I know what I’m doing this evening. I’ll be cosying up on the couch, fire on, glass of red in hand ready to relive an amazing 48 hours spent in Ballina last September at Other Voices – as the live television recording of the church sessions goes out on RTE tonight. Sitting in a pew in the 225-year old St. Michael's Church, listening to Conor O’Brien (Villagers) sing A Trick of the Light just a few feet in front of me was a scalp-tingling sensory moment I’ll never forget. It’s not confirmed yet whether Other Voices will return to Ballina next year, but whether it does or not, there are plenty of other reasons to make the trip to north Mayo.
My abiding memory of our stay in the Mount Falcon was the warmth. From the minute we pushed open the heavy oak door, we were greeted by the smell of a burning peat fire – that seemed to be kept burning all hours of the day; the perfect olfactory accompaniment to the rich warm tones of the wood-panelled entrance hall. As we checked in, we spotted the impressively kitted out fishing corner, replete with all manner of rods, river maps and gillie info.
Ballina, with the river Moy running through it, is the salmon capital of Ireland don’t forget. But we were here for the music this time. And although all the great OV activity beckoned and meant we were out and about most of the time, we still managed to revive our Music Trail-wearied bodies in the Mount Falcon spa with its soothing Elemis signature treatments, enjoy top notch breakfasts in the cosy white-wash walled dining room and sink into the sofas for a soporific nightcap in the bar after the live sessions in the town drew to a close. mountfalcon.com
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Ice House Ballina
In all the ways that Mount Falcon offers old school comfort, the Ice House offers contemporary glass-fronted contrast. The hotel which is perched overlooking the rushing River Moy below takes its name from its former life as a storage spot for preserving salmon before shipping in the 19th century. Most of the 32 luxury rooms feature panoramic river views, a mix of heritage and contemporary furnishings, underfloor heating, goose down duvets and all mod cons. The Chill Spa is also a major selling point, offering an outdoor hot tub, barrel sauna and VOYA organic seaweed treatments. And after all that high-end detoxing you can look forward to undoing it all with their renowned killer cocktails. icehousehotel.ie
Crockets on the Quay
On our way to Crockets our taxi driver, Brian Queenan (officially nicest man in Mayo), was quick to tell us that this was his favourite place for an end of the week treat. The ‘hot and spicy chilli chicken’ came with his heartiest recommendation. Crockets, for good reason, is a much-loved local spot: a gastro-pub in the proper sense with a buzzy bar, plenty of simply dressed tables spread across various different nooks and levels. On the menu you’ll find lots of people-pleasing favourites such as Crocket’s baked crab claws, seafood pie, and of course the aforementioned chilli chicken. A super spot. crocketsquaybistro.com
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Luskin’s Bistro at Dillon’s Courtyard
We would never have found this place if it weren’t for a much appreciated local tip-off. Hidden away, as the name suggests, down the back of the pretty cobbled courtyard of a building formerly known as the Old Bond Store. Luskins is a family-run bistro, with Gerry Luskin cooking in the kitchen and usually at least two other members of the family running the show out front. Gerry makes a big effort to use locally sourced and artisan ingredients, supporting local businesses and delivering a delicious taste of the Wild Atlantic Way in this wonderful, warm setting. On the night we visited, we also had the added people-watching frisson of an taoiseach sitting a few tables behind. (He had been spotted in the OV pews earlier). After dinner, we popped next door to Dillon’s Bar for a nightcap only to find Conor O’Brien and the band enjoying a pint – adding to the extraordinary intimate magic that is Other Voices.
I think it says it all that a picture I posted on instagram of Pat - ebullient owner of Rouses bar in Ballina - got three comments from very different friends all singing his praises and sending their regards. Rouse's had been on the go since 1946 but the premises itself has been a pub since 1865, making it one of the town's oldest bars. The place is steeped in character and personality with shelves behind the bar lined with jars of Bovril next to the Gunpowder gin. Definitely a place to come a little early so you can nab one of the cosy snugs if you can. They host live trad music every Saturday night.
This pub with its attractive sage green exterior and window display and signage unchanged since the 1950s is a must-visit. Located on Tolan Street, just by the bridge over the River Moy, it boasts the most beautiful old wooden bar and incredible collection of fishing paraphernalia. Plus lots of little snugs, cosy corners and seriously rich creamy pints. It’s the kind of pub that gives Ireland a good name.
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Foxford Woolen Mills
On the Dublin road back home we stopped in for lunch at Foxford Woolen Mills and enjoyed a very tasty Avoca-esque lunch with lots of fresh salads on offer, homemade quiche, pies and baked fish – not to mention a Banoffie pie you’d gladly save for your last meal on earth. Along with all the familiar Foxford throws, bed and bath accessories - they also stock some really beautiful pieces of furniture (mostly in a pared back Scandi style), divine Monograph stationery, handcrafted irish botanical cosmetics and loads more. We wanted it all but settled on just a few take homes: a Clean Slate candle for me and jar of Achill sea salt for my pal. Definitely worth a stop off. foxfordwoollenmills.com
Tune in tonight to RTE 2 or RTE Player for Other Voices Ballina at 23:30 to watch the live episode recorded in St. Michael's Church Ballina last September. It features Little Green Cars' final performance. Plus Stevie and Adam will chat to Huw Stephens and the band will perform The John Wayne, My Love Took Me Down To the River, Easier Day and Brother. Also available worldwide on the RTE Player from 22.03.2019.