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Ballynahinch Castle History

History of Ballynahinch Castle

Ballynahinch Castle has been intertwined with the history of Connemara and its people for many centuries, from a famous recorded battle between the O'Flahertys and O'Malleys in 1384 to a visit by all the Lord Mayors and Mayors of Ireland and some overseas celebrating the Quincentennial of Galway city receiving its charter in 1984. 

Ballynahinch in Irish is Baile na hInse, meaning 'houshold of the island', which refers to the O'Flaherty Castle built on an island in Ballynahinch Lake. 


The O’Flahertys

The land of Iar Connacht stretched from the castle to Bunowen and the plain of Murrisk in Mayo over to Moycullen on the banks of Louh Corrib. This was the land if the O'Flaherty clan, lords of Connacht and masters of Ballynahinch. It was into this family that the most famous resident of Ballynahinch married - Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen of Connacht - who married Donal O'Flaherty or Dónal an Chogaidh (Donal of the battles). This was about the year of 1546 when Grace was 16. The marriage united two of the most powerful families in the country and bonded the lands of Murrisk and Iar Connacht.

Ballynahinch was just one of the many castles the O'Flahertys held. The others were at Aughnanure, Doon, Moycullen, Bunowen and Renvyle. Donal at this time was tánaiste (second in command or heir apparent) to Donal Crone, ruler of all Connacht. Grace divided her tume between Bunowen and Ballynahinch, Bunowen being the newer building of the two. They had four children and on the death of Donal (it was said that he was murdered by the Joyce clan as revenge for the seizure of Hen's Castle on Lough Corrib), Grace took over as head of the family - some saying she was a better 'man' than her late husband. 

Her life as a pirate is well known, as is her famous meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in September 1593. These two formidable ladies met on equal terms as queen to queen. They spoke in Latin, and of the only Irish woman chieftain ever to appear in court it was written "In the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high Before the English Queen she dauntless stood". 

In 1584 the Queen appointed Murrough na dTuadh O'Flaherty as the head of clan against the wishes of the vast majority of the O'Flahertys, causing a split in the clan. In the same year Murrough na dTuadh captured the fortress of Ballynahinch, but Grace's sons, Owen and Murrough, recaptured it later in 1584. Grace's son Murrough retained possesion of the castle until early in the seventeenth century. 

A sad footnore to the O'Flaherty connection with Ballynahinch - in 1586 Sir Richard Bingham, governor of Connacht, and arch-enemy of Grace, appointed his brother Captain John Bingham as lieutenant of the area. In the same year, Captain Bingham with 500 men captured Grace's son, Owen O'Flaherty, and 18 of his followers along with 4,000 cattle, 500 stud mares and horses, and a thousand sheep. With the livestock and men, he went to Ballynahinch. 

A contemporary account describes Owen's last hours. "That evening he (John Bingham) caused the said eighteen persons without trial or good cause, to be hanged. The next night following, a false alarm was raised in the camp in the dead of night, the said Owen being fast bound in the cabin of Grene O'Molloy (Grace O'Malley) and at that instant the said Owen was cruelly murdered, having twelve deadly wounds, and in that miserable spot he ended his unfortunate days." If anyone has a good reason to haunt the castle it might be Owen O'Flaherty. 

The mystery of where pirate queen Grace O'Malley or Granuaile's last resting place is has never been solved, but it is generally thought to be Clare Island in Clew Bay. She died in 1603 - the same year as Queen Elizabeth I. 

The Ballynahinch connection with Grace is kept to this day with a portrait of her by the American artist, Cleeve Miller, which hangs in the Fisherman's Pub. 

The decline of the O'Flaherty family towards the end of the sixteenth century is marked by their recognition of the Queen's Lord Deputy. In 1590 Robert Martin bought their estate at Ross outside Galway. 

The Martins

The Martins trace their ancestry back to a Crusader, Sir Oliver Martin, who received his amorial bearings from Richard the Lionheart with the pious motto 'AuxiliumMeum A Domino' or 'My Help is from the Lord'. He came to Ireland with Strongbow during the Norman invasion in 1169, and settled for a while in Limerick. His family established themselves as one of the Fourtenn Tribes of Galway, and they were the first of the tribes to venture outside the safety of the walled city. The O'Flahertys still kept a jealous eye on the Martins after they had solfd to Robert in 1590, and in later years they were to kill a son of Nimble Dick, a great-grandson of Robert, who lived at Gangan on the (then) outskirts of Galway. 

It was in Dangan that Richard Martin, 'Humanity Dick', was born in 1754. The present house at Ballynahinch was built by Richard's father as an inn, so history repeats itself and has come full circle once again. The house was extensively renovated about 1813 and Humanity Dick moved here permanently. Hardiman recorded in 1820 - "Dangan of late years has been suffered to go to considerable decay". 

This move made Ballynahinch the principal seat of the Martin family. Richard Martin certainly a most colourful character, in the mould of his food friend Prince Regent, later King George IV. His lifestyle was opulent and he was well known for his lavish parties, which later contributed to his money troubles. He was also known for his duelling skills which earned him his second nickname, 'Hair-Trigger Dick', and was leading exponent of duelling in Galway where, prior to each encounter, he would display an old wound to his opponent with the comment "Let this be your target, sir." His opponents were never on target but he usually was. 

Ballynahinch Castle was host to many famous people during the early part of th 19th century. Celebrated author Maria Edgeworth, author of Castle Rackrent, was one such visitor in 1834, and on arrival was personally brought a glass of port by her host. Of the food at Ballynahinch Miss Edgeworth made the comment - "It is worthy of the greatest gourmet." Hopefully, is she returned today, she would say likewise. 

Daniel O'Connell stayed a night and had lunch the next day before going to Clifden to address a Repeal meeting. The story goes that he spoke to the throng in English and only about 30% of them understood him. A hundred years later, Éamon de Valera came to Clifden and addressed the crowd in Irish and, as before, only about 30% of the listeners understood him. 

In his travel log, The Irish Sketch-Book, W.M. Thackeray wrote - "O you who laboriously throws flies in English Rivers, and catch at the expiration of a day's walking casting and wadeing two or three feeble little trout of tow or three ounces in weight, how you would rejoice to have but one hour's sport on Derryclare or Ballynahinch; where you have but cast and lo! A big trout springs to your fly."

One other notable visitor at this time was tutor to the Martin Children who fell hopelessly in love with Richard Martin's wife, Harriet - one Theobald Wolfe Tone. 

Richard Martin was M.P. for the area, and during one election campaign he called on his duelling for the answer to the question of who was going to win. His reply was - "The survivor, sir." As M.P. Richard Martin introduced a bill to the House of Commons in 1822, the cruelty to Animals Act. As a result of the bill being passed, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed, and it is for the this reason that Richard Martin is most fondly remembered as 'Humanity Dick', It was a final gesture of his part for, not long after, he lost his seat at Westminister. Under pressure from creditors, he left Ireland never to return, dying in Boulogne in France in 1834. Asked on his deathbed why he was so kind to animals and ruthless to humans, his last words are reputed to have been - "Did you ever see an ox with a pistol?" 

Then he died, and so passed the King of Connemara, the master of Ballynahinch, and the man who owned the longest driveway in the world - "Forty one miles from Galway to his front door at the castle." 

Richard's townhouse in Galway still stands on Quay Street, now occupied by Naughtons Pub. After the death of Thomas Martin (Richard's heir) who died of famine fever, the heavily-encumbered estate was left to his daughter Mary, a prolific novelist. She left the country to avoid the debts, dying in Union Palace Hotel, New York, not long after her arrival in America, after an anxious voyage and the birth of a child on board ship. 

The Martin family has other notable members, including Violet Martin of Ross House near Oughterard. Under the pen-name of Ross she became famous as half of the literary partnership of Somerville and Ross, who write the Irish R.M. stories. Another was the writer Edward Martin of Tullyra Castle near Loughrea, Co. Galway. Along with Lady Gregory of Coole Park and the poet W.B. Yeats, he founded the Abbey Theatre, and, as a result of his patronage, the Palestrina Choir of Dublin's Pro-Cathedral was founded. 

After the Great Famine the Martin's huge estate was sold through the Encumbered Estates Court. The purchasers, the London Law Life Assurance Company of London, later sold it to Richard Berridge and the Berridge family restored and enlarged the Castle to much of its present day structure. 


After the Berridge family, Ballynahinch Castle passed into the hands of His Highness the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanger, better known as Ranjitsinhji, or Ranji Prince of Cricketers. Ranji had come to known Ballynahinch through its famous fisheries and in 1924 he purchased the property from the Berridge family. He had fallen in love with the beautiful scenery of Connemara, and wished to own part of it. It was Ranji who was responsible for most of the landscaping of the gardens and woods, plus the erection of the fishing piers and huts along the river. He was fabulously wealthy, with property in Englan and many places in India. Best known as a world-class cricketer and regarded as second only to the legendary W.G. Grace, of whom he was a team mate, he still holds many cricket records with two mentions in The Guinness Book of Records which have yet to broken. 

But it was Ballynahinch which granted him most pleasure in his later years. He arrived every symmer, around June. In Galway, before coming to Ballynahinch, he would buy five motorcars - two limousines and three smaller cars - that, when leaving again for India in October, he would give away as gifts. One maybe to the parish priest, or to the local vicar, but something he did every year. 

The avenue up to the castle was covered with marble chips, raked every day. Each year on Ranji's birthday a party was helf for all the staff. The party was held in the billard room (the present day bar) where he served the guests himself, and had a truck ready outside the door to take home anyone who couldn't make it under their own steam. Ranji had his own train carriage from Galway to Clifden that stopped off at Ballynahinch station (the Galway-Clifden line closed down in 1936), and as he approached, people placed fire crackers on the line as a sign of welcome. Locals and his large Inidian staff seemed to co-exist happily, and two of his nieces went to school at nearby Kylemore Abbey. Due to a shooting accident in Scotland, he lost his right eye, an injury that ended any hopes of carrying on his cricketing. 

When word got back to Ballynahinch that he had died abroad of an asthma attack no one believed it, as the date was April 1st, 1932, All Fools Day. No joke though, but the truth. In September 1983, Frank Cummins, one of the most famous gillies ever to work in Ballynahinch died. The day before he died, he was still remembering the pair of ruby cufflinks that Ranji had given him over fifty years before. The generous Indian prince still lived fondly in the memories of locals old enough to remember the Prince of Cricketers. 

Modern Times

After the death of Ranji, the Castle passed into the hands of his nephew Duleepsinhji, who sold it to the McCormack family from Dublin. Then in 1946, the Tourist Board took possession, and the many years of private ownership came to end.

The takeover gave a new lease of life to an old house, ensuring that Ballynahinch Castle did not go the way of so many other stately houses, either being burned to the ground of stripped of its materials, as happened in Dunsandle Castle, and Smyths of Masonbrook. 

For the first time too the world-famous fisheries were open to the public. During this time the Castle played host to Éamon de Valera, with this signature being the first to be seen in the old visitors book. The writer Liam O'Flaherty was a reuglar visitor. Actor Sir Alec Guinness also stayed here, as did many other celebrities. The Irish Tourist Board (the forerunner of Bord Fáilte) helf the Castle until the eraly 1950s when Noel Huggard took over the running of the hotel in conjunction with Ashford Castle. From a tourist guide in 1954 we can now see that prices have changed a little since then - "Fully licensed: From 10 to 11 guns. B&B from 16/-; Meals: Lunch 6/- to - 7/-; Tea 2/6 to 3/6; Dinner 10/6 to 12/6; (5 private bathrooms). Dogs not allowed." 

Mr. Huggard disposed of a large part of the estate, including the fisheries of Inagh and Derryclare, and sold Ballynahinch Castle and Fishery in 1957 to an American businessman, Mr. Edward Ball. 

Mr. Ball in turn sold share in the Castle to many friends and business associates. In 1978 when Mr. Ball was 89 and no longer travelling overseas, he resigned as president of the corporation and nominated Raymond Mason for that post. Under Mr. Mason's direction the Castle underwent extensive renovation. In 1981, former U.S. President, Mr. Gerald Ford, and his wife Betty were guests of the Masons at Ballynahinch, as were former British Prime Minister, James Callaghan. 

In 2013, Mr. O'Brien acquired Ballynahinch Castle from Raymond Mason and his wife, Minerva. Mr. O'Brien has always had a great fondness for the estate, and has been keen to make any changes with a light touch but with an undertsanding of the legacy and the responsibility of safeguarding this place treasured by so many. The sensitive restorations carried out at Ballynahinch under his watch over the past decade have emphasised sustainability, wherever possible. 

The beautifully restored Walled Garden now provides seasonal fruit, vegetables, leaves and herbs to The Owenmore Restaurant and The Fisherman's Pub, and Ballynahinch has become a member of the Green Hospitality Programme, following best practice environmental management, and committed to enhancing surrounding ecosystems through woodland regeneration and fisheries management programmes. 

Ballynahinch Castle Hotel is also now a member of Relais & Chateaux, the prestigious luxury brand, all about authenticity and excellence - in food, experience and culture. 

Ballynahinch has seen many changes since the days of 'The Ferocious O'Flahertys' over 700 years ago. It has been home to many great and generous people. It has seen hardship, and it has seen great opulence and lavish parties. But, no matter what was placed in front of it, it has lived on, survived and thrived.