Castlerea (Co. Roscommon / West)
Castlerea (An Caisleán Riabhach – “brindled castle”/ Caisleán Rí – “king’s castle”) (pop. 3100) is believed to derive its name from a former stronghold of the O’Conor dynasty of Connacht. Long an agricultural market town, it has become a centre for pharmaceutical and food processing manufacturers, public services and retail outlets, and currently ranks as the second largest urban centre in County Roscommon.
Sey scenically amidst wooded country on the banks of the River Suck at its junction with the River Cloonard, locally called the River Francis, Castlerea has limited but rather special amenities for visitors.
Capt. Theophilus Sandford (c.1630 – 1688), a Cromwellian Adventurer, was allotted extensive lands confiscated from the rebel O’Conor Don, and built Castlereagh House c.1652 on the site of the old O’Conor stronghold. He was ezpressly confitmed in his possession by the Act of Settlement 1662.
His descendants increased their property by acquiring forfeited estates, and controlled Castlerea for 250 years; three generations served as members of the Irish Parliament for County Roscommon, where a vote favourable to the Act of Union in 1800 secured Henry Moore Sandford (1751–1814) the title of Baron Mount Sandford. He was succeeded according to a special remainder by his nephew Henry, who was kicked to death in England during a brawl at Windsor on his way to the Ascot races in 1828. His uncle George Sandford (b. 1756). the third and last Baron, died in 1846, and the Sandford estates were inherited by his sisters’ families – Wills of Willsgrove, Pakenham and Newenham.
Lewis (1837) described Roscrea as a market and post-town, containing 1172 inhabitants and consisting of “one long street extending from the market-place, and continued by bridges over the river Suck and a small river that runs through the demesne of Lord Mount-Sandford and unites with the Suck immediately below the town, …… there are several pretty cottages and small houses surrounded with trees, which, being neatly white-washed, give the neighbourhood a very cheerful appearance.There are several springs of excellent water, and the place is considered remarkably healthy. A very extensive distillery, producing annually more than 20,000 of gallons of whiskey, is conducted with success; and there are also a brewery and a tannery. The market for corn is on Wednesday, and has lately been rapidly increasing; and there is a market on Saturday for provisions, which is amply supplied; large quantities of butter, both fresh and in firkins, are sold here for the supply of distant markets, and cattle of every description and great quantities of yarn are brought for sale; the markets are held by patent of Lord Mount-Sandford, who has erected convenient shambles which will be of great benefit to the town……. A chief constabulary force has been stationed here, the sub-inspector for the county being resident in the town. The quarter sessions for the western division of the county are held here every nine months; and petty sessions are held every Wednesday. A school-house for a school on Erasmus Smith’s foundation was erected here by the late Rev William Sanford who endowed it with the interest of £200; and a handsome school-house, with apartments for a master and mistress, was erected by Lord Mount-Sandford, for a male, female, and infants school, supported by his lordship; there is also a national school. A dispensary has been established; and a building, with wards attached for the reception of patients, is about to be erected on an improved principle by Lord Mount-Sandford“.
The Great Famine put Castlerea under a lot of pressure from rural refugees. The local Poor Law Union workhouse, erected c,1841 but not opened until 1846, was graphically described in a letter in a Quaker pamphlet in 1847: “At the Castlerea workhouse a shocking state of things existed, the poor inmates lying upon straw and their dormitories being in such a state of dirt that we were unable to venture into them. In this workhouse there are at present 1,080 paupers, but the last 434 were admitted in so hurried a manner that there is neither bedding nor clothes for them; it is probable that there will be frightful mortality among the inmates. In the children’s room was collected a miserable crowd of wretched objects, the charm of infancy having entirely disappeared and in its place were to be seen wan and haggard faces, prematurely old from the effects of hunger and cold, rags and dirt. In the schoolroom they spend some hours every day in hopeless listless idleness; though there are both a schoolmaster and schoolmistress there are no books nor slates, nor any of the apparatus of a school“. The workhouse remained in operation until 1920, and the buildings were demolished shortly thereafter.
Castlereagh House, aka “the Castle”, continued as the home of the town’s landlord, Thomas George Wills Sandford, who in 1876 owned 24,410 acres of land in the area. A contemporary guidebook reported that Castlerea had a population of 1,146 and described it as “a very neat, pleasant and agreeable little town, exhibiting less poverty than other towns in the county“. As the Land Acts took effect the Sandford Wills family were forced to sell their property; over 1,200 acres were vested in the Congested Districts’ Board in 1911, while the main Castlerea estate was acquired by the Land Commission. The house was demolished, leaving only the gate lodge and entrance gates to the demesne, now controlled by local authorities. Several Sandfords still live locally.
The last shot in the War of Independence was fired in Patrick St on 11th July 1921 at RIC Sgt. James King, who died of his wounds shortly afterwards; the truce ending hostilities was called later that day.
The town has no connection with the most famous Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822), the Machiavellian Chief Secretary for Ireland responsible for pushing the Act of Union through the Irish Parliament and a prominent British statesman during the Napoleonic Wars, or any other holder of that title (given to the eldest son and heir of the Marquess of Londonderry).
Castlerea Demesne, formerly attached to Castlereagh House, has been partially adapted for recreational use, including an attractive 80-acre public park in the centre of the town, bordering the River Francis, where a modern swimming pool is the main social venue for the town’s teenagers on summer evenings. Other sections have controversially been given over to housing and industrial purposes.
Longford House, an attractive Georgian residence built c.1750, is marked by a plaque as the place where Douglas Hyde (1860 – 1949), the first President of Ireland, was born while his mother was on a short visit there.
Holy Trinity church (CoI), erected in 1818 to serve the old parish of Kilkeevan, was described as “a neat structure with a square embattled tower” by Lewis (1837) (who reported that there was also “a place of worship for Wesleyan Methodists” in the town). The church, which features stained gall windows presented by the Sandford family and the Young family of Harrisyown, was closed for worship in late 1997. The lovely trees surrounding it were later cut down to make way for its current development / conversion into an Art & Heritage Centre with a 220-seat theatre / auditorium.
St Anne’s Sisters of Mercy Convent, built 1888, is linked by an attractive chapel to a National School, built in 1887, with extensions. The complex is set in its own mature grounds, with an ornate timber shed and a nuns’ graveyard featuring Celtic Revival stone cross grave markers dating from 1906.
St Patrick’s church (RC), an imposing edifice designed by English architect George Goldie and erected in 1896 to replace an earlier building, features a fine timber truss roof and a Caen stone and marble high altar installed in 1899.
Clonalis House stands on on an elevated site overlooking the heavily wooded banks of the River Suck just west of Castlerea on the road to Castlebar.
Clonalis is the ancestral home of a distinguished branch of the aristocratic O Conchobhair / O Conchuir / O’Conor clan, who trace their origins back to Feredach the Just in 75 AD and claim to be Europe’s oldest recorded family. Their royal ancestry includes no less than 24 kings of Connacht, 11 of whom were also High Kings of Ireland. The last of these, Ruaidhri Ua Conchubair / Rory / Roderic O’Conor (c.1135 – 1198), was born in Castlerea; having failed to stem the Norman invasion of Ireland, he died near Lough Corrib and is buried at Clonmacnoise.
The head of the clan is called the O’Conor Don, a title that originated in 1385, when two cousins with the same name vied for the kingship of Connacht. To distinguish them, one was called the Ua Conchobhair Rua / O’Conor Roe (this line is now extinct) and the other the Ua Conchobhair Donn / O’ Conor Don.Nowadays there are six distinct septs, of which the Kerry branch is currently the most important. The present owner of Clonalis, Pyers O’Conor Nash, is the most recent of an unbroken line of descent stretching back for more than 1000 years to live on the estate – an achievement unrivalled elsewhere in Ireland.
The current Clonalis House, a 45-room Italianate style mansion, was the first mass concrete house built in Ireland, designed by the English architect Samuel Pepys Cockrell and completed in 1880, when the O’Conor of Clonalis estate covered over 12,000 acres (49 km2) in county Roscommon with another 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) in county Sligo. During the Civil War the mansion was occupied by Republican irregulars and shelled by the Free State Army – shrapnel holes can still be seen in the dining room. The interior is well furnished with Sheraton and Louis Quinze style furniture and family portraits spanning many centuries decorate the walls.
The O’Conor family is one of the only Gaelic families to have remained Roman Catholic and retain their ancestral lands, and despite many vicissitudes remained prominent both in Ireland and abroad (e.g. Hugh O’Conor, who left Castlerea to join the Spanish Army in 1750 and founded the City of Tuscon, Arizona in 1775, or Charles O’Conor of New York, the first Catholic nominee for the Presidency of the USA, regarded as the Father of the Appellant Bar in New York State), and the fascinating contents of Clonalis House reflect this.
The priceless collection of memorabilia on display includes the O’Conor Coronation Stone, on which the kings of Connacht were crowned from time immemorial; the harp played by the last and best known of Ireland’s travelling bards, blind Turlough O’Carolan, when he performed for the noted C18th antiquarian Charles O’Conor of Belnagare (whose preserved library containing the world’s largest private range of original documents in Irish, now part of over 100,000 archival documents at Clonalis, the oldest of which dates back to 1580) and costumes, uniforms and laces belonging to the family.
Clonalis House also operates as a B&B / Guesthouse as part of the Hidden Ireland Group. Pyers’s wife Marguerite welcomes visitors, organises meals, and looks after her guests in every way. The four spacious en suite guest bedrooms, furnished with comfortable four poster or half-tester beds, have beautiful views over the park. The leafy estate, now reduced to some 700 acres, was originally laid out for pheasant shooting, but in recent times it has become better known as a first class woodcock shoot. Guests can fish for trout in the River Suck which flows through the demesne, or on nearby Lough O’Flynn.
Tully’s Hotel, a friendly family run establishment, centrally located, full of character, and highly rated for its food.
Castlerea has some 20 pubs / licensed premises, ranging from the Golf Club bar to the Stagger Inn. Popular eateries include the Golden Eagle, Benny’s Deli and the Deli Dock. The town’s single night club is called River Island. (Visitors are warned that Castlerea has an unusually high number of very talented pool players).
Hell’s Kitchen & Castlerea Railway Museum
Hell’s Kitchen is a friendly bar full of curiosities, ranging from framed sepia photographs, newspaper cuttings, kitchen utensils or a pair of long johns to a real train engine, locomotive A55, a Metropolitan Vickers diesel electric dating from 1955, purchased from Iarnród Éireann minus its machinery, moved to the premises and converted into a snug! The overall effect suggests that it has arrived through the wall of the building into the bar.
Casrlerea Railway Museum has been built around the locomotive, and contains proprietor Sean Browne‘s impressive range of railway heritage memorabilia (the largest private collection in Ireland, second only to the public repository at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum). On display are bells, lamps, shunting poles, signal equipment, a rail bicycle to inspect the tracks, station furnishings and signs etc.
Castlerea Railway Station, south of the town centre in Harristown, opened in November 1860, and is currently served by trains on the line linking Dublin Heuston with Westport / Ballina
Castlerea Prison, opposite the Railwat Station, opened in 1939 as a district mental hospital and used intermittently as a tuberculosis sanitorium, has since 1996 operated as a closed, medium security facility for adult male prisoners. It has bed capacity of 351 and in 2009 its daily average number of resident inmates was 306.
Castlerea public library on Main Street has a wealth of local history books, some perhaps containing more propaganda than historical fact.
Castlerea also has a scenic riverside 9-hole golf course with views of Clonalis House, and a range of facilities for other sports (GAA, soccer, tennis, squash, badminton, handball, etc.)
Dr Matthew Young, born in Castlerea, was an eminent natural philosopher and mathematician; he served as Church of Ireland Bishop of Clonfert & Kilmacduagh 1799-1800, and died in office.
Andrew McDermot (1790–1881) born in Bellangare House, Castlerea, was a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) employee who became a prominent independent fur trade merchant and member of the Council of Assiniboia.
Dr Thomas Wilde, a Castlerea oculist, was the father of two rectors of Trinity church and Sir William Wilde, born locally in 1815, who became a noted Dublin surgeon, leading Irish antiquarian and father of Oscar Wilde.
Michael McGovern (1848 – 1933), born in Castlerea, emigrated to the USA and gained national recognition in the late C19th and early C20th as “the Puddler Poet”; his work reflected his support of American labor unions.
John Waters, born locally in 1955 and raised on Main St, is The Irish Times‘ strangest columnist, author of Jiving At The Crossroads (1992), the father of singer Sinéad O’Connor’s daughter Róisin (b. 1996), and composer of Eurovision Song Contest entries.
Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, TD (Independent), a “flamboyant” politician, was born in 1972 in Castlerea.
The former Castlerea Union Workhouse site was the scene of a March 2013 ceremony at which a stone commemorating all those who died during the Great Famine was unveiled.
The Castlerea Brass & Reed Band perform regularly at events around Ireland and abroad, especially in St Patrick’s Day parades across the USA.
Castlerea Musical Society has been staging musicals and pantomimes since 1967.
A livestock market is still held in Castlerea every Thursday.
The Castlerea Rose Festival takes place every year, traditionally on the August Bank Holiday weekend
Castlerea is on the River Suck Valley Way cross-country walking route.
Clonkeen, a short distance west of Clonalis House, is the location of a 1.4m tall Standing Stone that tapers to rounded point rather like a huge stone spearhead, and is a lovely red colour that contrasts strongly with the grey local stone. It has been commented that “if this stone stood in the middle of a forsaken, blasted heath it would be superb, but sadly it stands at the side of a non-descript country lane“.