Mayo emerges as a county from turbulent times 

the middle ages

Before the invasion of Ireland by the Normans, the territory which we now call Mayo was part of the Kingdom of Connaught which was controlled and dominated by the O’Connor family. Their leader in the mid-12th century, Rory O’Connor, was also High King of Ireland when the Normans arrived in 1169.

The Norman Invasion of Ireland led to wholescale changes but which only came in force to Mayo a hundred years later or so. Normans invaded the county, building castles and strong points, taking over land and building religious foundations and abbeys, often bringing along some of the newer religious houses and orders from France. The remains of these castles and abbeys can be found all over the county.

The Normans also brought new names with them that remain to this day, such as

·      Bourke/Burke (the Norman de Burgo)

·      Costello

·      Walsh

In time, and as the influence of the first wave of Anglo-Norman invaders declined, those families settled into their new home, and became – in the famous saying – ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’, as they integrated and took up the Gaelic customs and language of their neighbours.

The Normans are also responsible for introducing the system of dividing areas up into Baronies for administrative purposes. The nine Baronies found on the territory of what is now Mayo were

  • Burrishule
  • Kilmaine
  • Tirawley
  • Carra
  • Clanmorris
  • Costello
  • Murrisk
  • Gallen
  • Erris

The Baronies have long fallen into disuse for administrative purposes, and while some have retained either a direct connection to a specific modern place-name or echo a now modern name, all but Erris have fallen out of common usage as the name of a wider region.

The Early Modern Era – Tumult, Fire and Sword

Over the following centuries – 15th to 18th – Mayo was at times in a chaotic and highly disruptive state. As it spread, the English influence was sometimes resisted and sometimes accommodated.

Among the great figures of the 16th century was Grace O’Malley (link to Visit/Culture & History/The Pirate Queen), often called a Pirate Queen, but in reality, a highly successful and dynamic local Chieftain, who used the ocean as her base of operations and the root of her power. Her relationship with Queen Elizabeth I of England and her extraordinary career have held an enormous fascination for people over the years.

Her tower-houses are placed strategically around our coast and can be visited – fine examples include Rockfleet and the fortress at the harbour on Clare Island.

These turbulent centuries saw enormous changes brought about by the extension of English rule, the Reformation, and later, the wars for the British monarchy and the Cromwellian Plantation. Later still saw the penal laws which followed the defeat of the Jacobite cause in Ireland, and all these changes had huge repercussions for Mayo.

Land ownership changed, new families came to Mayo having been displaced from other parts of Ireland, Catholic worship was restricted and its adherents persecuted, and new administrative and legal structures were established.

Mayo had become an administrative entity during the course of the 16th Century and the county system developed slowly over the coming centuries. Some wonderful maps showing Mayo over these times can be seen in the Jackie Clarke Collection.

This county system reached perhaps the key stage in its development in the late 19th century when the establishment of the local authority system through County Councils, and the creation of the GAA gave both administrative and emotional structure to what had been quite fluid up until then. Continue to: MODERN TIMES

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