Profile of an Irish Village

Palmerston and the Conquest, Colonisation and Evolution of Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo

Mullaghmore is a small seaside village situated on a peninsula in the north-western corner of the parish of Ahamlish, County of Sligo. On the western side rocky cliffs defy the Atlantic gales while to the East, sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean, lies a golden sandy beach and picturesque stone-built harbour.

O'Conor Sligoe lands

Ahamlish became part of the property of the O’Conor Sligoe when that clan assumed the overlordship of the Barony of Carbury in the 12th century. O'Conor was hotly contested for ownership by O’Donnell of Tirconaill (now known as Donegal). In 1356 Cathail Oge O’Conors victory over the O’Donnells at a fierce battle at Ballyshannon was so decisive that he became chief of Tirconaill as well for a period of time. The O’Donnells struck back in time and drove deep into the heart of Sligo but in 1533 Teige Og O’Conor routed the O’Donnells seizing the strategic castle of Sligo. By 1536 the O’Conors were undisputed overlords and confidently assumed the title of O’Conor Sligo for the first time.

In the mid 16th century, the English under Queen Elizabeth brought warfare to north Connacht . Sir Henry Sydney’s conquering armies marched through Ulster and on to Sligo . By butchery, bribes and coercion the Irish chieftains were beaten and forced to abandon Gaelic manners and Brehon Laws. They fought fiercely to hold on to their ancestral lands, but the Elizabethans won the day. In 1567 Donough O’Conor was captured and taken prisoner to England by Sir Paul Gore, an ancestor of the Gore Booth family of Lissadell, Co. Sligo. There Donough was held in the Tower of London until he submitted. In return for the surrender of his lands he was promised a measure of protection, given the English title of Sir Donald O’Conor and allowed to return home.

On his return home the O’Conor Sligoe threw off the foreign title and resumed control of his ancestral lands. In 1584 the arrival of a huge invading force under the command of Sir Richard Bingham, forced the O’Conor Sligo once more to submit.

Ireland was devastated by war at this time. Even the English writer, Spencer, normally hostile to the Irish, was moved:

‘The people,’ he wrote, ‘were brought to such wretchedness at this time that any strong heart would have rued the same. Out of every corner of the woods and glens they came creeping forth upon their hands for their legs would not bear them. They looked like anatomies of death; they spake like ghosts crying out of their graves. They did eat of the dead carrions… and if they found a plot of watercress, there they flocked as to a feast for the time, yet not able to continue like this, so that in a short space of time there were none left and a most populous country suddenly left void of men and beast.’

In such a manner were the Irish brought to their knees and English rule established.

In the 17th century the Confiscation of Connaught was put into effect and the land divided up as payment among the Cromwellian adventurers and soldiers. The two main beneficiaries in Sligo were the Gore-Booth family of Lissadell who were given 32,000 acres and Sir John Temple, Master of the Rolls in Ireland under Charles 1st, who was granted 12,000 acres. Rents of the Temple properties were collected by middlemen and forwarded to the family seat in Hampshire, England .

The first owner to set foot on the conquered lands of north Sligo was Henry John Temple, the third

Third Viscount Palmerston

Viscount Palmerston, who arrived by horse and carriage in 1808. He is best known as Lord Palmerston, who served two terms as Prime Minister of England. It was he who commissioned the building of Classiebawn Castle on a hill overlooking Mullaghmore with magnificent views of the surrounding villages, sea, lake and mountain. Palmerston died in 1865 leaving the completion of Classiebawn to his successor the First Lord Mount Temple. On completion of the building in 1874, succession then passed to the Ashleys.

Palmerston’s greatest achievement and contribution to the area was the development of the beautiful stone harbour in Mullaghmore which still stands. Work on it began in1822 under the direction of the engineer Alexander Nimmo. It was completed in 1841. Palmerston had big plans for it as an exporting harbour, but they never came to fruition. Although now used mostly for pleasure craft it served the fishing community very well in past times. Up to the mid-20th century boats were mostly Greencastle double enders that drift netted for herring and fished for cod, skate, turbot and plaice with longlines in the winter. Mackerel, pollack, ling and many other species abounded in the summertime.

Palmerston presided over Mullaghmore and North Sligo during the worst years of the Irish Holocaust, the great famine of the mid 19th century. His record during that period is shameful. During the summer and autumn of 1847, nine vessels, carrying over 2,000 persons left Sligo port with tenants evicted and “shovelled out” from his Sligo estates. They arrived in Canada half naked and totally destitute. The city of St. John in the Canadian province of New Brunswick had to take many of Palmerston’s evicted tenants into care and, outraged, sent a scathing letter to Palmerston expressing regret and fury that he or his agents, ‘should have exposed such a numerous and distressed portion of his tenantry to the severity and privation of a New Brunswick winter ......unprovided with the common means of support, with broken down constitutions and almost in a state of nudity ..... without regard to humanity or even common decency.’ The graves of many of these unfortunate victims can be seen today on the old quarantine station, now a museum, at Grosse Ille near Quebec .

Winter solstice at Classiebawn (Pic: John Fitzsimmons)

Edwina Ashley, daughter of the above-mentioned Col. Wilfrid Ashley, married Lord Louis Mountbatten, great grandson of Queen Victoria, in 1922. In August 1979 this first Earl Mountbatten of Burma, last Viceroy of India and supreme Allied Commander in SE Asia during WW2 was assassinated when his boat was blown up off the coast of Mullaghmore by the IRA in August 1979. On the same day eighteen British soldiers died in an explosion in Warrenpoint, Co. Down. The castle and surrounding lands are now owned by Mr. Hugh Tunney, a retired businessman. He is the first Irish owner of the Classiebawn Castle and estate since the lands were confiscated from the O’Conor Sligo in the 17th century.


Mullaghmore is the tourism Mecca of North Sligo. In my youth it was a fishing and farming community. Holdings were made up of plots of 15 to 20 acres where everything for the home was grown. Three milking cows provided butter and milk and a small income. Potatoes and vegetables were grown, as well as rye and oats. The grain was used for feeding the livestock and the straw for thatching the roof. It was a subsistence lifestyle with very little apart from tea, sugar and tobacco being bought in the local shops.

The village, as with most such small towns in Ireland, has changed out of all recognition in less than a generation. The comfortable and picturesque little thatched homes have disappeared, as have the small farms. Where several small grocery shops supplied local needs, now there is none, except for a part-time shop that caters to the tourist trade in the summer months. Most of the boats in the harbour are pleasure craft. Most of the houses in Mullaghmore are holiday homes.

Lying like a jewel in the Atlantic and surrounded by magnificent landscapes of mountain, sea and lake, Mullaghmore has attracted hosts of visitors to enjoy its many water sports: boating, sailing, sea-angling, swimming or just lazing on its three miles of natural sandy beach. The village has moved in a relatively short time from a simple subsistence society to becoming a popular holiday resort. But the small farms, farmers and fishermen, the ‘bold peasantry’ are gone:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay;

Princes and lords may flourish and may fade;

A breath can make them as a breath has made:

But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,

When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

Oliver Goldsmith

In my younger days the signs of the end of our way of life were all about us, if we could but see

them. When we worked the hayfields, my father and I, we watched a neighbour make the first fork-cock: it needed only one man to build instead of the traditional two. In a house where six boys were reared there was now only one left. Help was becoming scarce and those left had to make do as best they could. Young men and women filtered off to Australia , England and America to make a new and hopefully a better life. Few returned. My own discontentment was growing and one day I would follow them.

The men of marriageable age who remained in the village went to the dances in the local parish hall, but time crept on and they didn’t take a wife. There would be no new generation. ‘The pricks that pricked were the pointed pins of harrows’ was how the poet of Co. Monaghan, Patrick Kavanagh described this trend in his village.

Our generation has seen the beginning of the end of many things, not least the rambling house and the handing down of the old lore and culture to a new generation. All has changed, indeed, and changed utterly. O’Rourke, in his history of Sligo , written in 1898, criticised Palmerston for having developed Mullaghmore as a ‘watering hole’ for the landed gentry and aristocracy. This monopoly was broken with the advent of a free Ireland in the early 1920’s and an independent peasantry who became dominant for a time.

The wheel has turned once more and Mullaghmore again serves the wealthier classes. Holiday homes for the affluent cover once green acres. They stand in empty silence for most of the year: sepulchral monuments to the rich tapestry of life that once was woven in this fair land.

"And then my heart hath told me:

These will pass,

Will pass and change, will die and be no more,

Things bright and green, things young and happy;

And I have gone upon my way


Padraig Pearse







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