3 Sources for Offaly History and Society: the Methodist community in Offaly and the Birr Methodists 200th, 1820-2020

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A 1906 review of some leading Birr Methodists from the Chronicle

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Birr Methodist church in Emmet Street (formerly Cumberland Street) in Birr. However the communities in Birr and Tullamore are much older and date back to the 1760s In this short piece we can only look at some of the sources. It is important because Methodists like the Quakers made a distinct economic and social contribution to the well-being of the towns and villages where their churches were associated. One has only to reflect on families in Birr and Tullamore such as Fayle, Haslam, Morrison, Lumley, Bradley, Burgess and more.

011 J Wesley

Wesley wrote of Birr in 1785 and 1789

Tues. 26.  I went on to Eyre-Court. here also the Minister gave me the use of his church, but the people seemed to understand little of the matter. As I had not this privilege at Birr, I went to the square, where the owner of a large house invited me to preach before it. The congregation was exceeding large; but many of them wild as colts untamed. However, the fat greater part of them were seriously attentive. I am in hopes the work of God will revive here also; the rather because he has fully restored one of the most eminent backsliders in the kingdom. Vol. IV p. 312.  (April 1785)

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Cooke’s ‘rude’ drawing of the Birr Methodist chapel in 1826 for his first book (see Sources no 2 – lease in 1819 and completed in 1821.

Tues. 21. Thence we went on to Birr: how is the scene changed here! One of the dullest places in Ireland is become one of the liveliest!. But I could not preach abroad in the evening, by reason of the rain. So we made all the room we could in the room, and in the yard; and a most solemn opportunity we had. Vol. IV p. 466.  (April 1789)

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A short 1969 history
  • The first place to look is in Dudley Levistone Cooney’s So civil a people (Tullamore, 2004) and it can still be bought in Offaly Hisory Centre and online at offalyhistory.com
  • Second is the Wesley journal of which the best edition is Curnock’s in eight vols. That illustrated is the Everyman edition of 4 vols.
  • Third is Crookshank, History of Methodism in Ireland in three volumes
  • Fourth is the local press especially the King’s County Chronicle, online in the libraries and in Offaly History and also at British Newspaper Archive 1845 to 1874 at present with the Midland Tribune to 1919. There are useful survey articles such as are published here
  • Fifth are the miscellaneous sources, many contemporary, and listed here from Cooney’s piece on Birr in his book.
  • There are parish registers for Methodists and some are on Roots Ireland.
  • Don’t foget the 1901 and 1911 censuses and that for Birr in 1821. Here you can check up on members in Birr such as the teacher turned bookseller John Sheilds.
  • From 1861 you can follow population numbers in the online abstract of the censuses/ Offaly History has a CD for sale with almost all of these to 1911 for Offaly.
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Wesley’s journal entry in 1787 for the fire of 1785. He overstated the damage which included the burning of the Swaddling Lane church.

What did Wesley say about Birr? He visited the town 16 to 19 times and was the first to reflect on the fire in Tullamore in 1785 that destroyed the first meeting house in Swaddling Lane (orse Ruddock’s Lane) off Barrack Street.

The trajectory for the early Birr and Tullamore churches was the same up to 1889 when Tullamore build a new third church and Birr did not.

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Levistone Cooney in his history noted of Birr:

In 1768 the Birr Methodists built their first chapel, but when he came here a year later Wesley made no mention of it. It was a very simple whitewashed building situated in an alley off Church Lane, while a house for the preacher stood on Church Lane itself.  This unlovely little building was to provide a spiritual home for the members until 1821.  It was still standing in 1905, though then being used as a slaughterhouse. Where the society had met in the years before this was built has not been recorded.

Check out the population figures from 1861 to the present.

The population of King’s County fell from 90,043 in 1861 (when the question of religious affiliation was first raised in the census) to 56,832 in 1911. The breakdown in 1861 in King’s County was 79,955 Roman Catholics, 9,109 Episcopalians, 327 Presbyterians and 409 Methodists. By contrast in 1911 the number of Protestant Episcopalians fell in the years 1861 to 1911 from 10.1 to 8.63 % or from 9,109 to 4,906 people. The number of Presbyterians increased from 0.4 to 0.62 %, and in absolute terms from 327 to 353 while Methodists fell from 409 to 270 .

The significant change at county and country level came over the period 1911 to 1936 as a result of the First World War,  and the economic and political turbulence from 1914. Presbyterians in the same 25 years fell in Offaly from 353 to 131 and Methodists from 270 to 214. Tullamore town in 1936 had 4,910 Catholics, 132 Protestant Episcopalians, 31 Presbyterians and 62 Methodists. There were no Jews or Baptists or ‘other’ in the town at the time.

[1] Census Ireland, 1911, County Report for King’s County, pp 70-71.

[2] See the Census of Population 1926, vol. x, pp 45-50.

Michael Byrne

The new 1889 church in Tullamore beside the  old of 1820 and that of Birr. Similar but Birr was the finer church.