Ballinrobe (Co. Mayo / South)
Ballinrobe (Baile an Róba) (pop. 2100) claims to be the oldest town in South Mayo. The centre, laid out in the C18th and C19th, retains numerous Georgian and Victorian buildings, traditional pubs, nice old shops with ornate façades etc. The town has several good accommodation options, is well served with traditional and modern pubs and also has a number of decent eateries. (Photo by Maggie Land Blanck)
Ballinrobe is located on the banks of the River Robe, which is spanned by several bridges, features a scenic waterfall and weirs, and empties into Lough Mask two kilometres to the west.
Long an important market and garrison town, it remains a shopping hub and is nowadays also a dormitory community for commuters working in both Galway and Castlebar. The Celtic Tiger years saw a construction boom and considerable growth, with many immigrants arriving from the new EU member states; the 2006 census results indicated that more than 25% of the town’s residents were from abroad.
Ballinrobe Abbey, first mentioned c.1337 in the registry of the Dominican friary of Athenry as the monastery “de Roba”, was established for the Augustinian Canons, the first of nine such foundations west of the River Shannon. There is evidence to suggest that the founder was one Roger Taffe, possibly acting on behalf of the de Burghs / Burkes.
An early patroness was probably Elizabeth de Clare, granddaughter of King Edward I and wife of John de Burgh, son and heir of the Red Earl of Ulster, Richard de Burgh, who had ceded them the manors of Lough Mask and Ballinrobe c.1308. In 1338 the Red Earl’s son Edmund de Burgh was taken prisoner by his cousin Edmund Albanach de Burgh and held at the Ballinrobe friary. While negotiations for his release were in progress with the Archbishop of Tuam, he was drowned by some of the Burke Stauntons.
Papal indulgences were offered in 1400 and 1413 for assistance with the conservation and repair of the friary, “which house lately begun to be constructed with cloister, refectory and other offices and whose said church dedicated to St. Mary’s the Virgin, lacks a bell-tower and is very destitute of books, chalices and other ecclesiastical ornaments.”
Despite King Henry VIII’s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries and subsequent efforts by his successors, friars were still in occupation of Ballinrobe Abbey in 1574. Ten years later they were recorded as owning approximately 120 acres of land that had been the property of the Knight’s Hospitallers further along the river to the east. The monastery was still operating shortly after the 1641 Rebellion.
A number of Roman Catholic priests who operated clandestinely in the area between 1649 and 1775 appear to have been associated with the Abbey. Fr Duffy, who ministered in Ballinrobe from 1696 until 1712, was captured and deported to Spain, where he died.
Restoration of the Abbey was undertaken by the local Tourist Development Association together with Fás, and completed in 1994. It is open to the public throughout the year.
The Seal of Ballinrobe’s Augustinian Priory, currently held by the British Museum, London, is represented on a plaque erected within the Abbey grounds in 2009 by Ruaidhri de Barra.
Carrownalecka church, aka Holy Rood / Cross church and Tempall Mór, is an ivy-clad medieval ruin just outside the town on the other side of the River Robe. The original large east window was altered for insertion of a later window, which was subsequently blocked up. The site has long been used as a burial ground, with the earliest grave in the interior burial being that of William Hines [Hynes], who died c.1735.
Ballinrobe Castle, originally guarding a ford on the River Robe, is thought to have been erected c.1350, possibly by the FitzGeralds. Long one of several de Burgo / Burgh / Burke strongholds in the area, it was an official residence of Edmond Bourke, MacWilliam Bourke Oughter (d.1458) of that splintered clan, who would seem to have fortified both sides of the river crossing.
In 1582 Tomhas Ó hUallacháin / Thomas Nolan, a sub-sheriff for County Mayo and possibly an illegitimate relative of the Burke family, acquired land at Crevagh / Creagh on the River Robe, and also obtained lucrative licenses to sell wine and spirits throughout the West of Ireland. In 1607, by patent from King James I, Thomas was granted the lands of Ballinrobe, which were re-granted to him in 1617 together with the associated castle and manor. Thomas probably took up residence at what is sometimes called the New Castle on the west bank of the river. The property was inherited in 1628 by Gregory Nolan but confiscated after the 1641 Rebellion.
Ballinrobe was acquired in 1661 by the newly knighted Cromwellian land agent Sir James Cuffe, who adapted the castle as a family residence, but his descendants later moved to the adjoining Creagh estate. A fortified part of the property on the eastern side of the river, possibly the original castle, was converted c.1700 into anInfantry Barracks and military hospital, now the site of a large telecommunication tower.
The manor house was restored in 1752 by James Cuff, but sold in 1821 to the British War Office by his namesake son, the 1st and last Baron Tyrawley(2ndCreation), whose only child, Jane, married Charles Nesbitt Knox,progenitor of four generations of landlords, generally recalled as reasonable by their lights, who remained in the area until after WWII.
The “New Castle” was converted into a Cavalry Barracks, in use as such throughout the C19th and joined to the older Infantry Barracks by the Military Bridge. The complex, aka Newcastle army barracks, was still in military occupation until 1926. It is now private property.
The Cuff and Knox family crests are still on display, ironically placed behind a monument to the Old IRA on Abbey Street.
A Royal Patent granted in 1606 by King James I to Thomas Nolan of Creagh guaranteed the prosperity of Ballinrobe by authorising the re-establishment of weekly markets and a spring fair that “had been formally held but was discontinued for many years”. Markets continued to take place every Monday well into the C20th, with each street in the town centre given over to the sale of different products. Special livestock fairs were held at different times of the year for pigs, cattle, and sheep.
Ballinrobe Markethouse, a handsome stone edifice erected in 1752, originally had open arches on the ground floor, long given over to the sale of perishable goods, while the upstairs Assembly Rooms were regularly used for Court sittings until quite recently.
The Cornmarket, formerly aka “Fair Place” or “The Common”, was laid out in its current form c.1825. One corner was long occupied by the local Bridewell (1778), where miscreants were put in the town stocks and felons were hanged. The present Parish Centre (Nº 3) stands on the site of a former Charter School. The old weigh bridge in the centre is one of the few remaining in Ireland. The Sheaf, a stone sculpture (2002) by Jackie McKenna, stands near a bronze statue (2010) by Rick Lewis of locally-born US Navy hero John King (1865 – 1938), who as a water tender on ships during the Spanish-American War in Cuba and later in the Philippines won two Congressional Medals of Honor for bravery and was commemorated in 1961 by the naming of the destroyer USS John King. (Photo – blog.thecheaproute.com)
The Robe Villa, a handsome Georgian house beside the river, was the home of the Kennyfamily, descendants of French Huguenots refugees. They leased the property in 1739 from theCuff family before becoming major local landholders, and for many years operated a breweryand a flour mill, the impressive ruins of which still stand.
The old Roman Catholic church on Chapel Road, now in ruins, was originally a large, slated edifice built in 1815 with funds raised by public subscription, with Lord Tyrawley donating the land and £50. The unusual tall tower adjacent to it is thought to have been erected c.1827.
The Glebe House on Main Street (formerly Market Street) is an elegant early C19th Georgian residence, originally built for Ballinrobe’s Anglican rector and now privately owned.
St Mary’s church/ Public Library
St Mary’s church (CoI), an early C19th First Fruits edifice built to replace a C17th structure that incorporated parts of the medieval church of St Ruadan.As “there are no Protestant families left in Ballinrobe“, the building has been used since 1996 as the town’s Public Library.
The churchyard, described on local websites as both a “heterotopian space” and a “hidden gem“, contains headstones dating from 1628. Memorials to the long powerful Cuff family and their Knox successors can be seen in and around the church.
Pedestrian access is through an attractive carriage archway from Main Street beside the South Mayo Family Research Centre where regional genealogical records are kept.
The library can also be reached via Church Lane, location of the childhood home of the liberal politician Dr Noel Browne (1915 – 1997), who caused great controversy in his time.
Cranmore House (1835), now in ruins, was the home of Col. Charles Knox, his wife Lady Louisa (sister of George Browne, 3rd Marquess of Sligo) and their sons Col. Charles Howe Cuff Knox, High Sheriff of County Mayo in 1873, and Hubert Thomas Knox, a barrister who worked as a civil servant in India, wrote several books about Irish history, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1896.
The Union Workhouse
The Ballinrobe Poor Law Union Workhouse was founded in 1839, and saw great suffering during the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849. With 2,000 inmates, the workhouse was so overcrowded that on March 23, 1847, The Mayo Constitution reported:
In Ballinrobe the workhouse is in the most awfully deplorable state, pestilence having attacked paupers, officers, and all. In fact, this building is one horrible charnel house, the unfortunate paupers being nearly all the victims of a fearful fever, the dying and the dead, we might say, huddled together. The master has become the victim of this dread disease; the clerks, a young man whose energies were devoted to the well-being of the union, has been added to the victims; the matron, too, is dead; and the respected, and esteemed physician has fallen before the ravages of pestilence, in his constant attendance on the diseased inmates. This is the position of the Ballinrobe house, every officer swept away, while the number of deaths among the inmates is unknown; and we forgot to add that the Roman Catholic chaplain is also dangerously ill of the same epidemic. Now the Ballinrobe board have complied with the Commissioner’s orders, in admitting a houseful of paupers and in striking a new rate, which cannot be collected; while the unfortunate inmates, if they escape the awful epidemic, will survive only to be the subjects of a lingering death by starvation!
96 people died in just one week in April 1849. The dead were buried in unmarked, shallow graves, located just outside the boundary on the southwest of the ruins.
In 1922, during the Civil War, a great deal of the structure was burned, although some portions remain to this day.
The site is now occupied by Mayo County Council offices and a small business park dominated by two huge Venusian-looking water towers next to a small headstone marking the site of hundreds of burials, including many that died from cholera.
St Mary’s church (RC), constructed between 1849 and 1863 on Main Street, has a splendid 25.panel stained glass window by Harry Clarke and others made by his father or in his studio.
Creagh House, a mansion built to replace the ancestral home west of the town in 1875 by Col. Charles Howe Knox, was damaged by fire in 1930, but survives as a private residence. The Creagh estate, famed in the C19th for its extensive plantations of “exotic” fruit trees, was the location of a TB Sanatorium in the first half of the C20th, and later became anagricultural research centre.
Ballinrobe railway station was opened in 1892 on a branch line from Claremorris. It closed to passenger traffic in 1930 and finally closed altogether on 1 January 1960.
Ballinrobe still commemorates the crash-landing on 22nd September 1935 of Lithuanian pilot Feliksas Vaitkus, only the sixth person to make a successful solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean with a single engine aircraft, Lituanica II. Exhausted after a 23-hour struggle fighting the elements, Vaitkus came down in an open field and escaped injury, although the plane was badly damaged. It was shipped to Lithuania, where it was restored, while the pilot was given a hero’s welcome in Kaunas.
The War of Independence was a period of great unrest in the area, with the IRA‘s South Mayo Brigade attacking both British army and RIC patrols, most famously in the May 1921 Tourmakeady Ambush, after which the clergy of St Mary’s church (RC) were severely criticised for placing the coffin of Republican volunteer Pádraic Feeney before the main altar and those of the dead policemen at a side altar.
The Green, a former cavalry training area now used by local sports clubs, is where the Ballinrobe Agricultural Show takes place every September.
Ballinrobe’s annual Heritage Day and revived Queen of the Lakes Festival both attract many visitors to the town.
Flanagan Park, the home of Ballinrobe’s GAA club on the outskirts of the town, has one of the few pitches with floodlights in County Mayo.
Ballinrobe Racecourse,the only race course in Mayo, holds eight meetings every summer (including 7 evening meets). Horse racing was first recorded in the area in 1773, and the course was purchased in 1921.
The Ballinrobe Musical Society puts on shows every year in Castlebar and occasionally performs further afield.
A Community Civic Centre, due to be constructed on the Cornmarket within the next two years, will include space for art exhibitions and a theatre.
Ballinrobe is promoted in Northern Ireland as “Gateway to Connemara“. Also dubbed “The Lake Angling Capital of the West” the Ballinrobe district has 60,000 acres of brown trout fishing between Lough Corrib and Lough Mask; coarse anglers can also avail of facilities onLough Carra and on the River Robe.
The Tourist Office on the Cornmarket provides maps and guides for a local Heritage Trailand other walking routes, notably the scenic Bower’s Walk, and more interesting historical information can be found at the helpful websites maintained by Maggie Land Blanck and theBallinrobe Historical & Archaeological Society.
JJ Gannon’s Hotel & Restaurant is a family run boutique eatablishment highly rated by Internet commentators, while the Valkenburg Hotel (founded c.1850) also has a restaurant and nightclub (“the Valk”), popular with locals; several B&B options are also available.
Ballinrobe lies on the N84 linking Galway City and Castlebar. The town has become a bottleneck in recent years and is awaiting a bypass.