Mrs King, John Plunkett Joly, William Davis and…You! Diary-writing in Offaly in the 19th century and a 21st century call for historians of the pandemic.

Diaries offer a fascinating glimpse into history through the personal accounts of people who lived through war, famine, disease, revolution and other events of huge social disruption. Along with contemporary correspondence, personal diaries help to flesh out the bare facts of history with human experience, where otherwise official records are the only historical source. Find out how you can help us to record the history of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic in Offaly and join a long line of Offaly diarists who have shaped our understanding of the past.

We have many examples of diary-keeping down through Offaly’s history, which are kept in archives both locally and nationally.  In this post I will look at some nineteenth-century diaries that have been examined in published form in recent years. They shine a light on the major socio-economic event of that century, namely The Great Famine – what preceded it, the famine itself and its repercussions.  What is interesting to note about all the diaries mentioned below is that they are almost exclusively the product of the upper or middle classes, i.e., those who had the luxury of education, literacy and the leisure time to write an account of their existence. For those worrying about when their next meal might appear, writing an account of their day, if they were literate, was far down their list of priorities.

The diary of Mrs King of Ballylin, 1838

First up we have the diary of Mrs Harriette King of Ballylin, Ferbane, mother of the famous microbioloigist Mary Ward, which survives for the year 1838, the eve of the famine. (The King Collection is in the National Library of Ireland, Ms. 3551). This account reflects a landed family’s experience (closeted as it was) during deteriorating conditions in King’s County in the late 1830s. When contrasted with other contemporary sources it gives an insight into to the inequalities of life at the time. While all around were suffering hardship and material decline, the Kings of Ballylin, according to the accounts of Mrs King, continued to live a life unburdened by poverty or neglect. Helen Shiels explores the context of the diary in her book ‘Falling into Wretchedness: Ferbane in the Late 1830s (Maynooth Studies in Local History: Number 15, Irish Academic Press, 1998)

The diary of John Plunkett Joly, 1843-1848

Similarly, moving into the period of the Great Famine itself, we have the diaries of John Plunkett Joly (1828-58) of Hollywood House, near Bracknagh. Joly’s diaries are kept by the National Library of Ireland (MS 17,0355) and Trinity College Dublin (MS 2299/1-2). Famously he begins his diary of 1 January 1847 with the words ‘That year is all over, a good one it was, that the next may be as good.’ For many in King’s County, the year that was over, 1846, was disastrous if not fatal, it being the height of the distress caused by the failure of the potato crop. In contrast, he describes a lavish lifestyle and abundant social life with almost no reference at all to hunger, death, or famine – events from which he seems completely shielded. Dr Ciaran Reilly examines this diary which seems so curious to us in hindsight, but which when compared with other diaries of landlords of the time, may not have been so out of kilter with the general attitude of the landed classes at that time as it seems. (Dr Ciaran Reilly, ‘John Plunket Joly and the Great Famine in King’s County’, Maynooth Studies in Local History: Number 103, Irish Academic Press, 2012)

IMG_2950 4

The diary of William Davis, 1858-1859

Another interesting diary from the period just after the famine, was that of an Offaly schoolboy, sixteen-year old William Davis of Kilcormac. His diary spans the years 1858-1859 and he added a post-script memoir for the years 1842-1858, summarising the period from his birth, schooling and younger years. Sandra Robinson, a descendent, transcribed the diary and it was published in book form in 2010. She notes:

William’s diary is not just a record of his daily observations and interactions with the people around him, brief as it may be, it also gives an insight into the socio-cultural and economic world in which William lived in mid-nineteenth century King’s County. Indeed in the survival of William’s diary, he has (intentionally or otherwise) left us today with a very personal view of life, a contrast from that generally gleaned from official administrative records kept largely for and by those in the upper echelons of society during that period.

In comparison to the diaries of Joly and Mrs King, William’s diary feels a little bit closer to events in the lives of ordinary people in King’s County in the nineteenth century, albeit in the circles of lower middle-class Protestants. There are descriptions of current affairs, local families, parish gossip, agriculture, fairs and markets, and many mentions of the price of boots. As a portrait of a rural Protestant community at the time it is unmatched. However, the famine years are not mentioned at all in William’s diary, the worst of it being long over when he was still a child. The diary and memoir was fully transcribed and published in 2010 (William Davis, ‘The Diary of an Offaly Schoolboy, 1858-59’, ed. Sandra Robinson, Esker Press, Tullamore, 2010).

The diary of Maxwell Fox, 1868

A diary from 1868 has recently been donated to Offaly Archives and was examined and transcribed by Michael Byrne in his article ‘The life of a County Offaly landowner and high sheriff in 1868: being the diary of Maxwell Fox of Annaghmore House, near Tullamore’ (Offaly Heritage 6, pp 205-263, Esker Press, Tullamore, 2011). This is the account of a member of the lesser gentry and reflects his pursuits and concerns (or lack thereof). It is useful as a glimpse of the daily routine and the social circle of a respectable landowner in King’s County at this time. We see his friends and acquaintances through the social appointments recorded in the diary and a picture emerges of a pleasant daily existence which adds to our understanding of social networks among the gentry at various levels throughout the county.

A further very interesting 19thcentury diary from Offaly is that of Lydia Clibborn Goodbody,  wife of Jonathan Goodbody, which was written in Clara between 1841 and 1886. This has been edited by Michael Goodbody and is due to be published later in 2020, and will add to the excellent list published of diaries listed above.

Some of the above published diaries can be purchased online from 

As we can see from all the diaries, they give a keen insight into everyday life which is simply not recorded elsewhere and they are used frequently by historians to ‘fill the gaps’ that occur in the more sterile world of official record-keeping. While not all strata of society are represented, much can still be gleaned from reconstructing the daily routines of generations past.

Become a diarist for Offaly Archives – help us record the history of the coronavirus pandemic in Offaly

And now to the present day. We are living in extraordinary times – a moment in history that will be remembered forever. Just as historians and scientists today have learnt from the contemporary accounts kept during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, we can ensure that the experience of Covid-19 in Offaly is documented for future researchers.

How can I help?
Keep a diary, as simple or as detailed as you like, recording your everyday lived experience in Offaly during the pandemic. You can make it anonymous or personal. We will preserve it forever in Offaly Archives.

What will I write about?
No detail is too big or too small. How is the situation affecting you, your friends and family? What is the weather like? Do you have any observations on nature/wildlife? How are you spending each day? What are you eating/cooking? What can you buy or not buy in the shops? What do you miss doing? Are you able to continue with your work/hobbies? How has your schooling or university education been affected?

Who can take part?
Anyone can take part from all walks of life and all ages, including children.

Your diary can be in electronic format (for example, a Word document) or hand-written on any type of paper. You can submit photographs of your street/area, or maybe an oral-history recording.

How will I send it in?
When the time is right we will let you know through the newsletter, on our website and through social media how to submit your diaries to the archives.

What will happen my diary in the Archives?
All diaries will be treated sensitively. Archives, such as a diary with personal information, are often closed from access for a long period of time. When this period of time elapses, a diary can become a valuable record with a wider significance. For future generations, it can become an important historical source.

Twitter: @offalyarchives for future updates.