Mayo’s history, heritage and topography explored

Staying In

Going out
Áine Ryan

EXTOLLING the importance of ‘a sense of place’, Bernard O’Hara notes the profundity of the ‘special attachment’ Irish people have ‘to their native counties’. He suggests this is ‘fostered in a big way by the Gaelic Athletic Association as well as being expressed in so many songs and ballads and, moreover, invigorated through exploration of the rich landscape and heritage of such counties, as in this case Mayo. The Killasser native and retired Registrar of GMIT (Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology) is writing in the preface to his new book, ‘Exploring Mayo’.
Setting the scene for this odyssey, he outlines the fact that County Mayo’s ‘astonishing scenery’ and ‘unspoiled natural environment’ stretches from ‘Lough Corrib and Killary harbour in the south to Killala Bay and Erris in the north and from Achill, Clew Bay, and the Mullet peninsula in the west to the counties of Sligo and Roscommon.
“Each vista has its own delight and surprise. it is a paradise for outdoor pursuits on land and seas, as well as for those who want to explore its archaeology, history, architecture, public art, wildlife, flora and various other aspects of its heritage,” O’Hara writes.
‘Exploring Mayo’ is an impressive publication defined by tours through the history, heritage, topography and culture of this county. Enhanced by a gallery of photographs, and a series of Tables (details, for example, of ‘Civil Parishes from the 1570s to 1898), the tome provides a dictionary of facts for the newcomer and a fascinating expedition for those who love to discover new knowledge of the county.

History and heritage
AT the outset, O’Hara sets the scene with a chapter entitled, ‘Archaeological and Historical Heritage’, which sweeps the reader right back to the Mesolithic period (8000–4000BC). This cross-millennial journey continues from the Carrowcrom wedge tomb, near Bonniconlon, to the ‘Long Stone of the Neale’, Aughagower and Turlough’s round towers, to the surviving façade of Swinford Workhouse .
For hillwalkers or amateur archaeologists, photographers or artists, ‘Exploring Mayo’ is a perfect Christmas present to be browsed over the festive period or left on the coffee table for the occasional perusal. The reader-friendly chapters examine each area’s DNA, as it were. Opening with Tour 1: North Mayo, the author informs us that: “By 1831, Ballina was the largest town in the county, with a population of 7,989 (5,510 in Ballina and 2,479 in Ardnaree) but it declined during the Great Famine.” Interestingly, the town’s famous salmon weirs on the River Moy were rebuilt in 1849 during that catastrophic period while the railway significantly improved the connectedness of the north Mayo capital in 1873.
A fascinating anecdote, in the same chapter, relates how in the early 1800s, Major Denis Bingham developed Binghamstown, on the Mullet peninsula, building a road to Blacksod bay in the south.
“He also secured a patent to hold fairs and markets, but Binghamstown was soon overtaken by the more strategically-located Belmullet, about 5km NW. Major Bingham erected a big gate, hence the name An Geata Mór, across the road and forced people taking animals to Belmullet to pay a toll. However, the locals knew the local lanes and drive their cattle through fields, thus avoiding the tolls.”

The Crossmolina Conspiracy
BACK over in central Mayo (Tour 3), the author relates another colourful tale about a certain PW Nally (1855-1891) – after whom the Nally Stand in Croke Park is named.
“A Fenian and a great all-round athlete, he orgnanised two national inclusive athletic events in Balla with the support of the Land League. After discussing with Michael Cusack (1847-1906) in 1881 the control of athletics in Ireland and the exclusion of certain classes from participation, they considered the possibility of establishing an autonomous Irish athletics organisation.” Ironically, Nally was in jail for a conviction known as ‘the Crossmolina Conspiracy’ – it related to his refusal to give evidence against Charles Stuart Parnell – and died there days before his expected release ‘following alleged harsh treatment’.  

The author
A native of Killasser, Bernard O’Hara, is a longtime resident of Salthill, Galway. He is a former lecturer, Head of School, and Registrar at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT). Previous publications include, Mayo: Aspects of its Heritage (ed.), The Archaeological Heritage of Killasser, Co Mayo, A Guide to County Mayo, Michael Davitt, and Killasser: Heritage of a Mayo Parish.

Published by the Killasser-Callow Heritage Society, ‘Exploring Mayo’, by Bernard O’Hara, is on sale in bookshops throughout the county, in hardback
(€20 rrp).

Did you know?
The first public session of the new Republican law courts, established by Dáil Éireann, was held in Ballinrobe, County Mayo on 17 May, 1919. —Bernard O’Hara, ‘Exploring Mayo’