Pre-Famine History of County Mayo: Part 1

Samuel Lewis 1837 map of Mayo
Ireland Reaching Out

A snapshot of pre-famine local history, as described in the “Topographical Dictionary of Ireland” by Samuel Lewis, 1837. (The information collected here was submitted by members of the local gentry and clergy of the time). [Note: the boundaries of County Mayo were redrawn in 1898, so researchers may need to look to surrounding counties].


MAYO (Maigh Eo)

A maritime county of the province of CONNAUGHT, bounded on the east by the counties of Sligo and Roscommon, on the north and west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by the county of Galway. It comprises an area, according to the Ordnance Survey, of 1,355,048 statute acres, of which 871,984 are cultivated land, 425,124 are unprofitable mountain and bog, and 57,940 are under water. The population, 1821, amounted to 293,112; and in 1831, to 367,956.


At the period when Ptolemy wrote, the Nagnatae were the inhabitants of the whole of the county, with the exception of a small portion of its southern extremity, into which the Auterii, who were settled in the north-west of Galway, had penetrated. The city of Nagnatae, together with the rivers Ravius and Libnius, are supposed by some to have been in this county, but others fix its site in the adjoining county of Sligo. M. Vaugondy’s map of ancient Connaught, published by Mac Geoghegan, furnishes the following names of the territories which composed it, and of their respective baronies:

  • Irrosdomnion (Fir Domnann aka Irrus Domnann) being the barony of Erris;
  • Tyrawley (now Tirawley)
  • Coranne (now Carra),
  • Gallen
  • Clanmorris and Kilmain (now Kilmaine)
  • Costello
  • Murrisk
  • Hy-Fiachra-AIdhne (aka Uí Fhiachrach Aidhne aka Hy Fiachrach), Con-macne-Quiltola (Conmhaícne Cúile Toland aka Conmaicne of Cuile-Toland), Hymalia or Umaille (Hy-Many or Uí Maine), Calrigiamulghemurisk-in-Amalgaid, and Kierrige de Lough Nairn.


In Speed’s Theatre of Great Britain, published in 1676, the names of the territories, which appear to have taken from those of the ruling septs, commencing from the most northern, are Arras Dondenell, O’Dondey, O’Mac Philben, Mac William Burck, Carew Mac Ville Uterhday, O’Males, Mac Jordan, baron of Exeter, near which territory is noted the forest of Kellelon (aka Killala), and the barony of Akill (aka Achill), being the only baronial division mentioned. In the brief description annexed to the map, it is stated:

“that Mayo, in the Roman Provincial called Magee, is replenished both with pleasure and fertility, abundantly rich in cattle, deer, hawks, and plenty of honey.”

O’Connor’s map of Ireland

Proffess to give the  names and locations of the settlers at the commencement of the 17th century, mentions only the names of Mac William Burke, Jordan, Mac Phillip, Mac Costello or Nangle, Dillon, and Fitzmorris.

The ancient chronicles state that at the commencement of the 4th century the whole of Connaught was taken from the Firdomnians, a branch of the Firbolgs, who had held it till that time under the Milesians. The remote situation of the county has prevented it from being much noticed in the annals of the different revolutions which have since occurred.

Shortly after the English invasion, De Courcy entered the province; but it does not appear that he penetrated far westward, having been driven out after a severe defeat by Cornelius Mommoigi and Donald O’Brien, King of Limerick.

Roderic O’Conor, the last of the independent sovereigns of Ireland, died in the monastery of Cong, on the verge of this county, in 1198, after which its history presents a blank until, in consequence of the assassination of William de Burgo, third Earl of Ulster, to whose ancestor, Hubert de Burgo, the greater part of the province, including this county, had been granted by King John, Edmond de Albanach or the Scot, one of his kinsmen, ancestor to the Earls of Mayo, renounced his allegiance to the English government, threw off the English dress, adopted the language and apparel of the native Irish, and assumed the title of Mac William Oughter (Mac William Uachtar), or “the further” to distinguish himself from another member of the family who had acted in the same manner in the more southern regions of the province, and had called himself Mac William Eighter (Mac William Íochtar) or “the nearer.”


The county remained in an unsettled state, nearly independent of British rule, until the time of Elizabeth, in the eleventh year of whose reign the whole province, which had hitherto been divided into the two counties of Connaught and Roscommon, was made shire ground, and the boundaries and subdivisions of this portion of it were defined, at which time it took its present name from the village and monastery of Maio, situated on a river which falls into Lough Carra which drains into Lough Mask hear Ballinrobe.

The Mac Williams still continued to exert a powerful control, for the annals of the town of Galway inform us that, in consequence of the disturbed state of the country in the neighbourhood of that town, numbers of Galway people took refuge with Mac William Oughter in Mayo, and were the founders of the several respectable families of Galway name which still hold large estates there.

When Sir Henry Sidney, lord-deputy, visited Galway in 1575, several of the Galway exiles returned and applied to him for protection; and Mac William Oughter himself submitted by oath and indenture. This Mac William was father to the celebrated Grace O’Malley, better known in the romantic history of the times by the name of Granuaile (Gráinne Mhaol): she, however, was so far from being led to submission by her father’s example, that it was deemed necessary to send a body of troops to storm her castle of Carrick a-Uile (aka Granuaile’s Castle) near Newport; but so spirited was the defence made by this singular woman, that the assailants, instead of accomplishing the object of their expedition, narrowly escaped being taken prisoners, which would have been inevitably attended with loss of life.

Year 1586

In 1586, the province was again visited, for the purpose of confirming it in the habits of English law, by Sir Richard Bingham, who held a session at Donemony (aka Doonnamona), in this county. One only of the de Burgos, Thomas Roe, held out on this occasion against the royal authority, in a castle in one of the islands in Lough Mask  within sight of the governor.

The under-sheriff, who was sent to reduce him to obedience, was wounded in the attempt, as was Thomas Roe himself, who died of his wounds. Two others of the de Burgos were afterwards executed for sedition and for conspiring against Bingham’s life.

The composition then agreed upon by the people was 10s. per annum for every quarter of land containing 120 acres. According to the return of a jury on this occasion, the county comprised 1448 quarters, whereof 248 were exempted; the rest paid £600 per annum and contributed 200 foot and 40 horse for general hostings within the province, at their own expense, when required, and 50 foot and 15 horse for general service throughout Ireland. Before Sir Richard quitted the country, he had taken all the de Burgos into protection by an order from the government, but, on his going to Dublin, they were instigated, through the promise of assistance from the Scotch, to revolt again, on which he proceeded to Ballinrobe, where, having uselessly spent several days in endeavouring to bring them back to their duty, he hanged their hostages, marched to Ballintubber (aka Ballintober), and sent out his kerne and foot-soldiers into the woods and mountains with such success, that he forced them all to submit in a few weeks, and drove away a booty of between 4000 and 5000 head of cattle, after which he defeated a body of 2000 Scots that had landed near Sligo to give them assistance.

A third journey was made into Connaught in 1589, by Sir William Fitzwilliams, lord-deputy, who then received the submissions of O’Flaherty, William the blind Abbot, and others of Mayo and Tyrconnell.


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