Lost Archives of Offaly: Part 1

The lost archives series: no 1, the original diaries of Bishop Plunket of Meath (1738-1827) and the Meath Diocesan Archive

Michael Byrne

An  Offaly History Project for 2016-22

Offaly History has embarked on the provision of an archive for the housing of historical records for County Offaly. A building has been acquired and the work of renovation and fitting out will soon begin. Partners will be needed and financial support for a capital project that will cost €300,000 at least. The Society opened its present offices in 1992 at Bury Quay, Tullamore. That building is an historical research centre, comprising a public reading room, a bookshop, library of 15,000 volumes (catalogue on line at offalyhistory.com), exhibition space and a lecture hall. Archival material has been collected by the society since the 1990s and now needs a safe home. Each item needs to be catalogued and  housed properly. The work of bringing it to the notice of the public has started, and for this see http://www.offalyhistoryarchives.com, where an ever increasing amount of material is now being placed online. This weekly blog is intended to keep you informed of historical matters in the county. If you would like to contribute a piece email us at info@offalyhistory.com. If you have papers to donate be sure to call us. We will visit, assess and advise on retention or not (in itself a big decision).

The reprint of Cogan’s three volume history with the commentary volume by the late Alfred P. Smyth

Future articles in this archive series will look at:

  • Tullamore and Birr town council records since 1860
  • Records of the King’s County Grand Jury and the King’s County Council. What happened in 1922 when the county courthouse was destroyed during the Civil War?
  • What about the county hospital records from 1767? Have they survived?
  • Where are the records of the Tullamore Loan Fund Bank from 1820
  • Did anyone see the Charleville estate missing atlas of 1786 – last seen in 1958?
  • The records of the clubs and societies in Tullamore since 1890. What would these contribute to our understanding of the events of 1916-23? What survives?
  • The records of the county agricultural show societies, now so strong in the county. When did such shows first begin? What records have we?
  • The records of the several chambers of commerce in the county. Again when did they start thinking about attracting new industry?
  • What business records have survived and are there more out there to be collected? What happened to the records of Salts in Tullamore,  the bacon factory in Tullamore, The Williams Group and the B. Daly distillery?
  • What about car ownership since 1898 in Offaly? Who had IR 1 and what type of car was it? What records survive?
  • Voters’ records. How many were voters in County Offaly in the 1830s, 1880s and by 1918? Do we have lists of these voters?

It is not all bad news. Much has survived, needs cataloguing and to be known about

There are good news stories too, such as the saving of the records of the boards of guardians in the county in the 1970s and the minute books of Tullamore Town Council since about 1914 and much more. A lot done but a lot to do. You can help up by donating or assisting with materials.

In this article we look at records that have been lost through neglect or ignorance. Sometimes such destruction is intentional. Who has not destroyed love letters and regretted it later? Perhaps more mundanely the records of a society or club, memorial cards, negatives and photographs, posters and so much more. Now people are once again ‘finding the past’ as in the popularity of the printed photo albums of one’s seldom viewed digital collection. Social media too is providing an ‘ephemeral repository’ for old photographs, but there is nothing like having the hard copy picture with the digital back up for sharing. Such conveniences were not available to the first historian of Meath diocese, Anthony Cogan.

The destruction of an archive and unfounded allegations

Thanks to the work of Fr Anthony Cogan, who published his Diocese of Meath: ancient and Modern over the period 1862 to 1870 (three volumes), there is a considerable body of information on the diocese of Meath up to that time.  The importance of Anthony Cogan’s work is underlined by the fact that the Meath Diocesan Archive was destroyed in 1909 and much of what Cogan published, particularly the extracts from the diaries of Bishop Plunket, was primary source material. This was done at the direction of Bishop Gaughran possibly because of the perception of ‘scandalous disputes’ in the diocese in the late nineteenth-century making the archive an embarrassing encumbrance (Smyth, 1992, pp 136-9). Who knows now or can tell? Bishop Nulty was a controversial figure as was his successor Bishop Gaffney. According to David Lawlor writing in 2007 (Divine Right: the Parnell split in Meath, p. 220) the Bishop Gaffney’s resignation in 1905 was a case of mistaken allegations as to an improper relationship between him and his nursing nun. However, in his preface to the same book Lawlor refers to the burning of the archive over fears of an unrelated scandal. In History Ireland in March-April 2010 (p. 35) Lawlor again refers to the destruction of the archive in 1909 for fear of the exposure of a scandal over the resignation of Bishop Gaffney in 1905, ostensibly on grounds of ill-health. Lawlor stated in his 2010 article that the ‘The real reason for the bishop’s resignation appears to have centred on unfounded allegations of an improper relationship with a nun who was his nurse.’ That story certainly had traction in Clara where Gaffney had been parish priest before becoming bishop and was unkind to the much-loved Franciscans in that town. Gaffney was, like Nulty, fiercely anti-Parnellite, so the improper relations allegations have to be seen in that context. Clara, where Bishop Gaffney had been parish priest prior to his elevation, appears to have been strongly pro-Parnellite. So there was Parnell and a woman and there were unfounded allegations of a bishop and a woman. Bishop Gaffney resigned in 1905 and spent his last years with none other than the Franciscans of Multyfarnham. It was a shame that so much was lost in the archive clean out of 1909 (for whatever reason) and that the work of O’Rafferty and McAlroy in saving the Plunket material was undone.

022 Fr James O'Rafferty pp Tullamore 1820-185748733 (19) Mathew McAlroymeath-diocese_connell_small

Fr Rafferty, PP Tullamore, 1820-57, Fr McAlroy, PP 1857-92 and Bishop Cantwell, a native of Rahan, bishop of Meath, 1830-66

Cogan’s history reprinted in the 1990s

Anthony Cogan’s work was reprinted by Four Courts Press, Dublin in a handsome large paper format with a new fourth volume written by the late Professor Alfred P. Smyth of the University of Kent, Canterbury with the intriguing title Faith, Famine and Fatherland in the Irish Midlands: perceptions of a priest and historian, Anthony Cogan, 1826-1872.  The four volumes were published as a box set in a fine green binding in a format similar to the reprint of the Annals of the Four Masters and are available to view or purchase at the Offaly History Centre.

The diocese of Meath covers in excess of sixty parishes, the counties of Meath, Offaly, Westmeath and from Kingscourt in the north to Eglish in the south.  The Offaly parishes in the diocese are five in number – Eglish, Ballyboy, Rahan, Tullamore and Clara.  Adjoining parishes are Tubber/Tober, Kilbeggan and Castlejordan.  Cogan directly and through extracts from the Plunket diary covers important ecclesiastical history especially from the 1780s to the 1860s.  Unfortunately there the story rested and after Cogan’s death in 1872 there was no one to continue the story in a narrative or thematic format to the present day.  About the year 1940 Revd John Brady, the then diocesan historian, published a number of pamphlets on the Meath parishes which sought to update Cogan, principally on factual matters such as the building of churches and schools, church plate, the parish priests and curates and those from the parish who served on the missions.  But the narrative is scant and the facts are without flesh.  There is nothing of the controversies of the Parnellite period and the war waged by Bishop Nulty against the Parnellites. Cogan was writing in the late 1860s when tenant-right was on the agenda. In the 1990s Bishop Michael Smith saw to the updating of Brady’s work under the editorship of Olive Curran while Olive Sharkey provided the illustrations (three vols, Mullingar, 1995). The end result was the re-issue of Cogan and the bringing up to the 1980s of the story of the diocese and parishes of Meath. Cogan’s was one of the first of the diocesan histories and now with the Brady-Curran update the Meath diocese continues to lead the way as one of the best served in regard to its diocesan records. It all goes some way to make up for the great loss of the original archive almost 110 years ago.

Who was Anthony Cogan

Anthony Cogan was a country priest who spent most of his life ministering in and around Navan as well as teaching boys in that town.  Besides writing his three-volume work over the period 1862 to 1870 he worked with the youth of Navan and in later years in promoting better housing for the slum dwellers of that town.  He defended the tenant farmer against the landlord and extensive grazier. A.P. Smyth, while respecting his subject, admits that Cogan was not a great historian.  In the style of local historians, then and now, he was at best an abstracter and recorder of information.  But to Cogan’s credit is the publication of an archive in book form since destroyed.  He was a biased observer of a downtrodden people – a passionate rather than a revisionist historian. The old-fashioned historians who prefer calendars to interpretation can and do come out on top when the material they worked on and published is subsequently lost.

Medieval Mental Attitudes

A.P. Smyth, in his essay, makes the interesting assertion that Cogan’s writings (as indeed others of the time) were a throwback to essentially medieval mental attitudes untouched by the Renaissance, Reformation or Industrial Revolution.  Ireland as an island behind an island was different from her European neighbour in that it represented a society with powerful and conservative pre-Christian elements impervious to change i.e. that the Catholicism to which Ireland adhered acted as a shield to the great cultural and intellectual novelties from Europe. The medieval force was fed by a virulent anti-Catholicism on the part of the English Establishment notwithstanding the Maynooth foundation and Catholic Emancipation of 1829.

Keeping faith with the dead

Like many local historians today Cogan exhibited what was virtually a tribal sense of pride and loyalty in his county and his native place. Smyth says he was obsessed with the concept of association with place and that this is deeply ingrained in the Irish rural psyche to this day.  For Cogan the dead of the community were ever present to the living.  Keeping faith with the dead was an essential feature in his spiritual outlook. The medieval notion of death is now just that.  It must be difficult for the modern European tourist or indeed the young Irish tourist to fully appreciate the characterisation of death in literature, art and sculpture as evidenced in the standard European cultural tour. Even the cemeteries of Ireland once carefully monitored were largely forgotten until recent years as witness the work at Glasnevin and the improvements to our local cemeteries. The late Fr Tom Gillooly pioneered work on Clonminch, Tullamore during his time as a curate in Tullamore in the 1960s and 1970s. He was the first in the diocese of Meath to have Mass celebrated in the cemetery. Nowadays Cemetery Sunday is one of the major events in parish life throughout the diocese of Meath.

Bishop Plunket – his diaries are the cornerstone of Cogan’s work

Patrick Joseph Plunket was born at Kells in 1738 and was consecrated bishop of the diocese of Meath in 1779. Described as a ‘man of polished manners and meek disposition’ (DIB, 8, pp 163-4) he was strong enough physically to visit the parishes of his diocese almost every year of his long episcopate. In 1780 he commenced his visitations and during 46 years he visited and preached annually in each parish in the diocese.  For the first 20 years he rode on horseback.  Dr. Plunket’s diaries are informative on life in the diocese and religious practices over that period from Grattan’s Parliament to Emancipation.  The reproduction of the diaries in Cogan’s history are the cornerstone of the work and are justification for the reprint.  As stated the diaries were destroyed in manuscript form in the clear-out of the diocesan archive in 1908. Their preservation up to Cogan’s time was thanks to the parish priest of Tullamore from 1820 to 1857, Revd. James O’Rafferty who was also vicar general of the diocese and who purchased the material at Plunket’s auction. O’Rafferty kept the diaries in Tullamore after Bishop Plunket’s death in 1827 and on his death in 1857 the diaries passed eventually  to Dr Cantwell, the Rahan-born bishop of  Meath (died 1866) or to his successor. Cogan’s access to the diaries was facilitated by Dr O’Rafferty’s successor as parish priest of Tullamore, Fr Matthew McAlroy.

Plunket, like his colleague in Dublin diocese, Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin (1768-1852), was a tireless worker in building his diocese and avoided national politics. His aim was to see churches built and convents and schools opened. He was central to the decision to found the convent at Killina, Rahan in 1817 and the Jesuit school there a year later. In 2017 the Killina Presentation convent celebrates its 200th anniversary. Plunket began his 26th visitation of the diocese in June 1805 and completed the tour in October of that year. He was clearly exhausted and suffered what we might now call ‘a blow out’ or breakdown in that his mind was completely overborne with the weight of business. During his visitation he called at Kilcormac, Rahan, and Tullamore. In Tullamore he confirmed 173 children (and probably some adults) and reproached parents for neglecting the Christian education of children; he spoke against Sunday being profaned by dangerous amusements, i.e., drinking and dancing. Typical entries in his diary for Tullamore include the subject matter of Bishop Plunket’s sermons in Tullamore at Confirmation time:

Year      Number          Sermon



1787        40          Efficacy of Prayer

1788        44          Speedy conversion to God

1789        68          On the causes of delay of repentance

1790        70          On cursing and swearing

1793                      (7 Oct, I dined at Mr Joseph Flanagan’s) [the Tullamore distiller]

1795        62          Neglect of the Sacraments; nature of true

devotion to the Blessed Virgin;  Ember

week; its objects, &c.

1796       54           Quarrelling on St. Columbcille’s day

reprobated; as well as delay of the

Paschal duty; Congregation of the

Christian Doctrines established.

1797        81          Neglect of the sacrament – complained of,

the nature and design of the institution

of the Ember days explained.

1805      173          Parents reproached for neglecting the

Christian education of children; Sunday

profaned by dangerous amusements [drinking,


1822      474          Dismal effects of immorality; Paschal

duty neglected.


Plunket recorded the grant of the site in 1794 for the first Catholic church in Tullamore town and its construction in 1802.

Nowadays we hope to scan and digitise records, but the editions of important texts, such as that carried out by Cogan will continue to be important and, who knows, may someday be all that survives. Three cheers for Cogan and perhaps his tribal sense of pride would be no bad thing in today’s global and virtual universe. Of course the best part of his compilation was dependent on the indefatigable Bishop Plunket and his diary-keeping. Without the two parish priests of Tullamore, O’Rafferty and McAlroy, the diaries might not have survived even to Cogan’s time.

O'Rafferty Inscription on catholic church
From the church tower of 1858 at Durrow. The church itself is c. 1831


How much is being lost today through scant regard for the materials of our history?

Next up: the town council records in Birr and Tullamore