Dún Briste / Downpatrick Head

Dun Briste from top of Downpatrick Head, North Mayo
Author's Personal Collection

Dún Briste

Dún Briste or Broken Fort was once joined to the mainland on North Mayo’s coastline.  The sea stack stands forty – five metres in height.  It was formed approximately three hundred million years ago during the Lower Carboniferous Period when sea levels were much higher also the coastline was further back from the shore.  It has been accepted that an arch led to the Rock’s collapse during 1393 following very rough sea conditions.  Several loose stones that were located on the stack (shown on this site) at its top left of a 1968 photograph are still in situ.  This photograph taken by Maria McCormick is featured in Donal McCormick’s 2016 edition of ‘The Road to Downpatrick.’  A large piece of Rock approximately four metres at the top right of the image had fallen into sea.  The actual splash during the event was filmed by Olivier Lerebourg which can be viewed at this site with several other images.[i]

The Sea Stack at Dún Briste is a layered chunky tower of rock that rose off the western coast of Ireland.  ‘It is old, but it almost certainly doesn’t represent millions of years of geological processes, it was likely formed tens to hundreds of years ago’ according to University College Cork Paleobiologist Maria Mc Namara.  The layered sedimentary rock was formed during the Carboniferous era, a sixty-million-year long period that lasted from three hundred & fifty – nine million to two hundred & ninety – nine million years ago.  The evidence of overlapping of Strata or layers indicate a sea level rise occurred.  ‘As the land surface was flooded: sediments were laid down progressively inland.’ (Mc Namara )  During a storm in 1393 an arch that lead to the forty – five metres sea stack collapsed into the ocean.  This may explain why it received the title of ‘broken fort’.  A team of scientists helicoptered to the top of Dún Briste during 1990 where they discovered remains of a medieval house also a broken Quern stone.  Daredevil Ian Miller climbed the sea stack during 2016.[ii]

Several metres off the north Mayo coast at Downpatrick Head sits the forty – five-metre-high flat – topped sea stack named Dún Briste that translates as The Broken Fort.  This is a relatively new sea stack as it was only separated from mainland Ireland during 1393 when monster seas severed it from County Mayo due to an overnight storm.  The summit of the stack is approximately fifty metres in length also fifteen metres in width.  The flat – topped stack contains the remains of buildings.  During 1980 three scientists: Dr. Seamus Caulfield, his father Patrick Caulfield plus Martin Downes Professor of Biology Maynooth College landed on the summit by helicopter.  They discovered remains of a building running across the centre of the headland plus several plant species.  The remains of a second building along the western edge of the summit appeared to be in danger of falling into the sea.  They decided that people with their livestock had once inhabited the area.  Two other unusual discoveries were an ancient separation gate that allowed sheep to pass from one field to another while yet another gate restricted access to the area.  A still functioning quern stone was also discovered.  The scientists reported that due to the size, shape of buildings plus the gate that the leasing had been established in the medieval period.  The first ascent by three rock climbers during May 1990 was attempted by use of a groove system up the north facing seaward face of the stack.[iii]

Lying eighty meters off Downpatrick Head on the north coast of County Mayo is the iconic Dún Briste Sea Stack.  Its name literally means ‘broken dún.’  It was first landed on by a helicopter during the 1980’s.  This sea stack was climbed once before in 1990.  There is an amazing video of a climb during 27th August 2016 by Iain Miller & Paulina Kaniszewska to the summit of the Sea Stack! [iv]

This is a testimony on this site from a visitor ‘Just think about it for a sec: each one of theses layers took time to form, to be laid down.  Each starum tells a story about life on our planet from the very first sediments to the deposition of the next layer.  And imagine the passage of time as layer by layer was added, and then the time for those layers to become solid sedimentary rock, each the floor of the ocean for some period of time.  It just blows my mind how vividly deep time is displayed here.’[v]

The Irish townland of Knockaun eighty metres off Downpatrick Head portrays a colossal fifty metre sea stack called Dún Briste.  There is also Pul na Seantoine a cave at this Head hollowed out by strong waves of the Atlantic Ocean.[vi]

Downpatrick Head is located three miles north of Ballycastle village.  It stands one hundred & twenty – six ft above sea level. [vii]

Pul na Sean Tinne

Pul na Sean Tinne or Hole of the Old Fire is a blowhole that provides the visitor with a view of the Faultline that exists in the rock formation at Downpatrick Head in North Mayo.  The softer rock has been eroded by the constant action of the waves in the ocean.  Evidence of this may be viewed at three locations where erosion has worked its way to the surface.  During rough weather or stormy seas some foam & vapour are exposed which gives the appearance of smoke of a fire from a distance.[viii]

Pul na Sean Tinne is often referred to as a blowhole within the area of Downpatrick Head in North Mayo that provides a clear view of the Faultline.  This link has a great image of the site.[ix]

Twenty – Five men lost their lives within the channel below Poll na Seantainne a prominent blowhole as the sea rose while they were hidden following the 1798 Rebellion. (Gladman 1st August 2009) [x]

St. Patrick’s Church ruins

There are ruins of a small church, a stone cross plus a holy well on the summit of Downpatrick Head. A statue of St. Patrick was erected on Downpatrick Head during 1912.  A later statue replaced it early in the 1980’s.  The sea Stack was formed according to local tradition when a pagan chieftain refused to convert to Christianity St. Patrick struck the ground with his crozier.  A chunk of the headland collapsed into the ocean with the chieftain atop!  It was a popular pilgrim destination where Mass is celebrated annually on Garland Sunday, the last Sunday in July.[xi]

A legend stated that St. Patrick was disturbed by a pagan chieftain, he prayed for deliverance with the result that the stack moved away to the sea the next morning with the chieftain on top! [xii]

An ogre called Geodruisg made life difficult for St. Patrick at the headland.  He prayed for deliverance from the tyrant.  The next day the ogre with his residence vanished from the mainland.[xiii]

According to old local tradition St. Patrick at his church on Downpatrick Head conflicted with a pagan chieftain or god Crom Dubh.  He refused to be converted to Christianity.  He threatened St. Patrick with his everlasting fire.  St. Patrick picked up a stone from the ground, scratched a cross on it then threw it onto the fire.  The fire collapsed into the sea then a blowhole known as Pul na Sean Tinne formed.  Crom Dubh retreated into his fortress at the top of the cliff.  St. Patrick struck the ground with his crozier with the result that the stack along with the fortress were separated from the mainland with Crom Dubh stranded.[xiv]

W W 2 Watchtower / EIRE 64 Sign

During WW2 as the Irish State was declared Neutral a series of Lookout Posts were erected around Ireland’s coastline.  They were connected by telephone to monitor or report all sea traffic to the Irish Coast Guard.  The maintenance work carried out on LOP64 at Downpatrick Head summit preserves this historic feature.[xv]

This site has a partial land image of the EIRE 64 of the sign on the summit of Downpatrick Head that was captured on 14th October 2014.[xvi]

There is an old WW2 Watchtower at Downpatrick Head’s summit.  The EIRE 64 sign is very visible on the headland.  There are plans to renovate the Watchtower. (Anthony Hickey ) [xvii]

The lookout post from WW2 plus the stone watch tower are still in existence at Downpatrick Head.[xviii]

Commemorative Installation

The Blowhole known as Poll na Seanloine is overlooked by a viewing Platform on two levels: a raised walkway or Berm around the rim of the blowhole that is symbolic of Ireland’s ancient Ring Forts.  There is a protective steel rod, flute fence surrounding the Commemorative area.  Designed by Washington Architect Travis Price with the assistance of Catholic University of America Architectural students during 2014.  This Spirit of Place Project incorporated a Shelter at the blowhole where a Plaque was erected to the memory of the men from Knockaun & Killeen who drowned while they hid at the base of blowhole when sea covered them following the 1798 Rebellion.  (Anthony Hickey ) [xix]


An RTE Radio ‘Documentary On One’ broadcast described in great detail the first helicopter trip to the stack made by locals including Dr Seamus Caulfield in 1981: it may be viewed at this site: https://www.dunbriste.com/

The actual image of the erosion plus splash from rock fall of 1968 may be viewed at this link: https://www.dunbriste.com/erosion.html

This link shows a map of the area plus a video: https://uniqueascent.ie/downpatrick_head

There are excellent images of Dún Briste available to view at these following links: https://unusualplaces.org/dun-briste-an-impressive-sea-stack/



These are just two videos but there are several more to view on YouTube:



This is a link to Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DownpatrickHead/

There is a view from 2018 of a drone flight through the blowhole Pul na Sean Tinne also of Downpatrick Head at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKXNChsVTwo

This link provides a wonderful image of Travis Price’s Installation ‘The Crossing’: https://www.aiadc.com/sites/default/files/hero-images/Merit%20ARCH162%20TheCrossing–Travis%20Price.pdf

 Tom Gillespie featured an article on Dun Briste & Downpatrick Head in his ‘Mayo Gems’ section of  ‘The Connaught Telegraph ‘ edition of 11th August 2020.  He included an unusual personal image.

On 22nd March 2022 Tom Gillespie featured an article ‘The Connaught Telegraph’ on the ‘EIRE’ Markings dotted along the coasts of Mayo that featured images of Downpatrick Head.   He stated that the Mayo LOPs were numbered as Roonagh 87 to Kilcummin HHea 65.  The locations of others are Corraun, Moytoegue Head, Blacksod Bay, Annagh Head, Erris Head, Portacloy also Benwee Head.


[i] Downpatrick Head (https://www.dunbriste.com/dun-briste.html) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[ii] That Sea Stack (https://www.livescience.com/61769-dun-briste-sea-stack-reddit.html) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[iii] Downpatrick Head (https://uniqueascent.ie/downpatrick_head) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[iv] A Journey (https://www.irishcentral.com/travel/best-of-ireland/a-journey-through-the-west-of-ireland-s-stunning-sea-stacks) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[v] This Amazing Photo (https://www.dailyedge.ie/dun-briste-3843294-Feb2018/) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[vi] Dun Briste (https://unusualplaces.org/dun-briste-an-impressive-sea-stack/ ) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[vii] Downpatrick Head (https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/wild-atlantic-way/downpatrick-head.html) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[viii] Pul na Sean Tinne (https://www.dunbriste.com/pul-na-sean-tinne.html) [assessed 16th July 2020]

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Downpatrick Head (https://www.themodernantiquarian.com/post/77366/fieldnotes/downpatrick_head.html) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[xi] Downpatrick Head( https://www.ireland.com/en-us/articles/waw-downpatrick-head/) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[xii] Downpatrick Head (http://www.geologypage.com/2016/05/downpatrick-head-county-mayo-ireland.html) [assessed 16th July 2020]

[xiii] Dun Briste (https://unusualplaces.org/dun-briste-an-impressive-sea-stack/) [assessed 15th July 2020]

[xiv] St. Patrick (https://www.mayo-ireland.ie/en/about-mayo/history/saint-patrick-downpatrick-head.html) [assessed 16th July 2020]

[xv] Look Out Post (https://www.dunbriste.com/look-out-post-64.html) [assessed 16th July 2020]

[xvi] Eire 64 (http://eiremarkings.org/257/ ) [assessed 16th July 2020]

[xvii] New Viewing area ( https://www.mayo.me/a-grandstand-view-of-downpatrick-head-blowhole) [assessed 16th July 2020]

[xviii] Downpatrick Head (http://www.geologypage.com/2016/05/downpatrick-head-county-mayo-ireland.html) [assessed 16th July 2020])

[xix] New Viewing area ( https://www.mayo.me/a-grandstand-view-of-downpatrick-head-blowhole) [assessed 16th July 2020]


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