Ancestral Links In Belmullet, the Irish town from which his forebears fled the Great Famine, the author found a hidden gem

November 17, 2003

I used to have trouble explaining to friends where the greatest
golf course in the world is. "It's in the most remote corner of
the Republic of Ireland," I would say, "40 miles past the earth
ends here sign. You fly to Shannon or Knock and drive north into
County Mayo, maybe stopping in Ballina for directions. Then you
go west and finally south across this treeless bog that will
scare you with its bleakness." ¶ Last summer George Geraghty, who
was sitting on a riding mower at the time, gave me a shorter
description. He said, "We're at the end of the rainbow."

The journey to rainbow's end started two years ago in Colorado.
In a car. In the dark. A well-known golf architect, who was at
the wheel, was telling me about his recent trip to Ireland. He
had played Rosses Point, Donegal, Connemara and Enniscrone, but
the highlight of his trip had been his visit to a new links
course on the Atlantic coast, a wild, untamed masterpiece called
Carne Golf Links. "My favorite course in the whole world is
Ballybunion," the architect said, "but Carne comes a close
second."

The name meant nothing to me. "Where's it located?" I said.

"It's in a little out-of-the-way village that nobody's ever heard
of. A place called Belmullet."

My head whipped around. "Belmullet?"

I had heard of Belmullet. It was from Belmullet, during the
famine years in the mid-19th century, that my great-grandfather,
Michael Geraghty, had emigrated. On a two-day visit to the Mullet
Peninsula in 1989 my wife and I were introduced to at least a
dozen Geraghtys. One of them, a grandmother, had taken me behind
her farmhouse and pointed down to a stone landing, saying,
"That's where your great-grandfather got on the little boat to go
out to the big boat to sail to America." I remembered driving by
a golf course on that visit, but it had been a pathetic little
layout--a flat nine-holer with wire fences around the greens to
protect them from livestock.

It was with a bit of skepticism, therefore, that I greeted the
claim that my ancestral home had a world-class course. When I got
home from Colorado, I went online and typed Belmullet golf.
Within seconds I was staring at a dreamscape--an aerial
photograph of Carne Golf Links, a heaving sea of dune grass
streaked with sun and shadow. Further clicks of the mouse
produced a torrent of encomiums. "Quite simply the most stunning
discovery I have made in golf," wrote Dermot Gilleece in the
Irish Times. Not to be outdone, Keith Ging of The Express wrote,
"If I were limited to one course for the rest of my days, this
would be it." The most measured view was that of James W.
Finegan, who had played Carne while researching his book Emerald
Fairways and Foam-Flecked Seas. "I am inclined to go rather far
out on a limb for Carne," he wrote, "by calling it the single
most remote great course in the British Isles."

I decided it was time to pay another visit to Belmullet.

It was 8:30 on a cloudy, breezy morning in July when I pulled
into the parking lot of Carne Golf Links, about a mile west of
Belmullet. There were only three cars there, and I could hear
cows mooing in the distance. A golfer, Peter Mallory, was putting
his clubs in the trunk of his car. "James is usually in his
office by 9:30," he said, referring to Carne Golf Links
secretary-manager James O'Hara.

Thanking Mallory, I walked up the hill past the two-story
clubhouse and took my first look at the course. There was not a
soul in sight. The 1st hole, a dogleg par-4 with a steep
left-to-right bank, disappeared over a brow in the general
direction of Blacksod Bay. The 10th fairway, somewhat straighter,
vanished between dunes to the left. What caught my eye, though,
was the finishing hole, which ended below the clubhouse. The last
100 yards of fairway plunged into a shadowy pit that looked deep
enough to conceal the tallest building in Belmullet.

An hour later, while visiting with O'Hara in his ground-floor
office, I remarked that I had rarely seen such dramatic contours
on a golf course. O'Hara, a man of 55 with a gray mustache and a
soothing manner, nodded. "I used to go for a walk in the banks
when it was all wild," he said. "I'd think, How can you build a
course in these big valleys and sand dunes? How could you
physically walk it?"

Rather than answer those questions for me, O'Hara suggested that
I play the course and then meet him the following day for a talk.
"We have an outing of news agents scheduled for 11, but you could
go out anytime before then."

Jumping at the offer, I fetched my clubs, changed shoes in the
locker room and teed off on number 10, pushing a three-wood
perilously close to a monster dune. For the next two hours I
wandered the grass canyons in spreading sunshine. I climbed steep
slopes to tees and greens, tugged my cap down against a
three-club wind, played my way to the ocean breakers and then
back up again into the dunes. I finally putted out on 18 as the
news agents spread like frolicking children across the banks.
After lunch and a nap in my closetlike room at the Western
Strands Hotel, I returned to play the front nine. Those holes,
while not as severe as the ones I had played in the morning,
afforded grand views of Blacksod Bay and took me down fairways as
restless as windblown silk.

In the locker room afterward, a member asked my opinion of the
course. "It's my favorite course in the whole world," I said,
"although Ballybunion comes a close second."

Wednesday morning was blowy and wet, and I needed an umbrella to
get from my car to the clubhouse. "I think we're seeing the last
of our summer," O'Hara said, inviting me into his cozy office.
"It seems to be settling into this pattern."

Leaning back in his chair, he gave me a quick history of the
Belmullet Golf Club, founded in 1925 and sustained through wars,
depressions and population losses. The original course, the
primitive nine-holer I had seen on my previous visit, had
provided a near-golf experience for the club's 80 to 100 members.

"Ah, here's Eamon!" In the doorway was Eamon Mangan, a founder
and the controller of Erris Tourism Ltd., the not-for-profit
entity that owns and operates Carne Golf Links. "Eamon can tell
you better than I how the course came to be built."

Mangan, a former furniture retailer and owner of a Belmullet pub,
was certainly equal to that task. He had started Erris Tourism in
1984, he said, because the rural west desperately needed the
economic stimulus of tourism, which was working wonders in other
Irish counties. Numerous ideas were floated--walking trails,
fishing lodges, an amusement park--but the notion that took hold
was that of a golf course on the Erris banks. The land Mangan
wanted, a 260-acre parcel, was owned by 17 farmers. To acquire
the land, he applied for funds to everyone from Bord Failte (the
Irish tourist board) to the European Economic Community. He
finally landed a state loan of about $150,000 with a seven-year
moratorium on repayments, at which point he had...nothing. "We
had secured the land," Mangan told me with a smile, "but we
didn't have any money to build the holes." So he called a priest.

The priest, the Reverend Peter Waldron, had developed courses in
County Connemara, 106 miles to the south. Connemara has a links
course of some repute designed by a renowned Irish architect,
Eddie Hackett, so Mangan invited Waldron up to get his opinion of
the property. Father Waldron contacted Hackett at his home in
Dublin and persuaded the architect to make the 5 1/2-hour trip to
Belmullet.

"Eddie Hackett was one of nature's true gentlemen," Mangan said,
his voice dropping reverentially as he recalled the architect,
who died in 1996. "He spent three days here on that first visit.
He asked questions. 'Where's the access road? Where will the
clubhouse go?' He walked the boundary. He'd say, 'This is calling
out for a green.... We'll build a tee there.' He was old school."
At one point Hackett had looked out over the acres of undulating
dunes and said, "It took nature thousands of years to create this
land. We must not let the bulldozer destroy it." The 76-year-old
architect didn't mind that Erris Tourism had no money to pay for
his design.

Mangan, for his part, showed good judgment--and remarkable
patience--by not hiring a course contractor. Instead he took
advantage of a state-sponsored labor scheme to pay 27 nearby
farmers who were on the dole an additional small stipend to build
the 6,690-yard course. Working for the most part with hand spades
and rakes, the farmers started the job in 1987. They finished in
1993.

It has taken years more for Carne to catch the eye of travelers,
largely because Belmullet's only hotel, the 10-room Western
Strands, lacks modern amenities. One tour company delivers
golfers to Carne by motor coach and then puts them up at night in
a four-star hotel in Westport, an hour away. "People have to have
a place to stay," Mangan said. "It's the missing link."

Carne does have a helicopter pad. That has made it possible for
adventurers like Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga to play the
links without climbing the dark, creaking staircases of the
Western Strands. The most intriguing visitor to date was FBI
director Robert Mueller, who braved rain and fog to fly in by
whirlybird for a crack at Carne. ("It was supposed to be
hush-hush," says a Carne staffer, "but we all knew about it a
week before he came.")

It was still raining lightly when I finished my chat with Mangan
and O'Hara. I got my clubs, pulled on a rain suit and teed off on
number 1. This time around I paid more attention to the course's
smaller features--the little knobs and hollows that had been
shaped by nature, not by a skilled backhoe operator. Mangan had
said that when a feature was needed to add strategic interest to
a hole, the farmers had simply tipped a load of white sand
wherever necessary and let the wind and water work on it for a
couple of years.

It was dry and gray the next morning when I met George Geraghty
at the course. George, a member of Carne's 10-man maintenance
crew, had a salt-and-pepper beard, a wry smile and a good pair of
work boots. He looked on with curiosity as I fanned through some
snapshots I had taken of various Geraghtys on my visit in 1989.
"That's my dad!" he said, pointing at a shot of a classic Irish
elder in a houndstooth driving cap and tweed jacket. "And that's
my mother!"

Martin Geraghty, I was sad to hear, had died, but George's
mother, Mary, still lived at Cross Lake. George offered to take
me out to the lake again, so we got in his car and drove down the
hill past a cemetery where several Geraghtys were buried. We
hadn't driven more than a mile when he stopped by the deserted
landing at Salen Harbor. "This is the spot where your
great-grandfather would have gone from. They used to go out here
in small boats to a ship called the Tartar."

There was no plaque or sculpture on the landing, nothing to
memorialize the desperate souls who had fled during the famine
years. "My great-grandmother," he said, "saw three of her sons
thrown on the back of a donkey, dead." I looked out at the water
and tried to imagine what it was like to be, say, 10 years old
and facing a long voyage to an unimaginable land.

George drove on past small farmhouses and treeless pastures
fenced off in narrow strips. He stopped the car again on a gravel
road fronting Cross Lake, which was as scenery-free as I
remembered. "The lake used to be a lagoon, just a mudhole," he
said. "Silt came in from the sea, purified it. It got bigger."
George pointed to a lonely-looking house and a couple of old
stone sheds. "Down that hollow is where the old houses were.
That's where all the Geraghtys lived."

A few minutes later, over tea in the kitchen of his house, George
listened to my own tale of Belmulleters on the run--of Michael
Geraghty, who had found refuge with other Erris emigres in
Wisconsin's St. Croix River Valley; of his son Thomas Garrity,
who had practiced law in the Twin Cities and died in his 20s of
typhoid fever; of Jack Garrity, my father, who as an orphaned
youngster in the years before World War I had helped build a
nine-hole, sand-greens course in New Richmond, Wis. "Golf was my
father's obsession," I said. "He would have loved Carne."

"The course is brilliant," George agreed. "It's a dream come
true."

I played Carne later that day and again the following morning,
shortly after dawn. On both occasions the sun broke through and
spread a wash of color over the rugged dunes. If I hit a bad
shot, I dropped another ball and played a mulligan. If I hit a
good shot, I walked up the fairway and played a second ball from
a different angle. I thought of my dad, who loved solitary golf;
of my great-grandfather, who had possibly walked these very banks
150 years ago; of Eddie Hackett, who died believing that Carne
would be his most enduring legacy. When a red fox trotted across
the 15th green, interrupting my preparation for a short pitch, I
turned away and looked back down the fairway. The hole stretched
behind me like a bishop's cappa magna of green and gold. Achill
Island shimmered on the horizon. That's when I realized that
Carne really was the greatest course in the world.

Afterward I found James O'Hara in the club lounge, pouring
himself a cup of coffee. "We hope you'll come back," he said.

"You can count on it," I replied, "and I'll bring friends."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN HANDMADE It took 27 farmers with spades and rakes seven years to build Carne Golf Links. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN BEST COURSE Belmullet's city fathers decided that a layout like Carne would draw the most tourists to the tiny (pop. 1,200), isolated town. TWO COLOR MAPS: STEVE STANKIEWICZ (MAP) [See caption above] Belmullet IRELAND TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN COST EFFECTIVE Mangan (top left, with O'Hara) said famed architect Eddie Hackett designed holes like the par-3 16th for free. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN SOUL MATE The author's great-grandfather sailed for America when times grew hard, but many Geraghtys remained behind.

"It took nature thousands of years to create this land," Hackett
said. "We must not let the bulldozer destroy it."

Mueller's visit "was supposed to be hush-hush," says a Carne
staffer, "but we knew all about it a week before he came."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)