So who were the Offaly women leaders: the first woman bishop, a literary ‘salon’ hostess, a formidable woman whose home was her castle, a multi-talented photographer with dash and dosh, an artist and microscopist with a difficult husband, some teacher activists and a playwright. By Cosney Molloy


St Brigid of Croghan Hill, Offaly

Mary McAleese kicked off International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018  with a lecture outside the walls of the Vatican – no codology there.  She could have adverted to the first woman bishop in Ireland (no man handed her the veil), St Brigid. St Brigid was born at Croghan Hill, County Offaly and not near Dundalk or in Kildare. Her father was of the Fothairt people, mercenaries to the Uí Fhailge dynasty (Kissane, 2017, p. 105). Cogitosus says she was consecrated a virgin at Croghan Hill by Bishop MacCaille who is associated with that place. Will you be there on St Patrick’s Day for the burning of the furze?

She is Ireland’s only female patron saint, as well as the goddess of poetry, healing and smithwork in Celtic myth, Brigid (c 451-523) is associated with so many places including the parish of Kilbride, Tullamore and Kilbride, Clara. Latterly she was held up as a symbol of divine femininity, while who has not made a St Brigid’s reed cross. But she was much more than that: a powerful Abbess (some dispute the bishop title) who offered an alternative to the confines of domestic life to up to 14,000 women, a peaceweaver, a fearless negotiator who secured women’s property rights, and freed trafficked women. And she was also reputed to be an expert dairywoman and brewer. Lots of claims there and not easy to prove.

Margaret O'Carroll 1433.JPG
Margret O’Carroll feeding the poor poets of Ireland


Margaret O’Carroll, the supreme hostess to rich and poor
Margaret O’Carroll of Éile, Co Offaly (d. 1451) was a medieval queen, patron of the arts, road and bridge builder.  Eile is the hurling area of Offaly today, from Kinnitty to Roscrea. She organised a great feasting festival for 2,700 people in the 1440s, and described by scholars as ‘national events of high and singular importance’, earning her the title Margaret the Hospitable. A contemporary scholar noted that she ‘was the only woman that has made most of preparing highways, and erecting bridges, churches, and mass-books.’

Margaret makes another appearance in the Irish annals for the year 1445, this time as a negotiator with the English. “Greate warr” was made, the annals state, by O-Connor ffaly (Margaret’s husband) and the English Berminghams, during which both sides took hostages. Margaret, without the knowledge of Calvagh, went to Baleathatruim – the stronghold of Trim Castle – “and gave all the English prisoners for Mageochagan’s son, and for the son’s son of Art… and shee brought them home”.

Margaret’s daring extended to her making the dangerous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, which she made in the year 1445 in the company of other chiefs and noblewomen.

Geashill Manor 1869
Geashill Castle to the right c. 1869

Lettice Digby, Lady Offaly (c. 1580-1658)

Lettice FitzGerald, 1st Baroness) was an Irish noblewoman and a member of the FitzGerald family dynasty. Although she became heiress-general to the earls of Kildare on the death of her father, the title instead went to the next FitzGerald male heir when her grandfather, the 11th earl of Kildare died in 1585. In 1620 she was created suo juro Baroness Offaly by King James 1st. She was the wife of Sir Robert Digby a landed English aristocrat by whom she had ten children. They were a notoriously litigious couple, who spent many years asserting their rights before numerous courts, and were quite prepared to accuse even their closest relatives of wrongdoing.

In early 1642, at the age of about sixty-two, her castle of Geashill was besieged by a force of insurgents from the O’Dempsey clan; she managed to hold out against them until October 1642.  Her defence has been described as having been the ‘most spirited episode in the history of the 1641 Rebellion’.

Rebellion of 1641

In 1641, the Great Irish Rebellion broke out. Lettice, by then a widow in her early sixties, became caught up in it at the end of 1641.  Lettice received an insolent letter from her cousin Henry O’Dempsey, Viscount Clanmaliere containing fraudulent orders from King Charles 1 to surrender Geashill Castle to the O’Dempseys, and leave with her people in a safe convoy provided by them. The letter continued with the threat to burn the castle and town, as well as to massacre all the Protestant inhabitants, should she fail to yield to their demands. Lettice, who resided at the castle with her sons and some of her grandchildren, refused to hand over the castle, and sent a scornful letter back to Henry O’Dempsey:

“I am, as I have ever been, a loyal subject of my king. I thank you for your offer of a convoy, which however, I hold as of little safety. Being free from offending His Majesty, or doing wrong to any of you, I will live and die innocently, and will do my best to defend my own, leaving the issue to God”.

In early 1642, the O’Dempseys made an assault on the castle, and more letters were exchanged, however, she and her people managed to hold out; she later refused to leave under the convoy of a relief party sent by Dublin, preferring to defend her fortress. When the rebels had captured one of her sons, and brought him under the castle walls in chains, they threatened to decapitate him if she did not immediately surrender Geashill. Lettice retaliated by bringing one of her own prisoners, a Catholic priest, onto the ramparts and threatened to kill him on the spot unless they released her son, unharmed. The rebels complied with her demand, and her son was returned to her.

Well-armed with weapons and ammunition from Dublin, Lettice kept the insurgents at bay until October 1642 when Lettice was finally persuaded to leave Geashill. She departed Ireland to retire to her late husband’s family estate in Coleshill, England where she died in December 1658. She was buried alongside Sir Robert in Coleshill Parish Church. A portrait of her is still to be seen in Dorset.

Mary Ward (1827-69) Microscopist and artist

Mary Ward was born Mary King at Ballylin, Ferbane on 27 April 1827, the youngest child of Henry and Harriett King. She and her sisters were educated at home, as were most girls at the time. However, her education was slightly different from the norm because she was of a renowned scientific family. She was interested in nature from an early age, and by the time she was three years old she was collecting insects.

Ward was a keen amateur astronomer, sharing this interest with her cousin William Parsons, third earl of Rosse who built the telescope with a six-foot mirror which remained the world’s largest until 1917. Ward was a frequent visitor to Birr Castle, producing sketches of each stage of the process. Along with photographs made by Parson’s wife Mary Rosse, Ward’s sketches were used to aid in the restoration of the telescope.

Sketches with the microscipe

In 1854, when she was twenty-seven, Mary married Henry William Crosbie Ward (1828–1911), second son of the third Viscount Bangor of Castle Ward, co. Down, whose elder brother, Edward, had succeeded to the title and estates. Henry resigned his army commission shortly after his marriage and took no regular employment, despite the fact that Mary’s considerable dowry, in shares, did not maintain its value, so that they were unable to live on the income. Eight children were born to the couple between 1855 and 1867, and for much of this time they had no permanent home and were in constant financial difficulties. She published her first book, Sketches with the microscope in 1857 without her name attached. It was reissued in London as World of Wonders in 1858 with the author described as the The Hon. Mrs W. A copy of her 1859 book Entomology in Sport and Entomology in Earnest in collaboration with her sister, Lady Jane Mahon has recently been acquired by Offaly History.

Mary Rosse (1813-85)

Mary Rosse, photographer, was born on 21 July 1813 at Heaton Hall, Bradford On 14 April 1836 she married William Parsons, Lord Oxmantown (1800–1867), who, on the death of his father in 1841, became third earl of Rosse and inherited his family estates and Birr Castle, King’s county. The first of her eleven children, a daughter, was born in 1839, but only four sons, Laurence Parsons (1840–1908), Randal (1848–1936), Clere (1851–1923), and Charles Parsons (1854–1931), survived beyond childhood.

Early in 1854 Lady Rosse took her first photographs, initially using the waxed paper process and then working extensively with collodion, which she applied to portraiture, photographing both notable figures, such as the mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Romney Robinson, and finely composed informal groups of her family and friends. She was proposed as a member of the Dublin Photographic Society (later the Photographic Society of Ireland) in November 1856 and in 1859 was awarded the society medal for the best paper negative. From the grounds of Birr, she created picturesque views of the castle, the River Camcor, and the town of Birr.

Lady Rosse was a woman with great energy and determination. In a successful attempt to alleviate local poverty during the Irish potato famine of 1845, she initiated extensive work to provide local employment; in collaboration with her uncle Richard Wharton-Myddleton she redesigned and organized the rebuilding of the castle demesne. Subsequently she built a nursery wing, a stable block, gatehouse, and entrance gate. She was also responsible for the design and on-site manufacture of cast-iron and bronze gates, with heraldic embellishment to the keep gates. She recorded the new building photographically and frequently used the arch of the keep gate as a background for group portraits.

Catherine Mahon

Catherine Mahon

Catherine Mahon, 1869-1948, was the first women President of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, elected in 1912 and again in 1913. She was from Carrig, Birr. She championed equal pay and women’s representation throughout the union; she was elected to the Central Executive Committee in 1907. She later entered local politics in North Tipperary. A woman of advanced views she was a great speech-maker and letter-writer and strong on Sinn Féin in the aftermath of the Rising.


Genevieve O’Farrell

Sister Genevieve O’Farrell (1923–2001). The daughter of a local farm manager of Chapel Street, Tullamore. ‘Her decision to enter the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul surprised people since she was not notably pious.’ She taught children on the Falls Road, Belfast, from 1956, becoming principal of St Louise’s secondary school in 1963.

‘A former student, Mary Costello, fictionalised her in a novel as Sr Bonaventure: “stern, courageous, intelligent; and for a nun, unconventional, an odd-bod. She was also the only nun with sex appeal I’d ever met” … Another description was as “Margaret Thatcher with a spiritual dimension”.’

Following the outbreak of the Troubles, she ‘took on the British army, refusing to allow them to search the school and, on one occasion, demanding that a soldier who snatched a girl’s beret make a public apology. However, she stated publicly that the most dangerous aspect of life in the Troubles was the paramilitaries’ grip on communities … Her stance against paramilitaries earned her the title of ‘best man on the Falls Road’ and did her little harm within the community, but her cooperation with British authorities roused criticism. Her acceptance of an OBE in 1978 and her invitation in 1983 to Jane Prior, wife of the secretary of state, to visit the school brought angry denunciations … However, she insisted that enhancing the image of the school benefited the students, and in general her achievements were enough to silence criticism.’

59509 (7)

Marina Carr (1964-)

Marina Carr is an Irish playwright. Carr was born in 1964, in Dublin, Ireland, but spent the majority of her childhood in Pallas Lake, near Tullamore. Carr grew up in a house filled with, writing, painting, and music. Her father, Hugh Carr, was a playwright and studied music under Frederick May. Her mother, Maura, was the principal of the Mount Pleasant and wrote poetry in Irish and is remembered in Offaly as a very handsome woman who died all too young. As a child, Marina and her siblings built a theatre in their shed, “we lay boards across the stacked turf, hung an old blue sheet for a curtain and tied a bicycle lamp to a rafter”. Carr recalls, “it was serious stuff, we even had a shop and invited all the local kids in; the plays were very violent!”

Carr attended UCD studying English and philosophy. She graduated in 1987, and subsequently received a Doctorate of Literature from her alma mater. She has held posts as writer-in-residence at the Abbey Theatre and she has taught at TCD and elsewhere. She currently lectures in the English department at Dublin City University. Marina Carr is considered one of Ireland’s most prominent playwrights and is a member of Aosdana. Her works have been translated into many languages, and have received much critical acclaim. Carr’s work has received numerous awards; The Mai won the Dublin Theatre Festival Best New Irish Play award (1994-1995), and Portia Coughlan won the nineteenth Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (1996-1997). Other awards include The Irish Times Playwright award 1998, the EM Foster Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American/Ireland Fund Award, the Macaulay Fellowship and the Hennessy Award. Carr has been named a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize,  a financial prize of $165,000.