Glenamaddy Boyounagh Parish

The parish of Glenamaddy Boyounagh is situated in north-east county Galway midway between Tuam to the south-west and Roscommon to the east. Historically, Buíbheanach, the anglicised version of which is Boyounagh, was the ecclesiastic and administrative name of the parish now known as  Glenamaddy. Both names have been interchangeable since Glenamaddy attained prominence at the beginning of the 19th century.                                                                               

The hue of the peat-imbued waters that leisurely flow westward in the small river that meanders close to the pre-reformation church and graveyard and the yellow marsh flowers that bloom along its banks in the summer months most likely prompted the name of the parish of Boyounagh,  a name that has endured for centuries. Fr Walter Conway who was equally proficient in Irish and English and an acknowledged authority on the derivation of Irish place names was in no doubt about the origin of the name when penning the following account in his Historical Notes on the Parish of Glenamaddy at the beginning of the twentieth century – For Bweeownach, like over 90% of our Irish place names, is purely Celtic, and it signifies the yellow marsh, or the place abounding in yellow rivers, the tawny hue being imparted to their waters by the nature of the soil through which they flow”.

John O’Donovan, the celebrated Irish scholar and translator of the Annals of the Four Masters, wasn’t able to offer a definitive translation of the name for the Ordnance Survey Field Name Books in the 1830s. He had this to say: “I was first inclined to think that it might be compounded of buidhe yellow and eanach, a bog, [for eanach is always understood in this part of the country to signify a shaking red bog] but upon attending more closely to the (prevalent) pronunciation I have become confirmed in the opinion that it is compounded of buidhe, yellow, and amhnach a topographical word, the meaning of which is not yet established”.

Other forms of the name depicted in historical surveys and reports include Buídhe Aibhneach, Buí Aibheannach, Buidhe Abhnach, Buídheabhnach, Bweeownach, Bweeaunagh, Boyunagh, Bweeounagh, Boyannah and Boynagh.

The term Boyounagh was used in different contexts. It applies to two townlands, a group of townlands and the parish. Boyounagh appears in the names of Boyounagh More and Boyounagh Beg townlands. In the 16th and 17th century land acquisitions the term was used to describe ‘Ye fower quarters of Boynagh’, belonging to the Protestant Archbishop of Tuam and comprising eight townlands with a church sited at the centre.

In 1853 Martin McDonnell, a successful merchant who resided in Dunmore, purchased the four quarters of Boyounagh, alias Boyounagh Estate, comprising the eight townlands of Cloonkeen, Meelick, Boyounagh Beg alias Cunningham Village, Boyounagh More alias Middletown, Cashel, Eskeromullacaun(Esker), Gortaganny, Ballinphuill alias Ballimagig. During his lifetime he amassed an impressive portfolio of agricultural land in County Galway and retail outlets in neighbouring towns. He erected a family vault on the summit of Boyounagh cemetery in 1872 and was interred there in 1905 with other members of his family who has predeceased him. From as far back as records exist Boyounagh was the name used to describe the parish.

We learn from the Annals of the Four Masters that Boyounagh was burned by the men of Breifne and Meath in 1137.  The Annals of Clonmacnoise tell us that in 1210 AD – There was a great convocation of the clergy of Connacht before the Archbishop of Tuam to bring about the transfer of the termine lands to the see and the successors of Patrick, Ciaran, Fecin and Brendan were there. Boyounagh and Templetogher owe their existence to the 12th century reform”.

Following the destruction of the Dominican church in Boyounagh there is no mention of a church building in the parish until Fr. Browne erected one in Glenamaddy in 1820. For an unknown period prior to that Boyounagh and Templetogher formed a single benefice with a church located at Kilnalag in the outskirts of Williamstown. From 1820 onwards the centre of Catholic worship in the parish became established in Glenamaddy which was more centrally located.

When the last ice age ended in Ireland about 10,000 years ago it left behind an uneven surface. Glacial deposits forming low-lying hills such as are found in Esker and Gortaganny became prominent topographical features in the landscape. After the ice melted the exposed, barren landscape gradually became colonised by trees and grasses. Wolves, wild boar, bears and elk roamed the forests having migrated from mainland Europe before Ireland was separated by rising sea levels. Shallow lakes formed in hollows and in time decomposed vegetation extended into these lakes depositing peat on the lake beds. Over many years, the peat built up, until it emerged above the surface of the lakes and eventually formed the raised bogs we see today. Evidence of the forests that predated the bogs, or that grew in the early stages of their development during periods when the climate became dry, can be seen as turf-cutting progresses. The roots of giant oaks and conifers frequently come to light as peat is removed for fuel. Many of the exposed oak remnants are rock-solid, reflecting the durability of the wood and the preservative qualities of the peat that enveloped them.

By 500AD the climate turned wetter and the bogs became marshy. As they were too wet to walk upon some Iron Age farmers built roads underpinned with logs called toghers over them. There are a number of references in the Annals of the Four Masters to such a causeway being used in Templetogher, close to the northern border of the parish of Boyounagh.  This causeway, which was called tochar mona coimeadha, is still well known, and its situation pointed out by the natives, though the country is very much improved. It is situated in the parish of Templetogher, in the barony of Ballimoe, and county of Galway. Hugh O’Connor, who had his residence in the plain of Croghan, marched on this occasion across the ford at Ballimoe, and directing his course south-westwards crossed the causeway, and proceeded into Hy-Diarmada, or O’Concannon’s country, where he had heard his rival was staying”

Starting in the 1700s, bogs were exploited as a source of fuel. In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of their ecological importance. Lough Lurgeen Raised Bog, covering 1,200 acres, has been designated as an Area of Special Scientific Interest. Other sizeable raised bogs are located in Lisheenaheltia/Woodfield, Meelick/Knockauns, Esker/Cultiafadda and Boyounagh.

The first people arrived in Ireland from Scotland around 8,000BC. They were nomadic hunter/gatherers who lived mainly along the shoreline and rivers as the interior was densely wooded and they hadn’t developed tree-felling technology. A new wave of settlers arrived about 4000BC. They possessed more sophisticated tools which enabled them to clear parts of the forest to grow crops. They brought with them cows, sheep and goats in addition to barley and wheat. They lived in houses made from wood and thatched with reeds. Between 2000 and 500 BC Bronze Age people developed metal technology which found practical application in weaponry, agricultural tools, cookware and ornaments. They constructed megalithic tombs consisting of three or more vertical stones with large capstones mounted on top. It is believed that these durable monuments were used as the burial places of high-ranking members of society and for religious ceremonies. Ballinastack Megalithic Tomb provides evidence that the surrounding area was inhabited during this period. Many Bronze Age people cooked outside in ‘Fulachtaí Fia’, or ‘Burnt Mounds’ where hot stones were used to heat water in which meat was then boiled. Three such monuments have been identified in the southern part of Ballyhard townland which provides evidence that early settlers also inhabited this area.

During the first millennium the landscape was dominated by bogs, marshes, lakes, turloughs and woods. The population was sparse, occupying small areas which had been cleared of trees for the purpose of raising animals and growing crops. The inhabitants lived in raths, also known as ringforts and lioses.  Twenty six ringforts have been identified in the parish, some are in good condition while others are in a poor state of preservation. Situated on elevated sites within striking distance of one another, it is said that any given fort had sight of at least two others  to enable the occupants summon help by deploying a coded signal if they came under attack. Their locations and a description of each may be found in the National Monuments website. Generally, ringforts were  circular or oval areas surrounded by an earthen bank with an external ditch and functioned as residences and/or farmsteads from 500 to 1000 AD. Fourteen enclosures have also been identified in the parish. They were circular, or oval enclosed areas ranging in diameter from 50m to over 100m defined by a broad earthen bank with a single entrance. They were ceremonial/ritual monuments, dating to the late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age.

Limestone rock which formed over 300 million years ago from marine organisms is close to the surface in many townlands giving rise to numerous quarries and providing material for use in the construction of single-leaf dry limestone walls which constitute historic man-made features in Stonetown, Stonepark, Felimspark, Parkroe and Cashel. Stones gathered from the immediate vicinity serve to demarcate field boundaries, clear the surface for cultivation and act as wind breaks providing shelter for animals and nesting sites for birds.  Over the millennia water eroded the limestone bedrock and formed a network of underground channels through which large volumes of water escape from turloughs via swallow holes of which there are many in the parish.

Around 500AD the Celts arrived in Ireland. They replaced the language and culture of the Bronze Age people and worshipped natural objects like trees and rivers. Their language formed the basis of modern Irish. They divided Ireland into kingdoms, called tuaths, each ruled over by a king. Their aristocracy engaged in fighting while the peasants who were slaves remained on their farms. Their systems of administration and justice were underpinned by the Brehon Laws. The MacEgans (MacAodhagáin) who resided in Park some five kilometers south-west of Glenamaddy in the parish of Clonberne specialised in interpreting the Brehon  Laws. As brehons to the O’Connors and McCarthys, they were  rewarded  with substantial tracts of land in Connacht and Munster as payment for legal services rendered. Students flocked to their school at Park. It is fitting that part of a limestone door lentil from Park Castle with an inscription in Irish dated 1627. reputed to have been rescued from the farmyard of Mr P. Kilmartin, Timard, about 1936 by Fr. Michael Godwin, C.C., Clonberne, has been incorporated into the gable wall of Clonberne National School where it serves as a proud reminder of the nenowned centre of learning that once flourished a short distance away. Margaret Jennings provides a very comprehensive account of the Brehon Law School at Park in which she concludes that the MacEgan family of Park made a significant contribution to the development of the legal system of early Ireland. “They left a valuable legacy which still survives today, carefully preserved and protected in museums and libraries throughout Europe. In their manuscripts, whether commissioned by MacEgan scholars, written by MacEgan scribes themselves or forming part of the library of their schools, we are left with a precious link with an historical past that goes back as far as the sixth century”. (Kilkerrin – A Place of Genius and GentilityInsights into our Past, 2006”). The MacEgans lost Park Castle following the Cromwellian Settlement and had to move to Dunblaney near Dunmore. One of the clan, Boetius Egan, became Archbishop of Tuam in 1787AD. He administered the diocese from his brother’s residence in Dunblaney as the Penal Laws dictated that the Catholic Archbishop was not permitted to reside in Tuam. He became one of the first trustees of Maynooth Catholic Seminary when it was established in 1795AD. He died in Dunblaney and was interred in the family crypt in Clonberne cemetery.

In 532AD St Patrick introduced Christianity to Ireland. He travelled widely and realised the importance of converting the aristocracy which contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity throughout the country. Tradition has it that he visited Glún (Gloon) in the townland of Clooncon West where he left his knee imprints on a rock and Buíbheanach (Boyounagh) where it is reputed that monks later built a monastery. Many pre-Christian seasonal celebrations were assimilated into Christianity. However, old superstitions associated with the ancient pagan belief system still prevailed throughout Ireland well into the 20th century as evidenced in the various National Folklore Collection submissions. Many people continued to believe in fairies, fairy paths, changelings, banshees, etc. In the 19th century a family in the parish was persuaded to demolish part of their house which jutted out into the roadway because it was said that it obstructed the pathway of fairies moving from one fairy fort to another. To appease otherworldly beings the family in question demolished the offending gable-end wall of their house and rebuilt it six feet further from the road. The adjusted room was so small as to be rendered useless.

We do not know when and by whom Boyounagh, or Templetogher with which it was closely associated down through the years, was first evangalised. If a monastery was in existence in Boyounagh in the 5th/6th century as sometimes implied it would have needed the protection of the Conmaicne sept in whose territory it would have been located. Given that St. Jarlath founded a monastery in Tuam in the 5th , or 6th century it is probable that his successors had jurisdiction over places like Boyounagh. By the 6th century the diocesan church was developing  into a monastic institution with abbots exercising some level of jurisdiction in the territory around their monasteries from where they went out amongst the people to administer the sacraments and bury the dead. By the 8th century the monastic church had become powerful and wealthy and conformed to the structure of secular society. The hereditary principle had been established in monastic circles. The custom of laymen holding office and married clergy transmitting their office to their children, or relatives had become commonplace.

The burning of churches was an integral part of inter-clan and inter-provincial warfare in medieval Ireland long before the Vikings, or Normans arrived and in this regard Boyounagh didn’t escape. The Annals of the Four Masters noted that the men of Breifne and Meath burned Boyounagh (presumably the church) and banished the inhabitants to west Connacht in 1137AD. 


Reference to ‘Buidheamhnach’ in the Annals of the Four Masters together with the corresponding translation by John O’Donovan.

For all we know it may not have been the only time that Boyounagh monastic settlement was raided. Monasteries were also prone to attack in times of famine and scarcity. Despite their susceptibility to attack many of them became renowned centres of learning and scholarship, producing marvellous works of art like the world-famous Book of Kells and some generated sufficient wealth to commission ornamental priceless treasures such as The Ardagh Chalice.

This was the period referred to as “the age of saints and scholars”. However, this relative stability was soon shattered by the arrival of bands of marauding Vikings in 895 AD. The Vikings added to the time-honoured native custom of ransacking monasteries. There is no evidence that they ventured near Boyounagh, keeping instead to the coastline and navigable rivers.  Intermittent attacks occurred over the following two hundred years with the Scandinavians gaining a foothold in coastal towns taking advantage of the lack of unity and the absence of a sense of nationality among the Irish ruling class. Brian Boru having asserted his right to the High Kingship of Ireland challenged Viking supremacy at Clontarf and won. Between the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 and the Norman invasion in 1169AD the Irish High Kingship was disputed and there was constant warfare between rival provincial kings. It was during this period in 1137AD that Breifne joined forces with Meath to invade Connacht destroying Boyounagh in the process. The Irish church was considered to be corrupt and the Norman king of England used this as a pretext with papal approval to assert his authority over Ireland. The Normans who came from England had their origins in Normandy, and previous to that in Scandinavia, introduced fortified castles and were well equipped for warfare. Over time they extended their authority over most of the country. They intermarried with the native Irish and adopted Irish customs, so much so that they were said to have become more Irish than the Irish themselves. By the middle of the 14th century the English monarchy felt compelled to introduce legislation in the form of the Statutes of Kilkenny(1366AD) to ensure that they retained their Norman identity.

Nothing specific appears about Boyounagh in Irish Annals prior to 12th century. By the beginning of the 12th century the Irish church was in need of reform and a series of synods commencing with Rathbreasil in 1111AD were convened to bring errant clerics to heel and root out malpractice. Following the deliberations of Rathbreasil Irish church leaders found that implementing reforms was slow and difficult. Pope Adrian IV (the only English pope) issued a papal bull which authorized King Henry II of England to conquer Ireland in the 12th century as a means of promoting the Gregorian Reforms in the Irish church. Meaningful reforms would require the abandonment of features of Gaelic society going back to pre-Christian times and of practices which had been accepted for centuries by the church in Ireland. These included attitudes towards marriage, clerical celibacy, the sacramental system, and control of church lands.

Over time the monastic church was replaced by a diocesan and parish structure with the church becoming more centralised as Rome gradually exerted control. However, hereditary succession to ecclesiastical office continued to be endemic in the middle ages. Synods were convened from time to time by conscientious prelates to recall delinquent clerics to a sense of duty but the spirit of the middle ages was against reform. Places like Boyounagh were a long way from Rome and standards began to lapse once more. The papacy itself was caught up in a scandal with three men simultaneously claiming to be the true pope. Between 1392-1500 papal letters confirm a church that was losing its moral compass. Benefices were being granted on questionable grounds. Complaints to Rome concerning corruption and failure to comply with church laws were not uncommon. In 1413 the papal spotlight was turned on Boyounagh for an irregularity and judging by the outcome the local church authorities appear to have been operating under a peculiar set of governance guidelines. (Patrick Knight – History of the Parish of Boyounagh. 1975 page 16). There are documented accounts of similar irregularities in Dunmore in the 15th century. In 1441 the vicar of Kilkerrin was removed from office following a complaint.  In 1461 his successor had serious charges levelled against him and Templetogher is mentioned as being in the patronage of laymen.

There is no evidence that the ecclesiastical centre reputed to have been established by monks at Boyounagh in the 5th/6th century, or thereabouts, continued to function between the destruction of the church in 1137 and the arrival of the Dominican friars. The friars’ emphasis on preaching, their pursuit of truth and love of learning counterbalanced the religious excesses of the secular clergy during the middle ages but one would have to wonder if the friars were operating in Boyounagh at this juncture and, if so, what their role might have been. Were they in charge of the parish, or merely acting in a supportive role?  It used to be said that for the most part secular clergy studied canon law and left theology to the friars.

The only reference to the Dominicans operating in Boyounagh appears in Fr Conway’s ‘Historical notes on the Parish of Glenamaddy and he doesn’t quote documentary sources – “There is no trace whatever of the first church built by St. Patrick at Bweeownach. We know that many of the first churches were of wood, and most probably this also was built of timber, cut in and drawn from a neighbouring wood. And put together as a mere temporary shelter. And, no doubt, after it had served its purpose, it was replaced by another, and still another of the same perishable material. It was not until centuries later that a more permanent stone building was erected, not exactly on the site of St. Patrick’s first church, but a few yards away and on the summit of a mound which commanded an extensive view of the country for many miles around. This church was built by or for a community of Dominican Friars who settled there and ministered to the people’s spiritual wants. For exactly how long the Friars occupied the church I cannot say, but when the storm of persecution burst over the whole land the Friars were banished or put to death, and their church dismantled by the spoilers. The only remains of it now intact is a small portion of the northern wall. Its nave and sanctuary now shelter the bones of those whose ancestors worshipped at its altars, and the carved stones and Gothic arches strew the grounds of the little cemetery which surrounds its site. From the time the Friars’ Church – as it was and is called – was destroyed there is no record or tradition of any other church having been built up to about the year 1820, when the centre of worship was transferred to Glenamaddy, three miles eastward, and a small cruciform church erected by a Fr. Browne”

The Burkes and Berminghams were influential families in Connacht from the beginning of the 13th century. Whereas the O’Connors dominated the kingship of Connacht from 967 to 1474 they were seldom undisputed monarchs having to defend their position at regular intervals against rival septs, siblings and aspiring relatives. With the arrival of the Burkes who were of Norman stock they had to contend with a superior military force. The O’Connor star gradually waned and having lost their lands they were no longer a force to be reckoned with.

Templetogher is mentioned on three separate occasions in the Annals of the Four Masters in connection with the O’Connors. In 1225 Hugh O’Connor joined forces with the English of Leinster and having crossed the River Suck at Ballymoe proceeded westward through Templetogher to quell a revolt further west. In 1255 the Annals state that an important meeting took place between Felim O’Connor and MacWilliam Burke in Templetogher, probably in the ecclesiastical centre, to formulate a peace treaty. The treaty didn’t endure for long as the Annals recorded that in 1262 McWilliam Burke marched across Templetogher with a great army heading for Elphin in pursuit of Felim O’Connor.

We know that the Dominicans came to Ireland in 1224. They established a priory in Athenry in 1241. Felim O’Connor, King of Connacht, sponsored the refectory there in 1265. There is evidence that Felim and his retinue took up residence for a period in Dunmore Castle.  We learn from the Annals of the Four Masters that in 1316 Feilm O’Connor defeated his rival kinsman, Rory O’Connor, in a battle at Templetogher. There is no reference to Boyounagh on this occasion but we can assume that a battle of this magnitude would have impacted on the region as sizeable armies were involved in mortal combat. Rory had entered Connacht and burned a great many towns including Dunmore while Felim was in Ulster negotiating an alliance with Edward Bruce with a view to expelling the English (Normans). Felim’s victory over Rory put him in a commanding position to demand loyalty from lesser kings and chieftains throughout Connacht. Buoyed by his recent success on the battlefield he set his sights on capturing Athenry, a stronghold of the Norman English, but he was thwarted in his efforts and slain on the battlefield in 1316.  He was interred in the Dominican Abbey in Roscommon which he established in 1253. It has been said that the O’Connors seemed to be “more concerned with the salvation of their souls than the grandeur of their residences”. They were notable patrons of the arts and religious congregations. Cathal Craobhdearg O‘Connor alone is associated with  the establishment of twelve abbeys including Ballintubber in County Roscommon in 1216. According to Rev. Martin Coen (Gleanings – Connacht Tribune 31 December 1976) the Concannons who claimed descendancy from the O’Connor kings of Connaught came originally from Kiltullagh four kilometres south of Glenamaddy town where they owned considerable property stretching over a wide are. They are reputed to have fostered their kinsman, Cathal Craobhdeag, king of Connacht 1189-1224, in his infancy.

It is possible that the Dominicans arrived in Boyounagh under the jurisdiction of the motherhouse in Athenry while the O’Connors still had influence and that a church flourished there until at least the dissolution of monasteries in the middle of the 16th century, or possibly until Cromwell’s more devastating anti-Catholic crusade a century later.  It is known that Athenry Priory avoided dissolution under Henry Vlll due to the influential intercessions of the Anglo-Norman Burke and Birmingham families but was destroyed and desecrated by Cromwell’s troops in 1652. Perhaps Boyounagh church met the same fate as Athenry around 1652.

John O’Donovan who visited Boyounagh parish in the 1830s when compiling the Field Name Books mentions the name of a friar but doesn’t confirm which religious order he was attached to – The old church of Bweeaunagh is all destroyed with the exception of a small fragment of the north side wall. The building was 18 feet broad, but its length cannot be ascertained. There is a holy well near it called Tober Patrick, but this Patrick was not the great Thaumaturgus (performer of miracles) but a humble friar named Patrick Mannion, who lived near the church-yard about 40 years ago, and who blessed (blest) this well and called it after his own name. This well is also called the friar’s well, which is the most appropriate name for it. The natives assert that there was a monastery to the east of this old grave-yard of Bweeaunagh, but of a monastery of this name I have no record. The foundations of a small abbey called (an) Mhainistir are pointed out a short distance to the east of the old church.”

Apparently when Boyounagh church was destroyed some friars continued to live and minister among the people as occurred in the eastern fringe of the parish when the friars evicted from the Dominican Abbey in Roscommon which was suppressed in 1573 chose to live among the people in Faartan. Paddy Crosby referred to the Dominicans in Mount Mary in a submission he made to the Folklore Commission in 1973 Half way between Creggs and Glenamaddy and on a road perpendicular to the right for about 3 miles stands Mount Mary, Slieve Mhuire, or Talamh na mBráithre. It is a beautiful countryside especially in summer and the Forestry Dept. have made a wonderful job of it.  It is connected with two events in Irish history – The Retreat of O’Sullivan Bear and the landing of the Dominicans in 1738 and their departure in 1788. They built their monastery quite near the old school which is now vacant. The foundation stone can yet be seen. In the field where the monastery was built there is lovely well of spring water.  It is there yet and is still called the Friars’ Well. About a mile down the road to the north there is another road leading to the village of Faartown. This road was called the Friars’ Walk and Mr Michael Connell who lives there tells me it is his opinion that they had another house on his land. He bases his assertion on the fact that there is a “togher” underneath one field which is far greener than any other around. He also informed me that there are strong wooden paths under the ground. He thinks there may be chalices buried underground there and it might be worth excavating. At any rate they had the lands on loan from Burke in Glynsk Castle. Five pounds he charged them. He wouldn’t take the money but bargained with them to say masses for him. This continued until 1788. In that year the prior brought his sister to Mount Mary. Burke got to know her and made several efforts to seduce her. Seeing the danger they were in most of the monks took up their roots and left Mount Mary and departed to Fuerty. Some of the monks remained with the good people of Faartown. They wore ordinary clothes for fear of Penal Laws. They advised the people there to hold fast to their religion and wherever there were stations to holy wells to be sure to continue to do them. They weren’t long there when the Dominicans in Athenry got to hear about they living in Faartown.  A protest was made and a commission was set on foot to test whether they had any authority. The P.P. in Glenamaddy at that time, Fr. Flann Donelan, and the Archbishop of Tuam tried the case. The Athenries were defeated and the poor monks were left there amongst the people.”

A government-sponsored land survey conducted by Sir Thomas Wentworth in preparation for the plantation of Connacht in 1638 found that about one quarter of the land in the parish of Boyounagh was ‘profitable’, meaning suitable for farming and capable of being rented out. ‘Unprofitable’ land, on the other hand, applied to land which was unsuitable for farming, such as bog and marsh. Two hundred years later in the 1830s a land survey designed to establish which holdings were eligible for ‘tithes’ found that more than half of the parish fell into the ‘profitable’ category.  Had vast improvements taken place due to land reclamation in the intervening two centuries, or was the interpretation of what constituted ‘profitable land’ in the 1830s’ survey inflated in order to boost the revenue generated for the established church?

In the middle ages people regularly had their lives disrupted by inter-clan feuding and military campaigns designed to achieve supremacy. War-induced famine which wiped out a significant portion of the population was a recurring feature of medieval life in Ireland, if the Annals of the Four Masters is anything to go by. Whereas people had grown accustomed to the disruptive nature of indigenous warfare which included maiming, slaughter, hostage-taking and reparations, they had to contend with an added unwelcome dimension when King Henry VIII broke away from Rome in 1534. By and large the writ of the English monarch didn’t run outside of the Pale in the middle ages but after Henry VIII parted ways with Rome religion became a contentious issue in his kingdom and people’s religious beliefs and their very sense of identity came under threat as monasteries were dissolved and the Protestant religion was accorded special status. Priests who did not take the Oath of Supremacy lost income from tithes. By the end of the 16th century catholic clergy had lost their churches and tithes. Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland, conducted a land survey in Connacht in the 1630s for the purpose of confiscating between a half and a quarter of Catholic landowners’ estates. In 1838 the eighteen Strafford denominations totalling twelve quarters in area in the parish of Boyounagh were formed into forty-five Ordnance Survey townlands for the purpose of land acquisition. Shannagh Beg, Shannagh More, Creggaun and a portion of Kiltullagh townlands which originally formed part of Kilkerrin parish became part of Glenamaddy parish in the early 1990s by mutual consent.

In the years following the 1641 rebellion Cromwell who was a strict Puritan embarked on a mission of persecuting Catholics. Priests were considered traitors and those who sheltered them felons. In fulfilment of the 1652 Cromwellian Act of Settlement Catholics, and indeed Protestants who supported the royalist cause, were forced to forfeit their lands, though Protestants were treated less severely. The four quarters of Boyouagh were assigned to William Kenedy, Lisnargid, Tipperary at this time. He was transplanted from good quality land east of the Shannon to inferior land in Connacht. Apart from Kenedy a number of other transplanters came to the parish of Boyounagh from Tipperary. Kenedy wasn’t impressed with the quality of his new estate and applied later to be reinstated in his home place. At the same time it is believed that Clanrickarde may have  forfeited part of Clooncon, likewise Betagh and Kelly may have been deprived of parts of Mountkelly and Sonnagh  and the O’Concannon family is reputed to have lost Gortnagier including Glenamaddy. The owners disputed the forfeiture and had some of their estates restored either before Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 or during the following decade. The ‘distribution’ component of the Books of Survey and Distribution lists the owners in 1670, following the settlement of all claims. By now Clanrickarde is recorded as the owner of Clooncon, Beatagh is listed as part owner of Sonnagh and Cloonlara, Kedagh Kelly is given as part-owner of Cloonlara, Sonnagh and Clondoyle, Glenamaddy is in the hands of the Protestant Archbishop of Tuam while the townlands of Gortnagier and Kiltullagh which were previously owned by the Concannons are now in the possession of Sir George St George.

Following the Battle of the Boyne in 1691 the victors sought to assert their authority throughout the entire country and with missionary zeal redoubled their efforts to marginalise Catholics through the confiscation of what lands were still in their possession. In 1695 the friars in Dunmore Abbey were forced to depart for Spain.  In 1704 Queen Anne decreed that priests could not transfer from one parish to another. The early 1700s is considered to be the most likely time that priest hunters came upon groups of unsuspecting parishioners attending Mass in Esker and Lisheenaheltia and executed the celebrants and members of the congregation. Despite the rigorous implementation of the Penal Laws priest replacements continued to come from abroad and minister in disguise. Bishops and priests passed as ordinary workers and lived in villages among the people. There are two registered priests cited for Boyounagh at this time – Edmund Lyons who lived in Meelick and John Concannon who resided in Barna. Boyounagh and Templetogher was by now a single benefice. Fr. Lyons travelled across the bog to say Mass in Kilnalag while Fr. Conconnon celebrated Mass in Esker. A County Galway grand jury issued a warrant on 7th July 1714 for the arrest of a Fr. Andrew Crean, successor to Fr. John Concannon, who was deemed to have feloniously entered the kingdom from abroad.

By 1774 the Stuarts no longer posed a threat to the English throne. Mounting international pressure at the ill-treatment of Catholics resulted in the most punitive aspects of the Penal Laws being relaxed. Unfortunately, it was all too late for most Catholics who had been dispossessed of 95% of their lands at this point. In 1795 a government grant was provided to open a Catholic seminary in Maynooth. This was seen as preferable to having priests trained in Salamanca and Louvain where they were more likely to become radicalised.

The hearth tax imposed in 1662 resulted in people building cabins without chimneys which led to widespread blindness. This tax was abolished in 1793 but peasants had become so accustomed to building one room cabins that the practise continued for decades. The 1841 census shows that 85% of houses in the parish of Boyounagh were one room abodes. In 1844 the Parliamentary Gazetter recorded that there were in Boyounagh, “Eighteen hamlets mainly a miserable knot of squalid huts athwarth the surface”.

In 1800 Templetogher is given for the united parishes of Templetogher and Boyounagh in which there was one P.P. and one curate with a combined income of £80 which had to suffice for the upkeep of the chapel at Kilnalag as well as the upkeep of the clergy. There is no mention of the upkeep of a church in Boyounagh. In 1819 there was a chapel in Kilnalag with a thatched roof but no church in Boyounagh. The following year a Fr. Browne built a new church in Glenamaddy with a slated roof. In 1839 a slated church was built in Corralough, Williamstown, and the church and village in Kilnalag fell into disuse.

In 1834 the impoverished and beleaguered people of Boyounagh and Kilnalag had to pay tithes which they could ill-afford to the Protestant vicar in Kilkerrin (£65) as well as to the Protestant Dean (£60) and Provost (£60) of Tuam despite the fact that there was only one Protestant living in the parish of Boyounagh and no Protestant church located within the parish. A proctor visited landholdings to assess the amount to be paid. Where people hadn’t the wherewithal to pay, their only cow was expropriated. The amended Tithe Act of 1838 converted the tithes to a land tax which landlords had to pay. Landlords increased rents to claw back their outlay. The Protestant church was disestablished in 1869 but the tax had henceforth to be paid to the government – as far as the ordinary people were concerned it was a case of the more things changed the more they remained the same.

The Lewis Topographical Dictionary describes Boyounagh in 1838 as having a population of 4,861 inhabitants. “The parish comprised 13,840 statute acres, a large extent of which is waste land and bog. The church in Boyounagh is in ruins, but the ground is still used for burials. In the Roman Catholic divisions it is the head of a union or district, also called Glanamada, comprising the parishes of Boyanagh and Templetogher: there is a chapel in each of which that of Boyanagh is situated in Kilnalag. A school, in which about 80 boys and 10 girls are taught, is supported by Lord Fitzgerald and there are three private schools in which are about 280 boys and 50 girls.”

The population increased greatly in the latter half of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries due to improved employment opportunities and a bountiful supply of potatoes which formed the staple diet of most people. By 1841 the population of Ireland had soared to 8.2 million people, notwithstanding the fact that an estimated 500,000 people had emigrated between 1831 and 1841. A series of potato crop failures culminating in the great famine of 1845-1848 resulted in indescribable hardship and misery in which over a million people starved to death with an equal number being forced to emigrate in order to survive. The population of Boyounagh peaked in 1821 at 6,275. This is in marked contrast to the rest of the country where the census returns show that nationally the population peaked in 1841. It remains to be explained why the population of the parish of Boyounagh comprising the original forty five townlands declined by 16% between 1821(6,275) and 1841(5,286) when over the same period the population nationally increased by 20%. The Great Famine of 1845-1848 accounts for a further decline of 26% in the parish population. The census population of the same forty five townlands in 2011 stood at 1,410, a decline of 78% from the peak of 1821.

Glenamaddy Workhouse opened in 1853 with accommodation for 500 inmates, though that number was never reached. At the height of the famine people in need from the parish of Boyounagh had to seek refuge in Castlerea workhouse which came into operation in 1839. Landlords had to contribute towards the running costs of workhouses. This prompted them to subsidise the travel fares of emigrants to the United States and Australia so as to reduce the numbers applying for relief at home. Tenants’ inability to pay rents resulted in many landlords having to sell their estates in the immediate aftermath of the famine. The estates were often purchased by avaricious, non-resident investors who replaced people with cattle and sheep for which there was a demand in Britain. Tenants had to cope with middlemen who gained a reputation for increasing  rents and reducing security of tenure. Rack-renting and one-year leases became endemic. This resulted in further hardship for the general population resulting in agrarian strife and accelerated emigration.

By 1870 the economic climate had changed once more. In the following years a downturn in demand for agricultural produce exacerbated by agrarian agitation, parliamentary rent reforms and the emergence of a nationalistic spirit meant that the writing was on the wall for landlords as they came under mounting pressure to dispose of their estates. The Congested District Boards and later the Land Commission stepped into the breach. There was a serious effort made to create freehold family farms from which an acceptable standard of living could be derived. Many lessees were enabled to purchase viable holdings in divided estates at reasonable rents and thus regain the independence and sense of security which their ancestors had not enjoyed for centuries.

It wasn’t until 1921 that the shackles of slavery were finally severed but, unfortunately, hope was soon dashed in the post-independent decades as the economic war with England and the stagnation of the global economy precipitated by the Second World War left a considerable portion of the Irish population facing renewed hardship. The absence of a state income support system and the lack of gainful employment at home meant that emigration was for many once again the only option.  Working from Central Statistics Office data and parish figures published by Patrick Knight in 1975 it is clear that the population of Glenamaddy declined proportionately more than either Connacht, or the twenty-six counties during the period from 1936 to 1956.  In percentage terms the decline for the two decades was 2% for the twenty-six counties, 15% for Connacht and 25% for the parish of Glenamaddy.

The custom of burying the remains of children who died without baptism in unconsecrated burial grounds, or, Cillíní, was practised in Ireland by Christians as far back as the 6th century when theologians began to speculate about the destination of their souls.  The parish of Glenamaddy Boyounagh alone has seven identified Children’s Burial Grounds located in the townlands of Ballinastack, Clooncon East (Ballinlass), Clondoyle More, Creggaun, Esker (Eskeromullacaun), Middletown (Boyounagh More) and Scotland. Children from Boyounagh, Lisheenaheltia and Woodfield were interred in ‘Falla Thobair’ just outside of the parish boundary in Little Castle in the parish of Dunmore.

Following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) a more enlightened and compassionate clergy and people moved to change many practices that had become the norm over the years. Nowadays a Christian funeral rite may be celebrated for a child who dies without baptism and whose parents intended their child to be baptised and burial arrangements are left to the parents and their pastor.

Few families escaped the sad loss of an infant and a number of families are known to have buried more than one child in this manner.  No inscribed tombstones marked the final resting place of the unknown number of children who were laid to rest in parish Children’s Burial Grounds down through the years. A simple unmarked stone covered each little plot. Whereas burials in Children’s Burial Grounds ceased many years ago, the outdated practice is still fresh in the minds of the older generation, with the last known burials taking place in the early 1960s. Coinciding with Millennium commemorations, Children’s Burial Grounds throughout the parish were highlighted and renovated. Surviving parents and relatives of deceased children attended religious ceremonies, sensitively conducted by parish clergy and supported by a caring community, in which all those children who were officially treated as non-persons in death were remembered, prayed for and finally given the recognition they deserved. 

Children’s Burial Grounds are registered with the National Monument Service and are entitled to statutory protection. As of 2018 the locations of Ballinastack, Clondoyle More, Creggaun, Esker, Little Castle and Scotland Children’s Burial Grounds are listed in the National Monuments website.

Emigration has been a constant feature of parish life for centuries. The UK, the United States, Australia, Canada and  New Zealand were the principal destinations for those opting, or forced to leave so that others could remain. There was a time when heading for America was likened to a death sentence as the chances of ever returning were remote. The “American Wakes” remind us of the unenviable dilemma which people faced when the “brightest and the best” had to choose between a life of abject poverty at home and the hope of a better life in the “New World”, far from the familiar surroundings of their childhood and the social support scaffolding of friends and relatives.   Many of our ancestral relatives who went to America in the post-famine years had to contend with exploitation, ostracization, discrimination and isolation. It was not unusual for notices advertising vacancies to include a rider that “Irish need not apply.” This contrasts sharply with the modern-day expereience where to be Irish is considered to be advantageous in all walks of life, none more so than in the political sphere.  When it comes to chalking up successes Glenamaddy punched above its weight with many emigrants making their mark, especially in the construction industry. Examples that spring to mind down the years are the Connolly’s from Loughpark, Dowds from Bushtown, Keavenys from Esker, Donlon’s from Cashel, Cunninghams from Meelick, Mees and Husseys from Scotland. In more recent times the Conneallys from Boyounagh Beg and the incomparable Comer Brothers from Shannagh Beg continue to make their mark on the national and international stage. Whereas the majority of those who emigrated fared well it is also true that some fell on hard times and ended their days in challenging circumstances with little help, or acknowledgement from the country of their birth.

On the business front Declan Ganley who was raised in Lisheenaheltia and who attended Coláiste Seosaimh post primary school in Glenamaddy is a very successful international businessman whose company, Rivada Networks, develops cutting-edge technology for emergency services in the United States while Martin Raferty who was born in Glenamaddy and who for a short period in the late 1950s managed the family business in the town’s centre, now Harte’s Public House, had a glittering business career that spanned forty years in a chain of Ireland’s top companies before retiring in 2005. Whereas West-Bake, Kingspan and Meteor Engineering, retail outlets, educational establishments, service providers and agricultural contractors provide welcome employment within the parish, the general trend, mirroring the experience of parishes throughout rural Ireland, is for highly-qualified young people to secure employment in the major urban centres, or abroad depending on the buoyancy of the Irish economy.

Down through the years agriculture has been the main source of employment for the majority of the parish workforce. Our ancestors had a strong affinity with the land and even though in many cases the soil quality doesn’t compare favourably with that found in other parts of the country, nevertheless through hard work and perseverance much of it has been painstakingly developed into productive grassland. Fr. Conway complimented the industrious people of the parish for draining marshes and reclaiming cutaway bogs at the end of the 19th century. This work continued apace in the 20th century aided by state grants and accelerated by specialised machinery.  In the past people tended to be self-sufficient, producing their own vegetables, meat and milk. Farming up until the last quarter of the 20th century was very labour intensive with mixed farming comprising a combination of animal husbandry and tillage prevailing. Small-scale dairying with the advantage of a regular income became popular for a period in the parish in the 1960s and 70s. Joining the European Community (EU) in 1973 gave a welcome stimulus to the agricultural industry. A consequence of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was the evolution of specialised farming systems: dairy, beef, tillage etc and a move away from the mixed approach to farming which predominated heretofore. Increased production, underpinned by EU subsidies and stable prices, boosted  incomes in the farming community and made it attractive for farmers to invest and expand holdings. At the same time, foreign direct investment has been instrumental in generating employment in cities and large towns resulting in a reduction in emigration and a marked improvement in living standards. However, with the passage of time it has become apparent that commodity prices, determined by world markets, are not keeping pace with farm input costs. For those not in a position to increase production and exploit the benefits of economy of scale, there is an ever-increasing requirement to source off-farm employment to supplement family incomes.

Author: Pat Keaveny

For related posts click on the following links:

St. Patrick’s Parish Church

Fr Walter Conway


A History of the Parish of Boyounagh. Patrick Knight. 1975

Historical Notes on the Parish of Glenamaddy. Very Rev. Walter Conway, P.P.

St. Patrick’s Church, Glenamaddy. The First Hundred Years 1904-2004

The Ancient Law School of Park, Co Galway. Thomas B. Costello. 1940

A Place of Genius and Gentility – Insights into our Past – Kilkerrin Heritage Group. 2006

The National Folklore Commission

Dunmore – A History, Hubert Birmingham

The Annals of the Four Masters

Central Statistics Office