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That bold step forward for Ballinrobe

County View

County View
John Healy

The purchase by the Ballinrobe Town Hall committee of the venerable Valkenburg hotel can be seen as nothing less than an act of inspired wisdom. To see the landmark building transformed into ‘the beating heart of Ballinrobe’ will be the real shot in the arm to revive the slumbering potential of a town whose status and significance belong to an almost forgotten past.
Michael Sweeney and his team well know that there is a long way to go yet. But the wind is to their backs, and already the surge of positive goodwill for their courageous initiative is enough to ensure eventual success.
There is a notable historical symmetry in what has been achieved last week in Ballinrobe with the integration of the much loved Valk into public ownership. It is exactly two hundred years ago, to the year, that James Cuffe of Ballinrobe Castle built the townhouse-like hotel on the commanding site in the centre of the town. Cuffe – a scion of the Knox Gore family – was MP for Mayo for 30 years, held the post of Governor of Mayo until his death, and among his titles was Barrackmaster General of Ireland. It was in that role that he displayed a particular commitment to the large military garrison at Ballinrobe (itself crucial to the town’s business prosperity), and why the hotel, when first opened, partially operated as a military rest home.
Originally known as the Tyrawley Hotel – Cuffe himself was the first Baron Tyrawley – it took its present name when the Valkenburg family acquired the property in 1858. Of German origin, the Valkenburgs expanded their Mayo interests to include hotels in Balla and Belmullet, but it was in Ballinrobe that they played their most prominent role in the civic, business and cultural life of the town and its hinterland. Last week’s remarkable event in which the Town Hall committee successfully acquired the Valkenburg at public auction is a near perfect example of history repeating itself.
It was in 1885 that a group of prominent Ballinrobe citizens, among them the hotelier John Valkenburg, called a meeting at the courthouse with a view to providing the town with a much needed community hall and reading rooms. At that meeting, it was agreed that the group would offer a bid at auction for the forthcoming sale of the old Bridewell, a small prison at the junction of the Neale road, which the Mayo Grand Jury had decided to dispose of. The Parish Priest, Fr Ronayne, representing the group at the auction, successfully bid the sum of 65 pounds, thereby securing the old building for the community.
The Bridewell became the Town Hall, and went on to serve the community for over a hundred years as playhouse, theatre, games rooms, reading rooms and communal facility.
Hopefully, the Valkenburg name will be incorporated into the new development, a fitting reminder of the family which ran the establishment for a hundred years, and whose spirit of enterprise will be carried on into the future.The Valkenburg was the mail coach stage throughout the 1800s, the mid point for the traveller cars from Galway to Westport, the highly regarded accommodation of choice for the legal and judicial personnel attached to the then important Ballinrobe Assizes. The Valkenburgs were undertakers and coach builders; Joseph Valkenburg, in the early 1940s, led a consortium of Mayo hoteliers whose aim of attracting cruise liners into Clew Bay, though well advanced, was thwarted by the onset of war.
The hotel passed to the ownership of Patrick Finlay in 1958, exactly a hundred years after the Valkenburg family had taken control, and was in turn acquired by Seamas and Ita Langan, whose sons were the most recent owners of the famed hotel.