In 1715 Sir Arthur Shaen began building a small town on a wet and marshy area near ‘The Mullet’ peninsula in the extreme north west of the barony of Erris. To drain this marshy area and to form a passageway from Blacksod bay into Broadhaven Bay, Shaen had a canal excavated which would allow small boats to pass from one bay to the other. A sluice was erected at the Blacksod Bay side to allow traffic to and from the Mullet peninsula to pass along the shore. At a later date a bridge was erected to span the canal. Development of the town proved to be a slow process, and subsequently the canal was in a state of disrepair by the mid 1700's.
By the early 1800’s Belmullet consisted of just a few thatched buildings, and it was not until the 1820’s that any degree of development took place. In 1820 the first post Office in the Erris region was opened, while in 1822 the Coastguard was established in the town. This was also the time when the real architect of Belmullet’s growth, William Henry Carter became involved, inheriting much of Shaen’s land in Erris.
Of major importance was the new road between Belmullet and Castlebar, which was completed in 1824. This enabled horse drawn carriages to visit the area for the first time, although there were no hotels or inns for visitors. Tradesmen from all over Mayo were brought in to begin work on developing the infrastructure of Belmullet. Progress over the next few years was more rapid, utilising Granite and Sandstone from Blacksod to build a number of buildings including the impressive ‘Erris Hotel’ in the town centre.
In 1826 a quay, large enough to accommodate vessels of 100 tons was also built at Belmullet. This helped to accelerate the importation of goods, especially from Britain, which now included tea, sugar, beer, wine, coal and grain.
Belmullet’s development was further strengthened by the introduction of a dispensary and a doctor in 1830. By this time the population of the town had grown to over 500. A Catholic Church was built by subscription in 1832 to serve the growing congregation. Another important development in 1832 was the introduction of a daily postal service to Ballina. Post would be collected from the Post Office, and this service also meant the availability of daily newspapers in Belmullet for the first time. A byproduct of this growth was the need for a Courthouse, which was built in 1833 to hold the weekly court sessions.
By the late 1830’s two important new roads were being constructed, one to Newport, the other to Ballycastle. Also at this time, the export of meal to England began and a Protestant Church was built in 1843.
In October 1845 the Government sanctioned a grant of £5,000 to match the total of £4,000 raised locally to facilitate the building of a canal, which would unite Broadhaven and Blacksod Bays. Work on the canal began in 1845, but was it not completed until 1851. This was due to the intervention of the famine, which had a particularly devastating effect on the Erris region. A report in 1851 states that the canal was being used extensively, and also mentions the use of a swivel bridge. Another development in the 1840’s was the introduction of a fishing station in a bid to exploit the coast’s natural resources. This was opened in 1847 to wash and cure fish, and boat building also went on here. The station was forced to close due to the act of fishermen who were imprisoned for the theft of flour from a passing ship. This was another by-product of the famine, which was wreaking havoc on the town. Many people were starving to death while soldiers guarded tons of meal, some of which was to be sold to the people, some of which was to be exported.
The news of Belmullet’s plight spread far, and as a consequence visitors to the town dried up. A workhouse and fever hospital was urgently needed, and one was quickly erected on the site of the present hospital. The head of the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, notoriously decreed that relief was to only be given to workhouse people. This had the effect of severely overcrowding the workhouses, with up to 3,000 people being recorded at one time in Belmullet. Throughout the late 1840’s the numbers in the workhouse dropped considerably, and by the early 1850’s when the potato crop became re-established, the population of the workhouse had decreased to several hundred.
Throughout the 1850’s the mail service developed rapidly between Belmullet and Ballina, and more importantly, between Ballina and Dublin. This increased both the availability of newspapers, and the wider use of the postal service.
In 1865 the Government passed the Sewerage Utilization Act. In the following years, several plans to introduce a new Water System to Belmullet were discussed and proposed, but none came to fruition. In 1882, however, the town received its first water supply from the springs at Carne. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, many proposals were made regarding the development of a railway line in to Belmullet and the Erris region. Three routes were surveyed and discussed:
Route One: Ballina - Ballycastle - Belmullet
Route Two: Newport - Mulrany - Belmullet
Route Three: Ballina - Crossmolina - Belmullet
Many people along these routes lobbied for the railway lines to pass through their district. However the merchants of Belmullet were more sceptical, and feared that the introduction of a railway line would adversely affect their trading position, putting Ballina within easy reach of the population. Plans for a railway to Blacksod, which would have served trans-Atlantic shipping, were therefore postponed.
Many still pressed the authorities for a rail line, and this movement gained momentum during the latter days of the First World War, when it was proposed that a line would improve lines of communication between both London and Canada, and London and the USA. However, when the war ended in 1918, the hopes for a railway service to Backsod ended with it.
One of the first notable events in the twentieth century to occur in Belmullet was the installation of carbide gas powered street lamps. These however were poorly positioned and gave off very little light.
This state of affairs did not affect the lively social life however, which Belmullet enjoyed at the time. There was a lively local dancing scene, a mountain climbing club, a billiard hall, a football club, and a cycling club.
Another notable event was the celebration of Midnight Mass for the first time, to usher in the new century.
The famous writer, John Millington Synge, author of 'The Playboy of The Western World', visited Belmullet in 1904, and reported: 'Belmullet in the evening is noisy and squalid, lonely and crowded at the same time and without appeal to the imagination. So at least one stays for a moment. When one has passed six times up and down hearing a gramophone in one house, a fiddle in the next, then an accordion and a fragment of a traditional lullaby, with many crying babies, pigs and donkeys and noisy girls and young men jostling in the darkness, the effect is not indistinct. All the light comes from doors or windows of shops. Last night was St. John’s Eve and bonfires were lighted all over the country, the largest of all being placed at the Town Square at Belmullet. Today, again, there was a large market in the square, where a number of country people, with their horses and donkeys, stood about bargaining for young pigs, heather brooms, homespun flannels, second hand clothing, blackening brushes, tinker’s goods and many other articles.'
In 1910 a motor mail service was introduced between Belmullet and Ballina. These vehicles also carried passengers, but the service was discontinued after a year due to the poor state of the roads. Another development in transport was the boat service to convey goods between Belmullet and Ballina, which began in 1913.
By Tony Conway