A fancy name, an infamous family, and a fairy fort

Townland tales

Ros na mBréthair, leading to a tranquil Newport bay.  Pic: John O’Callaghan

Understanding Melcombe and unravelling Ros na mBráthar

John O'Callaghan

The family name of Bingham has been mentioned previously on this page with the townland of Lios na Gaoithe – aka Antigua – in Castlebar, after the now ruined Antigua House.
Today the focus is on another Bingham property, Milcum House, and the townland of Milcum, situated on a narrow peninsula, west of Newport. The present Melcomb House is in the adjacent townland of Teevemore, An Taobh Mór, ‘the high side,’ as the original property was already ‘in ruins’ in 1838. The Irish name for Milcum is Ros na mBráthar, ‘Friars’ Point’ or ‘the Promontory of The Brothers/Friars’. There is another Millcomb near Belmullet, in Carn (Nash) townland, northeast of Carn House.
The ‘fancy name’ of Milcum was first applied to Ros na mBráthair in 1776. There is an older name for this area, Ráth Uí Mhóráin, ‘Moran’s Rath’, that dates from 1611/2. The ‘fairy fort’ or lios/ráth, is still discernible on the ground, just a couple of hundred metres short of the tip of the peninsula. My photograph does not capture it very well, but satellite images from Google Earth clearly show a circular raised earthen ring fort (53°52’50.0”N 9°34’49.6”W).
In this instance, given its maritime location, the Irish word bráthair has other meanings besides ‘brother, monk or friar’. For example, it can mean monkfish or angelfish; Bráithre bána are white-crested waves; and praiseach bhráthar is dog’s mercury, a rare poisonous woodland plant, ‘almost absent from Ireland, Orkney and Shetland’ (according to Wikipedia). There are other place names with ‘bráthair’ in Mayo – Friarstown/Baile na mBráthar in the barony of Tirawley, Derrynamraher, in Carra. Also, there are two islands in the northeast of Clew Bay called Illannambrather East and West.  

A brace of Binghams
I once worked in the telephone exchange in Newport PO, when the McManamon family ran the Post Office, and often wondered what Melcomb/Melcombe/Milcum meant, as I thought it was an unusual name for a place in West Mayo.
Loosely translated, ‘honeycomb’, as limestone or chalky ground can easily resemble, may be one possible meaning. Topographically, a coombe/coom/cwm or ‘coum/comb’ is a hollow area in a mountain or hillside and Mel is the Latin word for honey. Coincidentally, at the centre of Dorset, in southern England, surrounded by chalk hills, lies Melcombe Bingham, just one of a confusing plethora of place names containing Melcombe. Melcombe Bingham is the name of the current modern settlement, while nearby is the deserted medieval village, Bingham’s Melcombe. The Bingham family lived at Bingham’s Melcombe from the 13th century and were responsible for building the church and manor house.
The Binghams included some famous, and infamous men; Sir Richard was commemorated on a cenotaph in Westminster Abbey, most notably for fighting against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, where the Holy League prevented the Ottoman Empire from expanding into Europe. His great-grandson, Sir John Bingham, was one of Dorset’s leading Parliamentarians during the civil war, and Bingham’s Melcombe was chosen to be the headquarters of the local Parliamentary forces.
One of the more notorious descendants of the clan was Lord Lucan of Castlebar, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1974, following the brutal murder of the family nanny. Officially declared dead in 2016, he was the chief suspect in the subsequent police investigation. During the Famine, the 3rd Earl of Lucan, George Bingham, became one of the most hated men in Ireland by evicting thousands of poor, starving tenants from his estates. He gave his name to Binghamstown, An Geata Mór, ‘The Big Gate,’ on the Mullet Peninsula.   

Ancient enclosure
When I visited Milcum/Rosnambráthar recently, I met some of the residents. Harry McManamon, who manages the Gráinne Uaile gastropub in Newport, showed me the farm his father, Joe, worked on there for years. I met veterinarian-turned-historian Peter Mullowney, principal author of ‘Newport 300, The first two hundred years (1720-1920)’. Peter is the current owner of ‘Melcomb House’, and the final chapter of the book lists all previous occupants of the house since Connell O’Donel lived there in 1837, naming it ‘Seamount House’.
I also bumped into Bernie McManamon, who currently farms the southwestern end of the peninsula, and he kindly permitted me to access and photograph the ancient enclosure. This particular ‘Ros’ was a ‘wooded headland’ during the first Ordnance Survey in 1838. There is no extant historical evidence to associate any friars with the promontory.
Given the proximity to Clew Bay, perhaps another meaning of ‘bráthair’ as ‘monkfish’ or something of a botanical nature may be more appropriate in this instance?

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’.