Mayo, A culture which has deep roots in people
Mayo has a rich and vibrant culture – rooted in our Gaelic and Celtic origins, and open to new experiences and diverse traditions.
The culture of the county comes from its people, and the historical compilation of the diverse and beautiful ways people have recorded the experiences of life.
The culture of Mayo has been shaped by its geography and by its setting in a wild and beautiful landscape, with a mighty ocean crashing onto its coast; it has been shaped also by history and by memories of many tragic and difficult times, and by the hope of something better, and of something new.
It has been shaped, perhaps in this more than anything else, by its diaspora, and by its experience of departure and of return, and of the exchange between the two.
A love of home and openness to the world has shaped Mayo’s culture – and our diaspora is the very manifestation of that story.
The Irish language and the Gaeltacht
Whether you speak it or not, the Irish language is central to our culture. Those who speak English only, speak it in a certain way because of Irish. It is at the root of who we are – and until the late 19th century, was the spoken language of the great majority of us.
Around ten per cent of the people who live in Mayo live in the Gaeltacht, an area characterised by great natural beauty as well as by the use of spoken Irish.
It is hardly surprising that the language would be so beautiful when its speakers look up at the Partry Mountains from the shores of Lough Mask, or stand on the beaches at Achill and admire the ocean, or look across to the islands of Inishkea from the Mullet Peninsula and marvel at their silhouette in the early morning mist.
Mayo is a great place to start on the journey of learning Irish, or renewing your love for the language, or indeed simply learning more about it.
- If you have some Irish, come to the Mayo Gaeltacht and use it.
- If you want to learn it, come to some of the schools in the summer who will help you grasp it.
- If you want to absorb yourself in it, plan a trip around the great festivals, such as Feile Iorras or Scoil Acla and sing and dance in it.
Religion and the search for the spiritual
The culture of Mayo has been enormously influenced by religion and it remains today at the heart of much community practice.
For example, the tradition of pilgrimage is as old as time in the county and is still much in evidence today:
- in the numbers that visit the Shrine at Knock
- in those who climb Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday and at other times and
- in those who walk pilgrims trails and visit pilgrimage sites such as Ballintubber Abbey
The search for spiritual meaning is a vital aspect of life in Mayo. It is true for people of all religions, and for those of none.
The longevity of that tradition and practice can be seen all around in old magnificent buildings and in monuments on almost every roadside.
Folklore, Myths and Legends
Mayo is rich in the folklore tradition, built around the culture of the people and of the stories and tales told over many centuries.
Mayo’s folk tradition is built around:
- an oral tradition of story-telling and singing
- a deep understanding and respect for the natural world and
- a fascination and sometimes concern about the supernatural.
Superstitions, omens, pishogues (charms or spells) are often at the heart of much folk culture.
The desire to ward off evils is often at the moral of a story, or the purpose of a proposed course of action.
Remarkable characters populate this world – with the Pooka, the Banshee and the Fairies often at the heart of a riveting (and sometimes terrifying) tale.
In modern terms, respect for these traditions can manifest even now in a reverence and respect for ‘Fairy forts’ – to be found all around the landscape – and in a deep respect and regard for the natural order. Many of the folk traditions have been incorporated into religious practices and customs.
Many of the stories were of course for entertainment – and finding out more about them will entertain you also.
Folk tradition is not just about story-telling or myth-making or the magical – it is about the story of how people lived and live. You can find out more about it historically in places like the Museum of Country Life or Knock Museum or by spending some time talking to people in Mayo while home on holidays, and by listening to their stories, and by walking through the countryside.
An Evolving Culture
Mayo’s culture, being based on its people, is of course not static, and its culture is evolving in response to the modern world. But that evolution is built on a rich heritage and tradition – and on an engagement with the outside world which is built on centuries of our people moving to a new world, while retaining links with the old. That process goes on today, as we engage with our diaspora and with the new communities moving into and living in Mayo.