Chronicling Castlebar’s history

Staying In

SETTING THE STAGE Noel Campbell and John Healy at the launch of their book, ‘The History of Castlebar’, last month during the Wild Atlantic Words festival.

Edwin McGreal

‘The History of Castlebar’ does exactly what it says on the tin – it is the history of storied centuries in the county town – and authors, Noel Campbell and John Healy, have done justice to such an onerous undertaking.
Many written have been written about various strands of Castlebar history over the years. Campbell himself wrote ‘A History of Castlebar Municipal Government 1613-2014’. Tom Higgins’s ‘Through Fagan’s Gates’ focused on the history of the parish of Castlebar largely in the late 19th and 20th century. Michael O’Connor’s ‘Anatomy of a County Gaol’ explored crime and punishment in the county in the 19th and early 20th century. Paddy McGuinness wrote about the Castlebar International Song Contest; several books, including Seán Rice’s history of Castlebar Mitchels, have focused on sporting history; while Joe McDermott wrote a history of St Mary’s Hospital in the town.
But with this book, Campbell and Healy bring all those strands together into one thorough and compelling compendium. It’s a high-quality production too, designed by Siobhán Foody and printed by Mayo Books Press, another title in their burgeoning portfolio.
There are 18 chapters, the titles of which give a sense of the breadth of the authors’ work: ‘Early Castlebar’; ‘Chapels and Churches’; ‘Town Government’; ‘Crime and Policing’; ‘Castlebar and Humbert’; ‘Days of Revolution 1914-21’; ‘Agriculture’; ‘Health’; ‘Education’; ‘Business’; ‘Industry’; ‘Sport (two chapters)’; ‘A Music Town’; ‘Famous Names’; ‘They Served The State’; ‘The Printed Word’; ‘Authors of Castlebar’.
The co-authors pen nine chapters each and bring their own unique strengths to their subjects. Noel Campbell, a former Castlebar town councillor, is a historian and works as a curator in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life at Turlough Park. He brings a historian’s sharp eye and rigorous attention to detail to his work to reveal some fascinating insights.
John Healy, a most popular columnist with this newspaper, has worked in the local media here for nearly 50 years. His eye for a story and lovely, flowing writing style lead to some masterful chapters.  
The two men worked together on the book for almost two years.
“I’m not sure either of us would have been interested in doing it on our own,” Healy told The Mayo News. “We’ve tried to pull together all the strands of the history of the town encompassing history, culture, administration, sports, industry and so much more. There was a lot of research to authenticate and stand up stories,” he added.

They made plenty of discoveries along the way. Campbell has done great work in relation to the suspected location of de Barry’s Castle, from where the town’s name originated. Campbell established the likely location is on the grounds of Castlebar Military Barracks, where investigations are ongoing.
Parish Priest at the turn of the 20th century, Canon Patrick Lyons, features extensively – Healy is fascinated by the depth of his involvement in a wide variety of aspects of town life during his 33 years there.
“He was one of the most influential figures in the development of the town. He died in 1911, aged only 61, having served Castlebar for 33 years.
“A man noted for his vision, drive and tenacity of purpose he did much to shape the town as we know it,” said Healy.
Healy points to a close relationship with the 4th Lord Lucan as key to much of Canon Lyons’s successes. The 4th Earl was considered a much more benign landlord in the town than his father, who was known as ‘The Exterminator’. The 3rd Earl was despised for his treatment of tenants and known to clear hundreds of acres to make way for grazing.
The Canon led a building programme for the parish that included a new presbytery, a national and secondary school for boys, a De La Salle monastery and a parochial house.
But it was the Canon’s central role in the establishment of the bacon factory, which became a major player in the town’s economy, that Healy cites as Lyons’s standout contribution.
“Canon Lyons could see the potential of such an enterprise in helping both small farmers to improve their living standards, and providing employment for the people of the town.
“He travelled to London to meet with leading figures in the bacon industry and to sound out the viability of such a project for Castlebar.
“Having determined that his idea was in fact a sound one, he arranged with Lord Lucan that the Earl’s extensive farm, buildings, machinery and resources would be sold to what became Castlebar Bacon Company, the town’s biggest employer for 70 years.”
Just one of the many stories and individuals unknown to many residents of Castlebar in the 21st century highlighted by the authors. Healy and Campbell’s is a book which will be an essential reference for historians for generations to come and will inform and fascinate the people of Castlebar long into the future too.

‘The History of Castlebar’ is available in bookshops and from Mayo Books Press (

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