On the last leg of Michael Portillo's long journey from Wexford to Westport, a fashionable Victorian seaweed bath is followed by a steamy scene in Ballina.
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For Victorian Britons,
George Bradshaw was a household name.
At a time when railways were new,
Bradshaw's guidebook inspired them to take to the tracks.
I'm using a Bradshaw's guide to understand how trains transformed
Britain and Ireland, their landscape, industry, society
and leisure time.
As I follow its routes 130 years later,
it helps me to discover these islands today.
I'm completing my journey across Ireland,
now on the rugged north-western Atlantic coast
and I intend to take to the waters,
but safely, because the sea has claimed many lives.
Religion looms large in Irish culture.
I'll investigate how a beatific nun tackled poverty and hunger,
and I'll assume the high ground in search of Ireland's patron saint.
I began my journey on the coast at Wexford
and then travelled north to Dublin, the capital, before turning west.
I crossed this beautiful country
discovering an Irish identity stimulated by political struggles.
I'll be ending my Irish travels on the Atlantic coast.
For this final leg, I begin in Ballina, stopping next in Foxford,
before concluding in Westport and the coast at Clew Bay.
Along the way, things heat up, with an unusual Victorian health treatment.
Steam is rising all around me.
I learn of a terrible tragedy at Clew Bay...
A lot of the young people got very excited,
because they'd never seen a steamer before,
and they all went to one side to have a good closer look
and unfortunately, the boat capsized.
..and stretch my skills at a woollen mill.
I'm involved in a delicate industrial process!
I'm on tenterhooks!
My first stop today will be Ballina.
Bradshaw's tells me it's probably more frequented by tourists than any
other part of the district, with 40 miles of splendid cliff.
The tourists might make excursions into the wild Tyrawley and Edis districts.
Despite the formidable reputation of the Atlantic,
I do intend to take a dip.
I don't want anyone to think me sea weedy.
As Bradshaw's indicates,
there was much to draw Victorian tourists to the region.
Arriving by train from towns and cities inland,
they would flock to the coast to take the air and waters.
Along the coast in Enniscrone,
a particular treatment has attracted visitors for over 100 years.
It relies on a locally growing ingredient.
I've come to meet Edward Kilcullen.
What a very beautiful place, what a lovely day.
I'm really awestruck by it.
Well, you're very welcome.
Can it be true that you bathe in seaweed here?
Absolutely, Michael. And we have done for the last 104 years.
-Because seaweed bathing and seawater and seaweed is good for you.
Don't ask me to prove it scientifically, but tradition along
the west coast of Ireland has it that if you bathe in
seawater and seaweed,
it's good to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism and arthritis,
and years ago, that's why people took seaweed baths.
-Which seaweed do you use? This stuff?
-No, that is bladderwrack.
It's not abundant enough for us.
What we use is Fucas serratus, more commonly known as Flat wrack,
which grows just a little bit further down the shore
and we have to harvest that every day.
So while the Prince of Wales in the 19th century is going to Bognor...
-..here, you are developing seaweed bathing,
also as a kind of genteel activity,
-is that right?
-Genteel activity, yes.
The actual original bathhouse that was built in Enniscrone was built as
a private facility by our local landlord, who was a fashionable gentleman.
So he took a swim here in Enniscrone on the beach.
The water's only about 12, 13 degrees, so it will be freezing!
So he built a little bathhouse on the rocks
and so somebody would have his bath ready for him when he came in,
to warm him up.
So that was the first seawater bath in Enniscrone
and he was the one who did it.
So because he did it, other people decided to do it.
The seaweed is harvested by hand every day at low tide
and then taken up to the bathhouse,
which was opened for business in 1912 by Edward's grandfather.
Ah, thank you so much.
It still retains all the original porcelain baths, solid brass taps
and panelled wooden cisterns.
The process today is exactly as it was 100 years ago.
Now, Michael. So, I'm going to fill your bath with warm seawater.
As well, I'm going to pop the seaweed into it.
But first of all, you'll sit into your steam box,
so it opens your pores before your bath.
Sit in, close your door and you'll pop your head up at the top.
And you just lift the lever slowly.
Then, your bath and there's also a cold seawater shower
as well, yeah. Forgot to mention that bit!
So that closes your pores after,
so it's being pumped straight in from the sea, if you're brave enough.
The bathhouse has many regular customers who take weekly seaweed soaks.
The bath is filled with warmed seawater, then the seaweed is steamed,
turning it from brown to green.
-It's a completely different texture as well. It's oily and slimy.
The steaming process releases oils,
nutrients and alginate from the seaweed.
So your bath's ready for you, Michael.
-What do you think?
unusual, I would say.
So I'll just leave you to enjoy your bath, OK?
Thank you, Lorna.
Step one is to get inside the steam chamber.
Oh! That is a very strange feeling!
I have a little steam lever, here, which I'm going to operate rather gently.
Steam is rising all around me.
Actually, that's rather pleasant!
The heat and the steam open up the pores, ready for the seaweed soak.
Former politician involved in steamy scene.
Now, like Dracula rising from his coffin!
I step into my seaweed bath.
I can feel it all over my skin, sort of clinging to me.
But now, I've sort of got over the yuck factor,
it's actually rather nice.
The amber tint in the water is caused by iodine.
Seaweed is one of nature's richest sources of this therapeutic element.
It's certainly very relaxing,
but all good things come to an end.
Now for the Lorna challenge - a shower in cold seawater.
My next stop will be Foxford, which the guide tells me is a small
place on the Moy, a good salmon river.
In Victorian times, a river could mean a mill.
A mill could mean work, rather than the workhouse.
Foxford, a village with a population of around 1,300,
is located in the western county of Mayo.
The great famine hit County Mayo hard
and nine workhouses were built for the destitute.
I'm visiting a more cheerful vestige of those times -
Foxford Wool Mill, run by Joe Queenan.
-Hello, Michael. You're very welcome.
Thank you very much. I must say, I love visiting a mill.
And you've got some gorgeous-looking products here.
There's not too many of us left operational in the world at the moment
and this loom in particular is weaving Irish tweed
using Shetland yarns.
This is the sort of wool you use, is it?
This is the wool, it's lamb's wool, 100% Merino.
The mill, I suppose, was established by the river to use water power.
You won't be using that today.
No, we stopped using water power in 1965.
We're using mains now.
The mill dates back to 1892
and it's surprising to find out that its founder was no rich
industrialist, but a nun from the Irish Sisters of Charity, Mother Arsenius.
Joe, it seems like we're in the historic part of the mill here.
Tell me more about Mother Arsenius.
She obviously had a passion about helping people
and she visited Foxford and saw the destitution that existed in the area,
and she wanted to do something and help her fellow mankind.
This devout and driven nun secured a loan of £7,000 from the so-called
Congested Districts Board.
A mill race off the River Moy and mill buildings were constructed.
The early years were a struggle, but by the turn of the century, the mill
had begun to thrive and to employ much of the immediate population.
She was effectively, then, an entrepreneur, which seems odd to me.
I don't think of nuns as being entrepreneurial.
No, she knew nothing about textiles, knew nothing about business,
but she just had this vision and passion.
What do you think drove her?
She had a great faith in God and with that, a huge desire to help people.
And if we look up here, Michael, at her motto and logo,
"God's providence is our inheritance."
What does she mean by that?
Her attitude was you didn't just pray and hope things happened,
you went out, did your 100%, and providence met you the other halfway.
And what was her impact, then, on Foxford?
Huge. If you imagine, this place employed 250 people of a population of 700.
Today, the operation that Mother Arsenius set up
remains an important part of the local economy.
The workforce is much smaller, but the mill still employs
around 70 people.
This appears to be a delightfully colourful part of the process.
What's going on here?
This, Michael, is called a tinter.
It's a very, very old form of drying.
If you look at the two lines of chains with hooks on them,
they're known as tenterhooks.
So the expression under pressure or nervous comes from there.
I had no idea about that.
And what width are you using here?
We're using 66.
We need it to go out to 69.
-Perfect. Well done.
-69 on the button.
-On the button.
And is there anything we should do while it's going through?
No. It's important to keep it straight,
so as the machine is moving, if you have to, apply some pressure,
mainly at the edges, and keep it straight.
-Well, let battle commence.
Now, come over here and just watch that your lines are straight.
Hot air circulates through the machine,
which drives the fabric whilst it's being stretched.
I'm involved in a delicate industrial process.
I'm on tenterhooks.
Foxford Station is on a branch line off the main Dublin to Westport line.
In order to continue west, I'll need to make a most unusual change.
Riddle - when can you neither enter nor leave a railway station?
Answer - when it's called Manulla Junction,
because, whilst you can change train here,
there is no ingress and no egress.
You cannot buy a ticket here, you cannot buy a ticket to here.
Unique in my experience so far.
Serving only a sparse population, the station closed in 1963.
It reopened in 1988 as an interchange station only.
The Dublin train has taken all the passengers, leaving me alone.
Finally, my train arrives.
My next stop will be Westport, County Mayo.
Bradshaw says, "It's in a valley at the head of an inlet on the south
"side of Clew Bay under Croagh Patrick.
"A week might pleasantly be passed boating,
"picnicking and bathing amid the islands."
In the limited time that I shall have,
I intend to study disaster and divinity.
The planned Georgian town of Westport dates back to the late 18th century,
when Lord Sligo of Westport House cleared a village of 700 people to
make way for it to be built along the Carrowbeg River to Clew Bay.
Now, this is interesting.
The town before the railway was designated to be the port of the west of Ireland
and stacks of now vacant warehouses were built.
They might readily be converted into factories and ships run into
Westport with cotton from America.
In the 21st century, those warehouses were changed into hotels,
cafes and seafood restaurants.
To end my day, I want to try a local speciality from this coast.
Good evening. You're welcome to The Idle Wall.
Oh, thank you very much. I was hoping for some fresh seafood
-from Clew Bay.
-Tonight, I have some really wonderful native clams.
Sold. And a glass of white wine, please.
-Absolutely, coming right up.
Fascinating clams, aren't they?
This is the prayer clam, you see the beautiful pearlised inside.
-I do. That's superb.
-And this is a lighter shell one.
It's a little bit more sweet.
I'm going to try this prayer clam.
Dip it in the white wine and the garlic.
Gosh, that's so fresh.
Now try the native clam.
What a delicious meal.
This morning, I start on the coast at Clew Bay,
looking out to the rugged Atlantic Ocean.
"Clew Bay," says Bradshaw's,
"forms an archipelago of 100 green islands popularly said to be 365,
"varying in size from a few acres to a mile in length.
"Mist and rain are the rule here."
And, indeed, bad weather threatens today.
Over time, the islanders have often had to close ranks
and not just against the elements.
One of the largest islands of the archipelago is Achill Island
and I'm meeting one of its residents, historian John Sweeney,
for a tour of the bay.
How many of these islands is populated?
Just four major islands with a decent population left.
The rest of the 360-odd islands are down to maybe an odd house.
What sort of communities do you have on the islands?
Sadly it's a two-ended side to the community.
We've the very young, up to 17 and 18,
and after that they go off to college,
emigrate usually after that and we don't see them again,
and then we have the very elderly on the island,
so we're a community of kind of two halves, the young and the very old.
Emigration has long been a part of life for the islanders of Achill.
During the famine of the 1840s, many left their homeland for good,
whilst others travelled for seasonal work in other parts of the British Isles.
In 1894, a terrible disaster would strike these migrant workers here in Clew Bay.
It was a shocking tragedy,
which consisted of migrants from Achill who were travelling to
Scotland to pick the potatoes.
They were on what they would call a hooker, that were a big carrying boat,
and they were just outside Westport to meet the steamer here.
It was picking them up and bringing them up to Scotland,
and a lot of the young people got very excited to see the boat because
they'd never seen a steamer before,
and they all went to one side to have a good closer look
and, unfortunately, the boat capsized and, as a result of it,
34 young people were drowned.
Tragic. Lost the whole island, as you can imagine.
The bodies were returned to Achill by train from Westport.
The line had just been completed and the very first train to run
performed this sombre service.
Sadly, the very last rail service into Achill would also be marked by tragedy.
The tattie pickers were in Scotland,
finishing up their contract for the year and they were locked in a barn
and, unfortunately, a fire started during the middle of the night and
ten of them lost their lives in this tragic fire.
The dead were once again returned by train.
It was to be the last rail service to the island before the line was
closed for good.
Leaving Clew Bay behind me, ahead is my last stop here in Ireland
and it's one of the most breathtaking.
Bradshaw's tells me that the tourist who neglects the ascent
of Croagh Patrick will lose one of the finest sights of its kind in the
British Isles and with such encouragement,
will I be daunted by a little rain and swirling mists?
The striking mountain of Craogh Patrick is the destination of
one of Ireland's most popular Christian pilgrimages.
The name is Irish for Patrick's Stack and is known locally as the Reek.
Guiding me up its slopes today is historian Harry Hughes.
-Hello, Michael, how are you?
You're very welcome to a bleak and wet, but wonderful Croagh Patrick.
-You weren't put off by the weather, thank you.
-Indeed not, indeed not.
I'd like to present you with a stick for the Reek,
traditionally the staff for climbing the mountain.
Very nice. Thank you very much.
We meet by a statue of St Patrick.
According to my Bradshaw's guidebook,
there is a hut on the mountain where, supposedly,
the saint sojourned for a time.
-Is that true?
-It is true.
We know from earlier references, particularly the Book Of Armagh,
which is at Trinity College,
written 200 years after Patrick's sojourn on the mountain.
It clearly states that Patrick came here, we believe,
in the year 441 and stayed on the summit for 40 days and 40 nights.
-Who was Patrick?
-Patrick, we believe, came from Wales, but he
certainly came from Gaelic Britain and he was caught as a slave,
enslaved here, herding sheep for a number of years.
He eventually escaped, studied the Christian faith,
eventually became a bishop and came back to Ireland with the intention
of Christianising the Pagan Irish.
This wonderful mountain,
exceptional mountain with its deceptive conical shape,
was that of importance to early man before the Christians?
Hugely important. The archaeologists found early Roman jewellery, 500 BC,
which is 1,000 years before Patrick's visit to this mountain
and it would have been important for Patrick to conquer all the important
Pagan ritual sites on behalf of Christianity.
I'm not trying to get all the way to the summit today,
-but shall we press on and get on the way?
-We'll try, anyway. Come on.
It rises to a height of over 2,500 feet.
It takes around two hours to climb the peak and one and half hours to descend.
It's become a tradition to climb the mountain on the last Sunday of July,
known as Reek Sunday, when 20,000 people make the ascent
and a priest celebrates mass on the summit.
Bradshaw's tells me that around the patron saint's day,
pilgrims doing penance climb on their bare knees.
There probably were some who would have walked this mountain in their
bare feet back then, but the vast majority of pilgrims would wear
hardy boots and climb the mountain and walk up and will kneel at the
summit, of course, to say their prayers.
I suppose that around the time of my guidebook,
pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick would have become a national phenomenon in Ireland.
Yes, the train companies got on board and many trains brought
pilgrims to this mountain and they built a new church on the summit in 1905.
So we know for quite a number of years after this,
the main mode of transport coming to Croagh Patrick was by rail.
What do you think is the significance of Croagh Patrick to
-the Irish people?
-This is a hugely important site.
This is the interface between the mother Earth and the spiritual world.
And this, to Irish people, is the holy mountain of Ireland.
Today, the mountain attracts pilgrims and hikers from all over
Ireland and around the world.
I see that you are climbing Croagh Patrick on a pretty inclement day.
-Why are you doing it?
-I heard it's one of the best mountains in Ireland
and hiking is what I do, what I love,
and I heard the legends about St Patrick climbing the mountain,
the penitant climbing the mountain and all that,
and that's something I had to see before I left.
Do you have any religious views or feelings?
-I'm a Catholic, sir.
-You're not going to get much of a view today.
-Does that make a difference?
-No, not at all.
-Why do you say that?
-It's the journey.
It's the journey that makes the experience.
As I end my journey in Ireland, I couldn't agree more.
Take an island separated from other land,
inhabited since the dawn of history, with its powerful myths and
distinctive language, heat with religion.
Whipped together, these ingredients produce a national emotion.
Add songsters and poets inspired by this verdant landscape and flavoured
with the fiddle and the harp and the emotion becomes a hope.
Stir with colonial repression and a terrible hunger,
and the hope becomes a determination to be free.
At the time of my Bradshaw's guide, Ireland was approaching boiling point.
Next time - through breathtaking scenery,
where I'll encounter magnificent beasts,
mimic fearless explorers and witness distinctive customs.
I'll travel 1,500 miles,
recapturing the excitement and promise of the American frontier.
On the last leg of Michael Portillo's long journey from Wexford to Westport, a fashionable Victorian seaweed bath is followed by a steamy scene in Ballina. On tenterhooks in Foxford, Michael discovers the visionary charity of an entrepreneurial nun. He learns of a double tragedy at Clew Bay and begins a pilgrimage to the summit of Ireland's holy mountain, Croagh Patrick.