THERE are few Mayo villages - with the possible exception of Cong - more deserving of the designation of Heritage Village than Turlough. And when the current campaign for that particular accolade finally achieves its objective, Turlough will take its place as Ireland’s premier small village.
This is a village where the past meets the present. Home to the Museum of Country Life - the only section of the National Museum to be located outside Dublin - it already attracts thousands of visitors each year, but many feel that Turlough is a long way from realising its full potential. The acquisition of Turlough House by Mayo County Council and its subsequent development by the National Museum proved an inspired decision, and notably it was done at the urging of the local community and, in particular, by local historian and archaeologist, Christy Lawless.
Turlough is a village steeped in history. Long associated with the Fitzgerald family, who came from Kilkenny under the Cromwellian settlements, there is much about its layout which reflects its connection to the local ‘Big House’. Its abundance of woodland tells of its links to the landed gentry; its sawmills were once the staple provider of local employment; its floodlit Church of Ireland building and adjoining graveyard a tangible link to the local ruling family. It was here that the colourful George Robert ‘Fighting’ Fitzgerald, hanged on the Castlebar Mall in 1786, held his father prisoner in a cave beneath his house, its entrance guarded by a pet Russian bear. And his horse racing spectaculars on the tower field became the most famed equestrian events west of the Shannon.
But even further back, there is Turlough’s association with Patrician times, the well preserved round tower a reminder of the village’s importance in ecclesiastical terms. The tower is one of its most impressive landmarks, dating back to the ninth century, a place of refuge for the religious of the Abbey against Viking invaders. The entrance door, still visible high up on its outer wall, ensured the safety of its occupants from attack - at the first warning signal, the monks and the local people, with their precious manuscripts and valuables, would clamber up by ladder, pulling up the structure behind them, and taking them out of reach of the invaders.
Interestingly, and an indication of the importance of Turlough in medieval times, the tower and its grounds were considered part of the property of the Primacy of Armagh up until the sixteenth century. It was only the arrival of Cromwell’s forces in 1654 - which also saw the destruction of the Patrician church - that prised the round tower from the grip of the Armagh authorities.
In later times, the poet Paul Durcan extolled the delights of Turlough - it was here that he spent many happy days in his grandmother’s public house, and was lulled to sleep at night by the babble of conversation from the bar below.
But that was then, and for now Turlough is poised for what should be a new chapter in its story. The development of the Castlebar - Turlough Greenway, due to be extended into the village itself in the next few weeks, will be a great boost to the locality. Already, the enterprising Castlebar based ‘Bikes and Boards’ has put in place a significant tourism experience based on the greenway. When the final piece of the facility is extended to give walkers and cyclists full access to the Museum of Country Life and onwards to Horkan’s Garden Centre, then Turlough can begin to look forward to renewed fortunes.