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Mayo (County)

Agriculture & Land Use

Population (1839)

1821 - 293,112

1831 - 367,956


Area (1839)

1,355,048 A[cres]

871,984 A cultivated

424,124 A mountain & bog

57,940 underwater


Wheat is grown in the southern & champaign (flat) parts; potatoes, oats, barley, & flax in the more elevated districts. But the greater portion of the latter division is under pasture, as the grass is found to be suitable for rearing young cattle, though it is not rich enough to fatten them. ...The plough is an implement little used in the boggy & mountainous parts... the slide car is nearly extinct even in the mountains... Wheat is cultivated to some extent, but potatoes & oats are the main crops; flax is raised only on the headlands or corners of a field for domestic use... Pigs do not enter into the rural economy of the small farmer to the same extent as in other counties. Draining & irrigation are little practiced... So late as 1675 the county was well-wooded, but in the winters of 1778 & '79 the last extensive woods were felled. The Marquess of Sligo has planted trees to a large extent in the neighborhood of Westport... Ironworks have been discontinued for lack of fuel... Linen is extensively manufactured, chiefly in the cabins of the poor, many of which, particularly in the mountains, are furnished with a loom... Kelp is made in large quantities on all parts of the coast. The establishment of corn buyers (oats for Liverpool) has given rise to a considerable trade at, among other places, Westport.

- Topographical Dictionary of Ireland


Customs & Culture

It was written of the Mayo peasantry in 1836 (P. Knight), "Their whole thought seems to be going to fairs"... It was at the fair that a man proved his adult status by his ability to hold his own at buying & selling, & a favorite theme of the stories that raise a laugh at the fireside concerns the simpleton who exchanged his cow for a worthless trifle. ...Some things traditionally were not sold. In Mayo milk might be given away but would be sold only in secret, & it used to be an indelible disgrace for a woman to sell butter; it was regarded as a sign of abject poverty.

The pilgrimage of Croagh Patrick is the most celebrated of those held at the end of July, involving the assent of high mountains & marking, by tradition, the close of the summer & the beginning of harvest. In 1845 the Parliamentary Gazetteer said, "No place in Ireland is the scene of more superstitious observances or a more popular resort of pilgrims & devotees, or the site of more numerous small memorials of superstition, or the subject of more credited legends of hagiology. Vast crowds of miserable human beings...swarm all over its summit & sides & skirts; one grand current legend is almost everywhere believed in the teeth of all credulity, that St. Patrick gathered hither & swept hence all venomous creatures in Ireland.

- E. E. Evans, Irish Folkways


Economy & Conditions - General

1820 - serious disturbances arising from abuses in the levying of taxes & county & parish

rates. Insurgents took the name of Ribbonmen & kept the county in alarm by their nocturnal depredations; two years later they were suppressed by the law.

1822 - famine when potato crop failed, but help was sent from all parts of England through a

London committee.


Aughaval Parish - Westport - population of parish: 13,921; Westport: 4,448. Three R. C. churches, one at Westport, spacious, with an ornamented front. At Westport there are 4 free schools & an infants' school in which about 330 boys and 200 girls are taught; and there are also 17 private schools, in which are about 860 children.

Westport - an excellent harbor. Total number of houses 617, most well-built & roofed with slate. A spacious & handsome hotel, erected & splendidly furnished at the expense of the Marquess of Sligo, who assigns it rent-free to the landlord.

The trade of the port is of comparatively recent origin, consists of the exportation of agricultural produce, particularly corn, & the importation of timber from America & the Baltic, & of articles of British manufacture. The number of vessels registered as belonging to the port in 1834 was 6; 4 foreign vessels & 97 from British ports entered inward, one foreign vessel & 153 to British ports cleared outward.

The herring fishery is still carried out here, tho not so extensively as in 1780, when the port was first established for its use; the number of boats employed and the quantity of fish taken vary considerably. In the neighborhood are 3 productive salmon fisheries, and the market is plentifully supplied with all kinds of fresh-water fish throughout the year.

Excellent warehouses capable of containing 40,000 tons of grain. The customs house is well arranged. The amount of duties paid in 1836 was €577.8.4. An extensive distillery established in 1826, producing annually 60,000 gallons of whiskey. A brewery established in 1800 has much declined since the reduction of the duty on spirits. Both concerns employ about 150 men. A tannery employs 30 men in summer & 60 in winter. Flour & oatmeal mills built in 1808. At nearly Belclare a cotton mill, with 26 looms employing 30 men & a considerable number of women & children. Two miles from town a linen & cotton factory of 24 power looms affords constant employment to 50, & when in full operation, to 200, men.

A branch of the Bank of Ireland.

A chief constabulary force in town, also the coast guard head of the area (6 stations in district), employing 6 officers & 52 men.

Commodious barracks that can take care of 5 companies of infantry.

The R. C. church, on the Mall, erected in 1820 by Dr. Kelly for $6,000; the altar is emblemished with a fine painting of the Crucifixion.

Two large free schools, one under the direction of the National Board, the other a free Protestant school, built & supported entirely by voluntary contributions of inhabitants.

"The remarkable peak of Croag Patrick rises from the southern shore of Clew Bay to an elevation of 2,530 feet."

- Topographical Directory of Ireland, 1839


There is an extensive & detailed article on fishing off the coast of Co. Mayo in the Topographical Dictionary, Vol. II, p. 356-57.

The condition & appearance of the peasantry differ much in different parts (of Co. Mayo). In the districts about Westport & Newport the people were formerly in comfortable circumstances, uniting the occupations of farmer, weaver, & fisherman; but for several years the change in their circumstances for the worse has been very great, which has been attributed to the decline in the linen trade, the subdivisions of farms, & early & improvident marriages... Their habitations are built are built in some parts of uncemented stone, in others of sods or mud on a stone foundation; they are roofed chiefly with bog timber, which is never of sufficient size to furnish rafters except for the smallest cabins; the price of foreign timber prevents its use. Their cabins hence have an appearance even more miserable than in other parts of Ireland. In the mountainous districts & on the borders of the bogs the habitations are particularly wretched, indicating the greatest poverty. The fuel is universally turf; the food potatoes, oaten bread, milk, and herring; and the clothing chiefly a dark-colored frieze manufactured by themselves, with thicksets (a kind of fustian resembling velveteen, mainly used for men's work clothes), and cotton occasionally. The women were formerly clothed in home-made stuffs, flannels & friezes and, like those of Galway, the short jacket & petticoat was of red; the jacket has in most instances given way to a cotton gown, but the deep crimson petticoat is still worn throughout the greater part of the county. The Irish language is generally spoken by the old inhabitants, but young people almost everywhere speak English.

- Ibid., p. 358


"Mayo gives the titles of Earl & Viscount to the Burke family."

- Ibid., [p. #?]


Devon Commission Report (1845)

In Co. Mayo 95% of the population lived in mud cabins, for food, any change from

potatoes & meal stirabout, a thin porridge, was unusual; milk was scarce; butter in

some places unknown.

- Brian Inglis, Story of Ire., p. 136

Co. Mayo - "The most overpopulated, poverty-stricken, rack-rented, and eviction-prone of

all (in 1879).

- Ibid., p. 147

Co. Mayo - the herring fishermen were too poor to buy salt with which to preserve a catch.

- W

oodham-Smith, Hunger, p. 32


Housing in Connaught ([from] 1841 census):

Total # of families - 255,694

Living in mud houses of more than 1 room - 100,979 (39.5%)

Living in mud huts of 1 room - 125,058 (48.5%)

- [or] 88% [living in some type of mud house]

- statistics from Halls, Vol. III, p. 444




The finest fishing ground in Mayo was off Portulin, a small fishing village in Erris... Fine cod & ling abound off Portulin, but at the time of year when the fish are most abundant the weather was uncertain & dangerous (in 1847). (This is on NE coast, far from Westport.)

- Ibid., p. 290

"Along the whole coast are remarkably fine fishing banks, abundantly supplied with all kinds of fish. The Inniskealing bank, extending 8 leagues to sea, is usually from May to August. The great sunfish bank is about 30 mi. off the coast. The best season for the fishery is during the last week in April or the 1 st of May. In this season the uncertainty of the weather & the heavy swell often baffle the fishers. Should a fine day occur, from 30 to 40 may be killed, but on the death of a few the rest retreat. They are taken with a harpoon. Many fish are struck without effect, in which case the spear & line are lost. It appears to be an unprofitable business: the outfit of the number of boats engaged in it cannot be estimated at less than €2,000 in the season, & the value of the fish caught, even in a favorable year, has never been above €1500. The fishing is now followed chiefly by the few decked vessels that can stand out waiting for good weather. The whole fishing trade, with this exception, is carried on in open boats. There are few decked vessels. The deficiency is owing partly to the poverty of the district, partly to the want of harbors except at Westport, Newport, & Killala, & partly from the construction of open boats being most convenient for carrying on the coasting trade in turf, in which those residing on the shores are engaged in the intervals between the fishing seasons; the number of boats for both sailing & rowing is very great."

[- no citation given here]




"The houses of Achill Island are described by several writers about 1840 as circular or oval in shape, built of boulders without mortar, & having the thatched roof continuous with the walls. They had neither chimneys nor windows, and the single door was sometimes not more than four feet high."

- E. E. Evans, Irish Folkways, p. 43 (1957)

"In Clare Island, Co. Mayo, there were at the turn of the century only 5 or 6 houses of the total of 120 into which the cattle & pigs were not taken at night."

- Ibid., p. 41


Grace O'Malley

The Halls report [O'Malley] as "a great name in Mayo."

" Clare Island is of considerable size & contains above 1600 inhabitants. Here was the great seat of the dominions of the famous Grace O'Malley. The island & the adjacent district are still fertile in legends concerning her carriage, prowess, & activity... A square tower, the remains of her once-formidable castle, still exist; & the bay in which she moored her warships is pointed out, & to this day is famous for security & shelter. She appears to have been a sort of lady-pirate, who existed during the 16 th century. She was the daughter of Owen O'Malley & the wife of O'Flahertie, powerful chieftains of Connaught. She married a second husband, Sir Richard Bourke, called MacWilliam Oughter, who also left her a widow in 1585. While a 'lone woman' she is believed to have played her pranks upon the ocean; & it is affirmed that she visited England in order to be introduced to Queen Elizabeth; or rather, to afford the Queen an opportunity of being introduced to her; for the representative of the O'Malleys was, at least, as proud & imperious, in her own realm as absolute, as the descendent of the Tudors. Her name, Grana Uiale, Grace of the Islands, has been made famous in Ireland, in consequence of its being supposed that she resisted the Saxon rule; such however does not appear to have been the fact. It was consequently at one time made the watchword of a party; the Irish Boadicea is the theme of many an old song."

- Halls, Vol. III, note 405



Schools & Education

School[s] in Newport - This is a wild district, with none of the advantages of the near residence of a landlord able & willing to provide for his dependents. Yet in no part of Ireland have we seen better schools. There are 3 schools under the superintendence of the Rector and funds are provided partly by the Diocesan and part by the "Church Education Society for Ireland." Above half the pupils were Roman Catholic; the teachers were members of the Church of England, and the authorized version of the Scriptures were read daily, in fact all the objections commonly urged against schools established by the Established Church exist here in full force; yet the parents had sent, & continue to send, their children, although there is a Roman Catholic school, & a school in association with the National Board, in the immediate neighborhood. The education given is "sensible & sound"; the teachers are able & well-paid (house plus other benefits & 80 pounds per annum). This is the secret of success - the parents, in spite of opposition, will send their children to the best masters. "The pupils were in few instances of the lower classes." "There was no evidence of proselyzing."

- The Halls, Vol. III, p. 386-87


[Schools in] Westport - "Two large free schools have been erected, one of which is under the direction of the National Board, the other is a free Protestant school, built & supported entirely by voluntary contributions of the inhabitants."

- Topographical Dictionary of Ireland

( Newport is 5 1/2 miles from Westport.)


Literacy in Connaught (1841 census):

Population - 1,418,859

Can read & write - 200,677 (14%)

Can read only - 142,636 (10%)

- statistics from Halls, Vol. III, p. 444



" Westport is the most lauded of Mayo towns. Designed by a French architect for its landlord, it did not just spring up as a fairy mushroom... Westport presents us with a portrait of a benevolent & enlightened landlord of long ago, in which there is hardly any reflection of the plain people."


- Stephen Rynne, All Ireland, p. 164-65 (Milw.), 19561

"The two principal streets run parallel on either side of the stream, which, before entering the town, passes through the adjoining demesne of the Marquis of Sligo. There are two good hotels. Dr. J. Johnson, a rather severe critic by the way, thus describes his first impressions of the town: "In Westport I observed symptoms of the national character - an itch for greatness amid nothingness. Here is a hotel that would do credit to Sackville St., with an avenue of trees before the door, and a beautiful purling stream running in front of the hotel, calculated to lull a traveler to repose after a journey through Connamara. Here the wharves & warehouses are on a scale quite large enough for Dublin, or Ireland itself! The town has certainly an air of neatness & cleanliness superior to that of the generality of towns of the same size in Ireland." There is a parish church situated in the Marquis of Sligo's demesne, a handsome Roman Catholic chapel, and also a Presbyterian & a Methodist meeting house in the town. From the upper part of the town there are magnificent views of the mountains in the neighborhood, and the spacious Clew Bay, with its numerous islands.

Tourists may visit without restriction the beautiful demesne of the Marquis of Sligo. It is well-planted & intersected with walks.

- Black's Guidebook for Tourists: Ireland (1860)


1 Stephen Rynne, All Ireland. Photographs by J. Allan Cash and others. London : Batsford, 1956.