A square mile of social history

Townland tales

Broadhaven Bay from Glancastle to Derrybameel Road, with Inishderry in the foreground. Pic: John O’Callaghan

Where hornless cows sheltered in an oak wood

John O'Callaghan

Doire na Maol will be familiar to anyone living in Belmullet or if your ancestors came from there. It is a townland on the inner shore of Broadhaven Bay, anglicised as Derrynameel. It is in the electoral division of Glencastle, the catholic parish of Belmullet, the civil parish of Kilcommon and the Barony of Erris. It is best approached by taking the turn off to the north in Glencastle, across the side of the hill.
As a place name, Doire na Maol appeals to me for a number of reasons, mostly because the meaning of the name is contentious and the Irish word ‘maol’ has many definitions. It grabbed my attention when my neighbour, John Moran, told me he spent many of his childhood summers in the area, staying in the home of his mother’s aunt, Mary McLoughlin.
In the 19th century, the antiquarian John O’Donovan, who worked on logainmneacha (place names) for the first Ordnance Survey in the 1830s, was happy to accept The Oak Wood of the Hornless Cows as the most likely translation. And to this day, ‘doire’ or ‘derry’ is widely accepted as being an oak wood or any type of small wood or thicket.

The bald truth?
However, ‘maol’ has other meanings besides hornless cow. Generally speaking, it can mean anything bare or bald, but it can also be a servant, devotee, a dense, obtuse person or a blunt object.
It is a widely used word, in people’s names – such as Gráinne Mhaol, the Pirate Queen of Clew Bay – and in place names, like Maol Réidh (Mweelrea), the highest mountain in Mayo and in Connacht.
The Christian names Maolíosa and Maolmhuire, servant of Jesus and servant of Mary, are not heard as much these days, but I do know of at least one Maolíosa, and the name Myles or Maolre are English versions of Maolmhuire.
Maol can also mean a ‘bare’ or ‘bald’ individual, or a bald or tonsured monk, from the monks who lived on the island of Inishderry/Inis Doire, out in the bay, opposite Derrynameel. According to Fr Seán Noone, in his book ‘Where the Sun Sets’, Derrynameel means The Oak-Wood of the Bald Monks. He states:
“There was an early monastic settlement on this island. In a letter by Pope Innocent the Third in 1198 we find mention of ‘Senchui cum Insuli Dori’ given among the endowments confirmed as belonging to the Bishop of Killala. By this time Inishderry would almost certainly have ceased to be inhabited by the successors of the original monastic founders.”
Inishderry and Derrynameel are marked on William Bald’s map of County Mayo, drawn between 1809 and 1817 and published in 1830. It also appears as ‘I, derro’ on a 1600 map of Connaught held in the National Library.

Dancehalls and oysters
The Ordnance Survey map of 1838 shows an RC chapel in ruins along the shoreline, about 70 metres from the boundary of the neighbouring townland of Muings (The Swamps). According to Fr Noone, “…it was a long chapel built parallel to the shoreline. The walls were plainly visible at the turn of the century. All that remains of it today are large foundation stones close to the high-tide mark. Fairs were held regularly near the chapel in 1802. There was also a shebeen here. About 1820 this chapel was desecrated and demolished by despoilers. It was replaced by a new chapel at Glencastle.”
John Moran told me he remembers his grandaunt running a small shop in Doire na Maol. According to Fr Noone, in the 1950s there were two dance halls in this townland; one was owned by Michael Mcloughlin. After it closed in the mid-1950s, another dance hall, called The Shamrock, was opened by Patrick McAndrew.
Oyster farming has been practised here for over 150 years; first in the 1870s by the landlord, Matthew Atkinson. Fr Noone again: “In May 1989, Coriasc Ltd, a government subsidiary, began a modern oyster farm here in which £400,000 is being spent. Six lagoons for the production of oyster spat were created. [...] Some wild oysters are also bred here. It takes about three years for them to mature.”
When I Googled ‘Oyster Farming, Belmullet’, the only reference I could find was an application for a seaweed farming licence. Perhaps this has now replaced oyster farming in the Derrynameel/Inishderry offshore area?
Doire na Maol is a tiny townland in county and national terms. Yet, for a place that is less than one square mile in area, it has a wealth of social history contained within it.

Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.