Burren Lowlands - A History

The ancient name for the Burren Lowlands territory in South Galway was Hy Fiachrach Aidhne, which is co-extensive with the diocese of Kilmacduagh. It is an area rich in archaeological and pre-historic sites, ringforts, fulachta fiadha and megalithic tombs.


Guaire, the local chief who became King of Connacht, has given his name to the town of Gort - Gort Inse Guaire, the field of the island of Guaire. He was so famous for his generosity and hospitality that legend records that one of his arms was longer than the other as a result of giving. On a visit to Guaire in Gort, Seanchan Torpest, the chief poet of Ireland, recited the tale of Tain Bo Cuailgne.

Guaire's kinsman, St. Colman Mac Duach, is the revered patron of our diocese. South Galway is dotted with ancient churches, holy wells and burial sites.

The most prominent chieftain families were the O'Hynes, O'Cahills, O'Clerys and Kilkellys, many of whom supported Brian Boru at Clontarf. Eventually the O'Shaughnessys were the dominant force in this area. The many fine castles point to the presence of the Normans, especially the De Burgos.


The seventeenth century witnessed the migration to South Galway and other places in Connacht of many dispossessed people - all part of the "To Hell or to Connacht" Cromwellian Plantation. Many of the surnames in this area occur very frequently in South Leinster and Munster.

The eighteenth century witnessed the demise of the once powerful O'Shaughnessys and the emergence of the Prendergast Smyth Vereker family. The Catholics living in that century felt the full force of the odious Penal Laws. The people resorted to the Hedge Schools, the Mass Rocks and the thatched "Mass houses". Daniel O'Connell and the achievement of Catholic Emancipation gave new hope to a down-trodden people. National Schools were built in every parish in South Galway and, as a result, the rate if illiteracy fell from 80% in 1841 to 25% in 1901.

Gort The Great Famine of the late 1840s had a devastating effect on South Galway, which was co-extensive with the Gort Union. The population was reduced by approximately one third as a result of starvation, disease, eviction and emigration.

The main civic buildings in the town of Gort were planned by the Prendergast Smyths, the last of whom was awarded with the title of Lord Gort. Described as "a very poor village" in the 1750s , Gort quickly gained prominence as a market town for all of the Burren Lowlands. Many of the present houses in the town date from that era.

The history of the Burren Lowlands, as indeed Irish history in general, is closely linked with the relationship between landlord and tenant. In some cases the relationship was one of mutual respect but in many others it was characterized by greedy , absentee landlords and an impoverished tenantry. The rights of tenants were eloquently defended in the House of Commons by William Gregory of Coole Park who seems to have been forgiven, at least by his own tenants, for the infamous Gregory Clause of famine times. The Land War of the 1880s and 1890s heightened tensions between the two classes.


One of the few places, apart from Dublin, that took part in the 1916 Easter Rising, was South Galway. Sadly, the subsequent War of Independence and the Civil War, resulted in some horrific killings.

Gort The Burren Lowlands played a pivotal role in the history of the GAA - the Gaelic Athletic Association. It was one of the strongholds of hurling ever before Michael Cusack, one of its founders, came to teach in South Galway. In fact the first or official hurling ball was designed by Ned Treston in Gort. Every parish in the Burren Lowlands area has produced hurling heroes, too numerous to mention

Gort Perhaps South Galway's greatest claim to fame was the fact that it was here that the Irish Literary Revival took place in the 1890s and early twentieth century. We can proudly state that Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats were inspired by the beauty and by the folklore of Kiltartan and the surrounding parishes to wrote many of their best works. It is fitting, therefore, that the Burren Lowlands should celebrate Yeats 2015 with pride and joy.