An Outline History of County Mayo - Part 5 1900 to 1996

History of Co. Mayo in the West of Ireland

by Bernard O'Hara and Nollaig Ó'Muraíle


The Land agitation destroyed servility and paved the way for the emergence of a modern democracy. Under the provisions of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898, Grand Juries (which consisted of the chief landowners in each county) were abolished and replaced by county councils with a significant extension of local democracy.

The change saw some readjustments to county boundaries including Mayo. These developments were aided by the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the defeat of 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, fourteen of its leaders, including a Westport man, Major John MacBride, were executed.

McBride had led a small Irish Brigade in the Boer War in South Africa against the British, and was married for a time to the beautiful Maud Gonne, the love of the poet W.B. Yeats. (Their son, Seán, became an international lawyer of renown, the founder of a political party - Clann na Poblachta, Minister for External Affairs in the first inter-party government in Ireland 1948 - '51, and winner of the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes).

The historic general election of 1918, in which Sinn Féin candidates won a landslide victory, led to the establishment of 'the first Dáil', or native parliament, in January 1919, which was not recognised by Britain. The first public session in Ireland of the new Republican law courts was held in Ballinrobe on 17 May 1919.

These developments were followed by the war of independence, with a number of incidents in County Mayo, notably at Foxford, Islandeady, Toormakeady, Kilmeena and Carrowkennedy near Westport. A truce was declared in July 1921, followed by the Anglo Irish Treaty of 6 December. The subsequent split in Republican ranks led to a tragic civil war (1922 - '23), again with a number of so called 'incidents' in County Mayo, but nothing compared to the atrocities which took place elsewhere in Ireland.


The rights and wrongs of the 'civil war' dominated Irish political life for a generation and relegated economic, social and cultural development to second place.

Since 1922 the history of Mayo is little different from the national one but, with a high birth rate and few opportunities for employment at home, numerous sons and daughters of the county became part of the great extended Irish family scattered throughout the globe.

The population fell from 172,690 in 1926 to 161,349 in 1936 and 133,052 by 1956. The chief source of livelihood for Mayo families during this period was farming, where incomes were low and in many cases had to be supplemented by emigrants' remittances or savings from seasonal migratory work in England.

In the latter case, many emigrants had not completed their national school education when they were forced by economic necessity to supplement the family income. The prevailing economic situation was aggravated by 'the economic war' (1933 - '38), and later by the second world war.

Following the publication of the First Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958, industrial policy in Ireland was changed from protectionism to free trade with the objective of establishing an export-orientated manufacturing sector in the country by attracting foreign investment and promoting private enterprise.

Many multinational corporations began operations in Ireland and new employment opportunities were created in industry and services, while the agricultural labour force continued to decline. Some multinationals were established in Mayo: Travenol, later Baxter Healthcare (1972), Hollister (1976), Asahi (1977), and some indigenous firms like Rowear (Ballina), Killala Precision Components (the 1996 'small business of the year'), and Berry's Printing Works in Westport established national and international reputations for excellence. In the sphere of national politics, it could be argued that Mayo has made a more than proportionate contribution in the decades since independence.

In addition to several government ministers, three leaders of Irish political parties in this century were born in Mayo: Thomas J. O'Connell, who became leader of the Labour Party in 1927, was born in Bekan; Joseph Blowick, who was leader of the Clann na Talmhan party in the first inter-party Government from 1948 - '51, was born near Balla, and Charles J. Haughey, who became leader of the Fianna Fáil party in 1979, was born in Castlebar. Castlebar-born Padraig Flynn, who earned a lot of deserved credit for the excellent road system around Castlebar, became Ireland's European Commissioner in 1993, with responsibility for Social Affairs and Employment.

There was another honour for Mayo when Ballina-born Mary Robinson (née Bourke), an eminent barrister and former law professor and senator, became the seventh President of Ireland on 3 December 1990, the first woman to hold that office (and the second woman in the world to be democratically elected a Head of State).

Mayo is becoming a popular tourist destination with continuous investment in facilities, attractions and amenities. Our Lady's Shrine, Knock, is one of the major attractions of the county, with over 1,500,00 visitors annually. His Holiness Pope John Paul II came as a pilgrim to Knock on 30 September 1979, the goal of his journey to Ireland.

Apart from His Holiness Pope John Paul II, Mayo has welcomed other world figures in recent times: President Reagan of the United States to Cong in 1974; Prince Charles to Delphi Lodge in 1995 and Prince Edward to Castlebar in 1996, as well as numerous European Union and United States celebrities.

One of the most significant developments in the county in the 20th century was the provision of an international airport between Knock and Charlestown. It was erected due to the vision and determination of Monsignor James Horan (1911 - 1986), who was parish priest of Knock from 1970 until his death. Despite many vicissitudes and much criticism, the airport was completed on schedule and within budget (itself a major achievement by Irish standards) and officially opened on 30 May 1986. It is now known as Horan International Airport in honour of the great monsignor.

Another significant development was the opening of the Castlebar Campus of the Regional Technical College Galway in September 1994. Due to the leadership of Mayo County Council the infrastructure of the county has been modernised in recent times with a network of new roads, water supplies, and other amenities.

There is a new spirit of dynamism and self-help evident around Mayo in recent times with progressive plans for development in industry, agriculture, tourism, services, education, infrastructure, integrated rural development as well as the provision of appropriate social and cultural amenities. It is still a county with an astonishing variety of scenery, an unspoiled natural environment, several blue-flagged beaches, where people have lived in harmony with their surroundings for over 5,000 years.

The county's attractions include delightful uncongested holiday resorts, excellent fishing waters, exciting walking and mountain climbing trails, a good choice of golf courses, opportunities for many other types of activity-holidays as well as can be seen from the above outline history, some of the most interesting archaeological and historical sites in Ireland.

The natural beauty of the green countryside, the friendliness of its people and general ambience make Mayo a place where visitors are made welcome and where they can enjoy nature far removed from the hassle and pressure of modern city life. You name it, Mayo has it naturally!

Other Things You Might Like