An Outline History of County Mayo - Part 4 1800 to 1900

History of Co. Mayo in the West of Ireland

by Bernard O'Hara and Nollaig Ó'Muraíle


The early decades of the 19th century saw a new outbreak of agrarian agitation with the rise of the 'Ribbon Societies' in Connacht. These sought to protect tenants against eviction by landlords who wished to clear their lands for grazing - to avail of the high prices for cattle prevailing in the years immediately after the Napoleonic Wars.

Ribbonism had a strong sectarian tinge, being influenced by inflammatory pamphlets which were widely circulated at the time and which predicted the imminent overthrow of 'the Reformation'.

Sectarian tensions were further increased in this period by the activities of evangelical Protestant missionaries seeking to 'redeem the Irish poor from the errors of Popery. One of the best-known missions of this kind was that founded at Dugort, in Achill, in 1831 by a Meathman, the Rev. Edward Nangle.

The activities of the missionaries and bible societies were strongly disapproved of by many, perhaps most, of the clergy of the Established Church, but they received important encouragement from two successive Protestant bishops of Tuam.

Their staunchest opponent was the Mayo-born Catholic archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, a supporter of Daniel O'Connell, a promoter of the Irish language, and a sturdy polemicist, who died at the age of ninety in 1881.

These too were the years of the campaign for Catholic Emancipation and, later, for the abolition of the tithes which a predominately Catholic population was forced to pay for the upkeep of the clergy of the Established Church.


Early in the nineteenth century, there were a number of famines in Ireland, culminating in the Great Famine of 1845 - '49, when about a million people died and a further million went into exile.

The population increased from an estimated figure of four and a half million in 1800 to over eight million by 1841.

The pressure of this vast increase exacerbated the fragile subsistence economy of the period, as land became subdivided into smaller and smaller plots.

Destitution was already a fact of life for many and evictions became regular occurrences in the Irish countryside. Most of the impoverished population depended on the potato as their staple food product. Disaster struck in August 1845, when a killer fungus (later diagnosed as Phytophthora infestans ) started to destroy the potato crop. The green stalks of potato ridges became blighted and within a short time the rotting crop was producing a terrible stench.

About a third of the national potato crop was destroyed that year, and an almost complete failure the following year led to a catastrophe for the remainder of the decade. By 'black forty-seven', people were dying in their thousands from starvation-related diseases.

The Workhouses, built in the early 1840s to relieve appalling poverty, were unable to cope with the numbers seeking admission. Various parsimonious relief measures were inadequate to deal with the scale of the crisis. The number of evictions increased.

This process of 'clearance' (as it was called) was aided by the 'quarter-acre clause' (the infamous Gregory clause, called after its proposer, Sir William Gregory MP of Coole Park, Co. Galway) in the Poor Law Extension Act 1847 which excluded from relief anyone who had more than a quarter acre of land.

Any such unfortunate person who was starving had to abandon his holding and go to the workhouse if he and his family wanted a chance to survive. Conditions became worse in 1848 and 1849, with various reports at the time recording dead bodies everywhere.

The catastrophe was particularly bad in County Mayo, where nearly ninety per cent of the population were dependent on the potato. By 1848, Mayo was a county of total misery and despair, with any attempts at alleviating measures in complete disarray. People were dying and emigrating in their thousands.

We will never know how many died in the county during those terrible years. The 'official' statistics for the county show that the population dropped from 388,887 in 1841 to 274,499 in 1851, but it is accepted that the actual figure in 1841 was far higher than the official census return.

It can safely be said that over 100,000 died in Mayo from the famine epidemic and emigration began on a big scale (there was some emigration before the Great Famine). Most emigrants from the county went to the USA, Canada, England and Scotland, to become part of the big Irish diaspora scattered throughout the world.

Did you know?
Old potato ridges, or 'lazy beds' as they are sometimes referred to, can be seen along Mayo's landscape. Parallel banks of ridges were dug by spade, with narrow drainage channels between them, where seaweed fertiliser was applied to improve the ground. Potatoes were often grown in this way, until the potato blight caused the Great Famine. These 'lazy beds' are historic evidence of the 19th century population explosion and subsequent famine when Mayo's population was reduced by half. 

There are numerous reminders of the Great Famine to be seen on the Mayo landscape: workhouse sites, famine graves, sites of soup-kitchens, deserted homes and villages and even traces of undug 'lazy-beds' in fields on the sides of hills. Many roads and lanes were built as famine relief measures.

There were nine workhouses in the county: Ballina, Ballinrobe, Belmullet, Castlebar, Claremorris, Killala, Newport, Swinford and Westport.

Rather ironically perhaps, the great reduction in Mayo's population, and especially the virtual annihilation of the formerly numerous class of landless cottiers who had been hardest hit by the Great Famine, enabled those who remained to considerably improve their standard of living in the following decades.

The new National Schools - despite the opposition of those, such as Archbishop MacHale, who regarded them, with some justification, as agents of anglicisation - succeeded in reducing the rate of illiteracy by almost half in the forty years between 1841 and 1881.

The result was a population with rising expectations, and with growing confidence in their own strength and in their ability to bring about a change in conditions, and so, when bad harvests in 1877 and '78 and a disastrous one in 1879 brought the threat of another serious famine, paticularly in the west, the people were far better prepared to protect themselves than they had been thirty years before.

A small poverty-stricken place called Knock, County Mayo, made headlines when it was announced that an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John had taken place there on 21 August 1879, witnessed by fifteen local people.


The people who remained in County Mayo in the wake of the Great Famine soon showed that they were resilient in the face of adversity. A national movement was initiated in County Mayo during 1879 by Michael Davitt, James Daly, and others, which brought about the greatest social change ever witnessed in Ireland.

Michael Davitt (1846 -1906), who was born at Straide, County Mayo, saw his family evicted at the age of four, emigration to England, and experienced many hard knocks and disappointments in his voyage through life. He became Mayo's most famous son on the pages of Irish history and one of the great patriots of his country.

James Daly (1835-1910), who played a crucial role in the early land agitation in Mayo, came from Boghadoon, near Lahardaun, and was editor of The Connacht Telegraph newspaper. The land agitation started at a meeting held in Irishtown, near Ballindine, County Mayo, on Sunday 20 April 1879.

The meeting, which was attended by a crowd variously estimated at from four to fifteen thousand, arose out of a threat to evict a number of tenants for arrears of rent from the estate of a local absentee landlord.

The meeting led not only to the cancellation of the proposed evictions but to a general reduction of rents. Of far greater consequence, however, were the wider political effects of the meeting, whose reverberations were to be felt throughout the whole of Ireland over the next quarter of a century.

On 1 June 1879, the Fenian leader, John Devoy, Michael Davitt and the county Wicklow landlord and MP for Meath, Charles Stewart Parnell, met in Dublin, and apparently agreed on 'the new departure', whereby the Fenians and the constitutional nationalists agreed to combine in a struggle to reform the Irish land-system.

One week later Parnell urged a meeting of tenants in Westport 'to hold a firm grip on your homesteads and lands'. His call came as potato blight was spreading once more through the west, and the number of evictions for non-payment of rent was rising steadily.

On 16 August, under Davitt's leadership, the National Land League of Mayo was founded in Castlebar, and two months later the campaign moved well beyond the borders of Mayo with the inauguration in Dublin of the Irish National Land League, with Parnell as its President, and Michael Davitt, its acknowledged father, as one of its secretaries.

The story of the 'Land War' over the next two decades is part of Irish history rather than of the Mayo story specifically. Mayo, however, played a prominent, and sometimes violent, role in the struggle.

Almost half of what were termed 'agrarian outrages' (maiming of cattle, destruction of property, wounding and even killing of land agents, landlords, and those who were considered 'land grabbers') in the early 1880s occurred in Mayo, Kerry and west Galway.

At the same time, Mayo attracted international attention, and in the process gave a new word to the English language, by initiating a rather novel form of non-violent protest.

This involved a campaign of ostracisation against Lord Erne's Mayo agent, a Norfolk man named Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott, whose efforts to secure the harvest from the estate on the eastern shore of Lough Mask necessitated the importation of some fifty Orangemen, mostly from Cavan, and a force of about a thousand soldiers and police to protect them.

The campaign against the 'Boycott Relief Expedition' was orchestrated by Father John O'Malley, parish priest of Kilmolara (resident in the Neale), and it was he who suggested the term 'boycotting' as being easier for his parishioners to pronounce that 'ostracisation'.

The unfortunate Boycott realised by late November 1880 that all his efforts had been in vain (the harvest had cost over 10,000 - 'a shilling for every turnip dug' said Parnell), and so, taking his family with him, he returned to England until the agitation had subsided.

The land agitation was gradually resolved by a scheme of a state-aided land purchase, under which the tenants became full owners of the land. A series of land purchase acts provided the finance which enabled the tenants to purchsae the land from landlords and repay the loans with interest over a number of years.

Tenant farmers became owner-occupiers within a generation and in the process created the foundations for the politically stable society we enjoy today.

Thanks to the vision of Mother Agnes Morrogh-Bernard (1842 - 1932), the Foxford Woollen Mill was established in 1892. She made Foxford synonymous throughout the world with high quality tweeds, rugs and blankets.

Other Things You Might Like