To those unfamiliar with North East Mayo, the townland or village of Ballydrum—Irish: Baile an Droma—place of the drumlins or low hills, lies about two miles northeast of Swinford. It is set between the River Moy and the old Sligo to Limerick railway line.
A visitor from the East can catch his first glimpse of this fair land just after Cuilmore School on the Swinford to Charlestown road (N5). Leaving the town of Swinford and travelling up the old road to Kilconduff cemetery, you can take in an even more breathtaking panorama with the Sligo Mountains and Ben Bulben to the east, the Ox mountains and Croghan to the north and Nephin, Croagh Patrick and Mweelrea to the west of you. As one keen eye put it, “a grand site for a wee hotel.”
Much nearer to you are lower ridges and hills called drumlins and eskers, wherein Ballydrum lies. While technically different, in common usage eskers are taken to be the long regular ridges while drumlins are the more rounded and individual hillocks. Heading down from your vantage point and under the old railway bridge, past the aptly named Esker village, you come to a fork in the road.
The massive esker of Cloonacannana now dominates the landscape. Your left road leads to Kilasser and Aclare. To your right lies Ballydrum and further on, Tumgesh and Cully Cross Roads.
Five hundred yards on, after you climb another hill at Lister Lahhan, you suddenly realise you’ve reached your goal. There, out in front of you, she lies for all to see. A good map will show you that southwards to your right a number of low rolling hills gives way to higher ground at Cloonaghboy. To the east lies the Hill of Thoor and further on lies Tumgesh with its famed seat of learning, while to your left runs a long esker stretching from the Moy River bend at Loobnamuck to the bend at Carrabeg by the riverbank.
To be called “place of the drumlins,” it’s reasonable to ask why most of those drumlins and eskers are lying outside present-day postal Ballydrum. Have townland boundaries changed dramatically since olden times? Did ancient Ballydrumites rule with an iron fist over buffer states like Lister Lahan, Thoor, Dromshinnagh and retain only Bonn An Sleva today?
Nearer to you, a local will tell you that the rounded mound on the ridge is called the fort of Lisconnell. (The observant visitor will have spotted a similar rounded mound beside him where he stands.
To investigate the distant fort, you might well climb Drom Lahan in front of you and swing down left to the “Rivereen.” Here the soil is of a heavy, grey, sticky consistency called daub, which was used in brick making and a brick kiln is right beside you.
The hill in front of you is sandy, while behind you in a field called Sraith, the soil is redder and much more workable and indeed better farming soil. Between you and Lisconnell fort is Ascaigh with its red oxide drains which makes drainage nearly impossible. The view from the fort top is very good and on a fine day, you can see into Sligo. This ring fort is well preserved and is one of a set of six which form a loose six-sided entity or hexagon.
What those forts were used for remains a subject of debate but here surely is a strong indication that they were protected homesteads with livestock in the lowlands and surrounded by those sentry points.
Protection and sanctuary were needed against marauders, wild animals, invaders and, quite likely, flooding here by the Moy. The fort on Cloonacannana Hill being the highest may quite well have been the kingpin to warn the others of impending danger.
Many ring forts have been dated back to the Early Bronze Age and may well have been built to protect those old stone and wooden weapon users against the more dangerous metal- wielding newcomers.
Another theory runs that the weather around this time took a turn for the worse (where have we heard this before?) This could have resulted in crop failures and herd losses with increasing tension leading to violence and cattle-raiding and so better defences were needed.
Maybe both suggestions did in fact happen coincidentally. There s also of course the fairies theory. Some maintain that those forts were associated with leprechauns or “little people” --capable of doing good or evil depending how they were treated.
The fort at Bonn An Sleva was excavated for sand in recent times and the storu goes that on the first morning the workmen waited for a brave heart to come along and be the first one to dig.
He duly arrived and chided the others for their superstitions and cowardice as it was widely believed that it was unlucky to interfere with a “fairy” fort. Of course, he died within days of a mystery illness, which added weight to the old beliefs.
While the modern view of such beliefs is to laugh them off or to dress them up for the tourist market, is it not reasonable to ask how those people of olden times be so easily misled and misguided enough to such daft beliefs and silly rituals.
To endure those harsh conditions, they must have been a very pragmatic and hard working race of people—they contended with starvations, plagues, poor overcrowded housing with no damp-proof clothing. They faced attacks by wild animals (of both the two and four legged varieties) and they had no writing to set down and pass on information—dense woods and bogs to impede travel or to escape from danger.
Why, amongst other things, would they have avoided fairy forts on Fridays, at full moons or especially at Halloween?
Could there have been elements presents or forces at work that are dormant today or just avoiding those with whom they cannot interact? Are some people today concealing strange encounters; for to acknowledge such would beto invite derision and if persistent, social outcasting.
The land north of Lisconnell slopes off towards the Moy. You would first cross Closh Fada and Cnocan Hill and come down to strange hills and hollows near the river bank. Those are known as Famine ridges—potato ridges abandoned in those dreadful times and left fallow since then.
The drainage of the Moy in 1962 threw up a lot of spoil forming great mounds of largely useless material like rocks and limestone shale. The deepening, widening and straightening of the river has meant no major flooding since 1962. But it has meant damage to salmon beds and otter homes and the loss of the corrie at Cloonlumney and another between Ballydrum and Loobnamuck beside one of the six ring forts. This drainage has led to the disappearance of Ballydrum strand and the alteration of the point where the “rivereen” joined the Moy. Of old, the rivereen joined the Moy at an angle of over 1600, which is very uncommon in those parts and indeed the course of much of this stream is counterflow to the much greater river on such level alluvial flood plains.
If you swing up southwards from the Moy over black loamy tilth towards the main road, you come across a crossroads at the “Shrine.” Here, today and even before the shrine was b uilt in 1932, St John’s Night, June 22nd was celebrated with a Bonfire when music, dancing, singing and lilting as well as the swapping of tales went on ‘til the dawn.
Often the Bonfire high up at Cuilmore Cross signalled all the others to commence. To the east, a couple of hundred yards away, is the least remarkable and least preserved of the forts. It would have guarded the approach from Cloonfinish as there would have been a track running along here as well before the tarmacadam of today.
By now a few friendly locals will have made your acquaintance. You will have fought off invitations to come over for a “steall” of tea and a “leideach” of boxty with a “smathering” of country butter and , god forbid even a “deoch” of something stronger!
You can guess that Irish As a spoken language hasn’t long died and hear that the Irish speaker, Winnie Salmon, my great-grandaunt, who lived under the fosse of Lisconnell fort and was a Famine survivor, died in 1910 at the age of 110 years. You’ll be told that events like the night of the big wind, the coming of the railway and the famine left their mark. The latter started a youth haemorrhage that never really stopped. In Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850s, three times more people lived in Ballydrum than do today- some cabin foundations where large families were reared, are to be seen today, whereas others are long since overgrown or buried.
Further to the Bonn An Sleva fort, past numerous rabbit burrows and hare runs, the occasional badger of either the dog or pig variety may be spotted. The soil is at first sandy, then giving way to rich loam before you come to the railway line. Here is reputedly the best field in Ballydrum- a rich, crumbly humus-laden, black-gold apron of emerald. In the Thoor river catchment, the higher hills crowd the skyline and you’re back to where you first feasted your eyes on this topographical pearl and your epic voyage through the mists of time began.
In conclusion, you will have enjoyed a land, shaped in the Ice Age by the retreating ice cap over 10,000 years ago-although many times in the pre-hot water bottle days some swore that the Ice Age had returned! The fort dwellers, be they from this world or some other, have kept their secrets. The rich glacial deposits have given way to the flooding river deposits leaving us with a people fed and raised on only the best.
While both of my aunts, Bea McGreal and Mary Foster on a visit home from Chicago twenty years ago, stated that the whole countryside could do with a good haircut.
Let us surmise that when on foreign shores, one Ballydrum exile spots another and greets with, “How are things in the lush green meadows,” he is merely stating an obvious fact.