Downpatrick Head and Dún Briste on the Wild Atlantic Way are worthy of a visit! Downpatrick Head is absolutely breathtaking, seated on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in the Irish town of Knockaun, in County Mayo, just a few miles north of Ballycastle village.
The site is currently free to visitors with a big parking lot at the base. (You will walk slightly uphill across grasslands from the car park to Downpatrick Head – a headland protruding out to the Atlantic ocean.
There are no safety rails at the cliff’s edge so please view with caution and adhere to warning signs. In addition, windy weather conditions can make the edge especially treacherous. Dogs are not permitted on the site.
Downpatrick Head has many jagged cliffs as well as blowholes. The main blowhole, known as Poll na Scantoine or the Downpatrick Blowhole, is flanked by an observation deck with two viewing platforms.
Toward the cliff’s edge, the sea stack known as Dún Briste (Gaelic meaning broken fort), comes into view. And what a spectacular view it is! Dún Briste is located approximately 250 feet from Downpatrick Head and rises out of the Atlantic Ocean about 150 feet.
At one time, this sea stack island was connected to the mainland. Irish legend tells the story of St. Patrick himself causing the connecting land mass to crumble into the sea, dooming a pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh, to live there alone. It is said the chief refused to convert to Catholicism so St. Patrick condemned him to live and die on this isolated island. More likely, however, is this story reported in a monastery’s writings from 1393: a well-known sea-made arch connecting Downpatrick Head to its offshore counterpart collapsed probably creating the sea-stack island known today as Dún Briste.
As noteworthy to your visit, Dún Briste is an ideal home for several different species of birds. Being a sea stack, the tall island lacks natural predators that birds face on the mainland. Therefore, this is a great place for birdwatching! Dún Briste and the cliffs surrounding are home to fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, wheatear, pipits, kittiwakes, cormorants, and the puffin. After birdwatching for a while, the cliffside view is also suitable for whale watching and at times, basking sharks have been known to hang out and feed nearby.
Basking sharks are the second largest fish in the world; whale sharks being first largest fish with whales being the largest animals in the world. Humans are not at risk from basking sharks as these sharks are one of three shark species that only eat plankton. They feed with large open mouths, filtering the plankton from the water at the ocean’s surface. Because of this, they appear to be “basking in the sun” when viewed at feeding times.
Downpatrick Head is the place where St. Patrick founded an early church. Remains of the church, holy well, and stone cross can still be viewed at Downpatrick Head. Because of St. Patrick’s status as the patron saint of Ireland, the site is considered a pilgrimage location for many Catholics. Consequently, Mass continues to be held here on the last Sunday in July, “Garland Sunday”, in his honor. (Garland Sunday: a Sunday of Catholic blessings celebrating the first harvests of the summer and remembering ancestors that have passed with ‘garlands’ of green vines draped at their headstones. Pagans celebrate a similar day with dancing, food, and merriment on August 1st and it is rumored that St. Patrick may have coopted that celebration as the basis for the Catholic tradition of “Garland Sunday.”) A statue of St. Patrick was erected on the site ruins in the 1980s.
Ireland remained neutral during World War II and to help protect itself from bombing runs, the Irish trenched signs in the grounds outlining the Republic of Ireland and filled the trenches with white rocks for visibility. Additionally, they built cabin posts to be on guard for sea-based attacks.
The entrenched messages notified pilots of any country’s planes that they were flying into and over Ireland, a non-combatant country. American pilots used the markers as well to acknowledge they had almost completed their journey across the Atlantic Ocean and were nearing Allied Forces and airfields.
Downpatrick Head and Dún Briste are absolute treasures on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way and definitely worth a visit when you’re close!