1st January 1837
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A snapshot of pre-famine local history, as described in the "Topographical Dictionary of Ireland" by Samuel Lewis, 1837. (The information collected here was submitted by members of the local gentry and clergy of the time).

ROSCOMMON, an incorporated market and assize town (formerly a parliamentary borough), and a parish, in the barony of BALLINTOBBER, county of ROSCOMMON, and province of CONNAUGHT, 15? miles (W. by N.) from Athlone, and 74? (W.) from Dublin, on the road to Sligo ; containing 8374 inhabitants, of which number, 3306 are in the town.

  • This place appears to have derived both its origin and its name, originally Ros Coeman, or "Coeman's marsh," from the foundation of an abbey of Canons Regular in a low situation here, by St. Coeman, or Comanus, a disciple of St. Finian, about the year 540. This abbey was pillaged by the Danes in 807, and plundered and burnt by the people of Munster in 1134 ; it, however, was soon afterwards restored, and in 1156 its endowments were greatly augmented by Turlogh the Great, King of Ireland. In 1204, the establishment was plundered by William Bourke Fitz-Aldelm, one of the earliest English adventurers that penetrated into Connaught.
  • A Dominican friary was founded here in 1253, by Felim McCahile Croovdearg O'Conor, King of Connaught, who was interred in it in 1265 ; both these establishments, at the dissolution, were granted by Queen Elizabeth to Sir Nicholas Malby, Knt., and his heirs, at a yearly rent of £30. 5. 10. In 1268, Sir Robert de Ufford, the English Lord-Justice, erected a strong castle here, which, four years afterwards when Maurice Fitz-Maurice, Earl of Kildare, was Lord-Justice, was razed to the ground by the native Irish. This castle was rebuilt, and in 1276 was again taken by the Irish, who on that occasion obtained a signal victory over the English ; and in the following year, Thomas de Clare, who had retaken it, was, with his father-in-law, the Earl of Kildare, surrounded by the native forces, and compelled to purchase a safe retreat by the final surrender of the place. The De Burgos afterwards recovered possession of this fortress.
  • The castle, on its first erection and also the town which gradually rose around it, paid a ground rent to the abbot of the older monastery. In 1360, the town was destroyed by fire, and in 1498 the Earl of Kildare, then Lord-Deputy, in an expedition into Connaught, took possession of the castle, which he strongly fortified. It subsequently fell into the hands of the enemy, who kept possession of it till 1566, when it was retaken for the Queen by Sir Henry Sidney, Lord-Deputy, who placed Sir Thomas L'Estrange in it as governor, with a garrison of infantry and 20 horsemen, In the parliamentary war of 1641, the castle was held for the king by Sir Michael Earnley, with a detachment of the President of Connaught's troops ; and in 1642 it made a brave defence against the assaults of the insurgent forces, but ultimately fell into their hands. The insurgents kept possession of it till 1652, when it was delivered up to Col. Reynolds, an officer of the parliamentarian army.

The town is principally built on the eastern and southern sides of a hill, at the base of which are the remains of its ancient and venerable religious buildings, and its once stately castle ; it consists of one main street, forming its chief entrance from the north, and expanding at the extremity into a wide-open area, around which are some of the public buildings and the best of its more ancient houses.

  • Several smaller streets of very inferior character diverge from the main street: the total number of houses is 581, of which 400 are merely cabins ; of the remainder, several are handsome and well built, and a few are pleasing villas.
  • The inhabitants are but indifferently supplied with water from a deep well in the centre of the town, and from others near the base of the hill ; in summer the supply is very inadequate. Five roads radiate from the town to different parts of the country.
  • About half a mile distant are barracks for one troop of horse.
  • Races, which are supported by subscription, are held annually on a course about a mile from the town ; and a newspaper is published weekly.
  • The principal trade is in grain, of which large quantities are sent to Lanesborough, whence it is conveyed by the Shannon; this trade has greatly increased since the improvement of the roads and the facilities afforded by the continuation of the Royal Canal ; and a plan is under consideration for the construction of a line of navigation from the town, either to the Shannon or to the Royal Canal harbour at Tarmonbarry.
  • A branch of the National Bank of Ireland was opened in the town in 1837: there are also a public brewery and a tanyard.
  • The market is on Saturday, and is numerously attended and abundantly supplied with corn and provisions of all kinds; among various other articles exposed for sale are frieze, coarse woollen stuffs, flannels, and a little linen, with coarse brown pottery made in the neighbourhood, for which the clay is brought in carts from the borders of the river Shannon.
  • Fairs are held on Whit-Monday and Dec. 5th, and are well attended.
  • A chief constabulary police force is stationed in the town.
  • The market-house, originally the old gaol, was afterwards used as a lunatic asylum, and since the removal of the patients to the district asylum, has been appropriated to its present use.

The town received a charter of incorporation in the reign of Edw. I., and in 1310 the burgesses petitioned for a confirmation of it from Edw. II., who issued to the Lord Chief Justice, Chancellor, and Treasurer of Ireland his writ of inquiry for that purpose, but neither the return nor any subsequent proceedings to this writ are recorded. Jas. I., in the 10th of his reign, granted the inhabitants a charter of incorporation, under the designation of the "Provost, Free Burgesses, and Commonalty of the Borough of Roscommon," with power to hold a court of record with jurisdiction to the amount of five marks, and to return two members to the Irish parliament. A new charter was subsequently granted by Jas. II., which increased the number of free burgesses from twelve to eighteen, and extended the jurisdiction of the court from five marks to £5, which latter alteration alone was adopted by the corporation. Under the charter of Jas. I., by which the town was governed, the corporation consisted of a provost, twelve free burgesses, and an indefinite number of freemen. The provost was annually chosen from the free burgesses by a majority of that body, by whom also vacancies in their number were filled up as they occurred, and the freemen were admitted solely by favour. The corporation continued to return two members to the Irish parliament till the Union, when the borough was disfranchised.

Since that period it has become virtually extinct, and the only local court now held is that of the manor of Roscommon, held before the seneschal, at which debts not exceeding £10 are recoverable. The assizes for the county are held here, and the general sessions for the division of Athlone twice in the year ; petty sessions are also held in the town every Monday. The new court-house, situated on a levelled space on the western brow of the hill, is a handsome and spacious structure with a Doric portico in front ; and contains, besides two well-arranged court-rooms for criminal and civil business, a superb room for the Grand Jury, an apartment for the use of the judges, a room for the barristers, refreshment rooms, and accommodations for persons having business at the assizes or sessions, with complete ranges of requisite offices. Near it is the new gaol for the county, built upon the radiating principle and of a polygonal form, containing eight wards, with airing-yards and work-rooms, and 91 sleeping cells, a hospital, a chapel, school, and tread-wheel.

The parish comprises 7289 statute acres, of which 6345 are applotted under the tithe act. The land is of good quality and generally in a state of profitable cultivation, and the neighbourhood is rich in agricultural produce.

The principal seats are

  • Carrowroe, the residence of R. Goff, Esq., a substantial and handsome mansion of limestone, with a Doric portico in front, situated in a highly improved and richly wooded demesne, commanding fine views of the surrounding country ; and
  • Hazelbrook of R. Blakeney, Esq., pleasingly situated ; and within two or three miles of the town is
  • Moate Park, the seat of Lord Crofton, a handsome and spacious modern mansion, situated in an ample demesne richly wooded.

The living is a vicarage, in the diocese of Elphin, episcopally united, in 1805, to the vicarages of Kilbride and Kilteevan, and in the patronage of the Bishop ; the rectory is impropriate in the Earl of Essex. The tithes amount to £147. 13. 10., of which £73. 16.11. is payable to the impropriator, and the remainder to the vicar ; the gross income of the benefice, including a bequest by the late Lord Ranelagh of £18. 9. per ann., amounts to £292. 14. 11, The church is a neat edifice with a square tower, in which are a doorway and window of elegant design.

In the R. C. divisions the parish is the head of a union or district, comprising also the parish of Kilteevan, in each of which is a chapel. The chapel in this parish being too small for the congregation, the old court-house was purchased from the Grand Jury by the Rev. John Madden, P.P., and converted into a chapel with galleries; there is a painting of the Crucifixion over the altar, and others on the walls; the building cost £2000 ; the former chapel is now used as a school.

About 360 children are taught in six public schools, of which one is supported by a bequest of £52 per annum by the late Lord Ranelagh; and there are 12 private schools, in which are about 540 children. 

The county infirmary is a plain substantial building, consisting of a centre and two wings, erected, as appears from a tablet over the entrance, at the sole expense of Mrs Walcott, sister of the late Lord Chief Justice Caulfeild, in 1783: it contains 50 beds, with a small detached fever hospital, and a dispensary for the relief of extern patients, of whom nearly 16,000 annually receive medical assistance; the number of patients received into the infirmary is more than 300 annually, and the annual expenses of the institution are about £1000; the income arises from an annuity of #92. 6. 2. bequeathed by Mrs. Walcott, donations and subscriptions, parliamentary grants, and presentments. An equitable loan society was established in 1830, with a capital of £150 ; it has now a capital of £4000, circulating in small loans, raised chiefly by the exertions of Mr Carson, who has built several neat cottages, to be occupied by the poor rent-free, and two for poor widows, who are supported by him and the Protestant curate.

There are some remains of the Dominican friary, consisting of the church, 137 feet in length, and 23 in width, with a northern transept, in which is an aisle separated by four pointed arches, resting on massive round pillars : over the principal entrance is a very beautiful window, with an enriched architrave decorated with pinnacles; the windows in the choir and other parts are lancet-shaped and much mutilated; under an arch on the north side of the choir is a tomb with a mutilated effigy, said to be that of O'Conor, and on the base are four warlike figures in high relief, representing ancient gallowglasses. Fragments of sculptured stones are scattered over the whole area, which, notwithstanding the shallowness of the soil, is still used as a burial-place.

The ruins of the castle, on the north side of the town, have a grand and imposing appearance, as seen from various points of view; they occupy a quadrangular area, 223 feet in length, and 173 feet in breadth; each angle is defended by a round tower; two similar towers project from the eastern side to defend the gateway entrance, and on the western side is a square gateway tower of smaller dimensions; the lower stories of the towers are strongly groined, and the upper are of more airy character, with spacious windows of handsome design, and appear to have been connected with a rectangular edifice in the inner court, which contained the state apartments; the whole is surrounded with outer walls, defended at the angles with low round towers.

Two miles to the north-east of the town are the remains of the abbey of Derhan, or Derane, said to have been granted to a party of monks from the abbey of Roscommon by O'Conor, at an early period, but the date of its foundation is unknown ; they occupy the summit of a barren hill, but present few interesting details, except the mutilated remains of a large window, which appears to have been very highly enriched ; adjoining is an extensive cemetery, still in general use.

Roscommon gives the title of Earl to the family of Dillon.


ALSO READ: Your ROSCOMMON parish just before the famine

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