AN TOSTAL  Art and Archaeology in Tullamore in the 1950s. Fergal MacCabe


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A Golden Age

Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.

The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.

Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.

This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.

Boni Kennedy and Noel MacMahon

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Opening of the An Tostal festival in 193, O’Connor Square Tullamre


The idea of holding an art exhibition in connection with An Tostal which would combine the best of modern Irish art and provide a showcase for emerging local talent, was the brainchild of two dynamic artists, Bean Ui Cinneide and Noel MacMahon.

Mrs Kenneth Kennedy of Tullamore, better known as Bean Ui Cinneide and affectionately as ‘Boni’, was the wife of a local solicitor and a talented artist working in gouache and oils. Though not professionally trained, she had exhibited in the Dublin Painters Gallery in 1959 and her enthusiasm and love of landscape, particularly the countryside around Tullamore, inspired some charming pictures much treasured by her loyal patrons. A favourite subject was the spring carpet of bluebells in the woods of Charleville Castle. Mrs Kennedy (née Mary Lawrence) died in 1992.

Noel MacMahon was a commercial artist. A Dubliner who had served in the RAF he had been enticed to Tullamore by D.E. Williams to be their publicity director and to head up the launch of their new synthetic drink PAK Orange.


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Tullamore Runners in 1965 for Many young men of Twenty

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A good but unexceptional painter, Noel’s outstanding talent was for theatrical production and under his direction the local drama group ‘The Runners’ swept the boards for many years at the All Ireland Drama Festival with innovative productions of works by contemporary European writers such as Diego Fabbri and Henri Gheon and the verse plays of W.B. Yeats. He was assisted in this extraordinary period for theatre in Tullamore by a troupe of talented actors including Mick Shelley, Joe Kenny, Jackie Bates and Anna Bell.

When he left Tullamore for Dublin in 1958 he continued his successful theatrical career with the British Railways and Land Commission Dramatic Societies, staging plays by Samuel Beckett and Hugh Leonard and painting and designing scenery for the Gate Theatre. Noel McMahon died in 1992 34 years after his departure from Tullamore.

The first arts exhibition associated with An Tostal was in 1956 and held in the upper floor of the Market House in Charleville/O’Connor Square, Tullamore. The paintings on display featured the work of the most advanced Irish artists of the day along with many fine Yeats works from the collection of Desmond Williams. The exhibition also gave a welcome platform to younger local artists.

The art critic James White, later to be an influential Director of the National Gallery, gave most entertaining and stimulating lectures on modern art to receptive audiences. For probably the first time, visitors and most importantly young people, could see paintings by Patrick Scott, George Campbell, Louis Le Brocquy, Gerard Dillon, Nano Reid, Norah McGuinness and Daniel O’Neill.

It is reasonable to assume that the friendship between Michael Scott and Desmond Williams together with their influential connections via Lord Rosse and the Arts Council, persuaded the principal Dublin art dealers such as Richie Hendricks and the Dawson Gallery to dispatch their best works to what was essentially a provincial venue and from which no sales could be expected.

The theatrical successes of ‘The Runners,’ and the annual art and archaeology exhibition made the years from 1953 to 1960 a golden age for the cultural life of Tullamore.

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An tAthair Seosamh O’Muirthile S.J. 

Side by side with the art exhibition was a display of archaeological and historical artefacts, books, manuscripts and documents of Offaly origin or interest. These had been assembled by the Jesuit scholar and historian Father Joe Hurley (1905-1984) who was based in Tullabeg and may rightly be called the father of Offaly archaeology.

Included were the remarkable Geashill Cauldron, now in the National Museum, a statue of Justice from Daingean Courthouse, a human skeleton dating from the Bronze Age and a copy of the extremely rare volume the ‘Monasticum Hibernicum’. It was certainly the first opportunity for locals to view such an eclectic range of historical objects and it proved immensely popular.

Fr Hurley was a familiar sight in every part of the county as he sought to uncover antique or anthropological remains. Every bog or quarry worker knew that if something unusual turned up you got in touch with Fr Joe who would arrive on his bicycle to investigate and hopefully add it to his collection. He gave riveting lectures on his finds to local cultural societies such as ‘An Realt’ which he had founded and was an early advocate of the need for a venue for the permanent display of historical Offaly artefacts such as the Cauldron or the Boher Shrine.

His absorption in the antique to the exclusion of almost any other interests was such that at a dinner in Tullamore, when offering a serving of potatoes, his host dryly observed ’You probably  won’t like them Fr. Hurley, they are New’.

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The Earl of Rosse

The exhibition was opened each year by Lord Rosse. Tall, charming, incredibly good looking and immaculately tailored, Michael Parsons the 6th Earl of Rosse ( 1906–1979) was everything that one might imagine an aristocrat to be. In the 1930s, as a friend of Evelyn Waugh and Harold Acton, he had been one of ‘The Bright Young Things’ and had acquired the nickname of ‘The Adonis of the Peerage’. Latterly, he had become an active supporter of the arts and particularly of architectural conservation and was a founder member of Britain’s National Trust and a member of the Arts Council of Ireland. As Pro Chancellor of Dublin University, he took an active part in Irish cultural life and in the arts in Offaly and was an ideal dignitary to open an exhibition of arts and heritage.

Thanks to Michael Byrne I recently saw for the very first time, the Midland Tribune article of May 1956 which records the Earl’s speech at the launch of that year’s exhibition. He touched disparagingly on the Dublin centric nature of the arts establishment in Ireland at that time and called for a greater pride in our towns and villages.

In his concluding remarks the report records that, ‘His Lordship referred to the pencil drawings by a young boy of 15 which he said showed a remarkable architectural sense. He hoped that that boy would persevere’

Well, he did. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí, Lord Rosse!

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The Geashill Cauldron, now in the National Museum after a wait of 33 to 100 years