Leaving to one side the work of the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s, the work of Petrie at Clonmacnois, and that of Cooke at Birr in 1826 and 1875, the references to and work done or written up on the historical sites of north Offaly in the nineteenth century are hard to come by. Fr Cogan published historical material on the Offaly parishes in the diocese of Meath in his three-volume work, 1862-1870; Thomas Stanley corresponded with the Royal Society of Antiquaries (RSAI) in 1869 in regard to the nine-hole stone or bullaun at the Meelaghans while Stanley Coote contributed an illustration of Ballycowan Castle for the Memorials of the Dead – a published record from the 1880s to the 1930s of selected tombstone inscriptions in Ireland and in County Offaly.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, and perhaps in line with the revival of interest in Irish culture, art and industries there were published some articles of local interest. As early as the mid- 1880s St George Joyce published his Kings County: epitome of its history (reprinted by OAHS, Tullamore, 1998) and in 1890 John Wright published the King’s County Directory (reprinted in 1989 as Offaly 100 years ago and a few copies still available from Offaly History Centre). Several local clergymen began to publish, most notably after 1900, Montgomery Hitchcock who early in the twentieth century was rector of Kinnitty. In the Tullamore area the then rector of the parish, Revd Graham Craig, wrote historical notes some of which have survived in the R.C.B. Library, Dublin and some of which were published in the local newspapers by his son, Revd R.S. Craig. In Durrow, north of Tullamore, the rector, Revd Sterling de Courcy Williams wrote what, even now, over one hundred years later, is still one of the best articles available – ‘The old graveyards in Durrow Parish’ (1897) in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries. The research was done to mark the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columcille, founder of the monastery of Durrow in 497. Next year will mark the 1500th of the saint’s birth in Donegal.
The work of Williams and his research followed on the visit in August 1896 of the members of Ireland’s premier antiquarian society to Durrow, the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (RSAI) to Offaly, or King’s County as it then was. An account of this visit was published in the Society’s journal and the sixteen page Programme and Illustrated Guide was also published. The Tour guide was prepared by Athlone-born the Revd Professor George Thomas Stokes (1843–98), the author of Ireland and the Celtic Church and Ireland and the Anglo-Norman Church and many others, Stokes also had a paper in the RSAI journal on ‘St. Hugh of Rahue : his church, his life and his times.’ Stokes, a prominent member of the RSAI, had suffered a stroke in 1895 and died in 1898. A word on the society is necessary:
The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland was established in 1849 as the Kilkenny Archaeological Society. Its inception was thanks to a small group of enthusiastic Kilkenny men: the Rev James Graves, a Church of Ireland rector and an enthusiastic amateur antiquarian artist; his cousin, John G.A. Prim, editor of the Kilkenny Moderator and collector with an interest in medieval antiquities; Robert Cane, later Lord Mayor of Kilkenny and an active Young Irelander; Philip More, a Catholic priest and friend of Prims; and Dean Vignoles, a Protestant clergyman of Clonmacnoise.
The aim of the society was to ‘preserve, examine all ancient monuments and memorials of the arts, manners and customs of the past, as connected with the antiquities language, literature and history of Ireland’. Its ethos was non-sectarian and non-political, and its modest membership subscription was intended to be socially inclusive. These are all objectives shared by our Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society founded in 1938 and revived in 1969
The RSAI journal has been published annually since 1849 and copies are available at the Offaly County Library and Offaly History Centre, each having a substantial number of issues, if not quite a full set. The RSAI has also published separate monographs including a study of St. Manchan’s Shrine of Leamanaghan (1870) and The Annals of Clonmacnoise (1896), and soon to see a new edition. Outings and lectures are held in much the same fashion as the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society. The RSAI has a fine house, library and lecture theatre at 63 Merrion Square and in the 1990s completed the Helen Roe Lecture Theatre made possible by a generous bequest of the late Helen Roe who hailed from County Laois. Our own society has similar facilities, albeit in a modern warehouse and not a fine Georgian house of c. 1800.
Programme of the excursion
The programme for the RSAI excursion makes for interesting reading. Travel from Dublin to Tullamore by train took one hour and 48 minutes. The Geashill railway station was still in use. Mrs Tarleton was the local RSAI county secretary and lived at Killeigh Abbey, now the home of Kenneth and Janice Mathews. For the preparations the RSAI depended on the Revd Sterling de Courcy Wheeler, the Durrow rector and to a lesser extent the Revd Graham Craig of Tullamore. Mrs Tarleton of Killeigh Abbey was able to provide hospitality.
The local press noted the visit and the Midland Tribune provided an extensive report. It is now difficult to name individually all those in the 1896 photograph, but Canon Stokes can be singled out. Another who attended was the solicitor/bibliophile McClintock Dix who later wrote of printing in Birr (Offaly Heritage 11, forthcoming); Miss Margaret Stokes on Durrow High Cross; Dr Stubbs a history of T.C.D. Among the local attendance was Dean Craig (d. 1904), George P. Ridley, Wm R. Wade, Hector Toler (owner of Durrow) and Mrs Tarleton. In not much more than twenty years the Tarletons would depart Killeigh and Durrow Abbey house was destroyed in 1923. Mention should be made of Margaret Stokes (1832-1900), ‘the most important Irish woman antiquarian of her day’ (DIB) who assisted in the editing of the important work of George Petrie, Christian inscriptions in the Irish language (1870). She had a lifelong interest in Irish high crosses and her High Crosses of Castledermot and Durrow was published in 1898 (both in Offaly History Centre Library)
The report of the 1896 RSAI visit read:
On Monday [3 August 1896] for the first time within recent years, the members of the Royal Society of Antiquaries visited the neighbourhood of Tullamore, the districts selected being Durrow, Rahan, Lynally, and Killeigh. Over fifty members arrived in Tullamore shortly after eleven o’clock, where a large number of people awaited their arrival. They were received by the Rev. S. de Courcy Williams, rector of Durrow, who had charge of the arrangements and made every preparation for the distinguished visitors. The Rev. Graham Craig, M. A.; Rev J Humphreys, M A; Revd R. S. Craig, M A, and others were also present. Amongst those who arrived to take part in the day’s proceedings were the following:—
Fellows of the Royal Society of Antiquaries – Robert Cochrane, F S A, Hon. Sec. and Treasurer; Julian G. Wandesforde Butler, George Coffey, B A I, M. R. I. A; J. J. Perceval; J. P. Swan, and Colonel P. D. Vigors, Vice-President.
Members—James Brenan, R H A; John Burgess, J P; M. Edward Conway, H. A. Cosgrove, M A; Rev B. C. Davidson Houston, M. A. ; E McClintock Dix, M. Dorey, Col. G Fox Grant, Miss Hughes, Joseph Gough. J. F. Jackson, Rev. Dauby Jeffors, M A; Hugh T. Love, Thomas Mayne, B. MacSheel, L. L. D; Joseph H. Moore, M A; Miss Edith Oldham, John O’Mahony, P. J. O’Reilly, J. E. Palmer, Rev. A. E. D. Purefoy, M. A.; S. A. C. Smith, Rev. Rowland, Scriven, M.A., M. R. I. A. ; Mrs. J. F. Shackleton, George Shackleton, Bedell Standford, Miss Stokes, Rev. Dr Stubbs, S. F. T. C. D. ; F. P. Thunder, Wm. R Wade, and W Grove White, LLB.
Associates—Mrs Burgess, Miss Burgess, Miss Carolan, Miss Colles, Miss Conway, Mrs Davidson Houston, Edmund Dimsdale, Rev. T. B. Gibson, John Gore. Mrs J. H. Moore, Dr R. D. Purefoy, Dr George P. Ridley, Mrs Thundor and Mrs Gore White.
A number of brakes were in readiness, and the party were driven to Durrow Abbey, the beautiful and picturesque residence of Mr Hector Toler, D L.
After the Abbey had been inspected the party partook of luncheon, provided through the kindness of Rev Mr Williams, and other local friends from Durrow they were driven over to Temple Kieran [the monastery of Tihilly on the Clara Road] where the old cross and ancient, tombstones were examined. The next point of interest was Rahan, the remains of a monastic, foundation of St Cartoch dating about 580. A King of Cornwall, named Constantine, in 588 abandoned his throne and became a monk there; it is said that from this incident the name Constantine became a favourite one with the family of Molloy who were chiefs of Fercall, the surrounding country. [This would be of interest to our contributor Cosney Molloy.] At the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, the Augustinian fathers were handed over the abbey, but it passed from their possession after the suppression of monasteries. Among the architectural remains there is still a very beautiful doorway, remarkable for the sharpness and beauty of it ornamentation. After visiting Rahan, a tour was made of Lynally, Killeagh [Killeih] and Ballycowan Castle. Through the kindness of Mrs Tarleton, Hon Local Sec King’s County, tea was served at Killeigh Abbey, after which the party returned to Dublin via Geashill.
The bright young Antiquarians of the Nineties: An Offaly History trip to Durrow and Tihilly about 1990. Lots of faces young and old to put names on. Can you do it? – email us at email@example.com. In includes Evelyn Goodbody, Geoff Oakley, Shap Mangan, John Brady, Owen Wyer, Helen Bracken, Jim Bracken, Sister Oliver, Fred Geoghegan, Willie Flanagan and more ….