The Midland Tribune and Tullamore Tribune went to a new compact edition in June 2017 after a broadsheet format in the case of the Midland since 1881 and that of Tullamore since 1978. A few whimsical reflections are ‘posted’ here on happenings since 1881, derived from many hours spent looking at the old files of both newspapers.
Hard copy and hard floor
It is almost forty years ago since the Tullamore Tribune was first launched. The exact date was May 1978. I have occasion to remember it as I was just back from looking at the early issues of its elder sister paper, the Midland Tribune (founded in Birr in 1881) and another sister it had picked up along the way – the Offaly Chronicle formerly the King’s County Chronicle. The latter was first printed in Birr in 1845 and it was mainly for the files of that paper I had gone to London and the British Library newspaper collection in Colindale. It was exciting seeing all that old, but not stale news, and memorable too because I had to sleep on the floor of a friend’s flat for three weeks and by the end of it was sore. That was 1978 and the talk in that first issue of the Tullamore Tribune was of a ring road for Tullamore – not completed for over thirty more years.
A local story can run for twenty years and longer
One useful thing in studying the old papers is to see how a long a project can take from conception to completion. When writing the history of the vocational schools in Offaly in 1980 (the time of Jack McCann and Liam Arundel) it seemed to me to be about 20 years from the time the clamours would rise for a new school, in say Banagher or Kilcormac, to opening day, as in Clara in 1958. A new Tullamore school was mooted in 1916 and was opened in 1937. The disastrous fire at the Tullamore College of 2001 did not see a replacement school until 2017.
A town hall mooted for Tullamore from 1912 was only opened in 1992 and, per contra, new county offices were proposed about 1998 and finished in 2002. Such are the vagaries of public business, but things can be done quickly as needs. The local press is invaluable as a record of the snail’s pace at which some projects move and how quickly at other times, but that seemed seldom to me. The retired county councillors, such as John Butterfield and Tom Enright, both of whom were over forty years on the benches from 1967, could write reams about it. Indeed so could we on those men and their colleagues if we were to a word search on the now digitised local newspapers.
Durrow High Cross
This story is now running since 1990 when Offaly History called a public meeting to protest about the state of things out there and the Tribune published the story and many more. After that a succession of government ministers came, but often with the same civil servants and big files saying No. Grants were awarded in the 1990s and later withdrawn because of failure to meet EU timelines. Finally, in 2003 the Durrow Abbey and graveyard were purchased by the state. About €5m (including wages) was spent and there it has rested since. The High Cross and church look great, but we cannot tell anybody about it because of the motor cars speeding along outside and danger for the emerging traffic. This story should run for another six years at least to fit with my 20-year window since 2003, but in reality it is now 27 years since we started to use printers’ ink to highlight a disgraceful situation and ‘gothic horror story’ as described in the Rough Guide to Ireland in the 1990s. A generation will be marked by the time we see roads safe for pedestrians and tourists who might forget to look right and left emerging from Durrow Abbey. This is not to mention the Abbey House which, yes you guessed, is empty since 2003. Headless Hugh de Lacy come back and tell us what you make of it all. What would the Hanging Judge Norbury do if he knew about those big files?
Whiskey, the Church and Civil War
For getting projects done much will depend on the prime mover. Not He or Her above, but those busy people below who manage to get so much done. One thinks of Daniel E. Williams of Tullamore Dew who did so much for Tullamore business from his first shop in 1884 to his death in 1921. Or Fr Callary who got the new Tullamore church completed in 1906. Fund raising started in 1998 and the building itself in 1902. The new courthouse of 1927, rebuilt after the civil war, was all done in about two years. At its opening Dean R.S. Craig, the Tullamore rector, could not recall when he was at a function in Tullamore when a public building was launched on a grateful public. And he and his father, also ‘The Dean’, went back to 1869 between them and spent sixty years in Tullamore. For their record of service we are now reliant on the local press. Alas they were never interviewed in those days.
Hotels and Hospitals
As to the speedy completion of the courthouse in 1927 the same could be said of the two big hotels in Tullamore seventy years later. Both were finished in three years or less from the opening PR salvos from John Flanagan and Christy Maye. These stories are well flagged in the Tullamore Tribune of the mid to late 1990s.
Then there was the great new hospital in Tullamore costing €150m and the rediscovery of the ‘Scott building’. First mooted about 1997-8 and opened, for the most part, in 2007. The Scott building has only just been completed and the Frances Kelly mural found. Autonomy and a budget are all important, or the political will to get from start to finish. Of hospitals in Offaly one could fill books based on what was written in the press in the early 1920s, the saga of the site in the 1930s, and the county hospital and its attempted closing by Brendan Corish in the 1970s. Opposition to that closing/downgrade was spearheaded in the Tribune by men such as James I. Fanning, editor from 1946 to 1989 and by Geoff Oakley, a chief reporter and editor of the Tullamore Tribune from 1978 until 1994 when the present editor, Ger Scully, succeeded.
Reading the picture and looking at the print
The ‘story’ was all important in the old days, but from the 1960s Paddy Cotter and Paddy Bracken were supplying photographs to the Tribune at a time when people were going out more, after a humdrum and depressed forty years from 1922. The 1960s was the age of the carnivals and dinner dances. Every business and shop had one. An editor of a Tribune contemporary worried were the people losing the run of themselves. He was not around for the Tiger year from 1997 to 2007!
So the image has become all important. It started locally with Archie Wright of the Chronicle in 1885 when pictures first appeared in the local press. He had been sent to London in the early 1880s to learn the trade and lived on until the late 1940s. His widow was to launch the reprint of the King’s County Directory, first published in 1890 and reprinted in 1989 for the centenary. If only there had been reporters to interview all these people with great memories. Yet the pictures are a great help in recapturing the past.
Mary Dunne, Richard May and Joe O’Sullivan were new kids on the block in the 1970s and captured in wonderful black and white the ‘goings on’ of those years which were far from depressing, and when a Tribune reporter was able to describe Tullamore as the ‘Mecca of the Midlands’ in 1989 in a big feature at the time. What happened to change things?
Words, words, words – 5 million a year and counting
I marvel at how much gets done each week by the staff of the Tribunes in Birr and Tullamore. I suppose between them they produce 100,000 words and perhaps 100 pictures. It is a great record of community life for what is said and alas, being a local paper, what is not said. Perhaps it is up to us all to fill in the gaps at the appropriate juncture and passage of time.
Each year now Offaly History Centre binds the printed issues of the local press into hard copy volumes. The Offaly County Library arranges for the old issues to be digitised for use in the library. We spend hours every week now looking at phones for updates. Hard to believe that all that data is largely lost and forgotten within as little as five years and for Twitter five minutes.
Smart phones are great but there is no substitute for the report of the GAA match, a win at golf, an evening’s entertainment – as all reported in the local newspaper, and arriving at a shop near you every Wednesday, without fail.
From broadsheet to compact need not mean any loss of the quality we have come to know for almost four generations now. Joyce, Powell, Pike and Fanning, editors for over 100 years between them, I expect would all have approved of the new format. For one thing it’s still hard copy, and once the story is fresh and insightful why would they not be pleased.