Both the parish and the GAA club of Newport are known by the older name of Burrishoole.
Having suffered the twin evils of famine and sectarian persecution the population of the parish fell from 12,000 to 4,000 as a result of the Great Famine. The loss can be most keenly felt standing in the ruins of Burrishoole Abbey between a large graveyard on the one side and the quietly lapping waters of Clew Bay on the other side.
Having once been the main port in the area (before Newport-Pratt was founded in the early 18th century) Burrishoole was a thriving centre. On the coast a few kilometres northwest of Newport stands Rockfleet, the Pirate Queen’s (Grainne Uaile’s) castle and stronghold. One of her husband’s ancestors, Sir Richard de Burgo founded Burrishoole Abbey 3 km northwest of Newport, for the Dominican order in 1469.
In 1799, Fr. Manus Sweeney, a local priest who defied the British Crown was hanged for his part in the French-backed rebellion of 1798, and is buried within the walls of the abbey. Grainne Uaile’s son Tiobaid na Loinge (Toby of the ships) also lies here. The abbey’s roof fell in in 1793 and it gradually fell into ruin, a fate sealed by the anti-catholic Penal Laws which effectively outlawed any Roman Catholic practice. Today the nave, chancel and south transept can be seen and the adjoining cemetery is still in use.
From Rockfleet Grainne Uaile went to Queen Elizabeth I’s court where it is said the two women got along well enough. Reportedly they conversed in Latin as Grainne Uaile did not speak English, nor did Elizabeth I speak Irish. The Pirate Queen refused to curtsy before the monarch, a fact which could only have strengthened her reputation in Burrishoole, where she is thought to have died in the early 1600s in her 70s.
To get a feel for the fighting life in a stone fortress, you can visit the restored castle and imagine greeting its ferocious residents as you climb the clockwise stairwell designed to put the intruder at a disadvantage having to sword-fight up the stairs left-handedly.
Burrishoole saw much political strife, not least of it in the 19th century. With Catholic schools forbidden under the Penal Laws, hedge schools sprung up about the parish. The famine (and its attendant emigration) decimated two-thirds of the population and eyewitness accounts tell stories of ghastly scenes of Burrishoole awash with famine graves on the side of the road, in fields, on beaches single graves and group burials-- scenes which boggle the modern mind as you travel through this most pastoral of scenery. But if you look closely, the landscape bears the marks of this and other ancient activity.
Today, Newport (Pratt was dropped) is the centre though its once important port is now used only for pleasure. The arched bridge gives the town a continental flavour upon approach from the south and the church dominates the town whose founder tried to suppress it. It’s worth a visit to see renowned Irish artist Harry Clarke’s stained glass windows.