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History Index

Near the town of Ballycastle in North Mayo there is an area about 1,500 hectares in size where blanket bog grew and covered an existing area of Neolithic settlement or settlements.
This area was discovered and researched by folk historian and archeologist, Dr. Joseph Caulfield, (Seosamh Ó Caothmhaoil) of the Department of Folklore, University College, Dublin. Incidentally, Dr. Caulfield is a local man.
The Céide Fields are the oldest known field systems in the world, over five  thousand years old.
It is a Neolithic landscape of world importance, which has changed our perception of our Stone Age ancestors.
The remains of stone field walls, houses and megalithic tombs are preserved beneath a blanket of peat over several square miles.

An Outline History of County Mayo  

From the Earliest Times  to the Dawn of History

The Coming of Christianity

In the interim between the Neolithic farming folk of Ceide Fields fame and the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in probably the 5th century AD, we could discuss the impact the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age had on Mayo but, in truth, there is little to discuss.
The arrival of Christianity, however, brought long-lasting, permanent changes to the people who dwelt there and the changes are felt to the present day.

The people of Ireland at this time were Celts, iron-using people who arrived here some centuries previously from Europe and who spoke the language we now call Gaelic, still spoken in isolated parts of Ireland today.

Actually there is serious historical research that suggests that the good saint did visit the county. It is probable that he spent a period of time, 40 days and nights according to reports, fasting and praying on a mountain quite close to the present day town of Westport. He is also linked with sites near the modern towns of Foxford and Ballintubber.
The mountain in question, Croagh Patrick, or the Reek, as it is commonly known to generations of Mayo people ihas been for ages immemorial, a place of pilgrimage.

Every year on the last Sunday of July, Reek Sunday, thousands of pilgrims from Ireland and abroad undertake the task of climbing the mountain. Many do this barefoot. This pilgrimage has been ongoing since earliest times.

After the advent of Christianity many monastic settlements, too numerous to mention, were established in the county in keeping with the rest of the country. The one near Balla is said to have given Mayo its name.
The name in Irish for the county is Maigheo or Maigh Eo, meaning the "plain of yew trees."

It was also known as “Maigh Eo na Sacsain.” (Mayo of the Saxons) Its name was taken from the monastic abbey established by a community of Saxon monks, led by St. Colman, bishop of Lindisfarne.

As far as archeologists can determine the first people who came to Ireland arrived here during the Mesolithic period. These people were nomads, hunters and fishers with no settled structure of existence. We cannot be certain, but there is no conceivable reason why some of these folks did not come to Mayo. Given the heavy concentration of identifiable artifacts located in Mayo belonging to the succeeding Neolithic period there is no reason to believe Mayo was not colonised in earliest times.

The next wave of settlers in those parts was Neolithic or New Stone Age farmers. They were so called because they were, like their predecessors, users of stone implements. However, they had learned how to farm and so could live a more settled existence. People able to grow crops and tame animals do not need to keep continually on the move following their supplies of food.

This in turn, allows for a higher standard of living since settled folks can devote more time to building stable homes. As far as I know there is nowhere in the world where nomadic people ever felt so sufficiently secure where food supplies were concerned that they had the facility to develop anything other than a rudimentary form of civilization. This explains why Neolithic peoples developed more lasting and more civilized forms of living than those of the Mesolithic era.

They certainly had a belief in an afterlife; they buried their dead in stone tomb sites, often of imposing size and of complicated structure. The remains were usually cremated and the tombs had multiple burials. Artefacts recovered from some of these sites would indicate a belief in an afterworld, as the articles in question would be of use in daily life.

These burial sites are usually referred to as Passage Graves, although experts will state correctly that the Passage grave, or tomb, was only one of a variety of four. Each type representing, probably, a new wave of Neolithic settlers.

The next major development in the evolution of the story of Mayo's history was the gradual change in climate starting around 3,000 BC or so. The increase in both rainfall and temperature lead to a huge number of shallow pools and lakes developing countrywide.

In time vegetation clogged up these expanses of water, successive plants growing up through the decaying undergrowth and pressing it down. In time this led to the formation of huge expanses of blanket bog over much of Ireland including North and East Mayo.

This phenomena lead to a change in the topography of the areas concerned turning what were once profitable farming areas into desolate stretches of non-profitable moorland. Evidence of this can be found at the Ceide Fields.

Portion of the Ceide Fields

The Interpretive Centre

The settlement at Ballintubber is the best known of the ancient settlements. Indeed, the present church has been in continuous use since, I think, 1216.
Now, what was established in 1216 would have been somewhat different in style, in more ways than one, to what went before it. The Augustinian order  took over the site of the old settlement in that year and built a new abbey there.

Ballintubber Abbey

In spite of the Reformation,  Ballintubber Abbey appears to have remained open. (After parting company with the Pope on the question of not having had his marriage annulled as he wished, Henry decided to shut down just about all church institutions in his jurisdiction and "transferred" their assets to his own use.

Incidentally, this took place in 1578.

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