One does not have to dig very deep into the archives to find evidence of wholescale corruption, pervasive nepotism, and general theft of public monies by public representatives and officials in nineteenth-century Mayo.
Votes, lucrative public contracts, and pensionable employment in the public service were all up for grabs for those with the right family ties, religious and political leanings, or business and social connections.
Those in the system also took opportunities to divert public funds or property for personal gain. Papers at the National Archives provide excellent insights into the nature and extent of corrupt practices and the identity of those involved.
In 1822, civil engineer Benjamin Pemberton of Castlebar noted in a letter to Henry Goulburn (see image ), at the Irish Office, in Westminster that: "I am ready to show, by public documents, whenever required so to do, the greatest frauds and impositions practised in this county, hitherto with impunity – thousands levied off the miserable inhabitants by presentment never legally accounted for, or the works for which they had been presented never performed."
Pemberton directed a series of charges of jobbery (using a public office or position of trust for one's gain or advantage ) and mismanagement against the Mayo Grand Jury and officers of public works. He demanded an investigation into the misuse of funds on the Erris to Castlebar road project and the conduct of engineer William Bald and magistrate Denis Brown. Pemberton's original letter and a file of associated papers are held at the National Archives.
The Erris project took many years to complete. It was plagued with allegations of wasted and misapplied funds and partiality in the payments system. When engineer Alexander Nimmo was accused of withholding the wages of poor and starving labourers, he responded that the work was defective. Consequently, it was necessary to put 'pressure' on the workers. Nimmo attracted stinging criticism for neglect of duties.
In 1824, Westport masons James Greham and Patrick Nestor complained to chief secretary Goulburn that Nimmo had awarded contracts for the erection of bridges between Killary and Westport to an associate and that the contracts were not advertised. In 1825, Thomas Walsh of Bangor Erris complained to lord-lieutenant Richard Wellesley that tools purchased for public works by engineer William O'Hara and his brother Robert were misappropriated.
In the same year, sub-sheriff John Bourke was subjected to public examination on irregularities in the management of his Castlebar office. It was alleged that his clerk, Henry Moran, was assisting defendants in avoiding enforcement in actions to recover debts. Bourke also interfered for Moran's benefit in one such debt recovery action taken against Moran.
In 1849, Thomas Gallogly, governor of the County Prison in Castlebar, was dismissed for using public funds to furnish his residence. Gallogly also had an undisclosed career in lending money to prison inspectors. The inspectors were responsible for inspecting and reporting to the government on Gallogly's prison and his performance. In 1904, Castlebar Workhouse matron Lucy Conroy was dismissed for pawning workhouse property. Her husband Joseph, the master, was dismissed for irregularities in bookkeeping entries, invoicing, and stock levels.
There are also many letters at the National Archives concerning perceived 'next in line' entitlements to lucrative public positions irrespective of qualification or ability. In 1822, Patrick J. Rogers wrote to chief secretary Goulburn concerning his application for employment in the police service. Rogers lamented the 'pernicious system' of favouritism that was endemic among those with power in Castlebar and Mayo more generally – 'It leaves men of talent, and activity, buried in oblivion when favourites are recommended to situations for which they are unqualified'.
Frederick Cavendish did much to out elected members of parliament and public officials who engaged in corrupt practices. His targets included the Marquess of Sligo, Howe Peter Browne. Cavendish paid dearly for his lack of deference towards the Westport peer with time in prison and significant fines. Yet today, one finds letters at the National Archives written by Browne to Dublin Castle when he was lord-lieutenant of Mayo, calling for named family members and associates to be given public positions irrespective of qualifications, something Cavendish had repeatedly highlighted.