TWO years after the abolition of Castlebar Town Council, the news that its former home, Marsh House, is to get a new lease of life as the location for the proposed Educate Together primary school has been widely welcomed. Not only will it mean a welcome facelift for the old municipal headquarters, already showing signs of neglect from discontinuance, but it will also bring the wheel full circle, since a school was located there over a century ago.
For 50 years before becoming civic offices, Marsh House was the residence of Madge Feeney, last surviving daughter of Patrick J Feeney, a wealthy local merchant at the turn of the century with extensive premises at Rush Street/Lucan Street. Ms Feeney - one of whose sisters was married to Dr Moran of Westport - was a reclusive lady and, throughout the fifties, her house was a hidden, dark, mysterious and almost forbidding edifice, completely enclosed by trees and shrubbery, its gate never opened, never a sign of comings or goings.
When she died in the early sixties, the house lay vacant for over a decade until Castlebar UDC - largely at the instigation of Councillor Frank Durcan - made the decision to acquire the property as a new municipal headquarters. Lauretta Feeney Biggeln, a descendant of the family, travelled from the US to unveil the plaque on the wall of Marsh House which reads “To the memory of Patrick J and Sara Feeney and their children, Hubert, May, Nellie and Madge.”
Patrick Feeney was obviously a man of considerable wealth. He had purchased Marsh House from the estate of Lord Lucan and is recorded in 1895 as having had extensive additions completed to the house which had been the home of Claire O’Malley, land agent for Lord Lucan, who had lived there for many years. O’Malley himself, of Murrisk extraction, had been a most popular local figure, known to have been extremely lenient with the Lucan tenants and who also, it seems, took a somewhat cavalier attitude to his master’s interests when it came to administering the Castlebar properties. This in turn was probably due to the Earl’s long absences from Ireland and his lack of real interest in what was going on back in the family seat in Mayo, where O’Malley was allowed do as he pretty much pleased.
All that was to change when the ruthless third Earl - aptly known as The Exterminator - decided to take up residence in Castlebar just before the Famine, and set about clearing his 60,000 acres of tenants to make way for a large scale farm. Vowing that ‘he would not breed paupers to pay priests’, he dismissed the easy-going Claire O’Malley with whom he continued to have long and bitter legal battles for many years afterwards.
Well-known local historian, Brian Hoban, relates that the Marsh House property had played an important role in the commercial life of the town during that time. He says that a landing stage had been provided on the river bank of the front lawn of the house. At that time, people living adjacent to the lake - at that time open to boats as far west as Islandeady - used the river to transport their farm produce, cattle and turf to Castlebar by water, for sale on the nearby Market Square. By the time the river was canalised, after the famine years, the road system had improved, carts were being brought into use, and the mode of transport changed.
Interestingly, the same landing stage area has been widened and paved to make way for the Turlough Greenway, which now links Lough Lannagh to the Museum of Country Life, and is proving to be one of the most popular walking and cycling routes in the locality.