Maytime was traditionally considered a time for festivals, and Galway was no exception to this. In fact it used to be said that the citizens had an almost reverential attachment to the old custom of going out to Menlo for three Sundays in May to partake in the pleasure of the open air and the early summer sun. It was known as ‘Maying in Menlo’.
Menlo Castle was originally built in the middle of the 16th century by Richard Colman. It became the home of a branch of the Blake family in 1600, and they resided there until the arrival of the Cromwellians, when they were dispossessed. The property was eventually restored to the Blakes, and they continued to live there until the disastrous fire in 1910 when Miss Blake and two members of her staff, Annie Browne and Bridget Early, lost their lives. Sadly, it has been derelict ever since.
After the Famine, Sir Valentine Blake decided to carry on the established tradition of ‘Maying’ by opening up the grounds of the castle to the public, thus allowing hundreds of young and old the pleasure of walking through his woods and enjoying the views along the banks of the river. The opening of the Eglinton Canal and the deepening of the channel to the lake around that time helped make this area a great amenity for Galway.
The Blakes would place a large flag of welcome on top of the castle. It was an ideal picturesque setting as the gardens were beginning to bloom. Each Sunday was an occasion made lively by the huge crowds who arrived by boat, on horseback or on foot; by the marquees, tea tents along the embankment, and stalls which sold all kinds of goodies like beer and porter, lemonade and cordials, fruits and sweets, and various foodstuffs. Local bands played and entertained inside and outside the castle and there was lots of dancing, all adding to the celebratory atmosphere.
There were all kinds of amusements such as ‘hitting the maggie’, games of rings, and a greasy pole which stuck out over the river. There were many different types of athletic challenges, from running to weight throwing, and other sports such as swimming and tennis. Steamers plied between Woodquay and Menlo carrying the public to the event and there were lots of boats on the water. Indeed, there were lots of challenges on the river as oarsmen from various clubs competed in a regatta and local yachts and pleasure boats raced against each other.
Everyone dressed in their Sunday best, especially the women whose colourful dresses added to the occasion. It is no wonder it was such a popular event. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a flag of welcome on top of the turret of Menlo Castle again?