This year marks the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Birr Methodist church in Emmet Street (formerly Cumberland Street) in Birr. However the communities in Birr and Tullamore are much older and date back to the 1760s In this short piece we can only look at some of the sources. It is important because Methodists like the Quakers made a distinct economic and social contribution to the well-being of the towns and villages where their churches were associated. One has only to reflect on families in Birr and Tullamore such as Fayle, Haslam, Morrison, Lumley, Bradley, Burgess and more.
WE are glad to bring you the second part of Pádraig Turley’s piece this August 1 2020. We have reached 55,000 views for our stories this year so far. The same as the entire of last year. You can see all 212 stories on http://www.offalyhistoryblog and there is a shortcut to them at http://www.offalyhistory.com You do not need to be on Facebook to view. Why not contribute and send to email@example.com.
FUNERAL OF NED DOORLEY:
The story of the funeral of Ned is one worth relating. This is a story I was always aware of, but was inclined to take it with a grain of salt. However, recently I received a communication from Shannonbridge native James Killeen, currently residing in Illinois, which virtually tallied with the version I had. Ned was the last survivor of the Doorley family when he died in Tullamore Hospital. My uncle Joseph Claffey and the undertaker Kieran Flannery volunteered to go to Tullamore, to pick up the corpse. James tells me that he and Louis Darcy (former Offaly county hurler)and Leslie Price were the altar boys rostered to be on duty to assist the Parish Priest Fr. Frank Donoghue, who having served in Brooklyn, NY, liked things to be done pronto.
The funeral was expected in Shannonbridge at 8.00 p.m. Everything was ready and in order, candles blazing. It did not arrive at 8.00 p.m. or indeed 9.00 p.m. or 10.00 p.m. Needless to say Fr. Donoghue was getting very edgy. There was no sound or sight of the funeral. James tells me that post war traffic in the area was about one motorized vehicle every forty minutes. So in the silence one could hear a car approaching from as far as Moystown, a distance of 9 km. Sometime after midnight James says, one could hear the grinding of the old 14.9 hp Ford engine somewhere around Blackwater, about 2 km away. On arrival Kieran Flannery, the undertaker announced they had a breakdown in Ferbane, and as it was a Sunday night, they had difficulty sourcing the part.
This week as a substitute for our cancelled lectures during Covid we list some of the older books on Offaly History and some of which are still of use and must be consulted. The list is by no means complete and does not cover archaeology or geology. By older we mean studies mostly published before 1920 and many being diocesan histories. One book that is essential to look at is the Dublin Society survey of the county in 1801. This is the first book published about County Offaly/King’s County and deserves a read before moving on. John O’Donovan when preparing the ordnance survey memoirs in the 1830s had occasion to use Coote, among other books, and considered Coote a blockhead and worse. Yet, there are some nuggets for those who are patient. Coote was trying to promote for the Dublin Society (later Royal Dublin Society) agricultural education. The farming societies were not started until the 1840s and wilted in the Famine years. It was the 1900s before countrywide education in agricultural methods began with Horace Plunkett, agricultural cooperation and the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction.
Everywhere in the world today, the role and validity of public art, particularly statues of historical figures, is under scrutiny. At the same time it is the policy of our new Government to place an increased emphasis on urban quality-which presumes the installation of even more public art. This could be a recipe for conflict but much can be learnt from an examination of the history and experience of the provision of sculpture in County Offaly, and its errors and successes.
The Three Tests
I suggest that three criteria, all of which are of course totally subjective, apply to any reconsideration of the role of public art. The first is the continuing historical acceptability of the person or event which is commemorated. In Offaly, it is beyond doubt that the Manchester Martyrs Memorial in Birr or the War of Independence Memorial at the Courthouse in Tullamore would pass that test. The second is the intrinsic artistic quality of the work and ‘Saints and Scholars’ by Maurice Harron on the Tullamore bypass is generally agreed to be both striking and imaginative. Finally, there is the work’s contribution to a planned urban ensemble and in this respect both the Downshire Memorial in Edenderry and the Barnes-McCormack Memorial in Banagher which close vistas or reflect their settings, would qualify. It gets a lot trickier however when a work satisfies some of the criteria but not all.
For example, in our capital city the statue of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, marks the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears his name and having been designed and executed by the greatest Irish sculptor of his day John Henry Foley, it clearly fulfils all three criteria of artistic worth, civic design contribution and an historically enhanced reputation.
However, further along the same street the statue of Horatio Nelson failed the public acceptability test and along with its beautiful and blameless Doric pillar, was blown up in 1967.
Interestingly, Birr provides a precisely similar scenario. The image of the third Earl of Rosse in John’s Mall is also a fine example of Foley’s skill, and the reputation of ‘The Astronomer Earl’ has grown over the years. The statue, by virtue of its scale and location, is an integral part of a well-designed public space. Thus all three criteria are fulfilled.
In nearby Emmet Square stands the finest urban ensemble in Offaly and the only extant example in Ireland of the use of a central column as a focus for a public plaza. Whatever about the artistic merit of his statue which stood atop its elegant Doric pillar, the brutal reputation of the Duke of Cumberland was anathema to many and the discovery of a crack gave a valid excuse for its removal by Birr Town Council in 1915. Had Dublin Corporation adopted the same approach, the column upon which Nelson stood and which contributed to the scale and architectural character of O’Connell Street, might still be with us but as in Birr, we would probably still be debating a suitable replacement to cap it.
The issue of whether existing public art is still relevant and making a contribution to its locality can sometimes be contentious, but the location and nature of new public art is always pure dynamite, as the persistent vandalism of the Luke Kelly statues in Dublin (whether for aesthetic reasons or not) demonstrates.
Ideally public art requires public consensus and the smaller communities of Offaly who have got together to commission and install works of high artistic quality to celebrate their own local heroes or legends have shown the way in this regard and their approach deserves study and emulation.
Killeigh commemorates its famous local greyhound ‘Mick the Miller’ with a beautiful bronze piece by Elizabeth O’Kane. Cadamstown remembers local boxer Dick McRedmond in a lovely stone bust by Dermot Scully. In Ballycumber the wonderful little ‘Pilgrim’ trudges wearily to Clonmacnoise along the Erry Way in a delightful work by local artists Gerry Dooley and Lorie Quinn.
It is acknowledged by everyone that in Offaly both semi-State and local authorities have been to the forefront in providing good public art. The ambitious installations provided by Bord na Mona in the Lough Boora Discovery Park make it one of the best sculpture parks in Europe and it is the calling card of Offaly Tourism. Through its operation of the Percent for Art scheme, Offaly County Council has provided many imaginative and successful works in every part of the county, most recently Holger Lonze’s ‘Cruinne’ in Geashill and the ‘Marker Stone’ on top of Croghan Hill by Ciaran Byrne.
The elephant in the room however, is that almost all of these are in rural, village or remote locations and therefore their theme and siting is relatively uncontentious. A proposal to install a major piece of sculpture in the centre of any of the principal towns of the county on the other hand would immediately raise the questions of where, who, why, by whom and at what cost and inevitably cause a row. Nonetheless, busy central public spaces, both existing and planned, should now be the first choice locations for new artwork and these issues must be faced and a reasonable public consensus sought.
The county capital, Tullamore town centre has only three significant sculptural works, the two long established War Memorials and the 1999 ‘Pot Stills’ in Market Square by Eileen McDonagh. The recent Street Enhancement Scheme which might have provided the opportunity for the installation of a significant new work, instead inexplicably and without giving public notice, required the removal of the Memorial to the Dead of the Great War from O’Connor Square, despite its designation as a Protected Structure. Following an outcry and Ministerial intervention, it was saved but its generous planted setting vanished and it now stands looking a little lost and unhappily compromised by car parking. A more considered and consultative approach to our urban heritage is urgently required
A Phoenix arises?
The installation of a fine new piece of sculpture to adorn the historic centre of Tullamore is long overdue and the imminence of a new town plan presents the opportunity for its delivery. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, the new plan will include a coherent vision for the preservation and enhancement of the town’s architectural heritage.
It might also follow the lead of other local authorities and outline the role that urban art would play in making the centre more attractive and even suggest where new sculpture or installations might be placed. The Offaly County Council Public Art Working Group could then initiate a debate as to appropriate subjects. One relatively uncontentious idea that has been around for years and which would certainly stimulate the imagination of a talented artist, would be that of the Phoenix- the symbol of the town.
This is now the time to start the debate on how Tullamore can celebrate its history, remember those who made a contribution to it and furnish its historic centre with new and exciting public art.
In the time leading up to Heritage Week 2020, and conscious of the restrictions on movement, lectures and classes, we are starting a new blog to issue every Wednesday. This will be on Sources for Offaly History & Society. We will draw on the extensive material in our library at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore, the county’s Offaly Archives at Axis Business Park and the Local History Collection at Offaly Libraries. The aim being to build a helpful online resource to assist Offalians and those interested in our past and now spread across the world. We want to hear from you with what you would like to see covered and to get your feedback on what we are doing. We will continue to publish our history articles on the Saturday blog at offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com
I once more visited by friends in Tullamore, Killoughy and Banagher after an unexpected gap of almost six months. Young Covid intervened and I did not get down from my perch in D4 until ten days ago.
Upper East Side Tullamore
It was great to see my old town looking so well and all the works in the square and from High Street to Kilbeggan Bridge almost finished. Walking from the railway station down to the square brought me back to the 1950s and 1960s when I lived in the town and the High Street was a busy spot. The footpaths are wide now but there were few walking and even on Saturday the street was quiet. I see no space to park for my mother (if she were alive God rest her) to pull up in the old Prefect that she had. Sure that is progress. Maybe the plan for High Street got mixed up with O’Connell Street or Grand Parade! Anyway, today I am writing about the east side of High Street, what I will call ‘Upper East Side’, and I will talk about the west side of the street on another visit – if the pause button is not changed to stop!
`Arising from the Covid-19 virus due to government advice regarding public gatherings a private funeral will take place, but may be viewed on the Church website.`
This notice is now a regular feature of obituary notices in current newspapers and website dealing with death notices.
The story I wish to relate deals with an earlier time, from the early 50s, and I hope to recreate an image of the funeral process back then in west Offaly. It was a time when the medical condition of a sick person or indeed a visit by a doctor to such a person was not the only omen that death was imminent. A much more reliable harbinger of such an event was when a report came in, that the `banshee` had been heard. My grandfather, Michael Claffey originally from Bloomhill, near Ballinahown, totally believed in the banshee. He was a well-read literate man, yet if someone was ill in the parish, he would not show much concern until it was reported that the cry of the banshee had been heard. Once that occurred, it was good night Vienna, as far as he was concerned. He would then just wait for the inevitable, which from my memory always seemed to happen.
A Golden Age
Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.
The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.
Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.
This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.
A document in the National Library of Ireland sheds important light on the fate of the inhabitants of a part of county Offaly during the years of the Great Famine. Here the names and circumstances of almost 500 people in the village of Shinrone and its hinterland are included on a register for relief, which was provided during the summer and autumn of 1846. Among the names may well be an ancestor of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America. While Obama’s Irish heritage has been well documented in the past, not least during his visit to Ireland in 2011, few descriptions survive of how the Great Famine directly impacted the Kearney families and their community. It is hoped that this document will be transcribed and made available in Offaly Heritage in the near future.
The contemporary arts scene in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1970s and to a certain degree in Offaly also, was dominated by the friendship between the architect Michael Scott and the Jesuit priest Fr. Donal O’Sullivan. Both Scott and O’Sullivan were close friends of Desmond Williams, the managing director of Irish Mist and a director of Williams’s whose commercial interests extended beyond the famous whiskey brand to a chain of grocery shops and pubs in Offaly and Westmeath. Williams and his wife Brenda, whose father Oliver St John Gogarty had been an early supporter of the painter Jack B. Yeats, owned many superb works by the artist.