Mayo’s largest town has a long and varied history. Founded in the 1200s, the County Town was, for many years a British Garrison town. For one exceptional moment in 1798, the entire country’s fate seemed destined to change as the French General Humbert’s army rolled into town celebrating a victory against the British. However short-lived the victory, ‘The Castlebar Races’ as the battle came to be known, fuelled the dreams and imaginations of generations after who sought independence from Britain, especially as the joint Irish and French forces had been vastly outnumbered by the British. A plaque commemorates the momentous event in the town.
Another major historical event took place in Castlebar: the foundation of The Land League by Michael Davitt. From the late 18th century, Lord Lucan was the main landlord of the town. By the late 1870s, poor crop yields led to fears of recurring famine which prompted the foundation of The Land League. Plans were drawn up in Daly’s Hotel on the Mall in Castlebar. Michael Davitt, together with Charles Stewart Parnell and others went on to profoundly change the lives of people in Mayo and nationally. Michael Davitt was born in nearby Straide where a small museum tells his story.
Castlebar has long been a bustling commercial town with a convivial Mall where children or young lovers can be seen on summer’s days relaxing on the grass with ice cream. It serves as the central hub for a wide catchment area in south and central Mayo. Two of the country’s leaders have counted themselves Castlebar men: (current Taoiseach) Enda Kenny and (former Taoiseach) Charles Haughey.
The tranquil vistas of Croagh Patrick at sunset are unparalleled on a stroll around Lough Lannagh, a lake and parkland on the edge of town which provides welcome relief from the town centre. A gently sloping path encircles the lake, which is the purview of a host of pristine swans. Occasional boats anchor away from the shore with solitary fishermen waiting for something to bite.
The Mayo Peace Park, near Lough Lannagh reminds us of the sacrifices made in conflicts outside of Ireland. it commemorates the Mayo men and women who served and died in foreign battles in two World Wars and in more recent history, in UN Peacekeeping operations.
Festivals punctuate the calendar in Castlebar as elsewhere in Mayo, with many occasions for celebration throughout the year, from the Patrick’s Day parade to Walking Festivals and the Guinness Blues Festival.
For music, arts and culture, there is always something going on, from fairly large-scale music and theatre shows in the Traveller’s Friend Theatre to more intimate touring music, art and theatre at the Linenhall Arts Centre, the premier cultural venue. The Museum of Country Life a few miles out of town brings a city museum experience to the area, yet appropriately celebrating life as it was traditionally lived in this region, offering another angle on a county whose history shaped not only its immediate environs, but also the rest of the country.