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Long lens on local history


Áine Ryan

AMONG the many examples of the Marquis of Sligo’s generosity to the people of Westport  during famine times is a little vignette that could be called cross-community ecumenism.
It is described in Kathleen Hunt’s essay, ‘The Convent of Mercy, Westport, Co Mayo: 1841 and early years’, which appears in this edition of historical journal, Cathair na Mart 2018.
It was the then parish priest of Westport, Dean Burke who had negotiated the procurement of three acres of land on Altamont Street for the building of the convent.
Kathleen Hunt explains that while there was a certain reticence at first , the priest received a letter on December 24, 1841, stating: “My father, from a feeling towards you and a desire to gratify the inhabitants of Westport, has consented that in this case, and particularly because it is for a religious purpose, he and I should join in effecting your wishes with regard to the lease of the Nunnery.” Indeed, Lord Altamont organised for his gardener to remove big rocks from the site and plant some shrubs and trees.
By early 1843 the foundation stone had been laid by local builder, Mr John Gibbons, whose estimate for the project was £2,000. By October 1844, three young nuns, who had been sent from the Convent of Mercy in Carlow, were moving into the new building.
A report in The Connaught Telegraph on May 18, 1847, poignantly encapsulates the importance of their work during these catastrophic years: “The humane and benevolent Agent of the British Association enabled the Sisters of Mercy to give a breakfast of Indian meal and corn to about 800 starving children who attend their schools.”

Discoveries and verse
Westport’s historical journal, Cathair na Mart, has long ago proven how important the lens of  local history is, not only for understanding the subject area, but also as a microcosmic examination of that period in society at large.
It’s 35th publication once again achieves this with its broad selection of essays, which open with Kieran Waldron’s article entitled, ‘The General Election of 1918 – A Turning Point in Our History’, to a detailed study on ‘Bofeenaun Friary: History and Architecture of a Late Medieval Religious House’, by Dr Yvonne McDermott of GMIT Mayo. There is also a fascinating article by Marie Boran, the Special Collections Librarian in the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway, on a man of that same name, ‘James Hardiman – 19th Century Scholar and Mayo Man’.
A new angle on Major John MacBride, executed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916, is explored in ‘Major MacBride’s Australian Relatives’, by Sydney historian Anne-Marie Whitaker.
While Major John also achieved fame for his ill-fated marriage to Maud Gonne and his exploits as the leader of the Irish Transvaal Brigade during the Boer War, his older brother Joseph also achieved some fame for his marriage to Maud’s half-sister, Eileen Wilson, and his involvement more locally in the political struggle.
However, this essay reveals information about another of the five brothers, Francis William, who emigrated to Victoria in 1891 and later decamped to New South Wales.
“Information on Francis MacBride’s 40 or so years in the Australian outback is fairly sparse. There was a charge of sheep stealing at the remote town of Wilcannia in 1903, when he and a group of four other men were found in possession of a sheep’s carcase, presumably intended for dinner.”
Hilariously, another report reveals that he ended up in court ‘for supplying a bottle of stout to a certified inebriate’. Like so many other stories of emigrants, particularly those who never married and who lived far from their native shores, there is a moving pathos to Francis’s story which culminated in him falling down a river bank, injuring his knee and being institutionalised in a home for old men, the Liverpool Asylum, aged just 67.
A distinctive element in recent editions of the journal is its inclusion of the medium of poetry to examine history. ‘The Inheritors – For Charles Hughes’, by local poet Ger Reidy is a visceral probe into how we have dealt with legacy of our revolutionary forebears, as this poignant excerpt conveys:
‘When the time came/ the Tans defeated/ they left the romantic guns aside,/ built statues to the blood heroes,/ erected the scaffolding of democracy/ and waited for the brave new inheritors/ to realise the dream buried in the sacrifice.’

Cathair na Mart: Journal of the Westport Historical Society, 2018, is on sale in local bookshops for €10. For more, visit www.westportheritage.com.