"The ruins of Cloonagashel" Ballinrobe, County Mayo

Cloonacastle - December 2010
John F. Staunton, Ballinrobe, County Mayo

The ruins of Cloonagashel stand alongside the entrance to Ballinrobe Golf Club.

Records show this castle was built in 1238 by the Fitzgeralds and in 1312 passed into the hands of the Burke family.  The grey stone walls, now partially ivy-covered, could tell many tales.

Undoubtedly many celebrations took place there – betrothals, marriages, births and battles won.  Over the doorway an opening in the stonework allowed boiling oil and water to be poured on intruders.  The same walls could tell many gruesome tales of the bloody conflict between the Burkes and Bingham, Governor of Connaught.   A short distance from the castle, a limekiln nestles into the hillside and woodland.  According to legend, the Burkes buried the family treasure here.

On the border of the lush parkland Golf Course the river Robe meanders towards Lough Mask.  Golfers and visitors to Cloonacastle (as the area is now known) could not imagine the horrors which took place there over the centuries.  Older people in the neighbourhood tell of one such tale – the Mary Burkes.

The Mary Burkes

In 1558, Sir Richard Bingham became Governor of Connaught.  Appointed by Queen Elizabeth I, he was very cruel, loathed the Irish and treated Catholics with contempt.  The Burkes were the most powerful clan in Connaught, very influential and owning vast estates.  Bingham planned to eradicate the Burkes and claim their lands for the Queen.   He pursued the Clan relentlessly, after they rebelled.  They were finally defeated.  Afterwards, most of them were captured and executed.  Those who survived surrendered and gave as hostages their sons aged fourteen, nine and seven.  Bingham had them hanged.

In 1587 he was removed from office because of his ruthlessness.  However, he was soon back in power and for five years his oppression continued.

The Burke Clan

The Burke Clan often brought mercenary soldiers from Scotland.  Many obtained castles and land here.  Under Bingham’s rule, whenever these soldiers came to the locality their chief was charged with treason and sued or attacked.  This was how the Burkes of Cloonagashel lost their castles and estates.

Finally, in retaliation, the Burke clan attacked Bingham at Cloonagashel, where they were heavily defeated.  According to folklore, Bingham rounded up thirteen Mary Burkes and hanged them from an oak tree on the grounds.  Their bodies were then thrown in the limekiln and it is said they were buried in a communal grave adjacent to the castle.  The area is called ‘Poll na Marbh’ or ‘Hollow of the Dead’.  Another version of the story says that a beautiful young Mary Burke rebuffed the advances of Bingham.  His revenge was to have all in the locality, bearing that name, brought to the castle and they died by hanging.

Ballinrobe Golf Club

In May 1995, Ballinrobe Golf Club celebrated their centenary and relocation from Rathcarreen to Cloonacastle, with Mass and the blessing of the buildings and grounds.  Some days later, it was noted that a huge branch had broken off the oak tree, nearest the Castle and the area where the Mary Burkes are said to be buried.  Perhaps this oak is the hanging tree.

Lord Lucan

A descendant of Bingham, Lord Lucan of Castlebar continued the cruelty and badly treated his tenants during and after the famine.  The clearance of the area surrounding Cloonagashel was completed in 1850, with an estimated 1170 persons evicted.  When questioned in the House of Lords in 1847, the records show Lord Lucan denied any wrongdoing.  He planned for an Englishman to take over the property and manage it as a single entity.

James Simpson

James Simpson, a Scotsman, took a 25-year lease of approximately 2500 acres in 1856.  He introduced modern farming methods and drainage of the lands.  During the construction of the golf course, some of these drains were uncovered.  Lined with flagstones they were still efficient drainage systems.


Ballinrobe Active Retirement ‘Writers’Groups’ publication “Red Shoes and No Clichés”



Comments about this page

  • Would like to have seen an image of “the ruins” with this story!

    Reply:  Thanks Gerry and will ask Margaret to add one shortly – Editor

    By gerry walsh (15/05/2012)

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