The High Sheriff of Mayo was the British Crown’s representative in the county from the post’s creation in 1583 until the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. In a country where ownership of land carried huge prestige, the landed had to protect what they held by securing positions of power. So it was in County Mayo that the dominant families of Browne, Bingham and Gore isolated the role of High Sheriff largely for themselves up until the 19th century at least, from which time family names such as O’Donel, Knox, Blake and others appear in the records as holders of the office.
The High Sheriff was the principal representative of central government in the county in relation to the execution of the law. The position developed to include selecting the county grand jury (a precursor of the county council ) and supervising parliamentary elections. In the early decades of the 1800s polling took place over a number of days in one location in the county. Under the Reform Act of 1832, five days were allowed for Irish county elections. This was reduced to two days in 1850 and finally one in 1862. Making sure elections ran unhindered was a large undertaking for the High Sheriff and the military. It was estimated that in 1832 two-thirds of the total military force in the country was employed on election duty. Contested elections could all too easily turn riotous. In January 1835, the High Sheriff of Mayo, JN Gildea, wrote to the Under-Secretary for Ireland explaining that due to the many attacks at the last election, he was suggesting that ‘three troops of cavalry, and five of infantry, together with the police, will not, in my opinion, exceed that which may be required to protect freeholders, and keep the peace’.
The position of High Sheriff, because of its power and standing, was much sought after and the most important influence over nominations for the position lay with county MPs who used the office as a source of political patronage which left the position open to exploitation. Through the influence of the Browne family, Valentine Blake as High Sheriff in 1781 placed John Gale as under-sheriff (sheriff’s deputy ) for three straight years, which was a breach of statute. The position of under-sheriff was very often abused for self-gain. In order to supplement their inadequate fees, the High Sheriff’s deputy was known to encourage the escape of debtors from their creditors in return for money. High Sheriffs too, abused their position. Connel O’Donel, who was High Sheriff of Mayo in both 1813 and 1814, was stated to have appropriated money levied under executions to his own use. O’Donel supposedly came to an understanding with one local landowner, Colonel Brown, that writs were not to be executed against him, but that afterwards they quarrelled and Colonel Brown’s goods were then sold, at which sale O’Donel bought a quantity of wine, leaving the plaintiff unpaid.
The High Sheriff was not solely concerned or confined to dealing with all things local. The calling of county meetings to discuss pressing national issues was a task he also enjoyed. A telling insight into the thinking of Mayo’s hierarchy in the wake of the 1798 rebellion is delivered by one such meeting. At a county meeting convened by the High Sheriff of Mayo, Henry Knox in September, 1810 and held in the Courthouse, Castlebar, those assembled considered the claims of his Majesty’s Roman Catholic subjects. Despite the repeal of some Penal Laws, Catholic frustration at the slow pace of emancipation along with the pressure to pay Church of Ireland tithes meant the fight for equality was still very much continuing. Mayo’s most prominent figures accepted that ‘the disqualifying statutes enacted with respect to our Catholic fellow-subjects have been meanly considered to have been framed for the protection and support of the Protestants of Ireland’ and that a presumed Protestant jealousy of Catholics because of their beliefs and numbers was not an excuse to discriminate against the latter. The meeting in Castlebar concluded with the issuing of a petition to the House of Commons ‘praying for a Repeal of the remaining disqualifying statutes, and urging the policy and justice of placing his Majesty’s Catholic subjects upon an equal footing with the Protestants of the realm’. A thirst for equality was not what drove those attending the meeting to advocate Catholic rights. Conscious of their geographical isolation, many of them believed that their Catholic fellow subjects lived in a state of permanent conspiracy against the British Crown and its allies in Mayo.