Mayhem and murder in Castlebar

As a child growing up in Castlebar, Turlough Park, a few miles outside the town was a place of mystery, legend and above all the source of grizzly ghost stories.

Tales of murder, hangings, people being kept prisoner in secret rooms, torture and all sorts of cruelties entertained and enthralled us during daylight, kept us terrified and awake through the hours of darkness.

How amusing it is now to find that apart from the fact that all the above mentioned horrors had not happened while we were a few miles away in school, the stories surrounding the eerie gothic pile sitting in the Mayo countryside, believe it or not, were all true.

Today Turlough Park is home to the magnificent National Museum of Country Life which is without doubt one of the most interesting and worthwhile visitor attractions in the West of Ireland. But in 1786 it was the setting for a terrible tale of death, cruelty and terrible retribution when the most notorious member of the Fitzgerald family came to a sticky end at the end of a rope in Castlebar.

I gleaned the facts which formed the basis of my childhood scare stories when on a recent visit to Turlough Park I picked up a copy of Turlough Park & the Fitzgeralds which contains a brief account of the fascinating life & Times of one George Robert Fitzgerald, better known as ‘Fighting Fitzgerald’.
The last of the Fitzgeralds left Turlough Park in 1991 and Patrick Butler who lived there from childhood until then has put together a concise and very readable potted history of the family and Turlough Park itself.

Turlough Park & The Fitzgeralds traces the family from their origins in Florence: the Gherardini were one of the noble families of that great city state. They moved from Italy to Normandy, then to Britain via the Norman conquests and on to Ireland where they became part of the Geraldine nobility and eventually the Fitzgeralds.

John Fitzgerald got the “To Hell or to Connacht’ Ultimatum in 1653 and the Mayo dynasty begun.
By one of those happy incidents of synchromicity which delight bibliophiles, on relating the tale of the bold George Robert to my father, Tom Galvin, he was in a position to verify the account and even flesh it out further with a contemporaneous account of his trial and execution.

My father now only knew of the Fitzgeralds of Turlough Park from his days as a vet in Mayo but recalled picking up a book in a second-hand book shop in Claremorris in the 1950s which had an account of the tale concerned.

Sure enough a perusal of his library unearthed a copy of Oliver J. Burke’s Anecdotes of the Connacht Circuit, subtitled ‘From Its Foundation in 1604 to Close Upon the Present Time’. The present time being 1885. The author’s address is given as Owner, Headford and the last owner was one Connor Maguire, MD Claremorris, before it passed into the Galvin estate. Although, truth be told title could yet be subject to litigation as I note a stamp indicating that it was once the property of the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland.

The Fighting Fitzgerald
George Robert Fitzgerald was born in 1748 and squeezed quite a lot into the 38 years between this even and his hanging in Castlebar in 1786. Educated at Eton, he joined the army at 17. He was a favourite at the French court before being caught cheating at the gaming tables and making a nuisance of himself because of his fondness for duelling.

Posted to Galway in 1767, he was shot in the skull in yet another duel and some account his even more irrational behaviour from this date.

He is said to have fought a legendary number of duels in his short career, including one with Humanity Dick Martin. In short he was a wild man and lived the life of a rake, and his relationships with his father and family were not good, to say the least.

George Robert took debt seriously, at least debts owed to him. When his father reneged on payment due to him he was chained to Robert’s pet bear. On another occasion he was tied to a dray and abandoned and later incarcerated him in a cave.

For these cruelties he was imprisoned in Castlebar jail and fined £500 but he escaped and took his long-suffering father off to an island in Sligo Bay before being re-arrested and put back in irons.

Influential friends got him free again and back in Turlough he set up his own group of Volunteers and fortified a rath on his property with Cannon. This family feud set in train a series of events which came to a head on the Castlebar gallows late one June night.

Courtesy of Tony Galvin and the Tuam Herald