History of Ballygar

The history of the town of Ballygar stretches back to the 16th Century. The following is a summary of the key places and people. 

Early History

Ballygar has had a long history as a market town and trading centre. It was recorded as a townland as far back as 1585. However, Ballygar was not known as a centre of population until the 1820s.

It is recorded that, on August 6th 1585, the Chieftains and Landowners of Galway and Roscommon were summoned to a meeting with the Lord Deputy Sir John Perrot, in Galway City. The purpose of the meeting was to get the landowners and chieftains to surrender their lands to Elizabeth I and then receive them back from the Crown at a rent of one penny an acre. The landowners accepted the terms and one of the signatories to that document of surrender was Francis Shane of Ballygar, possibly the proprietor of Ballygar Castle at the time.

Ballygar Castle

Towards the end of the sixteenth century there was a castle in the townland of Ballygar, situated just off the Cloonlyon Road (not to be confused with Castle Kelly). In 1585, the occupier was Francis Shane who was among the Galway landowners who surrendered their lands to Queen Elizabeth I and then received them back at a rent per one penny per acre per annum. Sometime after May 1607 Shane conveyed most of his lands to the Earl of Clanricarde.

By 1641, the beneficial owner was the Earl of St. Albans, Ulick Burke, 1st Marquess of Clanricarde (1604–1657). A garrison was stationed there during the rebellion of 1641.

In 1707 Ballygar Farm, together with parts of the townlands of Drinane and Killeroran, were being leased by Edward Donnellan of Streamstown, County Westmeath for two lives at a rent of two shillings per acre from John Burke (Lord Bophin, later Clanricarde). There is no mention of the castle in that document.

A Market Town

On 29th June, 1818, the owner of the Castlekelly Estate, Rev. Armstrong Kelly (1763-1849) established a Linen and Yarn Market in the townland of Ballygar at the main entrance to his castle and demesne. The castle and the estate were originally named Aughrane. From then a new town developed rapidly, much of it under the supervision of his son, Denis Henry Kelly (1797-1877)

By 1840, Ballygar became known as one of the best market towns in the area, its market was said to be second only to Athlone in volume of trade. As the market grew, so did the demand for shops and dwellings. Denis Kelly built residential houses and leased them to suitable tenants. Twenty years after its foundation, Ballygar had fifty-two houses and a population of three hundred and sixty-three. It is not known whether Kelly was a teetotaller or not, but there were only two public houses in Ballygar in 1839! One of these was located near J. Curley’s shop, the other was situated where Hanley’s drapery shop was. The town was planned in an orderly fashion with a wide main street, market square, a diamond at the main entrance to his estate and two back streets to give access to the rear of all premises.

Kelly believed in keeping the town tidy, and, to this end, he visited every house on the first day of the month. If the house or shop was being kept clean and tidy he issued the tenant with a cleanliness ticket, and at the end of the year the tenant with the most tickets received a prize of £1.10s; the next prize was 10s.6d. All the tenants who had received tickets were invited to have dinner with him in Castle Kelly.

Another innovation introduced to Ballygar in 1835 was the Reproductive Loan Fund. This was a non-profit-making organisation, and tenants had access to the fund in times of hardship. It was run on much the same lines as the Credit Union. In 1844, £1,000 of the loan fund was in circulation in the locality. The loan office was situated on the Main Street where Clarke’s Hardware was.
Among the landmark buildings constructed during this period were:
Market House: This was seven storeys high and located in the centre of the Market Square
Protestant Church: Dedicated in 1856 it was located in the Diamond directly across from the entrance to the castle. In the 1930s it was moved to Gortanumera, near Portuma to become the new Catholic Church there
St. Mary’s Catholic Church: Dedicated in 1857 it is located opposite the Market Square and was extended in 1957. It replaced an earlier church which was located on the site of the present Town Hall.
The Grand Bridge: Built over a small stream on the avenue leading through the demesne to the castle

Ballygar Bandstand
The initial idea of a bandstand arose from a public meeting held in 2017. It was considered an appropriate addition to the town, given Ballygar’s historical connection with the great bandleader, composer and concert-organiser, Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore. The structure was commissioned by our local Tidy Towns committee in 2018. Funding for the project was provided by Galway County Council through the Rural Renewal Investment Scheme. Local artists presented the initial sketches of the structure and the committee decided on a design. The Tidy Towns committee worked closely with the Galway County Council Heritage office which, in turn, recommended that a plan be drawn up to best place the bandstand into the existing landscape. Deirdre Black, a landscape architect based in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin presented a number of possibilities for the project. After the architect presented her proposals, the Tidy Towns committee engaged Mr. Ted McEvoy of Leander Architecture in the United Kingdom, to complete the final design and construct the stand.

The design and style of our bandstand is very simple. The Tidy Towns committee designed the upright posts of the stand to match the street lights around the Market Square. The roof of the bandstand has a curved design and is topped by an ornate spire. Along the lower edges of the roof is the classic symbol of the fleur-de-lis. The railings are also simple in design with an opening at both sides so that spectators can view the stand and performers from either side. The spandrels feature an intricate floral design and provide an attractive feature under the roof. The bandstand was erected by the Tidy Towns volunteers on Saturday, April 20th 2019.

Ballygar Carnival

Market Square, Ballygar is the focal point for Ballygar Carnival. The carnival was established in 1945, making it one of Ireland’s longest running events of this kind. The carnival was established as a fundraising effort for the new extension to the local Catholic Church. To this day, the proceeds support the parish as well as wider community projects.
Through the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s the showband era was in full swing. Ballygar Carnival became synonymous with showband music and this marked Ballygar as the place to be for the August Bank Holiday weekend. People travelled from afar to dance to the great showbands of the time.
Today, Ballygar Carnival hosts musicians and performers of all genres, lectures, talks, exhibitions, an annual parade, fair day, sporting events, bingo, marching band competitions, craft fairs and much more.
Ballygar Carnival is fondly remembered by all who come from the area. It is a time when family members living abroad, return home to see their loved ones and friends. Carnival time in Ballygar is a time of gathering and memory-sharing, a time of celebration and a time when community spirit is at its best.

The Market Tower and Old National School

The Market Tower in Ballygar was seven stories high and was the landmark and focal point for the town. It was financed by the local landlord of the time, Denis Henry Kelly. The purpose of the building was to provide employment after the famine. The Market Tower housed one of the first weighing scales in this part of Ireland. Animals and vegetables were all weighed on this scale. The roof of the building was wooden with a weather cock perched upon it. Around the base of the roof was a parapet where a brass band stood and played music – they could be heard for miles around. The weekly Thursday market provided a good opportunity to sell corn as farmers could rent out a floor of the tower.
The Old National School was built in 1875 and re-constructed between 1930 and 1932. This re-construction included the addition of classrooms and new toilet facilities. The stone for this extension was taken from what was left of the Market tower after its deconstruction. The Old School is currently used as a Social and Resource Centre, Playschool, Library and Office Unit.

Further Reading

Local Historical Finds