A Glance Back Over Two Millenia, Belcarra in Co. Mayo

In this the third millennium, it's a fitting time to roll back the years, and consider the changes which have effected Belcarra community during the 2,000 years since Christ.

Killeen Stone Head

During the first 500 years the people of the Belcarra area were pagans, worshipping pagan Gods, and their representations of them. In Belcarra Community Centre the Killeen Stone Head is on display which was one of these pagan idols. We know from the old Irish sagas that our ancestors espoused a uniquely Celtic spirituality which detected the spirit of God in the world around them- in the beauty of nature, in the singing of the birds, the flight of the deer, the ferocity of the wild pig, the instinct of the bear and the wolf, the leaping of the salmon, the beauty of the dawn, and the miracle of the seasons.

Tumulus Cemetery at Carrowjames

At Carrowjames, we have an important archaeological feature called a "Tumulus Cemetery" which is an area of burial mounds upon which the remains of our pagan ancestors were burnt in funeral pyres, before being buried in upturned urns. Associated with these burials were the implements which our ancestors considered would be needed in the afterlife- food, drink, razors, jewellery and weapons.

According to the Annals and according to folklore, these people had their own code of honour - "glaine in ár gcroi, neart in ár ngéag, is beart d'réir ár mbriathar"- purity in our hearts, strength in our arms and deeds to match our promises. These were the people who lived in cashels and forts on our densely-forested hills and whose sense of duty and honour was very strong. Their idea of justice was often vengeful and cruel and had to do with defending their honour by settling scores! "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth", they said.

The lives of these people and their guiding principles, were soon to be shaped and changed with the advent of Christianity. St Patrick and his disciples came to us with the message of Christ's gospel about 1500 years ago. They came with a very different message to the people of Belcarra, a message of hope and a revolutionary new doctrine from the gentle Jesus of Nazareth. Amazingly he had said , "Love one another! Love your enemies even! Do good to them who hate you! Pray for them that persecute you! Turn the other cheek!".

St Adamhnán's Well at Manulla

At first Patrick and his missionaries were rejected, especially by the druidic order. We have tales of Patrick and his disciples being chased away by the pagan druids from Manulla. Later his disciple St Adamhnán, stayed on to establish a new Christian community there. The druidic well was Christiainised and became a place of Christian pilgrimage.

Tochar Route

St Patrick's pilgrim route to Croagh Patrick - the Tochar Phadrai g- ran through this area from St Mochua's Rest House at Balla to Loona and on through Gweesdain, Drum and Ballintubber. The little church at Loona is associated with St Loona (Lughna) who was, we are told, St Patrick's own nephew. At Balla, Manulla, Loona, Kileen and at Baile an Tobair itself the blessed wells were important places of pilgrimage until about a hundred years ago.

Parish of Drum

The people of the half parish embraced Christianinty with enthusiasm and two ecclesiaticals sites were established here, one at Loona and one at Drum - Droim a 'Teampaill or Droimín Éanachaín as it was called then. When parish units were formed, this area became the Parish of Drum and remained so for many years. It was in the Diocese of Mayo Abbey, and the Lord Abbot of Mayo was its bishop. He would call to administer Confirmation to the children at early chapels in Loona, Drum and Gweesdian. These were tiny thatched buildings but were adequate to service the very small population of these early times.

In the 13th century the conquering de Burgo Norman Lords swept through the Belcarra area. The Burkes were Christians too and supported the church by providing sites for churches, endowing parishes and abbeys and supporting the clergy. Both the conquered and the conqueror worshipped at the same altar.

All this changed, however, with the reformation in the 16th century. The powerful Burkes had, at this time, established themselves firmly as masters of the countryside and indeed had become more Irish than the Irish themselves. They had strong castles at Guesdian, Doonamona and Belcarra and during the nine years war - leading up to Kinsale - they provided leadership in the rebellion against Sir Richard Bingham who was the Queen's Governor in Connaught.

They remained staunchly Catholic in their outlook. In 1641 these powerful Burkes of Mayo had their chief castle near Belcarra village, and during the Catholic/Protestant war leading up to the establishment of the Confederation of Kilkenny Belcarra was briefly the county town complete with castle, courthouse and a gallows hill, a 100 metres from the church today.

During the penal days between 1700 and 1800 the Catholics of Belcarra were subjected to some of the most draconian oppressive laws ever devised by man. Only a handful of licenced priests were allowed to operate;unlicenced priests were summarily executed. People like the infamous priest-hunter Sean na Sagart sought them out to collect the government bounty. Catholics were not allowed to hold property or to attend school. Catholic teachers were transported to the colonies. It was the era of the Mass rock with priest and people coming together secretly to avoid the attention of the Redcoat soldiers.

Belcarra Chapel

The first chapel was built in Belcarra in the late 1700's as the Penal Laws were being relaxed. This was a modest cruciform building beside Belcarra bridge, on the banks of the river, where the ball-alley and the sports centre now stand. It came right out the edge of the road and the present Marian Grotto would have been inside the East transcript.

Most of today's community centre would have been positioned in the main isle of that chapel. Originally the chapel was thatched, but later it was roofed with flag-stones. It had a three-panel gothic style window facing the road.Records mention a congregation of 500 parishioners attending Sunday mass in that old chapel.

Fr Tom Hughes re-Interred

Catholic Emancipation was secured in 1829 and shortly after that, one Fr.Tom Hughes served as curate in Belcarra. In 1833, while attending his duty among the people, he got typhus fever and died. He was a native of Roundfort and his own people came to take him home for burial in his native district.

The people of Belcarra, however, fearing that misfortunes or bad luck would fall on them if they allowed Fr Hughes to be taken away, pursued the funeral party and caught up with them at Poll Mór (in Ballyfarna) where a battle took place for the possession of the remains of their beloved curate whom they buried, for safety, inside the old chapel. In the early 1960's Fr William Walsh had Fr Hughes' remains exhumed and re-interred in Elmhall graveyard.

A Tithe Tax

In the last century Catholics were expected to support their own clergy and Church, but they had an extra burden. They were obliged by law to support the Protestant Church, which was the State church, by paying a tax called the tithe. A tithe was estimated at one tenth of a farmer's harvest. This payment caused great hardship and annoyance, and if money or goods were not forthcoming, the tithe collector would forcibly seize animals, crops or farm implements in lieu of the tithe. Naturally this injustice caused great resentment and anger and led to a prolonged campaign known as the Tithe War.

In Belcarra there were Anti-Tithe meetings in the old chapel and these were attended by a large number of parishioners. The proceeds of the tithes and some State aid was used to build a fine Protestant church on the Belcarra-Ballinafad road, and a three-storey Georgian glebe to house the local Protestant minister. These buildings have since disappeared.

The Great Wind

It's reasonable to assume that the old chapel sustained serious damage during the night of the big wind on January 6th 1839 and in 1840 a decision was taken to build a new church. The site of the present church was acquired from the landlord in 1846. But then the famine struck with devastating consequences and the whole scheme was put on hold until 1870.

The Darkest Years

The famine years saw thousands of our people dying of starvation and disease, or taking the emigrant ship to America. Those who waited depended on famine rations. Others surrendered their small tenancies to the landlord and trudged to the overcrowded workhouse in Castlebar. In the workhouse many of them were separated from their loved ones forever. It was a terrible time for priest and people. These were our darkest hours.

The new Catholic Church

In 1870, fundraising commenced for the construction of a new Catholic chapel at Belcarra. The priest Fr Gibbons described the old chapel at the time as: "a little old fabric, never large enough to offer even standing room for half the flock. Often the people could find no room inside it and crouched under walls and trees outside, seeking shelter as best they could from the howling storms and drenching rains in the performance of their devotions. T'was only the faith and fervour of their Irish hearts that caused them endure it ... Its condition threatened collapse and ruin at any moment and was imminently dangerous to the lives of priest and people. The heavy stones set to do duty for slates in covering the roof, piled up adn heaped up on each other was a mass of such enormous weight upon the decaying timber that they overlaid, that nothing seemed to keep them in their place, but their mere cohesion or edging into one another. If one slate was removed, or any breach caused, the whole building would have come crashing to pieces"

The building of the new stone chapelbegan in 1872, the stone being quarried in Deerpark Lower. Good progress was made in the summer and autumn of that year. But a big setback occured, at Oiche Shamhna, November's night when a storm came. Fr Gibbons was devastated:

"the roof of our new church, I was but yesterday so proud to look upon, has", he said, "been blown to pieces by last night's storm. The timbers which were of the most costly quality have been tossed by all the fury of the wind;the heaviest and most expensive of timbers, the very hoisting of which comsumed so much time and labour have been reduced to the condition of firewood...Our roofing was just nearly quite complete..thus unfortunatly has gone the result of four months trade, labour and time"

After that big storm it was the spring of 1874 before work began again. Pine timber for the roof came from the wood on the Fizgerald-Kenny Estate in Clogher. Gradually, progress began to be made again. The money kept coming in, particularly from emigrants in America;one group writing telling of hard times in the U.S., unable to find work, yet sending a contribution, and one of them expressing a strong desire to hear a sermon preached in Irish again!

The interior of the new church

The new church contained a main altar and two side altars. A statue of the blessed Virgin and Child was situated on one of the side altars, while the other altar contained a statue of St Joseph. They were both the life-sized statues and the money to purchase them was raised by the children of the parish. Above the sanctuary, the roof was inlaid with stained oak panels.

The body of the church was illuminated by ten large gothic stlye windows, five in each side wall.At this period the seats came half way up the church. The people at the back had to stand. There was no gallery- that came later- and no ceiling, just the slates of the roof. Years later, when the rendering holding the slates together began to fall on the comgregation, a ceiling was put up.

It seems to have been 1875 before Mass was said in the new church, but this is not certain. Tommy Naughton, a local shoemaker and noted musician claimed that he served the last mass in the old church, and the first mass in the new church.This was in the autumn of 1877 and Archbishop John McHale was the celebrant. He blessed and opened the new church and a sermon in Irish was given by Fr. Edward Griffen, who was the parish priest of Turlough.

In the 1880's there was a return to famine conditions in this area. Bad harvests made the payments of rent impossible and there were many evictions. Successive curates like Fr Colleran stood resolutely by the tenants all during the Land War. The Eviction Cottage at Elmhall vividly recalls this difficult time.

Fr. John Blowick

In 1888 John Blowick was baptised in this church. He went on to become the co-founder of the Maynooyh Mission to China, later to become known as the Columban Society. Fr. Blowick is acknowledged as one of the chief architects of Ireland's modern missionary movement.

Emigration

After the convulsions of the War of Independence and the Civil War which followed times were very difficult. There was a lot of poverty and mass emigration. We lost almost an entire generation to the emigrant ship.

Burning of Belcarra National School

In the early 1940's Belcarra National School was burned to the ground. This was situated where the basketball court now stands. A new school was built and officially opened in 1948 by Belcarra man Joseph Blowick (brother of Fr. John) who was Minister for Lands at the time.

Church Bell

Belcarra church served its priests and people well into this century. In 1943 a fine new bell was added. Weighing one ton, it was erected on four cast iron pillars just outside the main door of the church. At that time as well as being rung for the Angelus and daily Mass it was rung twice for each Mass on Sunday morning.

The first bell went half an hour before Mass began, the second bell rang five minutes before Mass.It was common to hear people rushing towards the church saying, "The last bell has gone!". The sound of the bell carried for miles across the countryside.

Church Renovations

In 1961 Fr. William Walsh was curate in Belcarra and it was his task to oversee the renovation of the church. It was a major undertaking and much fundraising had to be done. An initial levy of £30, payable in three installments of £10 each, was put on each house in the Belcarra area. The men of the area gave a great deal of voluntary labour and much work was done building walls and preparing the ground around the church. Local blacksmith Willie Roche did the wrought ironwork for the Baptisimal font, the stairs, the gates and railings.

The old high pitched slated roof was removed and replaced by a low-pitched copper roof. The original walls were retained and the bell tower was renovated. Cut stone for the renovation of the bell tower came principally from the Protestant Church in Balla, the county jail in Castlebar and from the ruins of the old National School in Belcarra. Dances, carnivals, card games and raffles were part of the fundraising scene, but the most unusual was the auction of farm produce within the church itself!As with the building of the church itself 90 years before appeals were made to emigrants and friends overseas. Much help was received- particularly from America.

The renovated church was re-dedicated to St Anne by Archbishop Joseph Walsh. During the course of the ceremony he echoed the sentiments of all present when he said, "The transformation that has taken place in church and grounds has taken my breath away"

Stained Glass Windows

Belcarra, like all Irish parishes recognising the importance of family life, takes special pride in its church's beautiful stained glass window- over the gallery- showing the Little Family of Nazareth at their everyday work. It depicts Jesus helping Joseph while Mary works at her spindle with an expression at once conveying admiration for her son and adoration for her God.

Other stained glass windows in this church give us a symbolic history of the Irish church - again very appropriate in a parish with a strong place in that history right back to the time of St Patrick.

They show:

  • The Paschal Fire lit by St Patrick to open his mission

  • The Round Tower so familiar as a symbol of Irish church and monastic life

  • St Brigid's cross- another symbol of Irish religious life and particularly of the status and dignity which Christ gave to women

  • The monks setting sail from Ireland to rekindle the dying sparks of religion and culture in a post- Barbarian Europe

  • A burning church

  • A Mass rock

  • Croagh Patrick

  • A Rosary

These south side windows recall the long nights of persecution which our people would not have survived without the Mass rock, the Rosary and their local places of pilgrimage.