Struggles over land led by Parnell and Davitt led finally to independence and the creation of the Irish Free State while a new interest in Irish culture led to a literary revival and government intervention transformed the landscape. However, prosperity remained fragile and the Irish Language continued to decline.

In Connemara, the famine led to the replacement of much of the pre-famine elite, the D’arcy estates and Big Houses in Clifden, Kylemore and Sillery were sold off by Hyacinth D’Arcy who retired to his role as Protestant Clergyman in Omey. With the Irish landlord class largely bankrupt their roles were largely taken up by newly arrived English families who did their best to make their new estates into profitable concerns, often at the expense of the surviving tenants. The Eyre Family bought up the D’Arcy Estates while the huge Martin Estates fell into the hands of the Law Life Assurance Company of London. Some of the newly arrived landowners such as Mitchell Henry who moved into Kylemore Lodge, were a boon to the locality. Supposedly having visited Connemara on his honeymoon, Henry built the castle with its associated gardens, walks and woodlands, between 1867 and 1870 as well as acting as an improving landlord who built a local school and assisted his tenants with land improvement projects and bog drainage work. Similarly, James and Mary Ellis, a Quaker couple from Bradford in England became resident at Letterfrack in 1849 and turned their attentions to local improvements; reclaiming nearly 1,000 acres of rough land and building a schoolhouse, housing for tradesmen, a shop, a dispensary, and a temperance hotel.

In spite of such efforts however, periods of economic distress remained a constant factor for the population of the west coast. In 1867 and 1882 relief measures identical to those of the famine years, including the distribution of Indian Meal, had to be enacted to prevent starvation. Increasingly the Catholic population turned to other means. Rising discontent led to the dominance of the Irish National Party which aimed to achieve O’Connell’s earlier goals and restore a parliament to Dublin. After an initial series of failures in the House of Commons where MPs from mainland Britain consistently voted down Home Rule measures, in 1880 the party came under the leadership of Charles Stuart Parnell, who had already formed the Land League in partnership with Michael Davitt in 1879. The Land League ran a series of campaigns against the existing landholding system which combined withholding rent with threats (and the actual commission) of violence against land agents or tenants who failed to comply with their directives. The land campaigns led to the passing of a series of Land Acts (beginning in 1881) which led initially to improvements to the conditions of tenants and ultimately to the break-up of the great estates.

Following the Famine successive additional economic shocks coupled with continued high emigration steadily emptied the landscape as the marginal land which had been occupied in the late 18th century was steadily reclaimed by the bogs and heather leaving abandoned villages and field systems scattered throughout the western seaboard. Increasing interest by the central government in ameliorating the lot of the poor also left its mark in the shape of piers and roads built by the Congested Districts Board and other government bodies. In the later 19th century the spread of the railroads and the telegraph steadily opened up much of the country to outside influences, which, along with the devastating blow dealt to native culture by the Famine itself, led to the widespread abandonment of the Irish language with a correspondence loss of irreplaceable cultural information.

Between 1890 and 1895 the Clifden-Galway railway line gradually extended westwards, ending the regions long isolation and opening up Connemara to a flood of new ideas and to the beginnings of the modern tourist industry which received a huge boost from the visit of King Edward VII in 1903. Simultaneously the reformed and increasingly effective Catholic Church began to re-assert its grip on its flock, a grip reflected in the landscape in the large numbers of neo-gothic churches built at this time and also in the construction of new industrial schools such as that at Letterfrack which began to operate in the 1870s. The first of what would become generations of Antiquarians and archaeologists began to arrive in the West; starting with the Wilde Family who bought Illaunroe Lodge on Lough Fee in the 1850s and followed by many of the stalwarts of the Gaelic Literary Revival including Lady Gregory, Pearse and Synge.

Until recently, the archaeology of the 19th century had remained largely unstudied but interest is gathering pace with innovative projects going on into vernacular settlement in the Burren, on Slievemore on Achill Island and on Inishark while an increasing interest in 19th century archaeology has also been visible in the treatment of demesne and industrial archaeology. The maritime and intertidal zone archaeology of the period is also slowly coming into focus. Important studies of Strangford Lough, the Shannon Estuary and the inland lakes have revealed extensive data on the later use of these areas while smaller scale local studies have also helped to map out the traditional use made of the foreshore with its complicated array of interlocking seaweed, shellfish, fishing and access rights.

In spite of its comparative poverty, Connemara became a crucial hub in the worldwide telecommunications industry in 1907 when Marconi established the first transatlantic telegraph station just west of Clifden. In 1913 the Clifden Station was supplemented by a second station at Letterfrack which acted as a receiver station; receiving high power wireless signals from Glace Bay, Novia Scotia; while the Clifden high power wireless station transmitted to a receiver station at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, effectively doubling the capacity of the system. The Clifden and Letterfrack Stations remained in use throughout the First World War, guarded by a garrison of British troops based at Derrgimla and the Clifden Station was the objective of Alcock and Brown’s heroic 16 hour 1919 Trans-Atlantic flight from St John’s Newfoundland which crashed in the bog at Derrygimla while trying to land and signal a safe arrival. Both the Clifden and Letterfrack stations were abandoned after the Clifden Station was destroyed in 1922 during the last phase of the Irish Civil War.

Like the rest of the country, Connemara was radicalised by the Home Rule Crisis of 1912 as Northern Unionists mobilised to avoid being subject to a Dublin parliament and Nationalist Ireland mobilised in response. In spite of this background, recruiting for the British Army and the other services was brisk during the early phase of the First World War. The 1916 Rising in Dublin however, with the resulting execution of the rebel leadership and the Conscription Crisis of the following two years, led to Sinn Féin sweeping the polls in 1919, entirely replacing the Irish National Party as the voice of Nationalist Ireland. As was the case elsewhere in the country, Sinn Féin rapidly established an alternative government and court system throughout Connemara, while the IRA waged war on the existing state structures; ambushing police officers and attacking courts, police barracks and buildings associated with the old order such as landlords’ residences. The climax came in March 1921 when drunken Black and Tans burnt fourteen houses in Clifden and killed two innocent bystanders in retaliation for the assassination of two RIC men. During the Civil War, Connemara ended up in the hands of the Anti-Treaty forces who did their best to hold out against Government troops advancing from Galway. Free State forces ultimately captured Clifden following a naval landing at Mannin Bay. The fighting then moved to the hills, a bitter guerrilla struggle the memories of which have only begun to fade.

Following Independence, many of the trends that had dominated Connemara life for the preceding century continued. Farming, fishing and seasonal labour continued to be the mainstay of the economy, supplemented by tourism and by money remitted back from emigrant family members in London, Manchester or the United States. Fishing remained a dangerous profession. Major catastrophes like the Cleggan disaster of 1927 when currachs from Inishbofin, Rossadilisk, Aran, Inishkea and Inishlacken, were all lost in a sudden storm, were interspersed with smaller local tragedies. The Clifden railway line was closed a uneconomic in 1937 and the population of the region continued to decline although at nothing like the rate seen in the immediate post-famine period. Ireland’s neutrality during WWII meant that the economy did not receive the boost that had accompanied the sudden rise in demand for food in Britain during the Great War although employment was boosted by government turf-cutting schemes and a large increase in the size of the wartime armed forces. Watch towers from the period and letters etched in the hillsides warning belligerent aircraft that they had entered the airspace of “Eire” remain common features of the coastal landscape.

Post-war Ireland remained economically and politically largely isolated until the entry into the EEC (now the EU) in 1973. The economic benefits of entry were initially disappointing, particularly for the small fishing villages of the west coast whose inhabitants fell victim to the government’s traditional preference for farming although agricultural subsidies did allow small farming to remain a viable pursuit for a generation longer than it otherwise might have. Tourism expanded, with many families in rural areas supplementing their income through the operation of B&B’s, but prosperity only became a factor across much of the west of Ireland with the arrival of the so-called Celtic Tiger economy of the late 1990s. For the first time the west of Ireland was faced with the problems of prosperity in place of those of poverty as a rising population put pressure on the infrastructure of many small towns and the oft-derided “bungalow blight” spread across the landscape as emigrants returned home to build houses on family land. All of these achievements seem to have been put into jeopardy however by the effects of banking crash of the late 2000’s and the resulting worldwide recession. The ruined churches and monasteries left roofless by the Reformation and the empty famine villages of the mid ad late 19th century have now been joined by abandoned housing estates and apartment complexes, casualties of the building boom of the early 21st century. One gleam of hope has survived the economic downturn however. The Irish language, while not reversing its decline, simultaneously underwent a revival in popular esteem through the influence of community radio and the innovative TG4 Irish language television station and may now have the opportunity to flourish after centuries of persecution and official hostility.

<< The Great Famine (1845-1853)