The Land League cottage as it is today at Lisnolan, Manulla. Photo: Tom Gillespie

Mayo Land League cottage was built 142 years ago

By Tom Gillespie

ON Saturday, January 7, 1939, The Connaught Telegraph published an article on the Land League house at Manulla, near Castlebar, that was built in a day some 142 years ago.

It read: House-builders of today (1939) - not withstanding their reputation for speedy execution - will probably be surprised to hear that there was a house built and furnished in one day. And it was not built with concrete either, but of good old stone and mortar.

Nor was there any problems with overtime or trade union wages.

The workers were volunteers and anyone who beholds the finished article will recognise in it the typification of that spirit of unselfishness and determination which was the soul of the Land League movement to which they belonged; for it was that spirit that broke the back of landlordism in Ireland.

Built by comrades for a comrade and his bride across the dividing margin of two estates on the outskirts of Balla, that picturesque little cottage remains today (1939) to tell the story of a fight that was gloriously fought.

In happened in this way - Thomas Brennan was the son of an evicted tenant who, like many a tenant of those days, had been compelled to face the open road on the First of May.

Old Brennan and his wife did not live long after being turned out of their home, and a kind cobbler named Micky Walsh, of Kiltimagh, took Thomas under his apron and taught him a trade.

But while he hammered his cobbler’s last how he longed to rain similar blows on the upholders of those that deprived him of a father’s home.

Then one clear autumnal night he saw a bright beacon blazing on the top most point of Knockspulligadaun (outside Balla), and he knew the time had come for the resurgence of the Gael. He was right.

That same evening the Land League plot had been hatched in Tom Walsh’s house in Balla, and the beacon which young Brennan saw was a tar-barrel which had been carried to the top of the mountain and set alight by P.W. Nally, John McEllin, Tom Walsh, Tom Reilly and Malachy Heneghan.

McEllin and Walsh were the fathers of Senator McEllin and Mr. Dick Walsh, T.D., respectively, present-day (1939) members of the Fianna Fáil Party.

As St. Patrick’s fire on the Hill of Plane brought the message of redemption to their forefathers, so also did the fire lighted by these gallant men at Balla bring the message of another redemption to an enslaved people.

Was it any wonder, therefore, if Tom Brennan threw off his cobbler’s apron and flung himself into the fray?

He returned to Balla, from where his father had been banished, and soon became one of Parnell’s right-hand men. No organising journey was too great for him to travel and no deed too daring for him to do.

The Land League worshipped him; for was he not the very personification of their wrongs - a fugitive without a home of his own. But when he fell in love with and married Winnie Daly his comrades were resolved that this young bride would not be compelled to ‘go on the siocran’.

And thus it was that District Inspector Pepper stroked his beard and felt perplexed as he sat in his office in Castlebar on the morning of September 13, 1880.

Deciding that there was something afoot in Balla, he marshalled his men and proceeded in that direction.

When he arrived at the townland of Manulla he observed Tom Brennan and John Barrett, the teaman, making measurements across the border of the Dunville and Kilmaine estates.

Questioning them as to the purpose of such unusual nocturnal activities, he was informed that they were proposing to build a house. But where were they going to get the stones and materials? Oh, here, there and anywhere.

So thinking that it would take two men under the circumstances quite a while to do such harm in the building line, Inspector Pepper returned to Castlebar to consult the regulations.

It was then Tom Brennan gave the signal and immediately the fields around grew black with men armed with picks, shovels, trowels and all other weapons of the building trade.

The work was commenced and finished during the light of one short day - the foundation was dug, the walls built, the roof thatched, and ‘the key turned in the door’. Not only that, but the furniture was made and installed.

As they sat by their blazing hearth that night there was not a prouder couple than Tom Brennan and his bride within the length and breath of Mayo. And, as in all great deeds that men do, the women lent a hand.

Fanny Parnell (a sister of the League leader), Margaret and Bee Walsh, and the Misses Nally had a busy day feeding the hungry workers.

Those splendid women were the Cumann na mBan of the Land League movement, and well did they play their part.

By an amazing coincidence there were three men names Early, Noone and Knight, respectively, engaged on the building.

Pat Early made the chimney, Willie Noone did the carpentry, and Owen Knight was a plasterer. So when they worked Early, Noon(e) and (K)night is it scarcely to be wondered that they finished in a day.

The house is still well preserved (1939), and one such has been dreamed of by many a poet. Both itself and its proud traditions are at present safe in the keeping of the sole occupier, Mrs. Brennan O’Grady, the only surviving child of the Land Leaguer for whom it was built.

What a pity it should ever be allowed to decay. Standing as it does in the cradle of the Land League, it should be preserved as a national monument to the men of that great movement.

Mrs. O’Grady is widow of the late Mr. Mitchel O’Grady, who was a poet of wide repute, and for many years on the clerical staff of Mayo Board of Health.