Temperance, teanga and throw-ins

Thu, Mar 16, 2017

Though a feast day on the Catholic calendar since the 1600s, St. Patrick's Day only became a public holiday in Ireland in 1903. Prior to the early 20th century and a structured national approach to honouring the saint, the Briton was resurrected from time to time and pushed to the front of many campaigns. The feast day's events, which drew large crowds, were always managed either directly, or were heavily influenced, by the local Catholic church. That is not surprising, Patrick was a Christian after all. Many pre-Famine St Patrick's Day events were organised by the temperance movement, headed by Fr Theobald Mathew. The movement encouraged the Irish nation to pledge to abstain from alcohol for corporal and spiritual betterment, but sometimes with mixed results. The St Patrick's Day teetotallers procession through Castlebar in 1841 was not one of that organisation's high points. The march was to be a show of strength, an opportunity for the Rev Gibbons to display his and his members' accomplishments. Frustratingly for Gibbons, a large number of the group arrived to take up their places in the parade’s ranks while under the influence, having soundly violated their pledges. The non-teetotaller band abandoned the depleted parade midway through to join the town’s festivities, causing the temperance leaders to consider organising a teetotal band of their own that they could depend on.

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Mayo's Bon Secours inmates

Fri, Mar 10, 2017

In a little under five years time, Ireland will roll out the red commemoration carpets for a year long celebration to mark the centenary of the Irish Free State. In the decades preceding the independent state, unionist politicians and their constituents vigorously, and even militantly, opposed any form of self-determination for Ireland as they believed Home Rule under a Catholic majority would mean Rome rule. The fears of those unionists were realised. The Free State, like the British state before it, inadequately supervised Catholic institutions tasked with caring for sections of Irish society and thereby put at risk the very children of the nation that independence was destined to cherish. The Free State's successors were equally culpable of neglect as each fed its own citizens to an ultra conservative, practically unregulated, system of 250 Church-run industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages, hostels and homes from the 1920s up until the 1990s. Since the 1990s, criminal cases and inquiries have established that thousands of children were abused by hundreds of priests and several Catholic religious orders were found to have participated in or concealed child abuse. 

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GMIT history can teach us valuable lessons

Fri, Mar 03, 2017

Why should we study history? Well, frankly, history is the study of human nature, and history most definitely repeats itself. History can teach us lessons so that we are forearmed when facing situations, better informed when planning to proceed. The history of the long campaign to establish the Regional Technical College (RTC, now the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT) campus in Mayo contains, I believe, guidance on how the Castlebar based college can be rescued from those who oppose its survival.

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Two hundred and fifty year old Westport shows no signs of aging

Fri, Feb 24, 2017

Westport’s epic All-Ireland Intermediate final win last Sunday has come at the start of what is set to be an exciting year for the town. The westerners made history in the capital by becoming the first Mayo side to take the Intermediate title. While the people of Westport relocated from Croagh Patrick to Croke Park for a few nervous hours, they returned late Sunday night to a town that is planning to mark its own historic milestone. On March 17 1767, John Browne, Baron Mount Eagle, placed a notice in Faulkner’s Journal announcing his ambitious vision. "A New Town is immediately to be built near the Old Town of Westport in the County of Mayo, according to Plans and Elevations & already fixed upon, consisting of a large and elegant Market house, situated in the centre of an Octagon area of 200 feet, and to be enclosed with Twelve large well finished slated Houses, together with three avenues for Streets of thirty slated Houses, and several very large Streets for [a] great number of thatched Houses and Cabins," so read part of Browne’s announcement.

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The Inishkea seal slaughter

Fri, Feb 17, 2017

In October 1981, the carcases of 140 butchered seals were discovered on the Inishkea Islands, off the Belmullet peninsula. The slaughter horrified the public and animal welfare groups and the brutal manner in which the animals met their doom had ensured that the incident would gather negative media attention for the Erris area. But who carried out the massacre and why? The finger of blame immediately pointed to local fishermen.

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The Quiet Man who caused quite a racket

Fri, Feb 10, 2017

In terms of professional recognition and box office takings, the 1952 film The Quiet Man was a big success, the romantic comedy-drama was a gamble for Irish American director John Ford who was, until then, known largely for his high octane Westerns. The gamble paid off and Ford scooped his fourth Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man. Though the film's stars John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara did not receive nominations, the film was nominated for seven awards and eventually won two at the 1953 Academy Awards. Its success was good news for Ireland, especially along the Mayo-Galway border, and the village of Cong in particular, where the film had been shot. Ford and his Hollywood entourage arrived in the west in the summer of 1951 to begin recording the film's outdoors scenes. The production had brought welcome employment to the area and the end result showcased the beauty of the region to a global audience.

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The rise of a county capital

Thu, Jan 19, 2017

It is three years to the month since the signing into law by President Higgins of the Local Government Reform Act 2014. The act abolished Ireland’s 80 town councils as part of a range of measures designed to reform local administration. Three of those town councils operated in the Mayo towns of Ballina, Westport, and in the county capital, Castlebar. The debate continues as to whether the abolition of an entire tier of local government was largely beneficial or harmful. It may take longer than three years for any lasting effects to register themselves.

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When cricket was 'alive ho in the west'

Thu, Jan 19, 2017

The 1880s was a watershed in the history of sport in Ireland. Soccer's All-Ireland governing body was established in Belfast in 1880 and during that decade the sport began to spread out from Ulster and scatter throughout the island. The first set of rules for rugby were drawn up in England in 1845, but the sport did not gain much traction in Ireland until the 1880s, a mere 10 years after the first game was played on Irish soil. The sport’s managing body, the Irish Rugby Football Union, was founded in 1879. The Golfing Union of Ireland was established in 1891, and though the game was being played in Ireland prior to that date, it had not attracted a Mayo following. The first golf club in Connacht was only founded in 1892. In 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association was formed with a view to promoting Ireland’s native games. All of these sports have grown to become extremely popular in Mayo today but one sport, once arguably the most popular organised sport in the county, has virtually disappeared.

Cricket was introduced into Ireland in the 18th century. The earliest known reference to the sport is of a match held in Dublin in 1792 between the British garrison and an "All-Ireland" team. The oldest cricket club still in existence in Ireland is Phoenix Cricket Club in Dublin, which was founded in 1830 by John Parnell, father of Charles Stewart Parnell. In Mayo, the County Club was already in existence by 1818. All strata of society were allowed play, and were encouraged to play the game. By the 1870s, very active cricket clubs existed across the county. The early games were played very much with a parochial feel to them with social events organised around the games themselves. Hollymount Cricket Club hosted a regular athletic sports day. By incorporating athletes into the day, the club opened up the event, and cricket, to a wider audience. Castlebar Cricket Club held concerts with the dual purpose of raising funds and creating a social mixer for club members, families, and supporters. Friendly rivalries existed between certain clubs. In the east of the county, Swinford and Kilkelly cricket clubs frequently battled for sporting honours. The bigger towns of Castlebar, Ballina, and Westport played each other regularly, and being evenly matched, reports of their matches were of interest to the county’s wider cricket support. At the inaugural meeting of the Ballyhaunis Cricket Club in 1893, the chairman noticed that every town in the west had a cricket club. So strong was cricket in Mayo that "Ranje", a provincial newspaper columnist, cheered "Cricket's alive ho! in the West". Ranje’s popular column gave cricket updates on Mayo teams and tips on how to play the game's more common strokes.

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Rebelling against the rebellion

Fri, Jan 13, 2017

Folklore, song, and verse dedicated to the rebellion of 1798 usually relay the romantic image of an heroic, clandestine, French army joining forces with a willing and equally heroic band of Irish rebels. Bound by a thirst for liberté, égalité and fraternité, the Franco-Irish forces grew in strength as they progressed through the county, bravely securing victories over the might of the British Crown. But one rebel's contemporary account of the Franco-Irish campaign challenges the notion of international solidarity among equals that has dominated the narrative of the events of 1798. 

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Mayo TDs and the Treaty debates

Fri, Jan 06, 2017

This January 7 marks the 95th anniversary of one of the most influential votes to have been taken by Dáil Éireann. The result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty vote continues to shape Ireland’s relationship with Britain and her place within the family of European and global nations to this day, as it does the domestic politics on this island. The Treaty was an agreement between the government of the United Kingdom and representatives of the Irish Republic, signed on December 6 1921, which brought the War of Independence to an end.

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The economics of maintaining the Mayo Gaeltacht

Fri, Dec 30, 2016

In 1851, the Mayo Gaeltacht stretched west across the county from a line between Kilasser and Ballindine, excluding the town of Ballina. The official census figures for that year record that 65.8 per cent of the county’s population could speak the Irish language. By 1926, that figure had plummeted to 36.8 per cent and today, 47.2 per cent of the Mayo population claim the ability to speak the language, though to vastly different standards. Statistics for where the language is living and in everyday use are more important and telling. In that regard, the Mayo Gaeltacht is now confined to the Erris region, the eastern half of Achill Island, the Corraun Peninsula and a pocket around Tourmakeady on the western shore of Lough Mask.

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Christmas in Mayo, one hundred years ago

Fri, Dec 23, 2016

This is it, the last Friday before Christmas. Just two days to go, and no doubt you are busy completing Christmas time chores like whitewashing your house or making a three branched tallow candle. The way we celebrate, observe or mark Christmas has changed and will continue to change. That is not a criticism of modern life, that is life. Traditions and customs evolve, they always have done, they always will. How did you mark St Martin’s Day on November 11 last? Did you kill a rooster and sprinkle the four corners of your house with its blood to keep all danger and trouble away? Rightly considered bizarre today, but that was a custom in Mayo some 100 years ago. Recognising that those long established traditions were in danger of being forgotten to an albeit slowly modernising Ireland, the Irish Folklore Commission developed a recording scheme that ran between 1937 and 1938 and which invited Irish Free State primary schoolchildren to compile and submit folklore from their local area. The children responded in their tens of thousands with folktales, customs and crafts, gleaned from their extended families and written down by their own hands. Thankfully, schoolchildren from across Mayo participated and their returns document our county’s not too distant Christmas beliefs and practices. 

Young Nellie Caulfield from Tulrohaun, close to Mayo’s borders with Roscommon and Galway, paints a picture in her recordings of a time when everyone celebrated the Nativity. Nellie’s research added that in some places it was a mortal sin to bear enmity for past offences. At Christmas, she continued, every door is thrown open and everything in the house is shared willingly with whoever enters to ask for shelter or refreshment. There was an observance of forming a three branched tallow candle to commemorate the Trinity. Each of the branches was lit at dusk on Christmas Eve, but all three were extinguished at midnight. The remains of the triple candle were, however, carefully preserved until the following year as a protection against the visits of all evil spirits except whiskey. The practice of leaving one’s door open was not just to welcome mortal travellers. After interviewing his 40-year-old father Patrick, schoolboy James McDonnell wrote that the people of his village, Belcarra near Castlebar, left their door open on Christmas night so that the Blessed Virgin would have shelter. They would light a candle on that night to direct the Blessed Virgin so that she may leave her blessing on the house. In James’ village, the old people used to give bread to all the animals and at twelve o'clock on Christmas night all the dumb animals would begin to talk and each of them would go down on their knees.

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