Geesala is a small village located approximately eight miles south west of Bangor on the road to Doohoma. On the Ordnance Survey Map of 1838, just seven dwelling houses and one Catholic Church appear. It was linked to the outside world by an old bridleway, which extended from Glencastle through Geesala to the ferry at Tallaghan Bawn.
There was also a bridle pathway from Geesala along the coast to Ballycroy and Newport. The condition of these roads, however, meant that most of the trade at the time was still conducted by the ships which called at Tallaghan Ferry.
In 1839, the authorities approved the making of a new road from the chapel at Geesala to Mount Jubilee, and the following year on to Bangor. Also in 1840, the building of a new road to replace the old bridle path from Glencastle to Geesala was approved. During the Public Works for the Distress in 1847, a new road replaced the old bridlepath from Geesala to the Ferry. By the end of the 1840’s, the village was well served by roads, and Geesala was developing into one of the main social and commercial centres in the region.
As with many other parts of Erris, the famine had a devastating effect on Geesala. It took over a decade for the area to show any signs of recovery. During this time, fishing and hunting lodges were being built to accommodate sportsmen visiting the Erris area. One of the largest lodges, a two-storey building, was constructed near the chapel, opposite the National School. After a number of years the owners obtained the first public house licence in the area. The Government purchased the lodge in the early 1880’s, and in 1882 changed the use to that of a R.I.C. barracks. The force occupied the buiding until the 1920’s, when the Gardai took over until 1929, when they left the district.
During the 1880’s, the United Irish League was very active in the Geeasla area, due to the local resistance to paying rent. Other developments at this time included the building of a Lace School, a Village Hall, and an Agricultural Bank. Concerts and plays were frequently performed at the new hall. Monthly markets to trade cattle, sheep and pigs were held in Geesala from the late 1890’s onwards.
John Millington Synge, the well-known writer, was a frequent visitor to the more remote parts of the west of Ireland, and it was in Geesala that he acquired inspiration for his most famous work, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’. Indeed, it was in the village and surrounding townlands that the play was set. On visiting the area in the early years of the twentieth century, he observed: “This district has, unexpectedly enough, a strong branch of the Gaelic League and small Irish plays are acted in the winter, while there is also an Agricultural Co-Operative Bank, which has done excellent work.”
The first National School in Geesala was opened in 1857, when the local poulation was estimated to be approximately one hundred. In serving a wider area, the number on the School Roll reached over 150 by the mid 1880’s. This increase in demand required a larger building, and in 1886, the School Commissioners sanctioned the buiding of a new school. The new structure opened the following year and remained the only school in Geesala until a new Vocational School was opened in 1963. This remained in use until 1981, when a new Vocational School for the whole of the Erris region was opened in Belmullet. The new National School was opened at the same time, taking the place of the old one, which is now a Community Centre.
The chapel in Geesala was established on the site of an earlier church, dating from the 1830’s. This was renovated and enlarged in the 1850’s, and served the community well until the 1930’s. The foundation stone for a new church was laid in 1930, and it was opened in 1932. Much of the money for the new chapel was contributed by expatriates living in the United States and England. In 1926, local publican and personality Johnny McGeehan gave two acres of his land to be utilised as a new graveyard, which was opened in 1932.
The same Johnny McGeehan opened a Banqueting Hall in autumn 1928. This comprised a dance hall, billiard room, ladies room, card room, cloakroom, and side galleries. This hall continued to function as an entertainment centre until 1940, when it was purchased by the local Parish Priest for parochial needs. It was widely used in the 1950’s by the local Drama Society. Sports and horse races were held on the strand, followed by a Grand Ball, in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. References to these can be found in the aforementioned ‘Playboy of the Western World’.
Geesala has always boasted a vibrant sporting tradition, especially in the fields of boxing and football. It still has a strong boxing club, with the Coyle family always being well represented. This tradition lives on in the annual Geesala Festival held every August, with horse racing, tug-o-war and many other traditional sports taking place both in Geesala and on the neighbouring Doolough Strand.
Article by Tony Conway
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