Big night in Mountbellew with launch of book by local historian

The Malt House, Mountbellew, was packed to capacity last Friday night to welcome the publication of ‘Chapel, Famine and Demesne: Mountbellew 1822’ by local historian Joe Clarke.

The gathering was addressed by Una Raftery (née Finnerty), whose family were Bellew tenants in 1822, Jimmy Noone of Mountbellew Heritage and Tourism Network, and John Joe Conwell, renowned author and historian of south-east Galway. The launch was performed jointly by Fr Karl Burns (PP, Mountbellew) and Seamus Bellew, a lecturer at Dundalk IT who has long been involved in commemorating his family’s heritage.

  Speakers acknowledged Joe’s involvement in a wide variety of local organisations, and hailed the twenty years’ research that went into the book as yet another example of his contribution to community life. Fr Karl Burns emphasised the importance of history writings in affirming local identity and enabling people to see their native place or parish in a wider context, such as that of archdiocese. He thanked Joe for his role as St Mary’s church organist, and welcoming the publication, suggested that the fascinating story behind the building of the chapel was worthy of a film script.

In reply, Joe described the project as a labour of love, which was made possible by the support of his wife Evelyn, and their daughters Laura and Amy. He described the dual bicentenaries of St Mary’s Church and the famine of 1822 as inseparable from the story of local Catholic landlords, the Grattan-Bellew family. He said the “forgotten” famine deserved a book in its own right, noting that he writes of its severe impact on Mountbellew, Moylough, Killascobe, Castleblakeney, Ahascragh, Killian and other surrounding parishes.

In addition to research at libraries in Dublin, London, Galway, Ballinasloe and Tuam, Joe stresses that input from local sources was equally important in putting this story together. Fr Karl Burns facilitated by providing parish material, and the Franciscan Brothers allowed access to Joe, who now works as an archivist at their repository in Mountbellew. He was also indebted to Francie Barrett, Polly, Tom and Michael Carroll for local insights. Additionally, Sister Assumpta Collins expertly translated 200-year-old letters in French from the Abbé Luke Bellew to his brother at home in Mount Bellew House.

Joe struck a poignant note, remembering Monsignor Michael Tobin who encouraged him to write a follow-on to Dr JA Claffey’s 1983 early history of the parish, and regretting that there are forty years between the two publications. As his work was going into print, both his very good friend Martie Healy and the last surviving occupant of Mount Bellew House, Sir Henry Grattan-Bellew 5th Baronet, passed to their eternal reward.

Joe thanked Kathleen Bergin and her staff for hosting the event, revealing that the Malt House was chosen as the venue because in 1822, it was the home of William Dolan, chief mason in the town.

Readers have already described this new work as not just the ideal seasonal gift, but as a legacy – a must for anyone interested in the history of 19th century Galway. It is available in Mountbellew at Kitt’s Post Office and Milands’ Garden Centre, as well as online, from bookshops in Galway city and throughout the county.