I was glad to get out of Dublin before Christmas and get down to see my friends in Tullamore, Killoughy and Banagher for a pre-Christmas visit and bask in the mildest winter for many years. Dublin is mad at this time of year and what with one restaurant telling us about steaks at €120 I had to get down to the nice butchers in Tullamore – old Tormey’s is still going strong and now you have Grennan’s, Hanlon’s and a few more I would not know. I miss Paddy Mac’s, Cleary’s and Joe ‘the Butch’ Kearney of course. All old friends gone to the heavenly pastures.
I can remember the desperate cold of December 2010 when it was as low as -20 and I can recall the winters of 1982 and 1962 when we could skate on Charleville Lake near the town of Tullamore and to the east of Colonel Bury’s Charleville Demesne. I have only a hazy memory of the long winter of 1947 when the Grand Canal was frozen over for months and some of the Egan boys of the Tullamore merchant family are said to have made it to Dublin skating on the canal for some lark or wager. All good simple fun it was. I understand that Dr Boediccker who worked at Birr Castle until the First World War kept weather records from about 1872 and was able to state that 1909, 1896, 1893 and 1890 were also very cold. Another very cold year was in 1901 when a young boy drowned at Charleville Lake, trapped by the ice, while up to 200 people looked on and did nothing.
Skating and pranks on the lake
Early in the last century years skating on the lake was all the go and getting up to devilment was very much a part of the winter festivities. So much so that a few years before 1900 when it appears the winters were much colder than now a few of the prime boys around Tullamore played a nice trick on the skaters what with Charleville Lake much frequented for skating purposes following the beginning of a severe frost. Hundreds of people, I am told, could be seen every day gliding over its glossy surface, and taking keen delight in the pastime. The lake was in great shape for skating, as fully a foot of the smoothest ice covered its whole surface. Whether it was that the pleasure derived therefrom by such large numbers raised envious feelings in the breasts of non-skaters or that misanthropical feelings interfered with the digestion of the practical jokers, it is impossible to say, but getting the loan of the military fire engine out of the barracks in Tullamore on a false pretence, the bowsies brought it to the lake after the skaters had gone home, and pumped water on the ice at a depth of two or three inches. In the morning, when a few of the skaters turned up, they found that unless they wished to go gliding and splashing through the water they could not indulge in the pleasant pastime. Their amazement may be better imagined than described at the “rainfall” which had come down upon Charleville Lake that calm, frosty night!
BOY DROWNED IN CHARLEVILLE LAKE AT CHRISTMAS 1901
Thinking of those glorious sharp frosty days reminds me of a terrible and cautionary tale which reflected poorly on the young men of Tullamore and was the talk of Ireland at the time. It was the sad and stupid death of young Francis Quirke back at the beginning of the last century. The Quirkes are related to us Molloys and as far as I can recall the eminent Tullamore-born barrister Constantine Molloy (died 1897) was a nephew of the Mrs Quirke who died in 1888 and was mother to Constantine Quirke – perhaps she was the widow of the Dr Quirke who founded the medical hall in 1830.
Coroner Egan and jury foreman W.R. Power. Both died young in 1907. Egan was only 29.
Owing to the heavy frosts on Friday and Saturday evenings just before Christmas in 1901 Charleville lake, a sheet of water covering an area of some twenty acres, was frozen sufficiently to permit skating over most of its surface, one small portion where a flock of wild birds had been disporting themselves only excepted. On Sunday morning a large number of persons went there for the purpose of skating, amongst them a young fellow of about fourteen years of age, named Francis Quirke, the son of Constantine Quirke, a town commissioner and the owner of the Medical Hall in High Street. Frank was a manly little chap, much given to outdoor exercise and enjoying them with boyish exuberance all kinds of innocent sport and fun. Skating merrily along he came across the treacherous piece of ice, which broke beneath his weight, and he fell into the water. Young Quirke remained standing on the bottom of the lake and waist high in water, his arms resting on the ice. His attempts to escape were unavailing, the ice crumbling beneath him at each effort. His cries for help drew the attention of the other skaters to his predicament. One little boy of some twelve years named Lloyd from Tea Lane was the only one of the crowd who had sufficient manliness to go to his assistance. Lloyd, creeping along the surface attempted to throw a rope to him. It fell out of his reach by about three feet, and Lloyd was afraid to approach nearer as the ice was already cracking beneath him. Another rope was sent for and carried to the spot by Louis Downes (of the coachmaking family). In the time that had elapsed, however, the intense cold of the water had benumbed young Quirke’s limbs and faculties, and he could only lay his hand on the rope and ask what it was for. Downes returned to the concourse of spectators on the shore and asked them to render assistance, but no one volunteered. The scene at the time, as subsequently described by Lloyd, was piteous in the extreme. “What did he say to you,” asked the Coroner Egan. “He asked me to save him and he would pray for me all the days of his life”. “Was he standing on the bottom at the time? He was”. “How do you know?. “Because he had his arms above his head. He was praying. He said he would like to see his father once more and to have the priest.” All the witnesses at the inquest estimated the time during which the boy remained standing in forty-two inches of water at three quarters of an hour. All this while the crowd of spectators on the shore watched his struggles and heard his cries, and continued inactive, not stirring hand or foot to avert the untimely extinction of a beauteous young life by a horrid fate. Indeed it is questionable if their conduct was not more than cowardly. Rumour explicitly states that laughter and jeers went merrily round. The tiding of the fatality reached Tullamore just the people were coming from last Mass, and as the circumstance of the case filtered out pity, mixed with wrath and shame, sat upon every countenance. Hundreds of people went out to the lake, and an attempt was made to recover the body. It was not until a boat procured from off the Canal and conveyed to the lake that it was found possible to obtain the end in view. Frank Quirke had died his awful death. And inquest was held the following day at one o’clock in the afternoon by Mr. Henry J. Egan, coroner. The jury, of which Mr. W.R. Power was foreman, returned a verdict of accidental death, expressed their deep sympathy with the parents and friends of the deceased youth, and added a rider in which they declared the conviction that no determined attempt had been made to save the boy and condemning in the strongest terms the cowardice exhibited on the occasion by the large number of people present. The little boy Lloyd was the only one exonerated from any blame, and in evidence of their commendation the jury and several people attending the inquest subscribed a sum of money for him.
I have recently been given a copy of a letter that Constantine Quirke wrote to the local paper after the sad episode where he did not spare the cowardly onlookers that day.
P.F Adams about 1919. He died in 1939.
Letter to the Editor of the “Tullamore and King’s County Independent”
Regarding the tragedy at Charleville Lake in December, 1901
You will confer a great benefit on me by allowing me the privilege of your widely-circulating paper to return, on the part of Mrs Quirke and myself, our most grateful thanks to the very great number of kind friends who, by sending letters of condolences, telegrams, sending wreaths, attending funeral and in other ways have shown their sympathy with us in the great bereavement that we have sustained through the very sad accident on Charleville lake, whereby a good and dearly-loved child lost his life by falling through the ice and there being allowed to remain standing in the intensely cold water for forty minutes in the presence of more than 200 people who were standing on the bank of the lake, whither they had fled like so many frightened sheep as soon as they became aware that a boy had broken through the ice, though standing on the bottom in 3½ feet of water.
To rescue a boy from such a position needed no very high standard of courage or Christian charity. Yet for the fair name of our town, I regret to say, as was proved at the inquest, that no help was given by that unmanly crowd to the feeble efforts of the few who did come near the child.
This aspect of the case is most regrettable as people living at a distance will not be aware that there were in Tullamore hundreds of brave men who would not have hesitated one instant had they been present as was shown by their prompt recovery of the child’s body, though darkness of the night had fallen on the lake over which they bravely crossed to the spot where the child was allowed to perish from cold and exposure in broad daylight.
Notably amongst that heroic band, I specially tender my deepest gratitude to Mr James Egan, Mr Paddy Adams and others whose names I have not heard, as well as District Inspector Greaves and the men of the Constabulary who rendered most valuable assistance in the recovery of the body of my dearly-loved boy.
Hearts of Joy of his parents
Brave, gentle and beautiful
To His God and to them
He was loving and dutiful.
Thanking you in anticipation,
I am faithfully yours,
Tullamore, January 1st.1902
The surviviors of that dramatic episode
Constantine Quirke died in 1904 and was succeeded in the business by his surviving son Eddie J. On his death Mrs Quirke took care of things with the help of pharmacists including a Castleblaney man, P.J. Carragher. He took over the management of Quirke’s Medical Hall in 1933 and the business in 1947 and carried out big improvements in 1957.
Young John Lloyd from Tea Lane was aged 15 in 1901. He may later have joined the army and was a sergeant when wounded in the First World War He appears to have died in 1949. Louis Downes was captain of the first town fire brigade in 1915.
Strange to say both Coroner Egan and the jury foreman Power died young men and both in 1907. W.R. Power was a former bank manager who became a director of P. & H. Egan and the coroner was a promising young son of Henry Egan who had made a significant contribution to the industrial and cultural progress of Tullamore before his untimely death. Both are buried in Clonminch RC cemetery. Paddy Adams died before the Second World War and had led the campaign for an outdoor pool in Tullamore – opened in 1938 just one year before his death.
There was great skating at Charleville in the winter of 1962 and a few near misses too in the intervening years from the death of young Frank Quirke. Now it’s time for me to get my skates on and get back to D4 for another while. Perhaps I will get back to all my friends this Easter and to my ancestral pasturage.