History of Claremorris

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Claremorris, or in Irish ‘Clár Chlainne Mhuiris‘ (the plain of the clan of Maurice), takes its name from the famous Norman invader, Maurice de Prendergast who came to Ireland with Strongbow in 1170 and who was later granted a large portion of lands in this area. Local tradition held that his son, Gerald, or one of his descendants, who had built the 13th century Brize Castle (between Claremorris and balla) as the family residence, began the growth of Claremorris town by building a cláror bridge over the small river linking Mayfield and Clare lakes, but this seems very doubtful

Although Claremorris as a town appears not to have existed earlier than 300 years ago, its surrounding countryside was well inhabited for many centuries before that. The many remains of ring forts dotting the landscape pin-point sites of human habitations, some of which date back more than 2000 years. The second largest ring fort in Mayo is located at Fahy’s Rd. in Droimnín, one of three in close proximity. 

Ballinasmalla Abbey was founded in 1288 by the Prendergast family and was once a very extensive building having its own mill-race. It was occupied by Carmelite priests who said Mass there until about 1875. The parish church at that time was Kilcolman Church near Barnacarroll. 

The fact that most of the resident landlords of this region had built their mansions close to Claremorris during the 1600s suggests fairly widespread habitation in the area and may be a logical reason for the origin of the town

The original castle on the Castlemacgarrett estate was built in the 13th century near the banks of the Robe and is still standing. The present Castlemacgarrett, later the seat of Lord Oranmore and Browne, was built in 1864 by Geoffrey Browne shortly after his marriage to Mary, daughter of Daniel Prendergast, the previous owner of the estate. Daniel Prendergast was a descendant of the Prendergasts of Brees (Brize) Castle. The Brownes had held property in the area for over 500 years before this marriage

The Lamberts of Brookhill, who came there in 1690, originally came to Connaught with Cromwell around 1650. The Kellys (former owners of what is now St. Colmans College), came to Castlegar shortly after 1665, as did the Kirwans of Claremount. Over the next 250 years most of the native Irish quietly eeked out a meagre existence as tenants or servants of these landlords

It was probably during the late 1600s or early 1700s that Claremorris town began to evolve. Although Claremorris was not originally on any principal road or trade route it is likely that a charter of old fairs was granted in the early 1600s

By 1777 the basic linear pattern of the town with its distinctive market square had developed. According to Edward McParland, architectural historian, in 1802 Claremorris, was “the only real town in the barony … the dwelling houses were built of stone, with chimneys and mostly separate outhouses. It also had a 3-day-a-week postal service. In 1822 the Roman Catholic Chapel was built, giving its name to the street beside it, Chapel Lane. After the opening of the new Roman Catholic Church in 1911, the former chapel served as the Town Hall until its demolition in 1968 to allow for the building of the present town hall. A large Courthouse was also built in the early 19th century, as was St. Johns Protestant Church and Schools which were opened in 1828. St. Johns Church is now the town library

By 1836 Claremorris had about 300 houses, most of them slated, 1476 inhabitants, a Wesleyan Methodist Meeting house, the chief station of the constabulary and revenue police, 12 privately run schools and a brewery

During the early 1800’s Claremorris was tightly controlled by the notorious and much feared P.C. and High Sheriff for Mayo, Denis Browne, M.P.(1763-1828) – no relation to the Castlemacgarrett Brownes – who was the resident magistrate and local landlord living at Claremount House

1863 saw the first coming of the railway to the town from the Dublin direction, but it was 1894 before the southern link from Tuam and the south was connected. Because two different railway companies were involved, there were originally two railway stations, one at Lower James St. and the other on the site of the present station. Both were later linked but the “southern yard” still remains. The former National Bank building at the bottom of James St. is believed to have originally been a ‘railway hotel’. 

Between 1820 and 1880 Claremorris and its neighbourhood endured the ravages of famine on a number of occasions. In 1851 the Workhouse was opened as a last refuge for the local destitute families and only closed in October 1918 (it was later to become the Bacon Factory). In the late 1870s, potato blight again caused severe distress in many of the surrounding townlands, including Murneen and Cultibo, leading to serious unrest and ultimately to the foundation of the Land League. 

The turning point came in 1879 at Irishtown when the local Parish Priest, Canon Burke, came into possession of his brother’s lands and at once threatened his tenants with eviction if they did not pay arrears of rent. When Michael Davitt (1846-1906), the son of a Mayo tenant farmer whose family had been evicted in 1850, called for a massive protest by tenant farmers the whole of South Mayo became involved.

It was at Nallys Hotel in James Street (now the site of the AIB Bank) that the famous Land League Meeting at Irishtown in 1879 was originally planned. A banner bearing the slogan “The Land for the People” was made by Mrs. Gordon in her home at the Square and was carried at the head of the vast procession of over 7,000 people to Irishtown. 

Over the years, a number of Claremorris men became nationally-known figures. Sir John Gray (18161875) born at Mount Street, gave Dublin its Vartry Water supply in 1863, edited the Freeman’s Journalduring the great famine years, and became the trusted adviser and close friend of Daniel OConnell in the struggle for the Repeal of the Union. Canon Ulick J. Bourke (1829 – 1887), Parish Priest of Claremorris prepared for and inspired the Gaelic revival movement through his many writings. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, patriots such as Conor O’Kelly MP and the Fenian P. J. Gordon lived next to one another in the Square while subsequently, Cardinal John D’Alton and the late Chief Justice of Ireland, Conor Maguire were both born and reared in Claremorris.