Ballinasloe (Co. Galway / East)
Ballinasloe (Béal Átha na Sluaighe – “ford mouth of the hostings / crowds”) (pop. 6660), historically aka Dunlo, is a commercial hub on the River Suck, with elegant C19th streets, traditional shop fronts and good visitors’ amenities, especially for anglers.
Dunlo Street (Photo by Noel Mulryan)
Long a tedious bottleneck on the old Galway – Dublin road, the town was officially bypassed in 2009, when the M6 motorway opened as an upgrade to the N6.
The earliest settlement developed around a crossing point on the River Suck, a meeting place since time immemorial. In pre-history, the area was reputedly occupied by the Delbhna Nuadat, the Magh Sen-Chineoil and the Fir Bolg. About the C4th AD, a new people arrived led by Maine Mór, the legendary founder of the Kelly clan who ruled the tuath of Ui Maine / Hymany for centuries.
The name Dunlo derived from Dún Leodha, thought to have been a pre-Norman motte erected close to the fording point in 1124 by Turloch O’Connor, who built the first bridge over the River Suck in 1130. The original fortification was burned down in 1131 and later replaced by a structure that came to be known as Dunlo Castle, remnants of which were still visible in the early C19th on the site of the present St Michael’s church.
Having been granted the O’Connor land in Connacht by the Crown, the Norman De Burgo family erected a castle at Suicín, now called Creagh, in 1245, granted to Sir Richard de Rupella in 1253, but the area was dominated until the C17th by the O’Kelly family of Clonmacnoon, who initially resided at Tuaim Sruthra, now the townland of Ashford, and probably built Ballinasloe Castle.
The C16th Reformation and the mid-C17th Wars of the Three Kingdoms (Ballinasloe vainly resisted capture by Oliver Cromwell‘s son-in-law General Henry Ireton in 1651) signalled tremendous change in the area, as most of the local Roman Catholic families forfeited their lands.
In the Williamite War, a settler of French Huguenot ancestry called Frederick Trench actively helped the forces of King William III against the army of King James II at the 1691 Battle of Aughrim, after which he bought 200 acres around Garbally for the princely sum of £70. His son William acquired more property to bec0me one of the most powerful landlords in County Galway, and obtained a charter from King George I in 1722 to turn a previously minor horse fair into a major livestock fair to be held for a full week every October.
When Dean Swift passed through the town in the early part of the C18th he stayed at the Sign of the Cock and Hen, and some 70 years later Theobald Wolfe Tone stayed at Corbett’s hotel beside the river.
The Trench family continued to buy up property and married well. William Power Keating Trench (1741 – 1805), MP for County Galway in “Grattan’s Parliament”, and ennobled in 1797 as Baron Kilconnel, voted in the Irish House of Lords in favour of the 1800 Act of Union, for which he was created Viscout Dunlo (1801) and, claiming descent from a daughter of the last MacCarthy Mór to hold the title, Earl of Clancarty (second creation, 1803). He had 19 children, and laid out the basic outline of the modern town of Ballinasloe, with its Main Street as the first major thoroughfare.
His son Richard Le Poer Trench (1767 – 1837), who as MP for Galway also voted for the Act of Union, and later as British Ambassador to the Netherlands was rewarded for his diplomacy at the Congress of Vienna with the title Marquess of Heusden in Holland, also occupied various British government posts, for which he was made Baron Trench (1815) and Viscount Clancarty (1823) in the peerage of the United Kingdom, giving the family a hereditary seat in the British House of Lords. He was responsible for Ballinasloe’s wide streets, market square, fair green and show grounds, and helped the October Fair to become one of the most famous agricultural fairs in Europe.
The corn trade expanded due to the extension of the Grand Canal to the town in 1828, and by 1837 there were a flour mill and four oatmeal mills on the river. Factories produced coaches, farming implements and felt hats. There were two breweries (one known as Boyd’s), tanyards and a large bacon-curing establishment. Employment was also provided by the limestone quarry on Brackernagh, which was used to construct many of the fine C19th buildings in the town. The 3rd and 4th Earls of Clancarty were generally regarded as fair landlords, albeit rather aggressive in promoting Protestantism amongst their tenants.
In 1841 there were over ten thousand people in the parish, half of whom lived in the town. The Great Famine caused much distress and suffering in the area. The Workhouse, built originally to accommodate 1,000 paupers, soon suffered from overcrowding, lack of food and disease, with all its officers and 254 inmates dying at the end of 1846. Various buildings around Ballinasloe, including Boyd’s Brewery and the new Town Hall, were turned into auxiliary workhouses, with a population of over 5,500 in May 1849, when a cholera epidemic claimed the lives of over 2,500 inmates as well as many townspeople in a period of a few weeks.
By 1861 the population was reduced to 7,205, of whom only 3,296 were in the rural area. Three hundred and two families had disappeared in twenty years, and the population of the town fell by over 1000.
In the 1870s, local tenant farmers began their struggle for land ownership under the leadership of the Fenian Matt Harris (1825-1890), MP for Galway East from 1885 to 1890. His Ballinasloe Tenants’ Defence Association was established in 1876, three years before the foundation of Michael Davitt‘s Land League, leading one commentator to write that Harris’s organisation “perhaps, did more than any other to beget the Land League“.
Land reform severely weakened the power of the Clancarty Trenches; the 5th Earl married a dancing girl called Belle and was declared bankrupt in 19o7, when he moved to England. (The 8th Earl of Clancarty once famously addressed the House of Lords on the subject of flying saucers, and wrote seven books on UFOs before his death in 1995).
WWI (1914-1918) took its toll on the town and about 100 men, mostly from the younger generation of the Protestant and the poorer sections of the Roman Catholic communities, were killed on battlefields stretching from France to Mesopotamia.
The War of Independence saw little IRA activity in Ballinasloe, although the Urban District Council declared its allegiance to Dáil Éireann in 1920.In May 1922, the town’s statue of Richard Le Poer Trench, 2nd Earl of Clancarty, was “beheaded”, two ex-RIC men were “shot up” and two brothers were arrested for the shooting dead of an anti-Treaty IRA man.
In April 1922 as sectarian tensions expoloded in the North of Ireland, Andrew Staunton, chairman of Ballinasloe UDC, lambasted the “non-Catholics” in Ballinasloe for not speaking out against the attacks in Belfast and called for an exchange of population between the North and South.
In the ensuring Civil War, “irregular” IRA units were active in the area under the leadership of Jack Keogh.
Main source: Damian Mac Con Uladh – www.ballinasloe.org
Ballinasloe is probably still most famous for its October Fair, nowadays held along with a festival that attracts up to 100,000 visitors from all over the world. (Photo by Alison Laredo; more of her superb pictures of the 2009 Festival can be viewed here).
Ballinasloe Urban District covers in excess of 4,000 acres, making it in geographical terms the third largest of Ireland’s Town Authorities. Relative to other large towns, Ballinasloe would appear to have a low population density. This however, is more accurately explained by its large tracts of undeveloped lands, including the Garbally Demesne and the Western Health Board lands in Creagh.
Saint Grellan, the patron saint of Ballinasloe (and the O’Kelly and Donellan clans), is traditionally believed to have built the first church in the area at nearby Kilcloony in the C5thAD. A Holy Well dedicated to the saint is in the townland of Tobergrellan.
Ballinasloe Castle, built as an O’Kelly stronghold in the C14th, later was later controlled by the branch of the De Burgo family who became Earls of Clanricarde. Overlooking the bridge spanning the River Suck, strengthened by order of Queen Elizabeth I, the castle was granted to Sir Nicholas Malby and acquired through marriage by Anthony Brabazon, whose namesake grandson converted to Catholicism, fought in the 1641 Rebellion, joined the Kilkenny Confederates and unsuccessfully defended Ballinasloe against Cromwellian conquest. All that remains is one tower and part of the curtain wall.
Garbally Court, designed by the English architect Thomas Cundy and completed in 1819 for the Earl of Clancarty, was sold in 1922 to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Clonfert, and has since then housed St Joseph’s College, aka Garbally College, a secondary school for boys founded in 1892 in the nearby townland of Cartron. (Photo by Kevin Allman)
Garbally Park, the former Trench demesne, previously attached to a Tully family castle, is now a splendid municipal amenity with landscaped wooded walkways and playing fields.
St Brigid’s Psychiatric Hospital, an impressive building with a domed central tower, opened as the Connaught Asylum in 1833 with accommodation for 150 patients, and was renamed Ballinasloe District Asylum in 1850.
The Ballinasloe Union Workhouse complex (1841), put to various uses over the years, including a British army barracks during the War of Independence, was badly damaged by fire in 1955 and finally demolished in 1995, leaving only the former Fever Hospital, now used as a supermarket.
The church of St John the Evangelist (CoI) was designed by Joseph Welland and completed in 1843.
Ballinasloe Town Hall (1845) now houses a popular theatre which hosts regular annual pantomimes plus concerts and occasional plays.
St Michael’s church (RC) was designed in 1846 by JJ McCarthy, apparently with some input from AW Pugin, but due to the Great Famine was not actually built until 1852 – 58. Its distinctive spire is a major local landmark.
Ballinasloe railway station, opened in 1851, is on the Dublin–Galway railway line.
The Ballinasloe branch / extension of the Grand Canal made the town the waterway’s western terminus from 1828 to the late 1950s, when it was finally abandoned.
The River Suck, although landscaped with pleasant waterside areas of grass, trees and paths, is still liable to flood as it did in 1954 and 2009, drowning the town centre under several feet of water.
A new harbour and public marina allow Shannon Navigation traffic to access the town. (Photo – www.tuesdaynightclub.co.uk)
Portiuncula Hospital, founded in 1943, and said to be one of the best in Ireland, is the town’s principal employer.
Striking modern buildings in Ballinasloe include the Franciscan convent and the Carlton Shearwater Hotel****.
Ballinasloe Famine Remembrance Park, completed in 1998, lies on a long derelict site in Cleaghmore, donated by the Trench family for the burial of hundreds of people from the workhouse during the Great Famine. It now contains over 8,000 plant and shrubs.
An tSúca Fiain is the name of town’s week-long Summer Festival, held every July, famous for its colourful parade, pageant and Floating Theatre, a converted barge used to host numerous events.
Ballinasloe is close to Clontuskert Abbey, Aughrim and Kilconnell Abbey on ByRoute 12.