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Tourist Guide > Gort Local History


Gort is a medium sized market town on the Galway to Ennis Road, situated in a gap between the Slieve Aughty Mountains and the Burren to the south. The name in Irish is "An Gort", (The Field) or "Gort Inse Guaire", (Field of Guaire’s Island).

The town takes its name form King Guaire, the sixth century King of Connacht, who built a castle here. He had a reputation for his generosity and it was said that his right arm, his giving arm, was longer than his left. One legend recalls how Guaire was sitting down to dinner when mysteriously the plates disappeared out the windows. He quickly followed them on horseback and soon met St Colman who had just finished a seven year fast and had eaten the food. The King was impressed by his ingenuity and granted him lands at Kilmacduagh where he built a monastery, one of the oldest in Europe.

The area around the town is notable for its landscape of grey stone walls and stone-strewn fields. The eighteenth century weigh-house in the Town Square has recently been restored. There is a strong tradition of Irish music in the locality and many pubs stage sessions at night.
Five miles south of Gort is Ardamullwan Castle, where in the Middle Ages the O’Shaughnessy family had their main stronghold. This was on the site of the old military barracks. In 1567 Dermot O’Shaughnessy, claimed the castle on the death of his brother, Roger. A long dispute followed between Dermot and his nephew John, which resluted in both of them being killed.

Weigh House

Five miles south-west of Gort is Fiddaun Castle, another of the O’Shaughnessy strongholds in Connacht. In the seventeenth century the confiscated O’Shaughnessy lands were granted to the Verekers family (later Viscount Gort).

In the middle of the eighteenth century Gort was a poor town of little importance but, under the direction of Lord Gort it developed rapidly and by the beginning of the next century it had become a prosperous commercial centre. Broad, well-planned streets were laid out and tall houses and business premises were erected. There was an air of prosperity as wealth and employment increased with the opening of new small industries. A large flour mill was constructed, producing 7000 barrels annually , which serviced farmers and merchants in the surrounding countryside. The opening of a brewery and tannery yard gave additional employment. Soon Gort had become established as a market town, holding a market every Saturday. Sheep and cattle fairs were held in May, August and November and a large pig fair on St. Patrick’s Day.

In 1815 a courthouse was opened and the Quarter Sessions for County Galway were held there each October. Petty Sessions were held every Saturday. There was also a revenue officer, a constabulary station and the O’Shaugnessy Castle, which was later demolished and replaced by a cavalry barracks with billets for eight officers and eighty eight men and stables for 160 horses. The Dublin to Galway and Galway to Limerick mail coaches ran through the town.

In June 1825 the local doctor, Dr. French asked the people of Gort to start collecting for a new church which resulted in acquiring the sum of £250. He intended turning the old church into a school and hoped the local gentry would donate a site for a new church. Lord Gort asked the bishop to pick whatever site he liked on his property. The rent was fixed at a pepper corn per annum for the lease, forever. The Catholic church was built that same year. Four years later Lord Gort donated a site to the Church of Ireland.

Coole House

In the nineteenth century Robert Gregory employed two English bailiffs to oversee work on his 600 acres of Coole estate. One supervised walling his demesne, a limestone quarry on the estate providing stones for the walls. Gregory built a large, three storey rectangular house overlooking Coole Lake, with a view of the Burren in the background. His small tenants lived in cabins and the cottiers in mud cabins. By 1837 there were 600 houses and 3500 people living in Gort and its environs.

In 1842 William Makepeace Thackeray visited Gort and gave the following uncomplimentary opinion: ‘Then we passed the plantation of Lord Gort’s Castle of Loughcoole, and presently came to the town which bears his name, or vice versa. It is a regularly built little place, with a square and street, but it looked as if it wondered how the deuce it got into the midst of such a desolate country, and seemed to bore itself considerably. It had nothing to do and no society’.

William Gregory served for many years as Chairman of the Gort Board of Guardians and was appointed High Sheriff in 1851. With the advent of the railway he appealed to his fellow landowners not to hold out for too high a price for land required by the railway company. The Mullingar to Galway extension opened to the public on 1 August 1851. With the famine of 1861 Gregory cut trees on Coole demesne and distributed them as fuel to the poor of the locality. The Gregorys made generous contributions to the Gort Relief Fund.

On 3 March 1880 Sir William Gregory married Isabella Augusta Persse. She was the twelfth of sixteen children and the youngest and smallest of seven daughters of Dudley Persse. Lady Gregory invited inmates of Gort workhouse to Coole for a day and would also bring gifts to the institution. In 1881 with land agitation in the area, a local man was boycotted for giving lodgings to a police officer. The following year the tenants of Sir William Gregory refused to pay their rent, forcing him to implement ‘extreme mearsures’. The police advised him to leave for his own safety and on returning the following summer there was relative peace due to the intervention of Fr. Jerome Fahy, a young curate in Gort. Gregory then reached an amicable settlement with his tenants over rents.

Lady Gregory was to play an active part in the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the century. Her home at Coole Park became the retreat of most of the leading writers of the day including Sean O’Casey, Augustus John, John Millington Synge and W B Yeats who convalesced here when he was ill.

Autograph Tree

In the grounds there is a copper beech tree on which her guests carved their initials. They included Sean O’Casey, Synge, AE(George Russell), GBS (George Bernard Shaw) and Jack Yeats. When Lady Gregory died in 1932, aged eighty, the house and estate passed to the state. The house was demolished in 1941.

In 1917 WB Yeats bought a nearby sixteenth century tower called Thoor Ballylee for £35. He renovated the building and lived in it until 1929. The tower became immortalised in his poems and he wrote The Tower volume of poems. Bord Fáilte took over responsibility for the tower and transformed it into a museum which is now open to the public. Near Thoor Ballylee was the home of Mary Hynes, the miller’s daughter, with whom the blind fiddler, Antoine Fartery, was in love and dedicated a song.

Close to the town is the subterranean River Beagh which flows through a ravine called the Hadle and circular basins called the Church, the Punch-bowl and Beggar Man’s Hole. In the twelfth century the castle of Kiltartan was erected nearby. The amphitheatre formed by the crater is now a picnic area. Recently some interests in the town have sought to have the name An Gort, replaced by the more meaningful, Gort Inse Guaire. Gort has been selected as the Heritage Town for County Galway.

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