Balla Oak Wood
Balla was formerly known as Ros dairbhreach, the Height of the Oakwood. Demand for quality Irish oak to build the British fleet and later to fuel the industrial revolution consumed almost all Irish forest, and a succession of storms through the late 20th century splintered much of the little that remained. We now recognize the role played by native woodland in preserving biodiversity and in the fight against a changing climate.
On January 1st 2000, the first day of the new millennium, 600 people gathered in the town of Balla set to work planting a forest. Within ten minutes a fledgling forest stood before them. This was Balla’s Dawn Oak 2000 project, part of a scheme to restore storm-damaged native woodland that surrounded this central Mayo town for so long.
Just after midnight the first tree was planted by Balla’s oldest resident, Matty Larkin, and mere minutes later wheelchair-bound Margeret McNicholas got to work with the last. The effort earned Balla Town a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
On 18th September 2001 then Irish President Mary McAleese made a speech of dedication.
William Hamilton Maxwell. Angler, hunter, writer and Balla clergyman, in that order.
Among the more colourful characters to grace the streets of Balla and haunt the woods nearby was the celebrated clergyman author William Hamilton Maxwell, who was rector of the local Church of Ireland for some 25 years.
His 1813 ordination by the Bishop of Ferns brought an appointment as curate of a nearby parish. However, six years later an unwise decision to engage in a naked swim and cycle saw him reassigned to Balla, where he was to serve as Canon.
Consistent neglect of his spiritual duties in favour of hunting and fishing was tolerated, and while in Balla he wrote a number of books, including his much acclaimed ‘Wild Sports of the West’, detailing his many adventures and escapades in north Mayo, which he referred to as ‘beyond Christendom’.
Stryker’s American Register and Magazine summed up Maxwell’s sojourn in Mayo thus: ‘he… was for some years prebendary at Balla, a wild Connaught church living, without any congregation or cure of souls attached to it; though it afforded what he was admirably capable of dealing with: plenty of game.’
Those familiar with Maxwell’s work will agree with Stryker’s conclusion: ‘…Wild Sports of the West will not be easily surpassed in the peculiar qualities of that gay off hand and rollicking style of penmanship of which he was the originator.’ It is unquestionably the finest work ever to come out of Balla and comes highly recommended.
William Hamilton Maxwell died an artist’s death in Edinburgh in 1850, at the age of 58, near broke after years of heavy drinking.
Another notable 19th century local character was Captain William Fitzmaurice, a taciturn ex-military man with a furious reputation who lived just outside of Balla. At the time Daniel O’Connell was campaigning for the repeal of the Act of Union, which had made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom, Fitzmaurice was strongly and actively opposed to anything that might empower the native Irish, for such a thing would surely diminish his own influence.
Robert Dillon Browne, Liberal MP for Mayo and a supporter of O Connell, fell out with James Browne of Brownehall after James was overlooked for the position of magistrate. A duel was arranged, in which Robert Dillon was attended by Fitzmaurice. After Robert was shot in the thigh the matter was considered closed, but afterwards Fitzmaurice took to using his pistol.
He subsequently shot and wounded one of his servants who had failed to accomplish his gardening work in a satisfactory manner, and later fatally wounded a James Reilly for failing to pay rates on a bale of oats.
When David W. Ruttledge was appointed High Sheriff for Mayo in 1851, Fitzmaurice found himself excluded from the Grand Jury. Enraged by this omission, he challenged the High Sheriff to a duel. This never materialized, but during the Summer Assizes of that year Captain Fitzmaurice approached the High Sherriff and demanded a reason for his exclusion, adding “I rode into town to horsewhip you,” an unwise comment that earned him a month in jail.
In 1857 a heavily indebted Fitzmaurice was forced to sell his estate. William Faulkner of Lakemount, his son-in-law, was the purchaser, which doubtless enabled the rogue Fitzmaurice to live in comfort for the rest of his life. Some years later the property was occupied by the Nally family and became a prominent location for Patrick William Nally’s new Gaelic Athletic Association.