The stories of the inventor of the torpedo, a global prima donna, a telephone pioneer, the short-lived Republic of Connacht, the inglorious Races of Castlebar, the rise and fall of the Earls of Lucan, and a gentleman who went to the gallows. Extracted from Past Tracks, with Irish translations by Jack O’Driscoll.
Born on Main Street in 1852, Louis Brennan is arguably the most remarkable inventor in Irish history. He was nine when his family moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he grew up to be an engineering genius. While toying with a cotton reel, he devised a concept that led him to invent the world’s first practical guided missile. The wire-driven Brennan Torpedo, which he patented in 1878, was the principal cog in Britain’s coastal defence system for over twenty years. To this date, the precise details of how it worked remain classified information. Louis went on to invent a gyroscopic monorail and an early version of the helicopter.
Thomas Larkin grew up at Derrew, Ballyheane, 4 miles south of this station, and is is buried in Killawalla. In 1899, the 25-year-old emigrated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he found work as a linesman with the Bell Telephone Company, working with Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. During the early 20th century, Thomas played a key role in transforming communications by bringing the phone network across the sprawling prairies, connecting with the remote communities of the American Midwest. Constituted a life member of the Telephone Pioneers of America in 1930, he was presented with an engraved copper cup. He once predicted: “Believe me, the day will come when you will be able to ‘see’ the person who you are speaking to on the telephone.” He also referred to the radio or wireless as a ‘talking box.’ Larkin’s Way, Pittsburgh, may stand as testament to his memory.
MAGGIE FROM MAYO
Maggie Burke Sheridan was one of the opera world’s leading prima donnas during the 1920s. Born in Castlebar in 1889, she was a daughter of the town’s postmaster. Raised on The Mall, she was a pupil at the Convent of Mercy when she first began singing in public. The Irish-Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi played a key role in securing operatic training for her in Rome, where she made her soprano début in Puccini‘s ‘La Bohème’ in 1918. She sang at the prestigious La Scala in Milan for many years, reaching a crescendo with performances at Covent Garden, London, and the San Carlo, Naples. She went into virtual retirement in the early 1930s but you can hear her magnificent voice on YouTube.
George Robert Fitzgerald of Turlough House, north-east of Castlebar, was a gentleman duellist who reputedly fought eleven duels before his 24th birthday. His mother was Lady Mary Hervey, sister of the Earl Bishop of Derry and aunt of Lady Bess Hervey (as in the Keira Knightley film The Duchess). (That means George was a nephew of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Earls Bristol.)
His father was another George Fitzgerald. Lady Mary became fed up with her husband’s mistresses and they separated in 1754, after which she took young George and his brother Charles to England, where they attended Eton. Zoffany had painted George and his two sons in the happy 1760s, young George flying a kite, a painting now held at the National Gallery of Ireland.
Described as ‘an undutiful son, a bad brother and a worse husband”, young George married Jane Connolly, the daughter of William Connolly of Castletown House. In the 1770s George’s companion, and the mother of his daughter, was Elizabeth Lyons. Oliver J. Burke’s ‘Anecdotes of the Connacht Circuit’ (1885) relates how he chained his father to a pet bear, tied him to a dray and abandoned him. He later allegedly incarcerated the old man in a cave. Such carry on may have inspired this paternal lament by the older George FitzGerald, written at Turlough, County Mayo on 16 March 1782:
I annul a Will by me formerly made and deposited in hands of Archibald Noble my former attorney which he secreted. My only daughter Elizabeth Fitzgerald now living with me a minor of very tender years is totally unprovided for. My eldest son George Robert FitzGerald has made me lament the extent of the provision already made by me for him.
In 1784, he leased almost 300 tenant farms on his extensive estate to migrant linen workers from Ulster. * However, he became embroiled in a family feud, as well as a sinister row with some of the county’s most powerful families. This culminated in the killing of two men by members of ‘The Turlough’, Fitzgerald’s private militia. In 1786, Fitzgerald and his lawyer, Timothy Brecknock, were found guilty of conspiracy to murder. Fitzgerald walked to the gallows in Castlebar; the rope broke twice but held on the third attempt.
Even his opponents hailed him as ‘polished’ and ‘elegant’, but it is notable that he was also a Knight of Tara, which suggests that contrary to being an infamous duellist, he sought to put manners on the practice. His brother Charles became a Lieutenant Colonel of the North Mayo Militia. See also this 1783 Volunteers link.
Turlough House was abandoned after his execution. As John Colclough remarks: ‘The bricked-up shell remains on the avenue, suggesting that it was a rather interesting house. The present Turlough Park, now the Museum of Country Life, was built in 1863 to the design of Thomas Newenham Deane. When the FitzGerald family sold in 1990 the estate agent’s particulars claimed it had the most northerly vineyard in Europe, though I believe that the Norwegians could challenge this claim.’
* Two notes from the Belfast News Letter (27-30 July 1784) suggest he offered ‘generous terms’ to the Ulstermen. The notes also appeared in Saunders’s News Letter (29 June 1784), the Dublin Evening Post (24 July 1784) and the Hibernian Chronicle on 30 June 1784. The broader phenomenon of the migration from Ulster is explored by Patrick Fitzgerald & Brian Lambkin, Migration in Irish History, 1607-2007 (Basingstoke, 2008), 139-40
With thanks to John Colclough, Keith Beattie, Dr William Roulston (Ulster Historical Foundation).
REPUBLIC OF CONNAUGHT
During the Rebellion of 1798, just over a thousand French soldiers under General Humbert disembarked unopposed at Killala to help the Irish patriots. Having marched through the Windy Gap at Lahardane, they outwitted the British Crown forces defending Castlebar. The hasty flight of the Redcoats became known as the Races of Castlebar. Humbert then proclaimed John Moore, a local landowner, President of the new Province of Connacht. The independent state was short-lived as the British overpowered the French weeks later. Captured in Castlebar, Moore died in captivity in 1799. After his grave was discovered in 1960, he was given a state military funeral and reinterred at The Mall in Castlebar.
At the height of the rebellion, the novelist Maria Edgeworth wrote to her sister: ‘We have this moment learned from the sheriff of this county, Mr Wilder, that the French have got to Castlebar – They changed clothes with some peasants and so deceived our troops. They have almost cut off the carabineers, the Longford Militia and a large party of yeomanry who opposed them.’
EARLS OF LUCAN
The most influential family in Castlebar for many centuries were the descendants of Sir Richard Bingham, who served as Governor of Connaught in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. George Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, was nicknamed the ‘Exterminator’ for his brutal policy of eviction. He was the cavalry commander in charge of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. (Some allege that his game plan was to bump off brother-in-law Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade). His son, the 4th Earl owned 60,570 acres of County Mayo in 1876 and converted the family cricket pitch into The Mall, a public park for the town. The 7th Earl was the notorious Lord Lucan who vanished in 1974, following the murder of his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. He was declared legally dead in 1999 although the Binghams apparently still own large tracts of the town and county
A LITTLE EXTRA
- Two Irish Taoiseach have been born in Castlebar – Charles Haughey (1925) and Enda Kenny (1951)
- The film “The Man from Snowy River ” is based on the life of Jack Riley, who was born in Glenisland, near Castlebar.
- Andy Kettle co-founded the Irish Land League in Castlebar. A close ally of both Isaac Butt and Michael Davitt, he went on to become Parnell’s right-hand man, sticking by the formidable nationalist leader during his fall from power. After Parnell’s death, the elder Kettle bowed out of politics and focused instead on his farm at St Margaret’s in Finglas, County Dublin. He was a father of Tom Kettle.
- There has long been a strong bond between County Mayo and the American state of Pennsylvania. When Mayo’s Gaelic Football team visited Philadelphia in 1932, they were presented with the ‘Pennsylvania Cup.’ The grandfather of actress Grace Kelly was a Mayo, as was the father of David L. Lawrence, the first Catholic to be elected Governor of Pennsylvania. (The Sisters of Mercy of Carlow established the order in Pittsburgh; the Heinz History Centre has more.)
- Michael Feeney received an MBE for promoting Anglo Irish Relations and his outstanding work founding the Mayo Peace Park in Castlebar.
- With seven All-Stars to her name, Cora Staunton is undoubtedly the greatest ladies footballer of the modern age. The Mayo sharp-shooter first played for her county at the age of fourteen, and subsequently brought home four All-Ireland medals, three National League titles and two more for her club, Carnacon.
- Patrick ‘Pecker’ Dunne, a brilliant banjo player, fiddler and seanchaí, was from a family of Travellers originally from Castlebar, Co Mayo, where his father was a fiddle player. He later lived in the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh.
- Anne Chambers, biographer of biography of the 16th-century Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley, as well as ‘T.K. Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot’ (2014), ‘Eleanor Countess of Desmond’ (2011), ‘Finding Tom Cruise’ (2007) and ‘Shadow Lord’ (2007) was born in Castlebar.
- Sally Rooney, author of ‘Conversations with Friends’ (2017), ‘Normal People’ (2018), and ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ (2021) was born in Castlebar in 1991.
- Ernie O’Malley, a senior IRA figure and anti-Treaty officer, was born in Castlebar in 1897. He wrote three books, On Another Man’s Wound, The Singing Flame, and Raids and Rallies.
CAISLEÁN AN BHARRAIGH (Translations by Jack O’Driscoll)
FEAR NA dTOIRPÉAD
Ar an bPríomhshráid in 1852 a rugadh Louis Brennan, a bhféadfá a rá faoi gurb é an t-aireagóir is suntasaí i stair na hÉireann é. Bhí sé naoi mbliana d’aois nuair a bhog a theaghlach go Melbourne na hAstráile, agus bheadh cáil na hardéirime i gcúrsaí innealtóireachta air ina dhuine fásta dó. Tráth dá raibh sé ag ealaín le spól cadáis, buaileadh coincheap isteach ina aigne agus chum sé an chéad diúracán treoraithe praiticiúil ar domhan dá bharr. Ba é sin an Toirpéad Brennan faoi stiúir sreinge, ar chuir sé paitinn air in 1878 agus a bheadh ina phríomhchuid de chóras cosanta cósta na Breataine ar feadh os cionn fiche bliain. Tá na sonraí beachta maidir le conas a d’oibrigh sé fós faoi rún sa lá atá inniu ann. Ina dhiaidh sin chum Louis aonráille gíreascópach agus leagan luath den héileacaptar.
CEANNRÓDAÍ AN TEILEAFÓIN
D’fhás Thomas Larkin aníos sa Díthreabh, i mBéal Átha hÉin, 4 mhíle ó dheas den stáisiún seo. In 1899 chuaigh an fear 25 bliain d’aois ar imirce go Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, áit a bhfuair sé obair mar oibrí líne leis an Bell Telephone Company agus d’oibrigh sé le Alexander Graham Bell, aireagóir an teileafóin féin. Go luath sa 20ú haois, bhí príomhról ag Thomas i gcúrsaí cumarsáide a athrú ó bhonn nuair a thug sé an líonra teileafóin leis thar na féarthailte leathana chun pobail iargúlta Iarthar Láir Mheiriceá a nascadh le chéile. Rinneadh comhalta saoil de chuid Cheannródaithe Teileafóin Mheiriceá de in 1930. Thuar sé tráth: “Creid uaimse é, lá éigin beidh tú ábalta an duine lena bhfuil tú ag caint a fheiceáil agus tú ar an teileafón”.
MAGGIE AS MAIGH EO
Bhí Maggie Burke Sheridan ar dhuine de na príomhamhránaithe mná ab fhearr i saol na ceoldrámaíochta le linn na 1920idí. Rugadh i gCaisleán an Bharraigh in 1889 í agus ba é máistir poist an bhaile a hathair. Ar an Meal a tógadh í agus bhí sí ag freastal ar Chlochar na Trócaire nuair a chan sí os comhair an phobail den chéad uair. Bhí an ceannródaí raidió Éireannach-Iodálach Guglielmo Marconi ar na daoine ba mhó a chabhraigh léi oiliúint i gceoldrámaíocht a fháil sa Róimh, agus chan sí den chéad uair mar shoprán sa cheoldráma La Bohème de chuid Puccini in 1918. Chanadh sí ag an áras mór le rá La Scala i Milano ar feadh na mblianta agus chan sí freisin in Covent Garden i Londain agus san amharclann San Carlo, Napoli. D’éirigh sí as, a bheag nó a mhór, go luath sna 1930idí, ach is féidir a guth álainn a chloisteáil ar YouTube.
FITZGERALD, FEAR TRODA
Ba chaitheamh aimsire iad na comhraic aonair ag George Robert Fitzgerald as Páirc Thurlaigh ar an taobh thoir thuaidh de Chaisleán an Bharraigh. Bhí sé amuigh air go raibh aon chomhrac déag curtha de aige faoin am a bhí sé 24 bliain d’aois. Eastát fada fairsing a bhí aige, agus sa bhliain 1784 lig sé beagnach 300 feirm thionónta ar léas d’oibrithe imirceacha línéadaigh as Ulaidh. Ach tarraingíodh é isteach i gcoimhlint teaghlaigh agus in achrann urchóideach le roinnt de na teaghlaigh ba chumhachtaí sa chontae. Is é an deireadh a bhí air gur maraíodh beirt fhear. An mílíste príobháideach a bhí ag Fitzgerald, ‘The Turlough‘, a rinne an marú. Sa bhliain 1786, ciontaíodh Fitzgerald agus a dhlíodóir Timothy Brecknock i gcomhcheilg um dhúnmharú. De shiúl a chos féin a chuaigh Fitzgerald go dtí an chroch i gCaisleán an Bharraigh. Bhris an téad dhá uair ach d’éirigh leis an tríú huair.
Le linn Éirí Amach 1798, tháinig breis agus míle saighdiúir na Fraince faoi cheannas an Ghinearál Humbert, tháinig siad i dtír gan chur ina gcoinne ag Cill Ala chun tacú le tírghráthóirí na hÉireann. Mháirseáil siad trí Bhearna na Gaoithe ag Leathardán nó gur chuir siad an ruaig le gliceas ar fhórsaí Choróin na Breataine a bhí ag cosaint Chaisleán an Bharraigh. Thabharfaí Rásaí Chaisleán an Bharraigh ar éalú tobann na gCótaí Dearga ina dhiaidh sin. D’fhógair Humbert gurbh é John Moore, tiarna talún áitiúil, Uachtarán an chúige nua, Cúige Chonnacht. Faraor, ní raibh an stát neamhspleách ar an bhfód rófhada mar fuair na Briotanaigh an ceann is fearr ar na Francaigh roinnt seachtainí ina dhiaidh sin. Gabhadh Moore i gCaisleán an Bharraigh agus fuair sé bás i bpríosún in 1799. Tar éis a uaigh a aimsiú in 1960, tugadh sochraid mhíleata stáit dó agus adhlacadh an athuair é ag an Meal i gCaisleán an Bharraigh.
Ba iad sliocht an Ridire Bingham, fear a bhí ina Ghobharnóir Chonnacht nuair a bhí an Bhanríon Eilís i réim, an teaghlach ba mhó le rá i gCaisleán an Bharraigh ar feadh na gcéadta bliain. An ‘Díothóir‘ a thugtaí ar George Bingham, an 3ú hIarla Leamhcáin, as a pholasaí crua díshealbhaithe. Ba é féin an ceannasaí marcshlua úd a bhí freagrach as Ruathar tubaisteach na Briogáide Éadroime le linn Chogadh na Crimé. Sa bhliain 1876, agus 60,570 acra i gContae Mhaigh Eo ag a mhac, an 4ú hIarla, chuir seisean páirc chruicéid a theaghlaigh á athchóiriú mar pháirc phoiblí don bhaile, An Meal. Ba é Tiarna Leamhcáin an mhíchlú an 7ú hIarla. D’imigh seisean gan tásc gan tuairisc in 1974 tar éis dhúnmharú fheighlí a leanaí, Sandra Rivett. Fógraíodh marbh de réir dlí é in 1999.