Mayo: shaping modern Irish history to the present today

modern times

By the late 18th Century, Mayo was in a fever of discontent. As in the rest of Ireland, suppression of religion, the downtrodden state of the peasantry and new ideas of liberty and equality combined to create a revolutionary climate.

Mayo found itself at the centre of events during the 1798 rebellion when the French General Humbert landed at Killala and began what became known as The Year of the French.

Marching through the countryside, on a route now known and marked as Humbert’s Way, he moved his forces – regular French troops and Irish pikemen – to Castlebar, and routed the opposing forces there in what became known as The Races of Castlebar.

A recent re-enactment of these events won the ‘National Gathering Event of the Year’.

After The Races of Castlebar, the Republic of Connaught was inaugurated, with its President John Moore, whose family had recently built one of the most beautiful houses in the county, Moorehall. The early promise of the rising dissipated, and the forces of Humbert and his Irish allies were defeated later that year at Ballinamuck, Co Longford.

The defeat of the 1798 rebellion was followed by a wave of repression and within a few years, the Act of Union dissolved the Irish Parliament which merged with the British parliament in London.

The 19th Century – Land and Liberty – and disaster too

Mayo’s history became closely linked to the fortunes and struggles of the whole country over the course of the 19th Century, with some important episodes played out in Mayo:

  • Catholic Emancipation
  • Tenants’ rights (Land War)
  • Repeal of the Act of Union (Home Rule)

The county often became the centre of events – especially during the Land War, where the Monster Meetings at Irishtown and Westport set the agenda for national agitation on the issue. Michael Davitt, a native of Straide, provided leadership during the Land War, establishing an international reputation for his concern and campaigns for human rights.

During the Land War, the shunning of Captain Boycott, a land agent in the Lough Mark area, became a famous case worldwide and gave the world the word ‘boycott’.

Overshadowing all this history was the calamity of the Great Famine of 1845-50, which reached its high point in 1847. Thousands in Mayo died and many thousands more emigrated on what became known as coffin ships, laying the foundations of our diaspora in many parts of the world.

Discover more about this terrible event here.  Among the monuments and reminders of this terrible tragedy are:

A later famine hit Mayo in 1879, contributing enormously to the wave of rural discontent which culminated in the Land War. You can discover and read more about that period at the Michael Davitt Museum in Straide.

The modern era – a story still being written

Mayo’s contribution to the struggle for independence continued into the 20th Century, with the last leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party being John Dillon, an MP for Mayo.

Mayo played its part in the conflicts of that period and the civil war saw some terrible scenes and divided opinion the county. These events in Mayo are well-documented in a book  – The Flame and the Candle – by Dominic Price (2012).

Many others died fighting in World War I, and the sacrifices made by these men have been recognised and remembered in recent years. Among those who died was Stephen Kennedy from Ballina  who has the sad distinction of being the first Irishman to die in that war. Shockingly, two of his brothers were also killed subsequently in the same conflict.

The post-independence period saw fluctuating fortunes, as the political successes of independence were not matched by economic success and development, especially in Mayo and along the Western seaboard.

Mayo continued to play its part in great events – not least of which is the fascinating story of the weather station at Blacksod, which provided the weather report that determined the date of the D-Day invasion on 6th June 1944.

Emigration continued as a prevailing theme of life in Mayo – both from the West to Dublin and to further shores in the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere.

A more positive development was the building of Knock Airport, now known as Ireland West Airport Knock. The role of Monsignor James Horan in that development is one of the great Mayo tales of heroism and ingenuity, and his airport continues to play a vital role in Mayo’s story today.

Mayo continued and continues to play a part in the great events of our time, and looks forward to its future with confidence.

The Decade of Commemorations

Over the coming years, Ireland will mark and commemorate the great events of a century ago that led to the foundation and establishment of the State.

Mayo will play its part in that process and, as events are organised, we will update this section. Sign up for our newsletter at the end of this page to find out more.

How to find out more

Mayo County Library

National Museum of Ireland – Country Life

Museums of Mayo 

Historic News

Some books to get started:

‘The Flame and the Candle’ – Dominic Price

‘Granuaile’ (Grace O’Malley) - Anne Chambers

‘The Year of the French’ – Thomas Flanagan


We want to hear your stories of Mayo’s history – send us YOUR historical stories here

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