Ballyhaunis (Co. Mayo / East)
Ballyhaunis (Béal Átha hAmhnais) (pop. 5o00), standing mainly on the western bank of the River Dalgan, is the location of a major regional crossroads. This once sleepy rural village is nowadays an unusually vibrant and cosmopolitan country town, with a number of good pubs, eateries and accommodation options.
Ballyhaunis is nowadays probably best known in Ireland for its regionally exotic mosque, erected in 1987 by a Muslim businessman called Afran Sher Rafique who used to own the local Halal meat facility. With accommodation for about 150 worshippers, it was the first purpose-built Mosque in Ireland, and is still the only such structure outside Dublin. It is the second most westerly mosque in Europe, after the Lisbon Mosque.
While the surrounding area contains an extraordinary concentration of megalithic monuments and sites of archaeological / historical interest, the origins of the town itself are obscure, The meaning of the Irish toponym is also elusive: Beal Átha means the ford mouth, but the last element is unclear, possibly deriving from Abhann (river) or ‘amhnas‘, said to mean ‘strife’ or ‘plunder’. Historically, it has also been rendered as the equally obscure Beal Ath Thamnais.
Ballyhaunis is in the parish of Annagh, which with the neighbouring parishes of Bekan, Knock, and Aghamore long formed the territory of Ciarraidhe Locha na n-Airne, known to the Normans as the barony of Bellahawnes, a detailed history of which can be read here.
Ballyhaunis is traditionally believed to have grown up around St Mary’s Friary, but some commentators suggest that there may well have been a pre-existing hamlet. The area was ruled from 1249 by a branch of the Nangle family who had arrived in Connacht with the FitzGeralds and under the name MacCostello / MacJordan Dubh controlled the Barony of Costello until 1586
St Mary’s Friary
St Mary’s Augustinian Friary, aka “the Abbey”, is said to have been founded in either 1348 or 1430, when the Augustinian Friars were given 150 acres of land by the Barons MacCostello. The friars had to flee their church and monastery in the C17th and much of it was destroyed by Cromwellian forces in 1652. Fr Walter “Fulgentius” Jordan, an Augustinian friar descended from the Abbey’s founders, was murdered by English soldiers either in in 1649 or 1682.
Of the original Friary structure all that now remains are parts of three walls with some of their windows and doorways, together with some artefacts found on site.
A new Friary was built in 1780 and remained in use until 2002, when the Order withdrew from the town. Subsequently the entire Augustinian property, comprising the Abbey house, cemetery and fourteen acres of land, was handed over to a local trust to be managed on behalf of the community.
Although it did not appear on any maps before the C19th, a William Knox applied as early as 1751 for a patent for a market and fairs in “the Town of Ballyhaunis“. When the Statistical Survey of County Mayo was conducted in 1802, Ballyhaunis had a market or fair for cattle. According to Lewis (1837) fairs were held primarily for horses and cattle; he also also mentions the presence of a Constabulary Barracks. The Parliamentary Gazette of Ireland for 1848 described Ballyhaunis as a “poor, small mean-looking place“.
In 1841 the population of Annagh Civil Parish was 7904, but after the Great Famine it was recorded as dropping to 6105 in 1851. Ballyhaunis soon recovered, and by 1856 the locality reportedly had a Roman Catholic Chapel, two Forges and a number of Herd’s Houses, plus the Grand Jury of County Mayo Petty Sessions House, “Tolls and Customs”, “Tolls of Crane” and the Guardians of Claremorris Dispensary.
Ballyhaunis Railway Station, on the line linking Dublin / Athlone with Westport / Ballina, opened on 1 October 1861 (its 150th anniversary was celebrated in 2011 with a period dress party recorded on video and a special themed edition of the local annual Annagh Magazine). Although modernised, it retains most of its attractive Victorian features.
Ballyhaunis Courthouse, a grim Victorian edifice dating from c.1860, has been in continuous use until recently, but faces closure due to government cutbacks.
Theobald Dominick Geoffrey Dillon-Lee, 14th Viscount Dillon, owner of 83,749 acres of land in County Mayo, and Francis Richard O’Grady were the principal landlords in the Ballyhaunis district at the end of the C19th, but were forced by the Land Acts to sell off most of their property.
St Joseph’s Convent, erected 1901 at the behest of the energetic Canon Rev JP Canning, then PP of Annagh, was occupied until recently by the Sisters of Mercy, who ran two local schools. The convent was the main venue in Easter Week 1903 for the first ever Mayo Countv Feís, an event which brought the town to national prominence as a centre of the Gaelic Revival then sweeping the country. Amongst the notables in attendance were Douglas Hyde, Padraic Pearse, Colonel Maurice Moore of the famous Moore Hall family, and Fr Bewerunge, an authority on Irish music.
St Patrick’s Parish church (RC). an imposing edifice completed in 1909, has graceful columns of Aberdeen granite, impressive marble altars and every window finished in stained glass, designed and executed by Joshua Clarke, father of the renowned stained glass artist, Harry Clarke. The church spire is the town’s principal landmark, visible for miles around.
War of Independence
The War of Independence saw a number of incidents around Ballyhaunis due to the active East Mayo Brigade of the IRA.
On 2nd August 1920, the IRA ambushed a British Army lorry on the Claremorris road from the town, capturing arms and ammunition.
On 1st April 1921, Sean Corcoran, O/C of the East Mayo Brigade, was shot dead by British soldiers after a short gunfight at Crossard crossroads (6 km north of Ballyhaunis).
Celtic crosses mark the spot of the ambush and the place where Corcoran died.
Also on 1st April 1921, a sniper killed a member of the Black & Tans, in retaliation for which they executed Michael Coen, a man that was later proven not to have taken part in fighting of any kind. A monument to Coen was placed on the Cloonfad/ Galway road from Ballyhaunis.
Independence did nothing for Ireland’s rural economy, and the population of Annagh. down to 4916 by 1911, numbered 2,175 in 1979. Unlike other parts of the country, Ballyhaunis began to thrive in the mid-1970s, when Afran Sher Rafique, a Pakistani butcher from London, invested considerable sums in promoting the first of several meat preparation and packing plants for the exportation of Halal meat to Muslims in Britain and other countries.
Ballyhaunis is still said to provide employment for people of some 40 different nationalities in the food processing, meat packing, steel fabrication, furniture manufacture and ancillary construction service industries, government, financial and professional services and a range of retail outlets. Of the 250-odd individuals employed in agriculture, most work their farms part-time.
Ballyhaunis has an active Chamber of Commerce organising community events and initiatives and and a Tidy Town Committee ensuring that the most is made of the town’s attractive wide approach toads and neat streets, solid old houses, traditional shop fronts, landscaped housing developments and green spaces.
The main square features a street sculpture called The Fair Day, featuring two farmers and a calf.
Ballyhaunis Town Park is extensive and very well presented, with a colourful playground and covered playing area
Ballyhaunis is the first town in Ireland to have a Multi-purpose Sports Facility to provide for different sports under the one roof, including soccer, basketball, volleyball, badminton, tennis and bocci.
Other public amenities include a Parochial Hall on Main St, used as a venue for regular community meetings, dances, concerts and other musical or cultural events, including amateur drama productions; a good town library on Clare St; an outdoor swimming pool on Clare St, open in the summer months; a rugby club and a scenic 9-hole golf course outside the town.
Ballyhaunis has a number of pleasantly landscaped areas and paths, notably the delightful Abbey / Friarsground Nature Walk in the centre of the town and the scenic River Walk.
Annagh Magazine, named after the local parish, is an annual publication that since 1978 has appeared each December, containing material of local interest, including contributions covering Ballyhaunis history and culture
Midwest Radio, based at Ballyhaunis, is a local radio station for Counties Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim. Midwest Irish Radio is a dedicated internet radio station.
Notable Ballyhaunis people have included Patrick Lyons (1861-1964), RIC Sergeant, Antiquarian, RSAI; John Heavey, Bishop of Cairns, Queensland, Australia, (1941–1948); Jim Higgins TD (FG), MEP; Anthony Jordan, author and biographer; Liam Harte, author and university lecturer; Maria McGarry — Classical Pianist; James and Patrick McGarry — Biomedical engineering award winners.
The Courthouse is a highly rated pub & eatery with B&B Accommodation facilities.
The Ballyhaunis Summer Festival is held in late May every year.
Ballyhaunis’ first Party in the Park Music Festival took place in the Friary Field in June 2012. Video
Ballyhaunis & District Gun Club holds regular Clay Pigeon Shoots in the area.
Ballyhaunis is set amidst a patchwork of green fields, wild bog and small lakes, somewhat marred in parts of the town’s immediate outskirts by industrial outbuildings and skeletal ghost estates. In addition to wonderful flora and fauna, there are numerous places of archaeological / historical interest, including megalithic tombs, stone forts and Holy Wells, plus the sites of several old churches / abbeys.
Knockbrack, Leow and Scrigg are prime scenic areas close by Ballyhaunis.
Lough Caheer on the River Glore and nearby Lough Bekan abound with perch, tench, pike and trout.
Bekan (Co. Mayo / East)
Bekan / Becan (Béacán)(ptonounced in English like “bacon”) is a farming village on the shore of the lake of the same name, thought to derive from Diseart Béacáin, a holy man’s hermitage in early Christian times.
The church of St Margaret Mary (RC), erected in 1934, is the main church for the rural parish of Brecan, which dates from at least the C13th and nowadays includes the communities of Logboy, served by St Mary’s church (1839), and Brickeens, served by St Theresa’s church (1928). The parish church replaced an older edifice dating from 1839, and there is a ruined medieval church in the local cemetery.
Bekan is not far from Claremorris on ByRoute 15.
Island and Mannin Lakes (formerly one big lake called Loch na n-Airne – “Lake of the Sloes”) on the River Glore offer excellent game and course fishing. Perch, tench, pike and trout are abundant. The lakes have several crannógs and their shores are good places to look for fullachta fiadha (ancient cooking sites) and historical artefacts. A castle ruin near the western end of Mannin Lake was long called the “Bake House” by the people of the locality.
Pool on cutover bog at Mannin Lake. This is a large area of bog with flooded peat cuttings, a characteristic habitat of western Ireland. Excellent habitat for aquatic insects. (Photo by Brian Nelson)
Aghamore & Rath (Co. Mayo / East)
Aghamore (Achadh Mór – “Big Field”) is an attractive little village and hilly rural district in a lake dotted area historically aka Ciarraidhe Loch na n-Airne and later Narney.
The old graveyard on a hillside in Aghamore townland features the remains of an ancient oval stone fort with a souterraine and the partially restored ruin of a medieval church, said to stand on the site of a monastery founded by Saint Patrick and his nephew Saint Loran / Loarn, which local historians claim was one of the “four or five most noted places in Connacht“, famed for its arrangements enabling observance of the rules whereby “a monk and a nun or virgin from different places and going to the same or a different place must not take lodging in the same house….[or]… travel by the same conveyance“. Classed as “the equal of Athlone, Tuam and Clare, coming after Roscommon and Loughrea“, Aghamore was “a place of knowledge and learning“, and “some of its members went to England and European countries helping to christianise and educate the people there……….. The monks led peaceful lives and prospered in the centuries before the Danes and Norsemen came“. A peculiar obelisk on a rectangular mound at the western end of the fort, probably a very weathered C16th funerary cross, said to mark the burial place of a cousin of Saint Patrick’s, supposedly falls down whenever “Ireland is at war with England“.
King Henry II appears to have granted the territory of Ciarraidhe Loch na n-Airne to a Barry ancestor of the Geraldines, who handed his claim to the Nangle descendants of Jocelyn de Angulo, Anglo Normans who came to be known in Connacht as the (Mac)Costellos. Having conquered the ancient Sliabh Lugha area immediately north of Aghamore, but separated from it by a chain of lakes and by impassable bog and marsh, it behoved Philip Costello to attack Nurney by the way of the sand-hills of Kilkelly, Esker and Cloughwally, establishing a bridge-head in 1265 at Raith / Rath about a mile north across the valley from Aghamore and defeating Mahon, son of Cearnaigh O’Cairin, in 1266.
The Castle of Raith / Rath was built in the mid-C13th and altered and extended over the years; judging by the remains, it must have been an imposing structure in the C16th. Part of the original moat can still be seen.
Raith was the stronghold from which Philip MacCostello’s family extended their possessions throughout Northern Narney from 1266 onwards, establishing additional strongholds at Mannin, Island, Annagh Iarnasc (on the Northern side of the Gleoir River) Tulrahan, Coogue and Caislean na Dranncaddha near Ballyhaunis.
Philip’s son Jordan Duff Mac Costello settled his offspring in various manor houses around the area, and his descendants became the Mac Jordans associated with the Augustinian Abbey in Ballyhaunis. The C14th and C15th were marked by rivalry with the Mac Dermotts, and various Annals contain accounts of raids and petty wars in which many of the Mac Jordans of Raith were slain.
Most of the MacCostello lands were nominally handed over in 1580 as part of a Surrender & Regrant process to Sir Theobald Dillon, a Roman Catholic knighted on the field of battle in 1559 who remained in the good graces of Queen Elizabeth I and her successor King James I. Dillon was sued for sharp practices in a series of rapparee actions by Dubhaltach Caoch Mac Coisdealbhaigh / Dudley Costello, but had his legal title to the former Costello lands confirmed and was made Viscount Dillon of Costello-Gallen in 1621. The Dillons settled many families – most of them relatives – on the lands.
Raith Castle, having been confisacted by Sir John Perrot, was occupied by Constantine Jordan and his wife Sabinain 1623, and restored to Mac Jordan ownership in 1642, but continued to be ravaged by wars and unrest. The manor lands were whittled down until only a small portion of the estate was left, retained by the descendants of the family until recently.
The ruin became known as Caisleán Rua na gCupan due to a legend about silver drinking goblets hidden from the Cromwellian soldiers who “slighted” it.
Sir Robert Bingham and the Royal Commission appointed by for the Composition of Connaught in 1587 reported: “But we found that the Barony of Bellahawnesse in the County of Mayo, commonly called Mac Costelloe his country was omytted, for that the commissioners, as they alleged, could not conveniently take view thereof, through the hard travel and passage thither, by means of great bogges, woodes, mores and mountains, and other evill waies in, and to, the said baronie, so as no composition was taken therof. Albeit Sir Theobald Dillon, who inhabiteth the said landed himselfe and his tenants made suit unto the said commissioners to take view therof, to the end that he and the contrie there, might compound and yielde a yearly compensation unto her majesty both for the better reducing of the people there to servilitie, and that they might yielde obedience and know their dutie unto her Highness, which before they were very uncivil and barbarous, and the countrie there a verie receptacle of Scots and a harbour of other louse and evill people, through the strength and fastnesse therof …“. Sir Thomas Lestrange and other commissioners “took inquisition by jury of the said barony and found that it contained 297 or 252 portions or small quarters of land wherof in respect of the unfruitfulness, barreness and badness of the soil and the small quantity of arable land within the same, being for the most part woods, moors, mountains and unprofitable bog they put for of these quarters to one ordinary quarter of 120 acres“. In a letter to Sir Thomas wrote to :”May it please your Honour, We have been aboute and overviewed Mac Costelloe his countrie; and now at the gent’s requeste for those whose cause we tooke the paines, these are to certifie your Lordship, how we havthe Lord Deputy e found it, that it is most barren amongst the most barren; which things being so, and yet standing in so discomodious a place, yet can be hardlie brought about to be peopled with civill inhabitants, except in respect of some extraordinary freedoms or immunitye draw them thither…”
Fr Kirwan, appointed parish priest of the united parishes of Aghamore and Knock in 1775, had neither church nor house and spent many years on the run. Arrested in 1791 by the County Sherriff, Denis “Soap the Rope” Browne and tried in Claremorris and condemned to death, Fr Kirwan appealed to his friend Sir John Browne of Kilmaine, a noted duelist who rode at once to Claremorris and demanded his release from Denis Browne. When this was refused, Kilmaine openly insulted Denis Browne and challenged him to name his weapons. The sherriff was no duelist and dreaded a bout with so noted a duelist as his namesake, so he reluctantly released Fr Kirwan.
St Joseph’s church (RC) erected in 1832 to replace a late C18th thatched chapel, is an unpretentious cruciform edifice.
An Anglican church, erected in Aghamore village in the early C19th, allegedly with stones from Raith Castle, was in ruins in 1954, when it was taken down and carted away. An old Aghamore woman living in Yorkshire in 1927 told a visiting local historian about ladies in fine clothes coming to the peasants’ cottages during the Great Famine and offering food in return for conversion to Protestantism.
The Kenny/Naughton Autumn School, held annually over the October bank holiday weekend in a splendid former pub in Aghamore, commemorates the lives, works and times of two local writers. PD “Pat” Kenny (1862 – 1944), a self-educated farm labourer, worked as a journalist in Manchester and London before returning to Ireland to become known as an anti-clerical pro-Unionist social commentator and satirist. Bill Naughton (1910-1992) was a playwright, best known for Alfie (1963), the basis of two film adaptations. The school comprises lectures, readings, local tours, workshops, new publications, literary competitions, drama and entertainment.