Castlebar (Co. Mayo / Central)
Castlebar (Caisleán an Bharraigh -“Barry’s Castle”) (pop. 15,200), the main garrison town and administrative capital of County Mayo since the C17th, straddles the Castlebar River, aka the Town River, and takes in Lough Lannagh and Saleen Lake. The local population grew by over a third in just six years during the Celtic Tiger era.
Long famed for its livestock fairs, markets and numerous pubs patronised by thirsty farmers, Castlebar is still the region’s leading retail hub, with new shopping malls on the outskirts gradually replacing the old central streets in commercial importance. The number of pubs has almost halved since 1990, with the survivors “reduced” to offering meals to make up for the drop in alcohol sales. The alternative selection of dining venues is heavily dominated by but not entirely confined to fast food joints, plus a couple of good cafés. Accommodation options in the town are limited, with most visitors to the area preferring to stay in nearby Westport.
Castle Barry, from which the town later derived its name, was founded in 1235 by a Norman adventurer named De Barrie, and by 1400 had become a stronghold of the powerful de Burgo / Bourke holders of the Mac Liam Uachtair / Macwilliam Oughter title.
In 1584 Edmond / Eamonn na Feasoige (“the bearded”) Bourke was dramatically hanged following a staged trial at Donomona Castle and his estate confiscated by Queen Elizabeth I’s Governor of Connaught, Sir Richard Bingham (1528–1599), a surprisingly small man whose ruthless campaigns in the West climaxed a naval, military and espionage career that had included participation in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto and the 1580 Smerwick Harbour Massacre, and also saw him kill all but 80 of an invading force of 3000 Scots at Ardnarea and order the execution of some 1000 shipwrecked survivors of the 1588 Spanish Armada.
Sir Richard’s brothers George and John served as his vice-Commissioners; the latter took up residence in Castle Barry and won the growing town a royal charter of incorporation from King James I in 1613. His grandson Henry was created Baronet Bingham of Castlebar by King Charles I in 1632. In 1691 Castlebar was made a garrison town.
Sir Charles Bingham (1735-1799), 7th Bart, a great nephew of Patrick Sarsfield‘s, was granted the title Earl of Lucan (2nd Creation) in 1776. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted portraits of his daughters Ann and Lavinia; the latter was married to George Spencer (1758-1834), 2nd Earl Spencer, a Whig politician, and they had nine children, including Fr Ignatius Spencer (1799-1864), a convert to Roman Catholicism who toured Ireland urging prayers for his crusade for the conversion of England. (Another descendant was Diana, Princess of Wales).
By the end of the C19th the family had added to their estates and owned vast tracts of land throughout County Mayo. Flax growing and linen industries were encouraged by the immigration of planter families from Ulster in the 1770s.
The 1798 Rebellion initially had little direct impact in the West, but the French Invasion later that year saw a combined Franco-Irish force of 2000 men commanded by General Humbert take the town’s reinforced garrison of 6000 Crown troops by surprise at dawn on 27th August, forcing General Lake to hurriedly redeploy his artillery with apparent success as the opening cannonade of the Battle of Castlebar killed some 150 attackers. A bayonet assault sent the unnerved defenders fleeing in panic down the hill, and the resulting rout became popularly known as “the Races at Castlebar”.
Lord Lucan’s Castlebar House had been burned in the fighting (and his land agent Rev Thomas Ellison, the local rector, placed in captivity with the Right Rev Joseph Stock, Bishop of Killala & Achonry, who wrote an account of the events), so the victorious French commander set up his headquarters in Geevy’s Hotel, where a celebratory banquet was held and John Moore of Moore Hall was declared President of the Connacht Republic, which lasted until the disastrous Battle of Ballinamuck of 8th September.
The Mayo Telegraph was founded in Castlebar on St Patrick’s Day 1828 by the Hon Frederick Cavendish (1777-1856), a distant relative of the Dukes of Devonshire. Twice married and father of numerous children, he soon gained a reputation for impartiality, berating landlords for avarice and peasants for apathy in equal measure.
The Great Famine was particularly severe in rural County Mayo. (This writer’s grandmother, born in Galway in 1899, recalled her great aunt in Castlebar talking about her childhood in the 1840s and the suffering of many “poor spalpeens“, i.e. seasonal workers). Although the townsfolk were relatively unscathed, thousands of rural dwellers died of starvation and disease in the locality, with emigration becoming the solution then and for many years afterwards. (It was only towards the end of the C20th that the population of County Mayo began to rise again).
The Castlebar Union Workhouse was officially described in 1847, when Lord Lucan and others closed it to further admissions, as being in such a “deplorable state“, with irregularly and inadequately fed old men and children huddled “haggard and famished” in unheated dormitories, that “those who are able to creep are preferring to brave want abroad to dying by cold and hunger inside“.
George Charles Bingham (1800–1888), 3rd Earl of Lucan, intent on improving the profitability of his estates with new agricultural methods, gained notoriety as the worst landlord in Ireland. He was nicknamed the Great Exterminator for his mass evictions of tenants for non-payment of rent, enforced by the infamous Crowbar Brigade, who were protected by police as they demolished hovels, leaving entire families to starve on the roadside. As a British commanding officer during the Crimean War, the Earl was widely blamed for a number of disastrous military decisions, notably the absurd Charge of the Light Brigade at the 1854 Battle of Balaclava.
Charles George Bingham (1830–1914), 4th Earl of Lucan, was more popular. On his accession in 1888 he donated the family cricket ground to the people of Castlebar as a town park, reduced tenants’ rents and provided the sites for schools and a new Roman Catholic church.
County Mayo saw considerable unrest ans sporadic violence during the War of Independence and the Civil War. On 2nd April 1922 anti-Treaty Republicans sabotaged the railway line into Castlebar and disrupted a meeting addressed by Michael Collins with gunfire, disarming the Government party and wounding the proprietress of the Commercial Hotel.
Although forced by various Land Acts and subsequent developments to sell much of their land to tenant farmers, the Bingham family still receives income from property in and around Castlebar. Richard John Bingham (b. 1934), 7th Earl of Lucan, disappeared from London in dramatic circumstances in 1974, strongly suspected of murdering his children’s nanny, and has not been seen since; he was declared officially dead in 1999.
Castle Barry, of which little remains, was located at the end of Castle Street, where the Town River is thought to have originally flowed.
Castlebar’s military barracks was built between 1831 and 1834. British Army regiments posted in the town over the years included the Welsh and Scottish Fencibles, the 69th Regiment and the Connaught Rangers. Portion of the barracks was burned by anti-Treaty forces during the Civil War in 1922. The complex was occupied by the Irish Army until 2011, when it was closed as part of major government cutbacks.
Rock Square is the location of a mural depicting scenes from the 1798 Rebellion and the Great Famine.
The Lawn House, used after 1798 as the Bingham family residence on the rare occasions that they visited Castlebar, is now St Joseph’s secondary school for girls.
The Mall, once the Bingham family’s cricket ground, and formerly known as The Green, takes in two grim historical sites that have left no traces: the Bridewell where George Robert “the Fighting Fitzgerald” of Turlough Park was hanged with two accomplices in 1786 for their part in the murder of Randall Mc Donnell, a neighbouring landowner, and the Hanging Tree used to execute Fr Andrew Conroy for his role in helping the 1798 French Invasion; the 1818 hanging of highwayman Captain Gallagher was the last execution to take place on the gibbet.
The 1798 Memorial monument, erected in 1948 to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Races of Castlebar, bears a bigoted inscription in Irish. Beside it is the grave of John Moore, president of the short-lived Connacht Republicdeclared by the French. He died in captivity awaiting deportation in Waterford in 1799, and his remains were re-interred here in 1961 at a ceremony attended by President Eamonn De Valera.
The Fountain of Mannanan, a bronze sculpture by Peter Grant, commemorates Castlebar-born Ernie O’Malley (1897-1957), an IRA officer during the War of Independence, anti-Treaty leader during the Civil War, and author of On Another Man’s Wound (1936) and The Singing Flame(published posthumously in 1976), widely considered the best literary works to emerge from The Troubles.
A path in The Mall formerly used by the Bingham family to reach Christchurch. (Photo by colwynboy).
Christ church (CoI) was founded in 1739 to replace an earlier edifice erected c.1590, and was renovated in 1828. The handsome interior features many plaques commemorating local worthies.
The churchyard contains the only authentic remnant of 1798 left in the town, a memorial to the members of the Scottish Frazier / Fraser Fencibles Regiment killed in action fighting the French Invasion.
A splendid but crumbling monument commemorates Major General George O’Malley of Ballinvilla, who served in North America, Egypt and around the Mediterranean, was wounded twice at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, died in 1847 and is buried in the family burial plot in Murrisk Abbey. His descendants included Charles and St Claire O’Malley, land agents for the Lucan estate, and the distinguished C20th British diplomat Sir Owen St Claire O’Malley (1887-1974), husband of the novelist Ann Bridge.
The Methodist church, founded in 1785 by John Wesley, is now used by a Pentacostal (Elim) congregation.
Castlebar Courthouse, built in 1834, has some interesting architectural features, including Doric columns made from wrought iron.
The recently renovated Garda Barracks used to be the British Army’s Cavalry Barracks, recalled by the two lions that formerly adorned the entrance pillars.
The Imperial / Daly’s Hotel, opened in 1785 as a coaching inn, was inherited by James Daly (1838-1911), who refounded The Connaught Telegraph in 1876 and together with Michael Davitt from nearby Straide established The Irish National Land League here in 1879. The building has remained vacant for some years and is in poor condition.
Mayo County Council occupies a rather unlovely bunker on the Mall.
Marsh House, now the Castlebar UDC HQ, was once the residence of of Lord Lucan’s late C19th land agent St Claire O Malley BL. Farm produce and fuel used to be brought by boat from the Islandeady chain of lakes to a landing stage that existed here.
Market Square used to be called Shambles Square, with a shambles / slaughterhouse standing beside the river and a crane to weigh farm produce and charge levies. Several highly publicised C19th court cases pitted market stallholders against the 3rd Lord Lucan and Anthony Faulkner, lessee of tolls and customs, over unjust charges and unfair ejectments. The square has been remodelled and now features a warlike sculpture by Colm Breen.
The Linen Hall, erected in 1790 as the clearing-house for the short-lived linen industry, was the venue for a victory ball hosted by General Humbert following the successful outcome of “The Races at Castlebar “. It has been put to various uses over the years, and is currently the Linenhall Arts Centre, with a theatre / auditorium for drama and music, a gallery & exhibition space, also used for workshops, and a pleasant “coffee shop”.
Castlebar Railway Station, opened in 1862, is on the Dublin / Athlone / Westport line.
The church of the Holy Rosary (RC), completed in 1901 to replace a half-completed edifice erected in 1872 at the behest of Archbishop John McHale, contains a splendid altar carved from Italian marble by Pearse & Co from Dublin, father and brother of the executed Easter 1916 Uprising leader Padraic Pearse, and donated to the parish by Breaffy native Patrick Ludden (1836-1912), the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Syracuse, New York.
St Gerald’s College, a secondary school for boys founded in Chapel Street in 1908 by the De La Salle Brothers, has occupied extensive grounds on the edge of the town since 1971. It is named for Saint Gerald of Mayo, a Northumberland-born Saxon who was the first Abbot of Mayo Abbey in the C7th AD.
A statue of St John the Baptist De La Salle made by Galway sculptor John Grant was erected in May 2001 to commemorate the work carried out by the Order in Castlebar from 1888 to 2000.
The Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) has converted part of the impressive Victorian buildings and grounds of St Mary’s Psychiatric Hospital on the outskirts of the town into a leafy campus, which also includes the purpose-built Mayo Education Centre (MEC) teacher training facility.
The Mayo County Library occupies an attractive modern edifice on John Moore Road.
Mayo General Hospital is a busy modern complex with many departments, while the Sacred Heart Hospital (on the site of the former Workhouse) specialises in geriatric care.
The Royal Theatre & Events Centre, built in 2008 to replace an older structure, is the third-largest performance venue in Ireland, with room for 4000 standing or 2200 seated, and has a varied programme of concerts, plays. dance performances and comedy shows. (Photo – The Irish Times)
McHale Park, built in 1931 and named after the polemical C19th Archbishop of Tuam, is the principal GAA ground in County Mayo, with a capacity of 42,000.
John McHale’s pub, one of the oldest licensed premises in Castlebar, is known for serving Guinness by the Meejum, which is slightly less than a pint.
Margaret Burke-Sheridan (1889—1958), born in a house on Castlebar’s Mall and nicknamed Maggie from Mayo, was a soprano who regularly performed starring roles in opera houses around Europe. According to Bríd Mahon in her book While Green Grass Grows (1998), “It was rumoured that an Italian whose overtures she had rejected had blown his brains out in a box in La Scala, Milan, while she was on stage and that after the tragedy she never sang in public again.” She is regarded as Ireland’s second prima donna (after Catherine Hayes).
Enda Kenny, the current Taoiseach and head of Fine Gael, was born in Castlebar in 1951 and succeeded his father Henry Kenny (1913-1975) as TD for Mayo in 1975, making him the longest serving member of Dáil Eireann and thus “Father of the House”.
Castlebar was also the birthplace of Louis Brennan (1852-1932), the Australian-raised inventor of the guided torpedo used by the Royal Navy during WWI, who also contributed to the design of the first helicopter, and Charles J Haughey (1925-2006), the most corrupt Taoiseach in Ireland’s history.
Another two Fianna Fáil politicians, the former Minister and EU Commissioner Padraigh Flynn and his daughter Beverley, are the town’s most controversial current residents.
The Mayo Memorial Peace Park Garden of Remembrance, opened in 2008, honours the Mayomen killed in C20th wars , especially those those who served with Allied and Commonwealth forces during WWI and WWII and Irish Army soldiers who died on peace-keeping operations with the UN. (Photo – www.tripadvisor.ie)
Castlebar is home to the Mayo Concert Orchestra, the Mayo Youth Orchestra and a traditional Marching Band . There is also a local Choral Society, while most other types of music, from traditional folk to R&B, can be heard live in pubs around the town.
A major Blues Festival has been held in Castlebar every June Bank Holiday weekend since 1992.
The International Four Days Walks, hosted in early July since 1957, is the most enduring of Castlebar’s frequent festive events.
Burren is a tiny village north of Castlebar.