and give his blessing to the religious centre. A chalice was made for the friary in 1494. Known as the De Burgo O’Malley Chalice, it resides in the National Museum of Ireland. De Burgo was a descendant of Granuaile, whose home Carrigahowley Castle, also known as Rockfleet Castle is near here. A key to the castle can be obtained at the gate lodge.
Halfway to Mulranny, the ocean, which is never far away, appears like a vision on your left, with views of inlets, islands and Clare Island in the distance. Approaching Mulranny, a rare books and antiques shop is tucked away in a thatched cottage on the right as you approach town. The Mulranny Park Hotel is perched high above the bay, overlooking one of the village’s two beautiful sandy beaches. Continue through singular countryside to Achill Sound and cross the bridge to Ireland’s largest island. Any direction will yield beautiful views, but for really spectacular scenery, The Atlantic Drive takes you around the south part of the island, revealing cliffs with crashing waves and green sloping hills where sheep graze precariously close to the edge. Once on the island, the towns of Keel, Dooagh, Dookinella and Dugort and the Minaun Cliffs, the highest in Mayo, are worth visiting. The Deserted Village of Slievemore is unmissable with its stone ruins and abandoned potato lazy beds tucked on the side of a steep slope.
Mulranny - Ballycroy - Belmullet - Blacksod
Another beautiful drive, which gives you the feeling of being really off the grid, is Mulranny to the Mullet Peninsula, passing through Ballycroy National Park.
From Mulranny, following the N59 north, you pass through Ballycroy National Park, an 11,000 hectare blanket bog, described as follows by naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger in his 1937 book The Way That I Went:
Indeed the Nephinbeg range of mountains is I think the very loneliest place in this country, for the hills themselves are encircled by this vast area of trackless bog, I confess I find such a place not lonely or depressing but inspiriting. You are thrown at the same time back upon yourself and forward against the mystery and majesty of nature.
Part of the Owenduff/Nephin Complex, this protected area yields an abundance of nature, with all kinds of wildlife and wild flowers and a wide range of animals who make their homes in this this soft carpet of bogland. Ballycroy National Park has a visitor’s centre from where you can explore this special bogland on foot through designated walks and see the exhibition about life in the area.
The journey to Erris is a barren road which, as Praeger noted, inspires rather than depresses. From Belmullet you have the choice of pursuing Broadhaven Bay or the Mullet Peninsula, both of which are coastal routes, yielding sea views, with headlands and cliffs. Blacksod Lighthouse at the mouth of Blacksod Bay has a unique and interesting history, having been the weather station which ultimately determined the date for the D-Day landings in 1944, which did nothing short of change the course of history.