May Sundays in Menlo

“Boats from the Long Walk as well as the Boraholla boats were plying, and the shouting of the boatmen 'Who’s for Menlo, twopence a head, children free' rent the air …. It is a slow voyage but no-one minds. Joe Banks, piper to the King plays ‘The Rakes of Mallow'. Joe Kelly is piping in another boat, which is occupied by the Mayor of Galway …… Sweet vendors were working night and day preparing sugar-sticks and kiss-pipes which were sold in colours of red and white at a half-penny each ….. the cries of different vendors of eatables and drinks rent the air: ‘Cider a penny a glass …. The real juice of the American apple; Guinness threepence per pint and minerals twopence per bottle’ is the shout …… Puritans and temperance fanatics were unknown …. The ladies in the enclosure, which was at this side of the castle, with their sunshades and costumes of mid-Victorian days, looked beautiful. The villagers and colleens with their shoulder-shawls and neat pinafores were a picture of neatness and comeliness. They were all dressed — not undressed as they are today. Lady Blake hands the prizes and cups to the successful crews. The Miss Blakes are chatting in good old Irish to Maureen, Shawneen and Paudeen.”

This nostalgic extract taken from John Cunningham’s book A Town Tormented by the Sea describes the 19th century tradition of ‘Maying at Menlo’ when the Blake family would place a large flag of welcome on top of the castle and open up the grounds and the castle to the public for three Sundays in the month. This tradition started just after the Famine and included all kinds of sporting competitions, swimming, rowing, yachting, tennis, running races, weight-throwing, and lots of music and dancing. Stalls were erected selling all kinds of goodies, bands played inside the house and on the lawn. Tea tents and beer tents were put up. There were all kinds of amusements such as ‘hitting the maggie’, games of rings, and a greasy pole which stuck out over the water. These activities attracted huge crowds who arrived by boat, on horseback, or on foot. Steamers plied between Woodquay and Menlo carrying the public. It is little wonder that ‘Maying in Menlo’ was such a popular annual event.

Sadly, the tradition began to die out at the beginning of the 20th century, and any hopes of reviving the festival were dashed when the castle went on fire and two people died in the conflagration. The extent of the damage to the building can be seen in this 1912 photograph which was given to us by Jimmy Howe from Ballybrack in Dublin. There was just a shell left of what had been described as “The handsomest inhabited old castle in Ireland”. The car we see parked was a Sleeve Valve Daimler, known as ‘Silent Night’ which belonged to Mrs Bellingham of Castlebellingham. It was driven by her chauffeur Pat Howe. She may have been reminiscing by visiting what was left of an old friend’s house.

Listen to Tom Kenny and Ronnie O'Gorman elaborating on topics they have covered in this week's paper and much more in this week's Galway Diary Podcast.


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