Ballina, a storied place with a rich heritage

By Terry Reilly (c)

Though proudly bearing the title ‘Salmon Capital of Ireland’ because of the prolific catches of wild silvery fish on the Moy, Ballina has much more going for it than that coveted accolade…

It is a storied town, formally founded by Lord Tyrawly in the 1720s when he brought skilled linen weavers from the North of Ireland to establish a very extensive trade here. Less than one hundred years later – the opening up of the Quay – a mile outside the town, to shipping established Ballina as a thriving base with trade, both import and export, tying the North Mayo capital with centres of commerce in England, Scotland, and even the US.

Like so many other places along the west coast of Ireland, it suffered grievously during the Great famine of the 1840s when the population was decimated and the Workhouse was full to overflowing.

But the town and the region are resilient: it has produced strong and adventurous people, it has seen occupation and it has seen an attempt by General Humbert and his French invasionary force to free the shackles of oppression in 1798, an adventure that was again to prove catastrophic for the local population of these parts. Walsh Street is named after the hanged Patrick Walsh, and Barrett Street after the hanged Dr Barrett, both accused of encouraging/helping the French invasion, an event commemorated by an impressive monument in the town.

Ballina men have marched off to war, well over 200 from the immediate locality dying in WW1 alone. They have marched off too to harvest the fields of Britain and build the roads and canals of the UK and the USA.

Twinned with, amongst other places, Scranton in Ohio and Ballina in NSW, today, Ballina is, perhaps, best remembered internationally as the home of President Mary Robinson, our first female president (1990-97), later UN Human Rights Commissioner (1997-2002) and currently Head of the Ethical Globalisation initiative. It is a source of much pride too that the current US vice president, Joe Biden has roots in the Knockmore area where some of his cousins still live.

Famous people from the pages of the past have walked through these streets, including Archbishop John MacHale from nearby Lahardane; the Revd Edward Nangle of the Achill Mission and Skreen; The Earl of Lucan of the Charge of the Light Brigade infamy; the Revd James Greer, author of the lovely Windings of the Moy; Daniel O’Connell; Land League founder Michael Davitt; Charles Stewart Parnell; Rosary priest Fr Patrick Peyton; Home Rue advocate Isaac Butt; pioneering Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo, who served as apprentice to the fabled Telford; and countless others.

Though not well known in the place of his birth, Edward Whelan, the son of a soldier based in the military barracks in Ballina, became a significant figure in Canadian history. He and his mother emigrated from town to Halixax, Novia Scotia in 1831 and a mere 12 years later, at the age of 18, he became editor of the Irish Catholic newspaper, The Register. A brilliant orator he entered politics was appointed a delegate to the Quebec Conference, and is today recognised as one of the Fathers of the Canadian Federation. He died at the early age of 43.

Another interesting man with strong local connections was Sir Martin John

Melvin who was born in Birmingham: his grandfather was from the Knockmore region, just outside the town. Melvin was knighted in 1927 for voluntary work and service to the community. He bought the Universe Catholic Newspaper in 1917 and was responsible for its spectacular growth after the WW1 when circulation rose from just several thousand to over 350,000. In November 1940 he attended the funeral of Neville Chamberlain in Westminster Abbey. He was the benefactor of many Catholic organisations in Ireland and donated the Melvin Trophy to Irish Scouting. He knew many Popes. He died in May 1952 aged 72 years. He was a cousin of the owner of the Moy Hotel, now the town’s fine library.

Also not commonly known hereabouts is the fact that the first man to swim the English channel in 1875 also knew the town well, as he came here on several occasions as captain of a ship taking cargo to local merchants. While preparing for his Channel swim and place in history, Captain Matthew Webb became the first man to swim Killala Bay in 1974, from the Enniscrone (Sligo) side to Kilcummin (Mayo side). He boasted to fellow drinkers in McDonnells Pub on Bridge Street (now the Bolg Bui) that he would buy them all a drink after successfully accomplishing his Channel challenge.

Wearing what was to become his trademark red silk swimsuit, and coated in grease, he set off for France, covering an estimated 38 miles to complete the 21 mile crossing in 21 hours 45 mins. He became an overnight sensation, The Daily Telegraph describing him as ‘the best known and most popular man in the world.’

A consummate showman, some years later he decided to swim across the rapids at Niagara Falls, and jumped from a boat into the raging waters on July 23, 1883. Three days later his gashed body was pulled from the water downstream, with his ripped trademark red swimsuit clinging to his body. Needless to say, back in his favourite Ballina pub his fellow imbibers cursed their luck: free drinks courtesy of the unfortunate Captain William Webb were no longer on the agenda!

One of our foremost Irish painters, Jack B Yates, brother of William Butler Yeats, visited the town circa 1905, and was taken by the Mail Car passing through the main street. He committed the striking scene to memory and later painted The Mail Car, Early Morning. The Dean of Arts of Toronto University who subsequently bequeathed the painting to his nephew in British Columbia bought it circa 1923; somehow, it ended up in a barn! Fortunately remembered and recovered and put up for sale in 2003, bidding opened at 70,000 US dollars before being knocked down for over a quarter of a million dollars. Undoubtedly worth even more today given Yeats standing as one of Ireland’s greatest painters!

Just a quick sketch of some of Ballina’s history, so stay a while and explore and find out more about a very interesting town and surrounding hinterland. Make Ballina your base and visit Ceide Fields at Ballycastle, a planned settlement older than the Pyramids of Egypt, see the Round Tower at Killala, Saint Patrick’s trail through Ballina and on to Lacken; call in to the Foxford Woollen Mills and make sure to see too the Fr Patrick Peyton (‘The Rosary Priest’) centre in Attymass, only ten minutes away by car. Another interesting place is the memorial to the local victims of the Titanic sinking in April 1912 : it’s at Lahardane Church,via Crossmolina. Of a party of 14 people from the area who were on the Titanic, only 3 were saved.

*This article first appeared in Hooked On The Moy fishing magazine Summer 2009

Share this post.

Leave a Reply