Castlebar is the county town of County Mayo in the west of Ireland. It's an agreeable provincial place but has limited sights within town; places of interest lie some distance out and you'll need your own transport.
- 1524: Great inclemency of weather, and mortality of cattle, in the beginning of the year - Annals of the Four Masters
So this, plus a couple of lost battles, was the stuff of legend in Castlebar in the medieval period. The Norman castle is long gone, being replaced by a barracks, in use until 2012 then converted to council offices. For most of its history Castlebar was just a small town with a market and a racecourse, then in 1798 was its moment of fame when the French invaded. The United Irishmen led by Wolfe Tone sought help from republican France to throw off the British; a first invasion fleet in 1796 was beaten back by storms in Bantry Bay. The uprising of 1798 collapsed almost as soon as it began, only gaining control for a time of County Wexford, and utterly defeated by the end of June. So it was already too little, too late when the French landed near Killala on 22 Aug, with 1100 troops under General Humbert. But the area was lightly defended so they swept into Killala and Ballina; Castlebar was obviously next.
The British had time to reinforce Castlebar with 6000 men, but they expected attack to come along the Ballina road from the northeast. The French learned of a path through the bogs and uplands of Nephin, west of Lough Conn, and caught the British off-balance; they came under artillery fire but advanced up a sheltered gully. Their bayonet charge panicked the British, so a numerically superior, better-equipped force turned tail and ran, and ran and ran even though they weren't pursued. It became known as the "Castlebar Races", a legend that outlived the racecourse itself, let alone the brief "Connaught Republic" then proclaimed. It was all over 12 days later as British forces poured into the region, and its Irish supporters paid with their lives.
The town then lapsed back into obscurity, with the standard ups and downs of Victorian Irish country life: occasional "great inclemency of weather, and mortality of cattle", the end of the Penal Laws against Catholics, the terrible famines and mass emigration, the arrival of the railway. There wasn't much industry and Castlebar grew little until the 1990s, with better road links and the opening of a campus of the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology. In 2016 it had a population of 12,068.
The TIC is in Linenhall in town centre, see Arts Centre below.
You might prefer to fly into Dublin, which has a much better choice of flights, then drive west.
Trains from Dublin Heuston take about 3 hours to Castlebar. On the morning service (heading for Galway) you usually change at Athlone, later in the day three direct trains run via Portarlington, Tullamore, Clara, Athlone, Roscommon, Castlerea, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris and Manulla Junction to Castlebar, continuing to Westport. A branch line from Manulla Junction runs to Ballina, connecting with the westbound and the eastbound trains.
1 Castlebar railway station is 1 km southeast of town centre off N84.
There is no direct bus from Dublin. You'd need to travel via Athlone or Galway, a weary trek by either route.
Bus 456 runs five times daily from Galway, inland via Headford, Shrule and Ballinrobe to Westport then Castlebar, taking 2 hours.
Local Link Bus 978 runs twice M-Sa from Belmullet on the Mullet / Erris Peninsula to Bangor Erris, Ballycroy, Newport and Castlebar. It's timed to enable day-trips from the peninsula to Castlebar; a day-trip out to Belmullet is not possible.
Bus Éireann 422 runs three times a day from Castlebar to Balintubber, Ballinrobe, Neale, Cong, Cross, Glencorrib and Headford. This connects with Burkes Bus between Headford and Galway.
Driving from Dublin take M4 / N4 to Longford then N5 all the way to Castlebar, and reckon 3 hours.
Castlebar itself is easy to walk around, but most sights are several km out in the country with scant public transport, so you need a car.
- Town centre is agreeable 19th century low rise, the best of it is along Market St. Traffic there is southbound, eddying clockwise via Upper Chapel St northbound. The castle has completely gone, leaving a green space east side of the centre.
- 1 Church of the Holy Rosary (RC) is on Upper Chapel St. It was built from 1897 after many set-backs and tribulations, and the spire was never added. The exterior is rather rough-hewn Victorian Gothic but the interior is more successful.
- 2 Mayo Peace Park naturally caused bitter feuds. It was created in 2008 to commemorate the many local people who died in the two World Wars and other conflicts; but they mostly did so in British uniform under the Union Jack, plus quite a few for the US, what about all our Republican / Fenian deaths, are they not good enough? And then a local online scandal sheet ran a story about homosexual assignations in the park, in less-than-inclusive language, and the story itself became a media story, with legal threats and accusations every which way. The scandal sheet imploded shortly thereafter, there ought to be some kind of monument . . . The park is a pleasant place to stroll by Lough Lannagh southwest edge of town.
- 3 Museum of Country Life, Turlough Park House F23 HY31 (5 km east of Castlebar off N5), ☏ . Su M 13:00-17:00, Tu-Sa 10:00-17:00. This branch of the National Museum depicts arts and crafts of rural Ireland, mainly 1850-1950. It's in a modern building by the Victorian Gothic Turlough House. Free.
- Turlough Round Tower is some 500 m north of the museum and may date to 1000 AD. It's a well preserved but unusually stubby specimen.
- 4 Michael Davitt Museum, Strade (16 km east of Castlebar on N84), ☏ . Tu-Sa 10:30-17:30. Davitt (1846-1906) was born here but when he was 4 the family were evicted for rent arrears. They moved to Lancashire, where he began work in a cotton mill but lost his right arm in the machinery. Thus radicalised, he went on to join the Irish Republican Brotherhood, campaigning with Parnell on land reform and Home Rule, and serving two spells in prison. The museum is in an old church used before the Penal Laws outlawed RC masses. Adult €5, child €3.
- Strade Abbey is next to the Davitt Museum, and he's buried here. It was founded as a Franciscan friary in 1240 but in 1252 switched to Dominican, then burnt down. Rebuilt, it continued until Dissolution in 1578. The best feature of the ruin is the tomb in the chancel.
- 5 Ballintubber Abbey, Ballintubber F12 W584 (off N84 ten km south of Castlebar). Daily 09:00-00:00. Abbey first built in 1216, wrecked at the Reformation but re-built from the 1960s; work continues on the East Wing. It's still in use for services, weddings, retreats and so on. "Celtic Furrow" is an exhibition next to the abbey intertwining rural and religious life of the 20th century. A 35 km pilgrimage route Tóchar Phádraig winds from here to the summit of Croagh Patrick near Westport. Free.
- 6 Clogher Heritage Centre is a small museum of country life in a farm cottage in Catford. It's open M-F 10:00-16:00.
- 7 Moore Hall is the imposing but teetering shell of an 18th century mansion. George Moore made his money from the Spanish wine and brandy trade, and his descendants were also notable. The house was torched in 1923 during the Civil War and the ruin is now surrounded by commercial woodland.
- See Ballina for North Mayo Heritage Museum and other sights around Lough Conn.
- See Newport for Burrishoole Abbey and other sights north of Clew Bay.
- See Cong for the county racecourse, and sights around Lough Mask.
- What's on? Listen to CRC FM on 102.9 MHz or read Mayo Advertiser the weekly freesheet for event listings.
- Linenhall Arts Centre in town centre hosts theatre, music and exhibitions.
- Royal Theatre is on Old Westport Rd by the hospital.
- Gaelic football: GAA Mayo county team plays football at MacHale Park (all-seater, nominal capacity 35,360 but reduced in 2019 to 25,360). It's 700 m east of town centre, off N5 Lawn Rd. The town team Castlebar Mitchels also play here. (They might want to rethink that name as Mitchel was a notorious advocate of slavery, see Newry his home town.) The county hurling team also plays here but football is the big sport in Mayo.
- Mayo Leisure Point has ten pin bowling, laser and arcade games and a toddlers play area. It's on Moneen Rd east side of town centre.
- Cinema: Mayo Movie World is next to Leisure Point.
- Leisure Complex at Lough Lannagh is southwest edge of town past the hospital. There's a pool, gym and fitness classes.
- Golf: Castlebar Golf Club is 2 km south of town. White tees 5555 yards, par 71.
- Great Western Greenway stretches from the Country Life Museum at Turlough to Castlebar and 2 km further west to Lough Mallard. From there it's on-road through the lanes to Westport, where it's again off-road through Newport all the way west to Mulranny and Achill Island.
- Go to the races but you'll need to set off early. The racecourse is at Ballinrobe 20 km south, see Cong. The town's own racecourse for dogs and horses operated from 1751 to 1887; "Castlebar Races" commemorates the British also-rans of 1798.
- Blues Music Fest is on the Spring public holiday in May / June. The next is probably on 29-31 May 2021 but tba.
- The Four Days Walks are in June / July. The 2021 event is cancelled so the next is 30 June - 3 July 2022.
- The main retail park is west side of town centre, with Tesco open M-Sa 07:00-22:00, Su 08:00-22:00.
- Farmers Market is in Market Square F 09:00-18:00.
- Cafe Rua is a bright deli-cafe on Spencer St, open M-Sa 08:00-18:00, Su 11:00-16:00. They also have a cafe on New Antrim St.
- Lots of cheap and cheerful places in town centre, which include Italian (Al Muretto), Indian, Chinese, Irish, Cox's and fast food - Cafollas, Danollas, Blue Thunder, and the global chains.
- McHales, Newline, Knockthomas (corner with New Antrim St), ☏ . Daily 12:00-02:00. Old-style pub, family-friendly, does decent bar food and may have rooms. But McHales place in lore is that it's nowadays the only pub in the known universe to still serve Guinness by the meejum, an obscure measure short of a pint. The term means "medium" and was first documented in southwest Ireland circa 1890. It appeared in those days to indicate a drink sold by price not volume - a pennyworth, say - so its volume varied by pub and content. It was probably a widespread custom but only officially noticed after the 1878 Weights and Measures Act, which standardised volumes and required officially-calibrated beer glasses. Court actions arose from customers reckoning themselves short-changed, or from police or trading inspectors, and publicans using glasses marked as "medium" also fell foul of the law. The practice died out in the 20th century, although the term "medium" was used for servings in other ways. So raise a glass in McHales, containing a volume which remains undefined but is somewhat less than the SI-derived unit pint of 568.261 ml. It's a quantum thing, if you could state its exact volume then you couldn't state how quickly you drank it or who's round it is.
- Lots more pubs in town centre along Bridge Street.
- Castlebar Gin Trail: the town aspires to be Ireland's gin capital. They're content to serve and drink it, Mayo doesn't have a brewing or distilling tradition.
- 1 Ivy Tower Hotel, New Antrim St F23 DT35, ☏ . Clean friendly place near town centre. B&B double €80.
- Carragh House is a B&B on Knockthomas Rd just north of Ivy Tower.
- Kenny's Guest House is on Lucan St.
- Connaught Inn is a little further west, on Spencer St.
- TF Royal Hotel is southwest near the hospital.
- The Ellson is also by the hospital.
- Imperial Hotel is a town landmark, but it closed in 2009 and was sold to the council, who've let it fall derelict.
As of Feb 2021, Castlebar has 5G from Eir and Three, and 4G from Vodafone.
- Westport is the main base for Clew Bay and south of the county, including the pilgrimage mountain of Croagh Patrick.
- Newport is the largest village along Mayo's bleak northwest coast. A road crosses to Achill Island.
- Ballina is the base for the north coast, with ruined abbeys and a remarkable prehistoric field system.
- Knock has the famous shrine. It's quite a small place; continue south for religious sites and ruins around Tuam.