ByRoute 14.2 Co. Roscommon // Co. Mayo

Knockma and Castlehackett

Knockma Hill (552ft), the highest summit in North Galway, is where Finvarra, king of the Connacht fairies, is traditionally reputed to have held his court. The partially wooded hill is home to several rare plant species. A splendid new path leads to the summit, commanding one of the greatest panoramic views in Ireland.

Aka the ‘Hill of Maeve’, Knockma is one of several rumoured  burial places of the legendary Queen of Connacht. The four tumbled hilltop  cairns / passage tombs, thought to have been tastefully rearranged in the C18th, are believed by some to have originally been aligned with ritual significance, and may be as important as e.g. Newgrange in County Meath. Carn Ceasra is supposedly the grave of Noah’s daughter Ceasair.

Castle Hackett, a medieval Tower House at the base of the hill, built in 1440 by the Hackett family of Norman origin (and credited with a fairy ancestor by WB Yeats in his 1888 Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry), was later acquired by a branch of the Kirwans, one of the famour 12 Tribes of Galway, who abandoned it in 1705 in favour of  a splendid new mansion.

Castlehacket House was burned down by vandals in 1923 but subsequently rebuilt by the last member of the family to live there, Denis Kirwan (d.1956), and was until recently run as an upmarket B&B.

The Castlehackett estate was the 1822 birthplace of Col. Patrick Kelly, an officer who fought in the American Civil War with for the Union Army’s famous Irish Brigade, commanded the troops at the Battle of Gettysburg and was killed at the Siege of Peterburg.

The Castlehackett estate represented C9th Wessex, with a 200ft white horse etched into Knockma, in the 1969 British film Alfred the Great, starring David Hemmmings, Michael York and a young Ian McKellan.

Claretuam Crossroads was the location of a tree used to hang Dominick Dáll (“One-eyed”) Bodkin, and his nephew, a dissolute TCD law student called John FitzOliver Bodkin, for the bloody murder of the latter’s parents, brother, servants and a visitor, 11 people in all, on the night of 18th September 1740 in nearby Carrowbawn House, Belclare.

Caherlistrane (Co. Galway / East)

Caherlistrane is an extensive district; before the Great Famine it had a population of over 7000, but today has about 3000 inhabitants.

Donaghpatrick church, a C12th edifice now roofless but with walls still standing, was built on the site traditionally said to habe been chosen by Saint Patrick to launch his mission in Connacht.

Kilnamanagh Abbey, founded by the Carmelite White Fathers and mentioned in Papal letters dated 1399 and 1428, is nowadays reduced to the remains of a mid-C13th church, reconstructed in the late C15th, C16th and C17th.

Ballinduff Castle is mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters as the site of a 1469 contest between the Earl of Clanricarde, aided by the O’ Briens of Clare, and  the Mayo Burkes, alllied with Hugh Roe O’ Donnell. Clanricarde was defeated in this battle, at which time the castle was probably standing. In 1688, the Skerrett family purchased the Ballinduff Castle Estate from a Mr Burke and lived there for many years.

Losdonagh House

Losdonagh House, built in 1727 by the Reddington family, was subsequently owned by the Lalors, O’Flahertys, O’Mahonys and Palmers.

Over the entrance doorway is a fine of late C15th or early C16th  gargoyle depicting a bird with a bead or berry in its mouth, very similar to a gargoyle on the facade of St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, Galway. Such decorated spouts are very rare in Ireland and the majority (about 43 examples) are found in Galway City and at Menlo Castle, County Galway.

Converted by the colourful Valda Palmer into a B&B, the house is now run by John & Finola Cooke as a Guesthouse & Restaurant with a fine reputation, and also provides self-catering apartments and villas.

Lough Hacket is the location of a crannog described by Sir William Wilde as the best example of such a structure in the whole Lough Corrib region. The old name, Loch Cime, suggests that crannogs may have been places of imprisonment as well as refuge.

Kilcoona / Cill Chuana (“church of Cuana”) is the site of a the remains of an old church and graveyard containing  the stump of a Round Tower which Sir William Wilde, visiting in 1866, concluded was probably “the veritable Cloightheach referred to by the Four Masters …. erected at Annaghdown sixty-six year after the Anglo-Norman invasion” – i.e. 1238. There is no proof that the tower was ever finished, and the stump is filled with a solid mass of building rubble. When Sir William visited the site, few of the people buried here now had even been born.  He noted that some of the gravestones had clearly been taken from the tower, but that he had been assured by the [then] currrent landowner that the stump of tower would be preserved, and it does indeed appear to be in the same state as when his fellow excursionist Lord Dunraven had it photographed.

Headford (Co. Galway / East)

Headford (Áth Cinn) (pop. 1350), situated next to the Black River, was described in 1837 as  a “neat and clean town” with “fine views of Lough Corrib, the mountains of Joyces’ country and Mayo”, and more recently as “small but perfectly formed“. It is a popular centre for anglers and visitors interested in exploring an area rich in prehistoric megaliths, monastic sites and castles.

The lands once known as Ath Mhic Chinn were granted in 1238 by Richard De Burgo to Walter De Riddlesford, who started to build a castle but died two years later, leaving two infant daughters, Christiana (who later married Robert De Mariscis) and Emelina (future bride of Hugh De Lacy). The Crown ordered a commission of inquiry into their property, which gave the name of the estate as ‘Admekin‘. Later documents refer to it as ‘Achmakin’, ‘Athmakyn‘, ‘Admaken‘, ‘Aghkene‘, ‘Aghkyne‘ and ‘Akin‘.  It was only in the late C18th that newcomers to the area wrongly translated the abbreviated Ath Cinn as Headford.

The St George family & Headford Castle

The St George family from Cambridgeshire were granted former Skerrett lands by the Cromwellian Commissioners, confirmed in 1666, and brought in new settlers in an attempt to establish a Protestant village. Various branches of the family set up homes around County Galway and further afield.

Heiress Mary St George married Capt. James Mansergh of Macrony Castle in Kilworth, County Cork; their son Col. Richard Mansergh St George, who employed Charles Frizell to survey the estate in the 1770s, was murdered by “rebels” in Areglin in 1797.

Headford Castle, described in 1837 as a “handsome modern building, erected on the ruins of the ancient castle [with an] extensive demesne … entered from the town by a good gateway“, should not be confused with the 700-year-old Skerrett Tower House in ruins outside the town or the luxurious holiday rental premises of the same name on the shores of Lough Corrib.

The St Georges appear to have been reasonably good landlords, contributing land and money to good causes and heading relief efforts during the Great Famine (when the population dropped by 25%); a series of notorious evictions in 1855 are commonly blamed on their agent, Mr Hunt.

By 1870 the St Georges owned over 7000 acres in County Galway, primarily in the Barony of Clare, including Headford. Richard St George‘s extravagant lifestyle forced him to sell large tracts in the Landed Estates’ Court in 1876, but it was not until the 1890s that the final parts of the estate were acquired by the Land Commission.

Headford Castle mansion, the demesne and most of the town were bought by a Dunmore merchant called MacDonagh / MacDonnell; after the Castle was burnt down in 1906, the family went to live at Moyne Hill.

St Mary’s church (RC) in Headford, aka the “Little America church”, was erected in 1865 with funds raised mainly in the USA by Fr P Conway, who six years earlier had established another church of the same name in nearby Claran.

Killursa parish takes its name from a ruined medieval church dedicated to  Saint Fursa / Furzy, commemorated by a statue near the entrance to the large surrounding graveyard. It was here that the C7th AD holy man, allegedly a nephew of Saint Brendan the Navigator, had his famous visions of the unseen world, believed by some to have been a source of inspiration for Dante Alighieri’s Comedia Divina. Fursa travelled extensively, notably to East Anglia and France, and is still venerated in the church of Peronne, a small town now close to EuroDisney outside Paris.

The church of St John the Baptist (CoI), locally aka the white church, was established by the St George family in 1674 and rebuilt in 1859. The churchyard contains the graves of Oscar Wilde‘s ancestors, the Flynns of Shrule.

Ross Errilly Friary

Ross Errilly Friary (Mainistir Ros Oirialaigh), aka Rosserilly / Ross Abbey, is widely regarded as one of the best preserved monastic ruins in Ireland. (Photo by Mike Searle)


According to old sources it was founded c.1350 by the then Archbishop of Tuam, Malachy MacHugh, a Franciscan who was a native of the Headford area at a time when the “Black Death” was rampant. It is said that he was told in a dream that to end the plague he should build a Friary at a place to be revealed by a heavenly sign, and the next day he saw three swans, each with a bunch of flax seed in his bill, circle three times before alighting on a small rise in the middle of marshy ground on the south bank of the Black River; when the Archbishop approached the spot he found three bunches of flax in full bloom even though it was still only the month of February. The prelate took this as the sign promised to him in his dream, and so began to dig;  when the foundations were complete, the plague ended, but not before MacHugh had himself fallen victim to it.

Modern historians believe the Friary was actually founded c.1460. Around 1473 Franciscans from Ross Errilly founded the  Friary in Donegal, where the Four Masters later wrote their famous Annals.

In 1538, Crown authorities imprisoned 200 monks and banished or killed an indeterminate number of others. The friary was confiscated and given to Richard Burgh, 2nd Earl of Clanrickarde, who quietly gave it back to the Franciscans. In 1584, the monastery was again confiscated and given to an English landlord who evicted the monks and plundered the building’s contents, but within two years the Earl of Clanrickarde purchased the property and again returned it to the friars. Ten years later the government once again expelled the monks and converted the monastery into a garrison for use during the Nine Years’ War.

In 1604, Ulick Burke, 3rd Earl of Clanrickarde, funded the rehabilitation and reoccupation of the monastery by the Franciscans. In 1612 the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Lord Arthur Chichester, ordered the Anglican Archbishop of Tuam, William Daniel, to expel the monks and to demolish the abbey’s altars. Daniel apparently gave the friars advance warning in order for them to evacuate the abbey’s most precious items.

The year 1626 was the start of a relatively peaceful era for the monastic community. During the 1641 Rebellion they helped the Earl rescue Protestant survivors of the notorious Shrule massacre. Later on during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Ross Errilly served as an informal refugee shelter for Roman Catholic clergy on the run.

In 1656, Cromwellian troops arrived in force; 140 Franciscans had fled a few hours earlier, but the soldiers ransacked the grounds, destroying crosses and other religious iconography and even defiling tombs in search of loot. Legend maintains that the fleeing monks somehow found the time to remove the bell from the tower and sink it in the nearby Black River, where it supposedly remains today.

The 1660 Restoration of King Charles II allowed the reoccupation and repair of the abbey, but in 1698 the Penal Laws once again forced the Franciscans to abandon the premises. They apparently came back c.1712, but the complex was abandoned again in 1731, for reasons which are unclear.

The Anglican St George family risked imprisonment by secretly supporting the monks’ return c.1753, but they were reported to the authorities by a vengeful neighbour, and the monks evacuated the monastery for the last time. The St Georges had the abbey’s interior whitewashed and employed a group of weavers to work their looms inside the building. The sham factory lasted only long enough for the official inquiry to end inconclusively, but monks never again lived on site, although some who had built cabins on a small island in the Black River continued to celebrate Sunday Mass in the deteriorating church for many years.

In 1789 the dispossessed monks leased land in the townland of Kilroe, near Headford. By 1801, only three monks remained, though Mass continued to be said at Kilroe until 1804. There were still three monks in the community when it was closed in 1832.

In 1835, English tourist John Barrow described the abbey as “a remarkably fine old ruin…in a disgracefully neglected state.” In particular, Barrow was astonished by the large amount of unburied human remains at the site, which included “moss-grown skulls and human thigh and leg-bones strewed about so plentifully that not a step can be taken without encountering them.” Sir William Wilde, who visited the ruins in 1866, also described “heaps of skulls and bones” in the church and noted further “desecration” by sheep and cattle roaming freely through the ruins, but credited a nearby resident, Oliver Burke, with some early efforts to preserve the site. Today, the ruin is maintained by the OPW.

The small but well preserved central cloister is flanked by the church and bell tower to the sout and a refectory, a bake house and a kitchen (equipped with an oven and a water tank for live river fish) to the north. The dormitories are on the upper levels. Unusually, there is also a second courtyard or cloister, probably built to accommodate the friary’s growing population. (Photo by Roberto Tomei)

The Rostaff Bird Sanctuary, a joint venture by the Black River & District Gun Club and the Forest & Wildlife Service, provides winter shelter for thousands of avian migrants, including Greenland geese, wigeon, lapwing etc.

Moyne is the location of a graveyard occupying an important early Christian ecclesiastical site.

Moyne Castle, a rectagular C15th Tower House, probably built by the MacWilliam Burkes, had a mansion added much later; both are now impressive ruins on the banks of the  Black River.  (photo by Mike Searle)

Kinlough Castle in an  late C17th Tower House standing in imposing ruins near an ancient monastic settlement on the Black River north of Moyne.

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