The centre was established in 1991 by the Breathnach/Walsh family, a vision of Martin and Norah. The family owned the hill farm of sheep suckler cows some donkeys and of course the famous Connemara pony. In 1991 agritourism was established on the farm and has grown over the past 30 years with visitors from all over the world.
It is known internationally much more than nationally.
The Centre offers a unique insight into the history and heritage of this most beautiful part of Connemara and the West of Ireland. It has won multiple National Awards over the years in 1992, 1994 and 1998. And five years in a row C.I.E Tours Award of Excellence representing a great visitor experience.
Connemara's First Settlers
The first settlers in Connemara settled mainly along the shoreline and rivers. They were hunter-gatherers and the main legacy they have left behind is 'middens' or ancient dumping sites which are found along the coast.
Farming began in Connemara approximately 6000 years ago. Evidence suggests that the settlers began to clear the woods in the valleys and that it was predominantly pastoral farming with some arable farming. They also continued to fish and hunt. The vast amount of megalithic tombs which dot the landscape in Connemara are reminders of these first farmers and their beliefs and rituals.
Many of the standing stones, stone alignments and burial monuments in Connemara date to the Bronze Age. The Celts emerged from Europe about 1000 B.C and brought with them new skills and traditions which have survived in Ireland to the present day. They were a warrior class and evidence of this shows in the remains of cliff top forts and crannogs which can be found in Connemara today. Reconstructions of a ring fort and a crannog are found on the grounds of the heritage centre.
Sure it' poor I am today,
For God gave and took away,
And left without a home poor Dan O'Hara
With these matches in my hand,
In the frost and snow I stand
So it's here I am today your brokenhearted
Dan O'Hara's homestead is built on the original site of the home of Dan from Connemara renowned in the popular ballad all over the world. Dan O Hara lived with his wife and seven children in a cottage shadowed by the Twelve Bens. The family were self sufficient on 8 acres of land and lived a simple but happy lifestyle. The main part of the farm was given over to the potato crop and they kept a variety of animals on the farm.
The turf for the fire was cut in the local bog and kept the family warm and cosy through the winter months. Dan O' Hara's was a visiting house and many a romance began in the flickering firelight of the hearth. Social gatherings such as storytelling and céilis kept the Irish language and traditions alive.
Most of Dan O'Hara's land was given over to the potato crop. It's advantage was that it grew in the poorest conditions and an acre and a half would sustain five or six people for six months. Some of the crop was used to feed a pig. Potatoes along with buttermilk ensured that the population of Connemara at the time was robust and healthy although poor
Like most people in Connemara at the time Dan O'Hara did not own the house he lived in or the land. He paid rent to the local landlord. His simple but happy lifestyle came abruptly to an end when he was evicted for non payment of his rent. He had decided to increase the size of the windows in his house and this led to increased rent payments. He was evicted from his home and forced to emigrate. He arrived in New York, a broken man. His wife and three of his children died on the harsh sea journey and penniless and destitute he had to put the remaining children into care. He ended his days selling matches on the street far from his beloved Connemara.
Famine in Connemara
In 1800 the population of Ireland was 5 million and by the time the Great Famine struck Ireland it had increased to 8 million. In the 19th century Connemara had a large and vigorous population. The native culture was rich in history and tradition and the Irish language was widely spoken. The vast majority of the people lived in conditions of poverty and insecurity. No one owned the land they worked on and could be evicted on a whim. Housing was very poor -thatched cottages or one roomed huts made of stone and turf roofed with branches or more turf. Some had no windows with just a hole in the roof for smoke to escape. However visitors to Ireland commented on how healthy and vigorous the population was the average Irish man was 2 inches taller than his British counterpart.
The reason for this healthy large population was the potato introduced to Ireland in 1509 it grew in the poorest conditions and needed very little labour. An acre and a half of potatoes would feed five or six people for six months. About one third of the crop was used to feed pigs and other livestock. Anything else that was produced on the farm was sold for money to pay rent or buy other necessities.
This over reliance on the potato crop would lead to great devastation In 1845 a fungal disease called 'blight' (phythophthora infestans) began to affect the potato crop and led to the failure of the potato crop several years in succession. The British government was slow to react and this led to mass starvation and disease. Relief schemes were introduced but these were too late to have any great impact on the situation Grain continued to be exported and in one incident grain was left to rot in Clifden port while the population starved.
Hundreds of people left from Clifden Quay for England, America and Australia. Many of the ships reached port having lost nearly a third of their passengers to hunger and disease. Others too weak to leave ended their days in the Clifden workhouse. The Quakers did much to help in the area and founded 'soup kitchens' in an effort to alleviate the poverty and suffering. The result of the famine was that the social and cultural structure of Connemara was changed forever. Landlords were bankrupted, small farms amalgamated and the Irish language had begun to disappear.
Early Christianity -St Patrick in Connemara
St. Patrick, a former slave is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland. It is believed that his followers concentrated on converting the lords or clan leaders in the belief that this would lead to a conversion of the masses. Many pagan rituals were incorporated into Christianity including the worship of spring well and pilgrimages to Mam Ean and Croagh Patrick. Many of these traditions have survived to the present day. The isolation of Connemara suited the monks in early Christian times and there are monastic remains on many of the islands off the West coast.
'The ferocious O' Flaherty's'
The O'Flaherty clan were a seafaring family with castles at prominent locations along the coast. They were driven to the west by the Norman settlers and displaced the former rulers of Connemara -the O'Cadhla's and the Conmaice Mara. They spent most of their time waging war on the wealthy Norman merchants who lived within the confines of Galway city. Inscribed on the city walls was the motto ''from the fury of the O'Flahertys, good Lord deliver us'' The O'Flahertys were eventually dispossessed following the confiscation of their land during the Cromwellian wars. They turned their attention to smuggling and wrecking and traded wool on the continent in exchange for sherry and wine.