Belcarra: A seventeenth-century assizes town

Photo: Belcarra Village,

Photo: Belcarra Village,

Belcarra was bathed in the sunshine last Friday. The air conditioning in the car was insufficient to combat the record-breaking temperatures, so a stop off at Cunningham’s Costcutter for a cold drink on the way to the historic Ballinafad House was required. The beauty and tranquillity of this carefully manicured, quiet, rural hamlet belie the fact that Belcarra was at the centre of the justice system in the county for a brief time in the seventeenth century.

On 10 July 1632, Charles II sent directions from Greenwich to Lord Deputy Thomas Wentworth requesting him to consult the judiciary regarding the most appropriate location in County Mayo for the holding of the assizes, court sessions, gaol-delivery, and public meetings of the judiciary. The king had been prompted to investigate the issue by the then Lord Mayo, Myles Bourke.

In 1632, the county prison was located at Cong in the south of the county. This presented practical difficulties for the authorities. Transportation of prisoners across the county through challenging terrain proved difficult. Many prisoners avoided the justice of the day by escaping. Bourke wanted a more central location for the seat of justice, so he proposed Belcarra.

The judiciary in London agreed, and Charles II caused letters patent to issue authorising the holding of assizes at Belcarra for a thirty-one-year period. After that, the assizes were to be held alternately at Belcarra and Ballinrobe for fifty years. Assizes were held at Ballinrobe up to 1820. In the eighteenth century, spring and summer assizes were held at Castlebar and Ballinrobe. The loss of Belcarra’s assizes' town status was likely linked to the decline in Bourke power in the area and the rise of the Binghams at Castlebar. Ballinrobe fought hard to hold its status as an assizes' town. The assizes brought business and employment to a town and conferred administrative status.

Some have suggested that the county prison was moved from Cong to Belcarra in 1632. However, the records do not support such a conclusion. The assizes moved, and hangings were performed at Belcarra and Ballintubber, but there is no explicit statement that the county prison moved as well. Whether the prison at Prizon could have been established at this time, almost four decades after it is thought to have been closed by Sir Richard Bingham, remains unclear. The prison ruin at Prizon is just over seven kilometres from Belcarra.

In his Anecdotes of the Connaught Circuit (1885 ), Burke notes that prisoners condemned to death at Belcarra were hanged from a tree at Ballintubber Abbey. An age-old rhyme sums up the arrangement succinctly, if not a tad grimly:

"Shake hands brother,

"You’re a rogue, and I’m another.

"You will be hanged at Ballinrobe, and I’ll be hanged at Ballintubber."

Evidence of county court proceedings at Belcarra can be found in a court order issued at Belcarra County Court circa 1660 concerning a dispute over cattle (K. W. Nicholls, ‘The Lynch Blosse Papers’ (1980 ) 29 Analecta Hibernica, p. 112 at p. 173 ). Thibbott McWalter Stanton had taken four cows, the property of Riccard Bourke, Moyler Stanton and Robert White. The jury found against McWalter Stanton. The sheriff issued an order to the bailiff of the Barony of Carra to ensure the animals were returned. If they could not be found, he was to seize McWalter Staunton’s assets up to the value of the cows as compensation.

One of the earliest historical references to Belcarra can be found in Obligationes pro Annatis Provinciae Tuamensis (Archivium Hibernicum 26 pp.56-117 ). On 5 September 1431, following the death of John Lebutiler, Maurice Macedgan agreed to pay fees to the church in respect of the ancient rectorship of the rural lands of ‘Baile an kera.’ Beyond the old books and manuscripts and the many historical ruins and archaeological sites, Belcarra features heavily in the oral histories and folklore captured in such archives as the Dúchas Schools’ Collection.

Like many communities around Ireland, Belcarra is celebrating Heritage Week. The village was a national winner in the 2014 and 2022 Pride of Place Awards and displays its badges of honour with pride in a central location in the village.


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