Exploring Ireland’s West Coast Via Whiskey Tours, Sheep Farms, and Sea Safaris

A passionate whiskey maker, a charismatic sheepdog trainer, and a Blacksod Bay captain are all part of the county’s heart and soul.

Distant view of small boat off rocky shore of North Inishkea Island

Blacksod Sea Safaris’ boat Huntress, moored off the coast of North Inishkea Island, takes passengers on coastal cruising excursions alongside 2,200-foot cliffs and gray seal colonies.

Photo by Susan Portnoy

County Mayo, which lies on the Wild Atlantic Way, is one of Ireland’s most cinematic locales (and the setting for The Banshees of Inisherin). This west coast rural setting is blessed with 2,158 square miles of rolling emerald pastures dotted with cotton-ball sheep, spongy peat bogs, windswept cliffs (there are usually sheep there, too), and secluded rocky beaches—plus peaceful coastal hamlets and inland villages lined with colorful Georgian architecture.

But Mayo’s true beauty lies in its warm and welcoming people, many of whom share their rich history and traditions with travelers. Who better to provide a greater understanding of the county’s past and present? These small, family-owned businesses near the towns of Westport, Belmullet, and Ballina bring Mayo’s spirit to life. The intimate experiences they offer are rooted in history and rendered through a lens uniquely their own. It’s only part of what makes them beloved by so many, and why for all places, you’ll want to make reservations well in advance. Below are recommendations for some family-run gems, including accommodations and tours—of whiskey and Blacksod Bay—starting in Westport and moving north to Belmullet and then Ballina.


A little over a three-hour drive from Dublin, on Ireland’s west coast, Westport is an ideal home base for many of County Mayo’s beloved attractions, including the 300-year-old Westport House estate and adventure park with ziplining, climbing walls, glamping, and over 400 acres to explore. The beach at Keem Bay on Achill Island, meanwhile, is lauded as one of the best in the world, and Clare Island is home to Clare Island Whiskey (see below), historical sites, and several eye-popping hikes.

Catherine and James Powers in a rural landscape with three balck-and-white border collies

The family of Catherine and James Powers, owners of Glen Keen Farm, has been here for eight generations.

Photo by Susan Portnoy

Glen Keen Farm

With the birth of her son James Francis Powers IV, Catherine Powers’ family has lived in the area now known as Glen Keen Farm for eight generations. Thirty minutes from Westport, the 1,700-acre working sheep farm is a rugged patchwork of pastures, woodlands, bogs, and mountainous terrain.

Catherine and her husband, James, celebrate Irish culture with demonstrations of traditional dance, music, wool spinning, and turf-cutting together with local artisans. “When we built this business, it wasn’t just about supporting our family farm or family,” Catherine says. “It was about supporting a rural community because we lack enterprise and employment in this area.” One such community member is George Hughes, a charismatic 68-year-old sheepdog trainer who is responsible for Glen Keen’s three talented canines and wows visitors with their exceptional sheepherding skills.

Where Glen Keen really shines is on its “Heritage Walk,” a guided tour introducing the property’s tangible past, from antique farming equipment and 17th-century cabins to a pagan graveyard and ring fort dating back to the Bronze Age.

Carl O'Grady with gray beard and sweatshirt inside his wooden boat.

Carl O’Grady, founder of Clare Island Whiskey, accompanies visitors on island tours and tastings of the silky smooth spirit.

Photo by Susan Portnoy

Clare Island Whiskey Tour

Located three miles off the west coast of the Emerald Isle is Clare Island, known for being the 16th-century home of the “Pirate Queen of Ireland,” Grace O’Malley. Reached by ferry, her well-preserved tower castle (picture a squat, rectangular silo) still stands sentry on a rocky headland above the bay. The ancient residence is one of the highlights of Carl O’Grady’s Clare Island Whiskey Tour. (He is a fourth-generation islander.)

Another highlight: the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey, adorned with medieval-era paintings sprinkled with mythical creatures. The half-day excursion “takes guests through a journey from the mid-1500s to current day, depicting the Irish Clan system, the famine, and more,” says the steely-eyed entrepreneur.

In addition to a light lunch, O’Grady hosts a tasting of his boutique whiskey brand, bearing the island’s name. The spirit comes in custom packaging, including a contoured bottle with a wave-like base, sitting in its own four-paneled wooden box imprinted with the brand’s mythology. “This isn’t just a whiskey, you know,” says the distiller. “It’s the essence of who I am. It’s what Clare Island is: the people, the place, the culture, the history, the folklore . . . everything is just wrapped up in this thing.”

The whiskey is in its third release and despite only maturing four years, it’s silky smooth. His not-so-secret secret? It’s aged on O’Grady’s beloved Dolphin, a 34-foot wooden boat moored in the harbor. For 30 years, the ship was the cornerstone of the family’s 131-year-old ferry service, which operates today and is the only means of reaching the island. The ferry for Clare Island leaves from Roonagh Pier, about 30 minutes from Westport. (Added bonus: Take your time exploring the island by booking O’Grady’s stylish seven-bedroom Bay View House, a short walk from the ferry terminal. Minimum two nights, maximum 24 people; from $861.)

Where to stay

From its hillside perch, the privately owned Knockranny House Hotel overlooks the seaside village of Westport and includes sweeping views of Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holiest mountain, and the islands in Clew Bay. It has 97 spacious and elegant guest rooms and the Spa Salveo (meaning “to heal”), offering an extensive list of face and body treatments. At sunset, sip a cocktail on the outdoor terrace before dining on entrées like wild Irish venison with smoked black pudding at the award-winning La Fougère Restaurant. From $172


In and around Belmullet, North Mayo, you’ll find white-sand beaches, plenty of water sports (surfers take note), and some of the region’s most spectacular cliff hikes.

Blacksod Sea Safaris

As a young man growing up in Faulmore on North Mayo’s Mullet Peninsula, Michael “Mick” Keane always loved the sea and fishing with his brothers. That passion came in handy a few decades later when the pandemic disrupted what had become his successful contracting business. “When COVID happened, the construction business was hit hard,” says Keane, who took advantage of his free time by launching Blacksod Sea Safaris in 2021. “I always wanted to have my own boats and bring people out to the beautiful Inishkea Islands and show the beauty of Blacksod Bay,” he says. Keane now captains a fleet of three (the largest accommodates 12 passengers) for excursions, such as coastal cruising alongside 2,200-foot cliffs, wildlife viewing (a mix of marine life including a gray seal colony), or angling for mackerel or cod and other species.

The company’s half-day tour of the little-known Inishkea Islands is a fan favorite. After a 30-minute boat ride from the mainland, you’re free to wander the sandy beaches and dune grassland, deserted stone villages, an old Norwegian whaling station, and other historic structures that the seafaring communities abandoned nearly a century ago.

Where to stay

A tranquil 30-room, family-run hotel in Geesala, the Erris Coast Hotel features panoramic views of the north shore and is a mere 15 minutes from Belmullet. In addition to being dog-friendly, the secluded retreat is near several noteworthy sights, such as Carne Golf Links, rated #12 in Ireland, the historic Blacksod Lighthouse, and Downpatrick Head’s jaw-dropping coastal vistas. From $100.


Home to President Biden’s Irish kin, Ballina is the county’s largest town, with a population of about 10,500. Straddling the River Moy, the city boasts an array of historic landmarks, such as Moyne Abbey and Rosserk Friary. There are also plenty of thriving pubs, restaurants, and nightlife.

A porcelain-glazed ceramic tub in green-and-white tiled room.

At Kilcullen’s Seaweed Baths, you begin with a brief steam sauna to open your pores, followed by a hot seawater and seaweed bath.

Photo by Susan Portnoy

Kilcullen’s Bath House

For a truly immersive experience, nothing compares to a traditional Irish seaweed bath at Kilcullen’s Bathhouse on Killala Bay in Enniscrone, about 20 minutes north of Ballina. In a private room (couples’ rooms are also available), you begin with a brief steam sauna to open your pores, followed by a hot seawater and seaweed bath. A cold seawater shower to invigorate the senses completes the session.

While the effects of such baths are scientifically debatable, the high levels of iodine (a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory) found in seaweed and seawater are believed to be good for “rheumatic and orthopedic problems,” explains owner Edward Kilcullen. The saltwater also keeps bathers afloat, relieving pressure on muscles and joints, while the alginate acts as a natural skin softener.

Kilcullen’s grandfather opened the baths in 1912. Edward and his wife, Christine, took over in 1989 (his son Caine harvests the seaweed) when 77 years of wear and tear had taken their toll. The couple stripped the structure to its Edwardian shell, saved and restored what they could, reproduced the rest, and added more baths and an atrium café. A few of the rooms are more time machine than spa, with the original ceramic tubs, tiles, steam boxes, and fixtures. “[The tubs] look old,” says Kilcullen, “but they’re spotlessly clean. . . . Modernization would have been the easy route to take, [but] we thought we’d spoil it.” Thankfully, he says, their customers agreed.

A mahogany bar with a barkeep and a couple of patrons

Join the locals for a pint at Rouse’s Bar, a licensed tavern since 1865.

Photo by Susan Portnoy

Rouse’s Bar

In the heart of downtown Ballina, Rouse’s Bar is where the locals go for a pint. A licensed tavern since 1865, the Rouse family took on the lease in 1947, running it as a combination bar, grocery, and hardware store. When supermarkets became popular in 1955, they went the pub-only route. Since then, the mahogany-front bar has remained unchanged. Today, with a friendly handshake and an electric smile, second-generation owner Pat Rouse runs the show with his daughter Fiona. Pat grew up in the family biz—after he was born in a room upstairs—gathering glasses and doing other odd jobs as a child. As a young man, he tried banking. It wasn’t his cup of tea. “I wasn’t meeting people,” he says. “I’m a bit of a talker, and I like interacting with people. And I like to have fun.” So when his father died when Pat was 20, he went back to help with the pub, and he’s been there ever since.

Evenings at Rouse’s Bar are always lively, but Saturday nights especially are not to be missed. From 9:30 to midnight, the ever-popular “Trad Night” (translation: traditional Irish music session) features award-winning local musicians, and everyone is welcome to join in.

Where to stay: Enniscoe House

Originally built in 1740 just outside Ballina, Enniscoe House is a gorgeous family-owned Georgian country home on Lough Conn with soaring ceilings, three deluxe guest rooms, and three suites. Equally impressive is the property’s 160 acres of mature woodlands and grasslands and an ornamental garden restored to its 1905 glory. Also on the grounds is the North Mayo Heritage Center and museum, where guests tracing their genealogy to this region can access an estimated 1.2 million records containing everything from graveyard maps to ship manifests. Open April to October; bed-and-breakfast from $227

Susan Portnoy is a freelance photographer, travel writer, based in New York City. Her work has appeared in publications such as Travel + Leisure, Smithsonian, Fodor’s, Newsweek, and Hemispheres.
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