An Outline History of County Mayo
History of Co. Mayo in the West of Ireland
County Mayo has a rich archaeological heritage dating from prehistoric times to the present. (Achaeology is the interpretation of our past from the study of buildings and objects made by human beings. We are dependent on archaeology alone in any attempt to study the prehistoric period and thereafter to complement what is recorded in written sources). According to the present state of archaeological knowledge, the first people arrived in Ireland sometime before 7000 BC during what is called the Mesolithic period. They were nomadic tribes of hunters and fishing people who built no permanent structures such as houses or tombs. The first colonisation of Mayo probably took place during that period.
In the fourth millennium BC, during the Neolithic period, another group of settlers arrived in Ireland, our first farmers, who introduced agriculture and animal husbandry to the country as well as the skills of pottery-making and weaving. They started a custom of burying their dead collectively (usually cremated) in large stone-built chambered tombs known as megalithic tombs, the earliest surviving architectural structures in the country. There are over 1,500 such tombs identified in Ireland with approximately 160 in County Mayo. This fact indicates the importance of the Mayo region during the Neolithic period and into the Bronze Age (c. 2000- 400 BC) when this phase of tomb-building came to an end.
In the literature on archaeology, Irish megalithic tombs are divided in four classes: court-tombs, portal tombs, passage-tomb and wedge-tombs, each style named after its chief diagnostic feature. Each class of tomb probably represents a new major colonisation of the country by different groups of tomb-builders. The remains of some megalithic tombs are so badly damaged that they can not be accurately identified by type and are consequently recorded as unclassified megalithic tombs. Examples of all types decorate the Mayo landscape. Eighty-five of the 400 plus court-tombs known in Ireland are located in Mayo. About 30 of these tombs are situated in the hinterland of Bunatrahir and Killala Bays in north Mayo. Others are scattered throught the county in the hinterland of Ballina and in places like Killasser in east Mayo, Ballycroy and Belmullet in the north-west, Claremorris, Cong, Achill, Newport and Louisburgh. There are seven known portal-tombs in the county (two in Ballyknock near Ballycastle; one in Claggan, near Ballycroy; one at Gortbrack North and another at Knocknalower, near Belmullet, one in Achill and another in Killasser); one identified passage-tomb at Carrowreagh near Bonniconlon (alias Bunnyconnellan) , with other possible ones in the Cong/Ballinrobe region. There are over 30 wedge-tombs and a similar number of unclassified megalithic tombs in the county.
The blanket bog which covers parts of Ireland developed from the late 3rd millennium BC onwards and in places covered the field systems, habitation-sites and tombs of the early farmers. Extensive pre-bog field-systems with stone walls have been discovered embedded in the bog in many parts of Ireland, notably at Behy, Glenulra and Belderrig , west of Ballycastle in County Mayo. The Behy/Glenulra region, known as the ‘Céide Fields’, contains a 1,500 hectare archaeological site, the most extensive Stone Age monument in the world.
Mayo has many known monuments from the Bronze Age: 34 wedge-tombs; 12 stone alignments/rows; 24 stone circles; close to 300 ancient cooking-sites known as fulachta fiadh. The county has also several monuments from the Early Iron Age (c. 400BC-AD 400): over 250 crannógs (lake-dwellings); over 100 promontory forts, and numerous ringforts and souterrains.
EARLY CHRISTIAN PERIOD
The early history of the county is obscure and frequently confusing with various tribes seeking control. Christianity came to Ireland at the start of the fifth century, if not earlier, and brought about many changes, including the introduction of writing and reading. St. Patrick, Ireland’s national apostle, whose floruit was the fifth century, is chiefly credited with the conversion of the pagan Gaels. Recent research indicates that St. Patrick spent considerable time in County Mayo, where according to tradition and some written sources he spent forty days and nights on the summit of Croagh Patrick fasting and praying for the people of Ireland; and had associations with places like Aghagower near Westport,Ballintubber (well-known nowadays for its medieval abbey which has remained in continuous use through all vicissitudes from its foundation in 1216); and Foghill near Killala, which has been identified by some writers with the Silva Vocluti , ‘the wood of Fochluth beside the western sea’ mentioned by Patrick himself in his Confessio.
From the middle of the sixth century onwards, hundreds of small monastic settlements were established around the country, many of which became very important. Some examples of well-known early monastic sites in Mayo include Mayo itself near Balla, Aughagower, Inishmaine, Ballintubber, Errew, Kilmore Erris, Balla, Cong, Killala, Turlough, Moyne near Cross, and island settlements off the Mullet peninsula like Inishkea North, Inishkea South and Duvillaun More.
‘MAYO OF THE SAXONS’
One of the most interesting monastic sites in Co. Mayo was that from which the county derives its name – Maigh Eo. Colmán of Lindisfarne, having been defeated by the ‘Romanist’ party at the synod of Whitby (in Northumbria, in the north-east of England) in 663, withdrew with his followers, via Iona, to Inishbofin off the west coast of Galway. As a result of disagreement between the Irish and the English monks in the little community, the latter moved to the ‘plain of yews’, about sixteen kilometres south-east of the present town of Castlebar. The monastery they established there, known as Mag nÉo na Sachsan (‘of the Saxons’), became renowned as a centre of learning, and continued to attract monks of English birth for a century and more after its foundation.
It is an indication of Mayo’s importance in the middle ages that, when, in 1152, the synod of Kells introduced a system of diocesan organisation to the Irish church, one of the dioceses established west of the Shannon was that of Mayo. In the aftermath of the Reformation, the Established Church united the see to Tuam. The Catholic diocese was finally absorbed by Tuam, by papal decree, some time after 1631. The monastery at Mayo became a collegiate church sometime early in the 13th century, and about 1370 it became an abbey (St. Michael’s) of Augustinian Canons. It survived until the dissolution of the monasteries after the Reformation. It will be clear from the foregoing that ‘Mayo’ as the name of the abbey and, more importantly, of the diocese, was very much in circulation around 1570, when it came to naming the new county established by Sir Henry Sidney.
The Vikings or Norsemen first attacked Ireland in 795 and Mayo around the start of the ninth century. On arrival, they started to plunder and loot places of wealth especially monasteries. It was partly in response to those attacks that round towers were later erected in monastic enclosures (most were erected in the 12 century). There are about 65 of these fine structures surviving in Ireland, with five located in County Mayo: Aughagower, Balla, Killala, Turlough and Meelock. The Viking invasion led to the establishment of settlements in a number of locations like Dublin, Cork, Wexford and Waterford which later developed into towns and cities.
The Anglo-Norman colonisation of Ireland from1169 onwards was one of the most significant events in the development of Ireland. Mayo came under Norman control in 1235. The Norman conquest meant the eclipse of many Gaelic lords and chieftains, chiefly the O’Connors of Connacht, but the invaders soon adopted Gaelic customs and began to marry with the native Irish and became as the phrase has it: ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. This process of Gaelicisation is best exemplified in the adoption by various Norman families and branches of families of new surnames based on Gaelic-style patronymics. Examples of Mayo surnames today with Norman origins include Barrett, Burke and Bourke, Costello, Culkin, Davitt, Fitzmaurice, Gibbons, Jennings, Joyce, McEvilly, Nally, Padden, Staunton and Walsh. The Normans started numerous towns and developed some existing settlements into towns, as well as organising fairs and markets. They developed roads, bridges, sea-ports and promoted the growth of trade both domestic and foreign as well as improving the agricultural methods then in vogue.
THE NEW ABBEYS AND FRIARIES
A noteworthy feature of the period with which we have been dealing was the buildings of abbeys or friaries for the new mendicant orders – Augustinians, Carmelites, Dominicans and Franciscans – principally by the Hiberno-Norman families. A number of early monastic sites – such as Cong, Inishmaine, Ballintubber, Errew, and Mayo – had been chosen as locations for abbeys of the Augustinian Canons Regular, built under the patronage of Gaelic families (particularly the O’Connors) in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The first friary founded under Norman auspices in Mayo was that of Straide (alias Strade) established for the Franciscans by Jordan de Exeter, probably between 1240 and 1250. It was very soon (in 1252) transferred to the Dominicans. Another Dominican house, also thought to have been founded by a de Exeter, was Rathfran, dating from 1274. The Prendergasts founded Ballinasmalla, near Claremorris, for the Carmelites around 1288. Another Carmelite foundation, dating from 1298, was Burriscarra, which was built by the Stauntons. Abandoned after about eighty years by the Carmelites it was later occupied by the Augustinian friars. The Augustinians were given a house in Ballinrobe around 1313, by one of the de Burgos. No other notable foundation is recorded for over a century, until about 1430, when the Mac Costellos established the Dominicans in Urlaur and the Augustinians in Ballyhaunis. A decade later Rosserk Friary was founded for the Franciscan Third Order by one Joye (or Joyce). Nearby Moyne Friary was built for the Franciscan friars by Mac Uilliam ochtarach (de Burgo)around 1455, while, a couple of years later, the only Gaelic foundation of the period, Murrisk, in the shadow of Croagh Patrick, was established for the Augustinians by Tadhg Máille, the local chieftain. The latest foundation of any significance was the Dominican Friary of Burrishoole, built around 1469 by Mac Uilliam ochtarach, Richard de Burgo of Turlough.
Almost all the foundations mentioned above were suppressed in the wake of the Reformation in the 16th century. One or two have been rebuilt and restored, but in most cases, only the ruins survive, pleasing, if poignant, late Gothic relics of what must have been among the most striking buildings in the countryside of pre-Tudor Ireland.
THE LORDSHIP OF MACWILLIAM EIGHTER
The 15th century was marked by frequent quarrels between the Mayo Burkes (as the people of Mac Uilliam ochtair may be called for convenience) and the Clanrickard Burkes of what is now County Galway, as well as by much internecine fighting among the minor Norman lords of Mayo. From mid-century onwards, the O’Donnells, the great Gaelic lords of Tír Chonaill (in present-day Co. Donegal), interfered frequently in the affairs of north Connacht, as they sought to extend their way southwards. They met with opposition from the Burkes, who were also quite often embroiled in the affairs of their eastern neighbours, the O’Connors of Roscommon and Sligo. Another Gaelic family, the O’Kellys of east Galway and south Roscommon were usually to be found in alliance with the Burkes of Mayo.
The turn of the century saw the Lord Deputy, Garrett Mór Fitzgerald, the great Earl of Kidare, ruling as virtual king of Ireland. In August 1504 he demonstrated his power by inflicting a crushing defeat on his son-in-law, Ulick Burke, Earl of Clanrickard, in a battle at Cnoc Tuagh (Knockdoe) near Galway. Among those who joined the great alliance against Clanrickard an his Munster allies were his cousins and rivals, the Mayo Burkes.
A mere thirty years after Cnoc Tuagh the great House of Kildare succumbed to the growing might of the Tudor monarchy, and by mid-century English power was making itself felt in Connacht, where the rivalry between the Mayo and Clanrickard Burkes had flared up again into war. By the late 1560s the Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, had procured the submission of both de Burgo lords, and was making provision for the future government of the province in the interests of the Crown. In July 1569 Sir Edward Fitton was appointed President, or Governor, of Connacht. One of the first tasks facing him and his council was to lay down the boundaries of the new counties of Connacht and Thomond. Almost immediately he was faced with what was to become a commonplace over the next thirty years – a rebellion by the Mayo Burkes. Fitton, with various allies, including Clanrickard, met them in battle at Shrule in June 1570. The outcome of the battle was somewhat indecisive, but Mac Uilliam ochtair submitted and made peace shortly afterwards. 1572 saw another short-lived revolt, this time in alliance with two sons of Clanrickard. When Clanrickard’s sons rebelled again in 1576, however, the Mayo Burkes remained loyal, holding Castlebar for the Queen.
It was in this last campaign, in 1576, that the remarkable ‘sea-queen’ from the shores of Clew Bay, Gráinne Ní Mháille (variously anglicised Granie ny Maille, Grace O’Malley, Granuaile, etc.) first makes her appearance in history, offering the services of her galleys and two hundred fighting men to Lord Deputy Sidney. But within two years Gráinne’s second husband, Risteard an Iarainn – a Burke, and claimant to the MacWilliamship – was in revolt; his rebellion simmered on until 1582, when the new Lord Deputy, Sir Nicholas Malbie, recognised him as MacWilliam, and later knighted him.
A rebellion in 1585 by various branches of the Burkes was suppressed with great severity by the new Governor of Connacht, Sir Richard Bingham. A month later, a force of 2,000 Scots mercenaries came to Connacht to assist the Burkes, but they were routed with a great slaughter near Ardnaree.
In the summer of 1588 the galleons of the Spanish Armada were wrecked by a storm along the west coast of Ireland. Some of the hapless Spaniards came ashore in Mayo, only to be robbed and imprisoned, and in many cases slaughtered.
The pattern of land ownership in Mayo underwent a continuous if slow metamorphasis in succeeding generations as clans evolved and grew stronger or were eclipsed by their neighbours and London administrations began to play a more significant and direct role in the affairs of Ireland. The traumatic Cromwellian settlement which commenced in 1641 ended a decade later with a stern regime in absolute control of the country and grimly determined to reward its friends and punish its enemies. The most significant feature of the “Cromwellian settlement” as it is known, was the plan to repay Commonwealth soldiers and adventurers for their services with grants of land in ten Irish counties. The landowners displaced as a consequence of implementing this scheme were, if found to be innocent of participation in “the late rebellion”, to be given lands, in proportion to their original estates, in four counties west of the Shannon – Mayo, Galway, Roscommon and Clare. The “transplantation to Connacht” also involved transplantation within Connacht, as existing landowners west of the Shannon, displaced to make way for the new arrivals, had to be found estates elsewhere in the Province.
For the vast majority of people in County Mayo the eighteenth century was a period of unrelieved misery, with some minor famines. Because of the operation of what were called ‘the penal laws’, Catholics had no hope of social advancement while they remained in their native land. However, emigration could and did lead to new opportunities and challenges for many like William Brown (1777-1857), who left Foxford at the age of nine and thirty years later was an admiral in the fledgling Argentine Navy. Today he is revered as ‘the father of the Argentine Navy’, and as a national hero in that country.
Culturally, 16th century Mayo made some contribution to the “hidden Ireland” of the time, and two Mayo-born poets from the period have retained considerable popularity: Riocard Bairéad (d. 1819) from the Mullet, whose songs included ‘Eoghan Cóir’, ‘Preab san l’, and ‘Tarraingt na Móna’ and blind Anthony Raftery (d.1835) from Killedan, near Kiltamagh (alias Kiltimagh) , who spent most of his life in south and east Galway, and whose numerous compositions included the ever-pupular ‘Máire Ní Eidhin’, ‘Aithrí Reaftaraí’ and, of course, ‘Cill Liadáin’.
There were some stirrings in the west in the 1790s, with reports of agrarian disturbances in Tirawley, and an influx into Mayo of Catholic refugees from Ulster following the sectarian clashes in north Armagh in 1795 which led to the formation of the Orange Society. Nevertheless, when the United Irishmen were forced by government repression to move from working openly for reform to secretly plotting revolution, and when Leinster and east Ulster blazed into rebellion in June of 1798, no one expected Mayo to play a memorable role in the bloody drama about to commence. The man who dragged Mayo onto the stage of Irish history in 1798 was a French general from Lorraine, a former dealer in goat and rabbit skins named Joseph Amable Humbert.
‘THE YEAR OF THE FRENCH’
Ten weeks after the United Irishmen had been crushed at Ballynahinch, Co. Down, and two months after the fall of the rebel camp at Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford, Humbert landed at Kilcummin strand, on Killala bay, with about 1,100 officers and men of the army of the French Republic. Four days later, on Sunday, 26 August, having taken Killala and Ballina, Humbert led about 700 of his men, and about the same number of untrained Irish recruits, in an amazing all-night march down the almost trackless west shore of Lough Conn, arriving next morning in front of the startled British garrison of Castlebar. The force opposing Humbert numbered about 1,700, under the command of General Lake, and consisted mainly of Irish militia. After a short, sharp engagement, the militia broke and fled, and were quickly joined by the remainder of the garrison in a headlong flight which, for some of them, did not end till they reached the safety of Tuam, Co. Galway. The episode, still remembered as ‘the races of Castlebar’, was an ignominious defeat for the government forces and a corresponding morale-booster for the small force opposing them, but it was in no way decisive. Humbert realised that without additional aid from France his expedition was doomed to failure. He remained in Castlebar for eight days awaiting further orders from his superiors, and while he waited he established a ‘Republic of Connacht’, with a young Catholic gentleman, John Moore from Moorehall on the shores of Lough Carra, as its president. When neither orders nor help were forthcoming, Humbert marched his little army towards Sligo, winning a skirmish at Collooney. Then hearing reports of a rising in the midlands, he swung south-eastward through Leitrim into Longford where, on September 8 the force of 850 French troops and about a thousand Irish allies faced a force over five times as strong under Lord Cornwallis and General Lake.
The token battle at Ballinmuck ended with Humbert’s surrender after barely half an hour. The French soldiers were treated honourably, but for the Irish the surrender meant slaughter. There was more slaughter a fortnight later when Killala finally fell to General Trench’s forces. The little garrison (including its commander, Ferdy O’Donnell) was massacred. The government forces were turned loose on the countryside. The insurgents, or anyone suspected of having been involved in the rising, were hunted down and butchered without mercy. In all, it is estimated that some four to six hundred were killed in the battle for Killala and in the course of the ‘mopping-up operations’ which continued for some weeks, while others died on the scaffold in towns like Castlebar and Claremorris, where the high sheriff for County Mayo, the Honourable Denis Browne, M.P., brother of Lord Altamont, wreaked a terrible vengeance – thus earning for himself the nickname which has survived in folk-memory to the present day, ‘Donnchadh an Rópa’ (Denis of the Rope). The awful aftermath of those few stirring weeks, in what was long remembered with a mixture of pride and horror, as Bliain na bhFrancach (‘The year of the French’) ensured that it was many a long year before the people of Mayo felt free to celebrate in song the exploits of “The men of the West’ and to remind their countrymen that ‘When Éire lay broken at Wexford she looked for revenge to the West.’
MAYO BEFORE THE GREAT FAMINE
The early decades of the 19th century saw a new outbreak of agrarian agitation with the rise of the ‘Ribbon Societies’ in Connacht. These sought to protect tenants against eviction by landlords who wished to clear their lands for grazing – to avail of the high prices for cattle prevailing in the years immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. Ribbonism had a strong sectarian tinge, being influenced by inflammatory pamphlets which were widely circulated at the time and which predicted the imminent overthrow of ‘the Reformation’.
Sectarian tensions were further increased in this period by the activities of evangelical Protestant missionaries seeking to ‘redeem the Irish poor from the errors of Popery. One of the best-known missions of this kind was that founded at Dugort, in Achill, in 1831 by a Meathman, the Rev. Edward Nangle. The activities of the missionaries and bible societies were strongly disapproved of by many, perhaps most, of the clergy of the Established Church, but they received important encouragement from two successive Protestant bishops of Tuam. Their staunchest opponent was the Mayo-born Catholic archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, a supporter of Daniel O’Connell, a promoter of the Irish language, and a sturdy polemicist, who died at the age of ninety in 1881.
These too were the years of the campaign for Catholic Emancipation and, later, for the abolition of the tithes which a predominately Catholic population was forced to pay for the upkeep of the clergy of the Established Church.
THE GREAT FAMINE
Early in the nineteenth century, there were a number of famines in Ireland, culminating in the Great Famine of 1845 – ’49, when about a million people died and a further million went into exile. The population increased from an estimated figure of four and a half million in 1800 to over eight million by 1841. The pressure of this vast increase exacerbated the fragile subsistence economy of the period, as land became subdivided into smaller and smaller plots. Destitution was already a fact of life for many and evictions became regular occurrences in the Irish countryside. Most of the impoverished population depended on the potato as their staple food product. Disaster struck in August 1845, when a killer fungus (later diagnosed as Phytophthora infestans ) started to destroy the potato crop. The green stalks of potato ridges became blighted and within a short time the rotting crop was producing a terrible stench. About a third of the national potato crop was destroyed that year, and an almost complete failure the following year led to a catastrophe for the remainder of the decade. By ‘black forty-seven’, people were dying in their thousands from starvation-related diseases. The workhouses, built in the early 1840s to relieve appalling poverty, were unable to cope with the numbers seeking admission. Various parsimonious relief measures were inadequate to deal with the scale of the crisis. The number of evictions increased. This process of ‘clearance’ (as it was called) was aided by the ‘quarter-acre clause’ (the infamous Gregory clause, called after its proposer, Sir William Gregory MP of Coole Park, Co. Galway) in the Poor Law Extension Act 1847 which excluded from relief anyone who had more than a quarter acre of land. Any such unfortunate person who was starving had to abandon his holding and go to the workhouse if he and his family wanted a chance to survive. Conditions became worse in 1848 and 1849, with various reports at the time recording dead bodies everywhere.
The catastrophe was particularly bad in County Mayo, where nearly ninety per cent of the population were dependent on the potato. By 1848, Mayo was a county of total misery and despair, with any attempts at alleviating measures in complete disarray. People were dying and emigrating in their thousands. We will never know how many died in the county during those terrible years. The ‘official’ statistics for the county show that the population dropped from 388,887 in 1841 to 274,499 in 1851, but it is accepted that the actual figure in 1841 was far higher than the official census return. It can safely be said that over 100,000 died in Mayo from the famine epidemic and emigration began on a big scale (there was some emigration before the Great Famine). Most emigrants from the county went to the USA, Canada, England and Scotland, to become part of the big Irish diaspora scattered throughout the world.
There are numerous reminders of the Great Famine to be seen on the Mayo landscape: workhouse sites, famine graves, sites of soup-kitchens, deserted homes and villages and even traces of undug ‘lazy-beds’ in fields on the sides of hills. Many roads and lanes were built as famine relief measures. There were nine workhouses in the county: Ballina, Ballinrobe, Belmullet, Castlebar, Claremorris, Killala, Newport, Swinford and Westport.
Rather ironically perhaps, the great reduction in Mayo’s population, and especially the virtual annihilation of the formerly numerous class of landless cottiers who had been hardest hit by the Great Famine, enabled those who remained to considerably improve their standard of living in the following decades. The new National Schools – despite the opposition of those, such as Archbishop MacHale, who regarded them, with some justification, as agents of anglicisation – succeeded in reducing the rate of illiteracy by almost half in the forty years between 1841 and 1881. The result was a population with rising expectations, and with growing confidence in their own strength and in their ability to bring about a change in conditions, and so, when bad harvests in 1877 and ’78 and a disastrous one in 1879 brought the threat of another serious famine, paticularly in the west, the people were far better prepared to protect themselves than they had been thirty years before.
A small poverty-stricken place called Knock, County Mayo, made headlines when it was announced that an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John had taken place there on 21 August 1879, witnessed by fifteen local people.
THE LAND WAR
The people who remained in County Mayo in the wake of the Great Famine soon showed that they were resilient in the face of adversity. A national movement was initiated in County Mayo during 1879 by Michael Davitt, James Daly, and others, which brought about the greatest social change ever witnessed in Ireland. Michael Davitt (1846 -1906), who was born at Straide, County Mayo, saw his family evicted at the age of four, emigration to England, and experienced many hard knocks and disappointments in his voyage through life. He became Mayo’s most famous son on the pages of Irish history and one of the great patriots of his country. James Daly (1835-1910), who played a crucial role in the early land agitation in Mayo, came from Boghadoon, near Lahardaun, and was editor of The Connacht Telegraph newspaper. The land agitation started at a meeting held in Irishtown, near Ballindine, County Mayo, on Sunday 20 April 1879. The meeting, which was attended by a crowd variously estimated at from four to fifteen thousand, arose out of a threat to evict a number of tenants for arrears of rent from the estate of a local absentee landlord. The meeting led not only to the cancellation of the proposed evictions but to a general reduction of rents. Of far greater consequence, however, were the wider political effects of the meeting, whose reverberations were to be felt throughout the whole of Ireland over the next quarter of a century.
On 1 June 1879, the Fenian leader, John Devoy, Michael Davitt and the county Wicklow landlord and MP for Meath, Charles Stewart Parnell, met in Dublin, and apparently agreed on ‘the new departure’, whereby the Fenians and the constitutional nationalists agreed to combine in a struggle to reform the Irish land-system. One week later Parnell urged a meeting of tenants in Westport ‘to hold a firm grip on your homesteads and lands’. His call came as potato blight was spreading once more through the west, and the number of evictions for non-payment of rent was rising steadily. On 16 August, under Davitt’s leadership, the National Land League of Mayo was founded in Castlebar, and two months later the campaign moved well beyond the borders of Mayo with the inauguration in Dublin of the Irish National Land League, with Parnell as its President, and Michael Davitt, its acknowledged father, as one of its secretaries.
The story of the ‘Land War’ over the next two decades is part of Irish history rather than of the Mayo story specifically. Mayo, however, played a prominent, and sometimes violent, role in the struggle. Almost half of what were termed ‘agrarian outrages’ (maiming of cattle, destruction of property, wounding and even killing of land agents, landlords, and those who were considered ‘land grabbers’) in the early 1880s occurred in Mayo, Kerry and west Galway. At the same time, Mayo attracted international attention, and in the process gave a new word to the English language, by initiating a rather novel form of non-violent protest. This involved a campaign of ostracisation against Lord Erne’s Mayo agent, a Norfolk man named Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, whose efforts to secure the harvest from the estate on the eastern shore of Lough Mask necessitated the importation of some fifty Orangemen, mostly from Cavan, and a force of about a thousand soldiers and police to protect them. The campaign against the ‘Boycott Relief Expedition’ was orchestrated by Father John O’Malley, parish priest of Kilmolara (resident in the Neale), and it was he who suggested the term ‘boycotting’ as being easier for his parishioners to pronounce that ‘ostracisation’. The unfortunate Boycott realised by late November 1880 that all his efforts had been in vain (the harvest had cost over 10,000 – ‘a shilling for every turnip dug’ said Parnell), and so, taking his family with him, he returned to England until the agitation had subsided. The land agitation was gradually resolved by a scheme of a state-aided land purchase, under which the tenants became full owners of the land. A series of land purchase acts provided the finance which enabled the tenants to purchsae the land from landlords and repay the loans with interest over a number of years. Tenant farmers became owner-occupiers within a generation and in the process created the foundations for the politically stable society we enjoy today.
Thanks to the vision of Mother Agnes Morrogh-Bernard (1842 – 1932), the Foxford Woollen Mill was established in 1892. She made Foxford synonymous throughout the world with high quality tweeds, rugs and blankets.
The Land agitation destroyed servility and paved the way for the emergence of a modern democracy. Under the provisions of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, Grand Juries (which consisted of the chief landowners in each county) were abolished and replaced by county councils with a significant extension of local democracy. The change saw some readjustments to county boundaries including Mayo. These developments were aided by the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the defeat of 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, fourteen of its leaders, including a Westport man, Major John MacBride, were executed. McBride had led a small Irish Brigade in the Boer War in South Africa against the British, and was married for a time to the beautiful Maud Gonne, the love of the poet W.B. Yeats. (Their son, Seán, became an international lawyer of renown, the founder of a political party – Clann na Poblachta, Minister for External Affairs in the first inter-party government in Ireland 1948 – ’51, and winner of the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes). The historic general election of 1918, in which Sinn Féin candidates won a landslide victory, led to the establishment of ‘the first Dáil’, or native parliament, in January 1919, which was not recognised by Britain. The first public session in Ireland of the new Republican law courts was held in Ballinrobe on 17 May 1919. These developments were followed by the war of independence, with a number of incidents in County Mayo, notably at Foxford, Islandeady, Toormakeady, Kilmeena and Carrowkennedy near Westport. A truce was declared in July 1921, followed by the Anglo Irish Treaty of 6 December. The subsequent split in Republican ranks led to a tragic civil war (1922 – ’23), again with a number of so called ‘incidents’ in County Mayo, but nothing compared to the atrocities which took place elsewhere in Ireland.
MAYO SINCE INDEPENDENCE
The rights and wrongs of the ‘civil war’ dominated Irish political life for a generation and relegated economic, social and cultural development to second place. Since 1922 the history of Mayo is little different from the national one but, with a high birth rate and few opportunities for employment at home, numerous sons and daughters of the county became part of the great extended Irish family scattered throughout the globe. The population fell from 172,690 in 1926 to 161,349 in 1936 and 133,052 by 1956. The chief source of livelihood for Mayo families during this period was farming, where incomes were low and in many cases had to be supplemented by emigrants’ remittances or savings from seasonal migratory work in England. In the latter case, many emigrants had not completed their national school education when they were forced by economic necessity to supplement the family income. The prevailing economic situation was aggravated by ‘the economic war’ (1933 – ’38), and later by the second world war.
Following the publication of the First Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958, industrial policy in Ireland was changed from protectionism to free trade with the objective of establishing an export-orientated manufacturing sector in the country by attracting foreign investment and promoting private enterprise. Many multinational corporations began operations in Ireland and new employment opportunities were created in industry and services, while the agricultural labour force continued to decline. Some multinationals were established in Mayo: Travenol, later Baxter Healthcare (1972), Hollister (1976), Asahi (1977), and some indigenous firms like Rowear (Ballina), Killala Precision Components (the 1996 ‘small business of the year’), and Berry’s Printing Works in Westport established national and international reputations for excellence.
In the sphere of national politics, it could be argued that Mayo has made a more than proportionate contribution in the decades since independence. In addition to several government ministers, three leaders of Irish political parties in this century were born in Mayo: Thomas J. O’Connell, who became leader of the Labour Party in 1927, was born in Bekan; Joseph Blowick, who was leader of the Clann na Talmhan party in the first inter-party Government from 1948 – ’51, was born near Balla, and Charles J. Haughey, who became leader of the Fianna Fáil party in 1979, was born in Castlebar. Castlebar-born Padraig Flynn, who earned a lot of deserved credit for the excellent road system around Castlebar, became Ireland’s European Commissioner in 1993, with responsibility for Social Affairs and Employment. There was another honour for Mayo when Ballina-born Mary Robinson (née Bourke), an eminent barrister and former law professor and senator, became the seventh President of Ireland on 3 December 1990, the first woman to hold that office (and the second woman in the world to be democratically elected a Head of State).
Mayo is becoming a popular tourist destination with continuous investment in facilities, attractions and amenities. Our Lady’s Shrine, Knock, is one of the major attractions of the county, with over 1,500,00 visitors annually. His Holiness Pope John Paul II came as a pilgrim to Knock on 30 September 1979, the goal of his journey to Ireland. Apart from His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Mayo has welcomed other world figures in recent times: President Reagan of the United States to Cong in 1974; Prince Charles to Delphi Lodge in 1995 and Prince Edward to Castlebar in 1996, as well as numerous European Union and United States celebrities.
One of the most significant developments in the county in the 20th century was the provision of an international airport between Knock and Charlestown. It was erected due to the vision and determination of Monsignor James Horan (1911 – 1986), who was parish priest of Knock from 1970 until his death. Despite many vicissitudes and much criticism, the airport was completed on schedule and within budget (itself a major achievement by Irish standards) and officially opened on 30 May 1986. It is now known as Horan International Airport in honour of the great monsignor.
Another significant development was the opening of the Castlebar Campus of the Regional Technical College Galway in September 1994. Due to the leadership of Mayo County Council the infrastructure of the county has been modernised in recent times with a network of new roads, water supplies, and other amenities. There is a new spirit of dynamism and self-help evident around Mayo in recent times with progressive plans for development in industry, agriculture, tourism, services, education, infrastructure, integrated rural development as well as the provision of appropriate social and cultural amenities. It is still a county with an astonishing variety of scenery, an unspoiled natural environment, several blue-flagged beaches, where people have lived in harmony with their surroundings for over 5,000 years. The county’s attractions include delightful uncongested holiday resorts, excellent fishing waters, exciting walking and mountain climbing trails, a good choice of golf courses, opportunities for many other types of activity-holidays as well as can be seen from the above outline history, some of the most interesting archaeological and historical sites in Ireland. The natural beauty of the green countryside, the friendliness of its people and general ambience make Mayo a place where visitors are made welcome and where they can enjoy nature far removed from the hassle and pressure of modern city life. You name it, Mayo has it naturally!