SARG goes West

On 31/10/2022 SARG went on a trip to Westport in Co. Mayo, we were based in Westport in the Castle Court Hotel. The hotel exceeded all expectations and while some of the days were gruelling we were able to face each succeeding day fully fed and rested.

This trip to Mayo was first planned for March 2020, however Covid 19 presented itself in February 2020 and the country came to a standstill. The trip was postponed until the following year when the viral infection began to fade, unfortunately there was a resurgence of the virus and the trip was postponed once more. SARG decided to go in 2022 and October/November were the only dates available. Our numbers had declined form a heady 44 to a mere 22 in the end.  

Each day the group undertook a bus tour to a pre arranged destination and on reflection it is as if we went on a timeline visit through the history of Ireland. We travelled from the early Stone Age to modern times and had a look at what happened in between

Céide Fields.

This is an archaeological site in north County Mayo. The site has been described as the most extensive Neolithic site in Ireland and is claimed to contain the oldest known field system globally. Using various dating methods, it has been stated that the creation and development of the Céide Fields went back approximately 5500 years (~3500 BCE), some 2,500 years before this type of field system developed everywhere else in Europe. Other dating methods and research has suggested that the complex developed 3,000 years ago, and is otherwise a “textbook example” of a Celtic field system, several examples of which are associated with late Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe.

It was discovered that these people arrived in a land with substantial forest cover. This was cleared to provide access to arable land and to provide building material and firewood. Palaeoecological research published in 1995 and 2001 indicated that the woodland cleared by the farmers was primarily pine and birch, and was cleared to create pasture for livestock. This clearance continued onward and outward away from the area in continuing procurement of firewood.

The climate at the time was much warmer, leading to almost year-round growth potential. Samples taken from the remains of trees found in the bog provided evidence of this.

For a while, these people prospered, but some changes led to the development of raised bogs and the transformation of the arable land into barren and unusable land. An has ironpan developed in the subsoil over the area of the Céide Fields.

It is estimated that there is more that 100 km (62 mi) of stone wall hidden beneath the bog.

What became of these people is unknown.

Westport House

Let us skip forward a number of thousand years. Westport house is a large country mansion designed and constructed by Richard Cassels. At this stage in Irish history Ireland was on its knees. The Williamite Wars were over, Ireland was defeated, humiliated and the people were destitute. Any good agricultural land that remained in Irish ownership was confiscated and given to Englishmen faithful to the Crown. The Browne family took Westport and its environs for themselves and continued to prosper there until modern times.

The family, over the generations, was resourceful and initially built their fortune on the backs of Irish peasants (slaves). Later on in history members of the brown family had large colonies in Jamaica and added to their fortune on the backs of African slaves. Nothing much changed there.  In modern times their luck ran out and they had to sell out due to a large build up of debt.

Doolough Valley

Under the cosh of the Landlord class the people of Ireland grew more destitute by the day. In order to pay their rent the Irish had to grow two crops annually on their small holdings, and some of them were small. One crop was to pay the landlord the other was to feed the family. The family depended on what were known as lumper potatoes for their sustenance. As happens when a crop is grown intensively on one place for a long period disease can flourish and of course this is what happened.  When the potato crop failed the Irish people were destitute and famine was widespread. Our trip took us to the Doolough Valley. This valley is beautiful beyond description but behind its beauty is a tale of misery and death.

The Doolough Tragedy is an event that took place during the Great Irish Famine close to Doo Lough in south-west County Mayo . At least seven (and perhaps 20 or significantly more) starving people died after being “forced to walk for miles to present themselves for inspection” by poor law union officials who would determine whether they would continue to receive outdoor relief.

On Friday 30 March 1849, two officials of the Westport Poor Law Union arrived in Louisburgh to inspect those people in receipt of outdoor relief to verify that they should continue to receive it.The inspection, for some reason, did not take place and the two officials went on to Delphi Lodge – a hunting lodge – 19 kilometres (12 miles) south of Louisburgh where they intended to spend the night. Several hundred people who had gathered for the inspection, or later did so, were consequently instructed to appear at Delphi Lodge at 7am the following morning if they wished to continue receiving relief. For much of the night and day that followed seemingly hundreds of destitute and starving people had to undertake what for them, given their existing state of debilitation, was an extremely fatiguing journey, in very bad weather.

A letter-writer to The Mayo Constitution newspaper reported shortly afterwards that the bodies of seven people, including women and children, were subsequently discovered on the roadside between Delphi and Louisburgh overlooking the shores of Doolough Lake and that nine or ten more people never reached their homes.While some sources put the total number of deaths at approximately 20 people, local sources suggest that the number who perished was far higher.

Doolough Pass

A cross and an annual ‘Famine Walk’ between Louisburgh and Doolough commemorates this event.The monument in Doolough valley has an inscription from Mahatma Ghandi : “How can men feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings?”

Michael Davitt

Life in Ireland did not improve greatly for the Irish people over the centuries. In 1846 Michael Davitt was born, a peasant, in Straide, Co. Mayo. As there was a famine raging in Ireland at the time his parents were unable to pay the rent and were evicted. The family managed to get to England in an abject state of poverty and had no option but to live in the tenements. At the age of 12 years Michael lost his right hand in a factory accident and could not do manual labour. Fortunately he was educated due to the kindness of an philanthropist. At a very early he came to the conclusion that the only answer to Ireland’s ills was for the people of Ireland to become self ruling and to be in charge of their own means of wealth and labour. He became a member of the Fenian movement and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, IRB, a forerunner to the modern IRA. Needless to say he spent many years in English jails for his troubles.

In 1879 he founded the Land League in Ireland. The aim of the Land League was threefold.

  1. Fair rent.
  2. Fixity of tenure.
  3. Freedom of sale.

He was a radical in his thoughts. Through his exertions and with the aid of many more people he can be credited with breaking the Landlord system in Ireland. There followed a division of the land which the landlord class claimed to own. The land was divided among Irish small holders thus opening the door for the Ireland we have today.

Davit did great work for the Aboriginal people in Australia, for the Jewish and Afro American people in the USA as well as trying to break the colonial hold of Europeans on South Africa. Michael Davitt died in Dublin of sepsis at the age of 60.

Achill Island

To continue on the famine theme we took a trip to Achill Island. It is thought Achill Island was once populated similarly to the Céide Fields.

Achill is a beautiful desolate and inhospitable place to live. It is on the west coast of Ireland an subject to every Atlantic gale, the land is wet and boggy and does not easily yield a livelihood to those who were forced to live there, remember “To Hell or to Connacht” ? Life was tough and famine was always one step away. The history of Achill is a history of hardship, famine and emigration.

It is also an area of special interest  for its breathtaking scenery and is a must on the tourist trail. Deserted stone cottages dot the landscape and it is hard not to reflect on the hardship endured by the people there.

National Museum of Ireland – Country Life

We finished our trip on a happier note with a visit to Museum of Country Life outside Castlebar. It is located in Turlough village, 8 km (5.0 mi) north east of Castlebar. Established in 2001, the museum is part of the National Museum of Ireland and is the only national museum outside Dublin. The museum exhibits the way of life of rural Irish people between 1850 and 1950, and is in the grounds of Turlough Park House. There are displays about the home, the natural environment, trades and crafts, communities, and working on the land and on water.

It is well worth a visit as it is possible to trace our evolution from a famine ridden, downtrodden people to a people who  were innovative, hard working and who had hope in their future.

Knock Shrine

On day one of our trip we visited Knock Shrine on our way to Westport. Knock Shrine, is a Roman Catholic pilgrimage site and national shrine in the village of Knock, where locals claimed to have seen an apparition in 1879 of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, angels and Jesus Christ (the Lamb of God).

Ireland’s National Eucharistic Congress was held at the Marian Shrine in Knock over 25 and 26 June in 2011. An estimated 13,000 pilgrims attended.

Though it remained for almost 100 years a major Irish pilgrimage site, Knock established itself as a world religious site in large measure during the last quarter of the twentieth century, largely due to the work of its long time parish priest Monsignor James Horan presided over a major rebuilding of the site, with the provision of a new large Knock Basilica (the second in Ireland) alongside the old church..

On 13 May 2017, Cardinal Archbishop T.M. Dolan celebrated a requiem mass when John Curry, the youngest witness to the Knock apparition, was re-interred in St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral cemetery in Lower Manhattan after being disinterred from an unmarked grave on Long Island.

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