The environs of Leenane have been inhabited by man since prehistory, as evinced by a megalithic tomb on Leenane Hill. Geographically isolated, Leenane is rarely mentioned in records until the 1800s. Killary, providing as it does a good safe harbour, bears mention in shipping records from the 1200s onwards. It was a hideaway of the daring smuggler George O’Malley in the late 1700s, and has sheltered the Royal Fleet, submarines and U-Boats during the 20th century.
The village of Leenane as we know it did not exist until the 1880’s. Prior to this, the village centre was located at the hotel, with two further clusters on Lettirbricaun and Lachan. These have now almost completely disappeared; one through famine and the former through eviction. It was not until some decades after the building of the Leenane Bridge by Nimmo, that the planned village was built.
From Cromwellian times onwards, most of the land in the area was owned by Trinity College. Much of the land passed into the hands of other absentee landlords, and the inhabitants lived lives of fairly unremitting poverty. Lazy Beds (potato drills) high on the barren mountains bear testimony to their struggle to produce food. The area was hard hit by the successive famines of the 1800s, and the scenes of starvation recorded by the Society of Friends on Killary in 1847 makes for hard reading.
The big changes began in the 1880s. The hotel flourished and expanded, bringing increasing amounts of money into the area. More importantly, the Congested Districts Board introduced a weaving school and set up a local weaving industry which operated from the hotel. A girls lace-making school was also set up, which was visited by Queen Alexandra on the royal visit of 1903, when King Edward VI toured the area. In the early decades of the 20th century, tenant farmers began to receive the land they had farmed for generations as the Land Commission bought out landlords