Museums of Mayo - museums to visit in County Mayo

Themes

The Museums of Mayo are involved in the collection, preservation and exhibition of aspects and artefacts of many aspects of our past which, individually and cumulatively, form an invaluable resource in representing and preserving our unique experience for present and future generations.

The artefacts displayed in the different institutions reflect various aspects of rural life. Visual aids help to give us some understanding of particularly important themes, such as Rural Economy, Famine, Religion and Local History, and their impact on contemporary rural life, while the focus on Genealogy provides a framework for the detailed researching of individuals and families.

Rural Economy

Agriculture has been central to the survival of the rural economy throughout Ireland's history. Various factors combined to reduce the holdings of land to the subsistence level that pertained throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, small-holdings were marked by people's necessity to be as self-sufficient as their means allowed.

Both men and women contributed to the operation of the small farm. The men built their dwellings, but women helped with the important tasks of ploughing the land, growing and saving crops, saving turf and tending the farm animals. Women maintained the constant supply of the kitchen garden's supply of vegetables, kept poultry to assist with the family finances, wove and sewed cloth to provide clothes and cooked the meals for the family and farm animals. Families tended to intermarry in small communities and the close relationship of the families fostered an interest in the communal welfare. Meitheals, or groups of able-bodied men and women, combined to help the less well-off, particularly destitute widows, with the necessary seasonal farm work.

Famine

The potato crop had become the staple diet throughout rural Mayo by the nineteenth century. The advantage of the potato was that it thrived on even the stoniest soil and so even the smallest holding was capable of producing sufficient potatoes to feed the family for most of the year. Such reliance on the potato meant that the effect of the successive famines of the first half of the nineteenth century was devastating. Houses were in most cases no better than hovels There was no substitute for the potato and people starved to death.

The poor living conditions of the hovels deteriorated even further and disease became rampant. The effects of successive famines were particularly acute in the West of Ireland, where the population declined by as much as a fifth. Rents fell behind and landlords reacted in one of two ways. The more benign provided tickets so that people could emigrate. However, the conditions on board what were called 'coffin' ships were so terrible, that many died. The less benign landlords pursued the hapless, starving tenants and evicted them forcibly off their land, leaving them to die on the roadside.

Fishing

Fishing was the lifeline, for many centuries, of those living around the extensive coast. Fishermen in small boats, called currachs, braved the rough and dangerous Atlantic seas to catch the fish so vital to their daily food. Seaweed was harvested and used to fertilise the fields or burned to make kelp.

Genealogy

Emigration was endemic in Mayo for centuries. The absence of investment in industry meant that young people had to emigrate to seek work. Emigrants sometimes had to cope with an imperfect use of English and consequent literacy problems as well as adjusting to a completely alien life. Genealogy/Family Research Centres have been the source of bringing family members together after many years, thus bringing great happiness into the lives of both parties.

Local History

This is particularly important, combining as it does, all of the above heading from a local perspective and its importance is reflected, both implicitly and explicitly, in all of the institutions. Additionally, the interest in Local History and the desire to make it meaningful for later generations, is invariably the catalyst for the setting up of such institutions. Our institutions also have a potential educational function, particularly for transition year students, in providing the material and ambience to research and mount local history-related projects.

Religion

A deep belief in the supernatural extends back to pre-Christian times. With the advent of Christianity, superstition and rituals such as pilgrimages around Holy Wells and climbing Croagh Patrick were incorporated into Christian ritual.

Religion, especially the belief that life was a prelude to a better one in the hereafter, was a powerful force in sustaining people's optimism in coping with their very difficult conditions throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In addition, during periods of extreme deprivation, such as the aftermath of famines, religious belief and ritual were the only source of comfort available.

Formal schooling only became available in the nineteenth century, replacing 'Hedge Schools,' which because of their very nature, depended on the local availability of a teacher. Priests and nuns played a crucial role in the development of the Irish educational system and this further contributed to the central role of religion in Irish life.