Researching Offaly History and using the DIB – No 8 in the Sources for Offaly History and Society Series. By Terry Clavin

The Dictionary of Irish Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at Offaly History Centre

This article was written by Terry Clavin in 2014 for the Lions Tullamore Annual and we thank him for permission to use it. The Dictionary of Irish Biography has proved invaluable since it was first issued in nine hard cover volumes in 2009. Now it runs to eleven volumes and much more online. It is at present free to consult and we hope will remain free to consult when Covid ends. From this wicked pestilence some good may come! Since Terry’s article we have a recent book on the Egans of Moate and Tullamore, the third earl of Rosse and last week the second volume of Jeff Kildea’s biography of Hugh Mahon. So keep in touch by consulting the online version of the DIB, our weekly blog and our website. See also our online library catalogue to keep in touch. We add new history books every week to our library at Bury Quay, Tullamore. We congratulate Tullamore man Terry Clavin on his research work for the dictionary and the entries he has written up and also edited.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) is the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary yet published in Ireland. It contains over 9,000 biographical articles ranging in length from 200 words to 15,000 words, which describe and assess the careers of subjects in all fields of endeavour. The subjects eligible for inclusion are those who were born in Ireland with careers inside or outside Ireland and those born outside Ireland with careers in Ireland.

The time span covered by the DIB ranges from the earliest times to the early 21st century. All subjects included in the print edition must have died before the end of 2002. The online version (dib.cambridge.org; subscription only) includes all the entries in the 2009 edition as well as twice-yearly batches of new entries for subjects who have died since 2002. A forthcoming update will include a biography of Tullamore businessman Daniel Edmund Williams (1928–2007) [since published online]. Apart from the more recently dead, every two years we publish a batch of entries of ‘missing persons’ who were overlooked in the 2009 edition. In that respect we are keen to be advised on significant figures not originally included.

As far as possible each article includes details of birth, death, family education, the chronological sequence of career and details of significant awards, distinctions, or promotions. As well as basic biographical information, personal relationships and characteristics are commented on. A bibliography of the sources consulted is provided at the end of each life. As a result the DIB serves both as a work of reference and as a starting point for more detailed research.

The DIB features various Tullamore natives and also figures whose lives related to the town. Charles William Bury (1764–1835), first earl of Charleville, provides a good starting point as by granting new leases to his Tullamore tenants after the great fire of 1785, he created the town’s modern layout and enabled it to recover and thrive. He hired the renowned architect Francis Johnston for the Market House and St Catherine’s Church, and then for the construction of a Gothic castle just outside the town in Charleville Forest. The DIB notes ‘Begun by November 1800, [the castle] was completed in 1808, to which a terrace, lawns, artificial lake, grotto and 1,500 acres of woodland were added.’

C.K. Howard Bury

Bury’s descendent Charles Kenneth Howard–Bury (1883–1963) was raised in Charleville Castle before pursuing a career as an explorer, mountaineer and soldier. In 1921, he was part of a group of distinguished climbers who were the first Europeans to explore and map Mount Everest. During his travels he acquired a Russian bear and regularly wrestled with it, keeping the bear in the arboretum of his Mullingar residence. His life partner Rex Beaumont is described as an ‘inseparable’ friend.

One of the most notorious incidents outlined in the DIB involving Tullamore concerned the ill treatment in the town’s jail of the National League activist John Mandeville (1849–88). After being convicted for inciting tenants to defend their homes from evicting landlords, he was imprisoned in Tullamore in October 1887 where at the behest of Arthur Balfour, the chief secretary for Ireland and future British prime minister, he ‘became the target of bullying punishment designed to break his insistence on political status … Repeated periods of solitary confinement on coarse bread and cold water in foetid draughty cells brought about painful rheumatism, chronic sore throat, and continual diarrhoea. Stripped of his clothes by warders, he remained semi-naked for a day in extreme cold. The prison doctor, James Ridley, callously certified him fit for punishment whatever his state … By late December, Mandeville had shed over three stones in weight, trembled constantly, and had lost vision.’

Mandeville’s plight became public knowledge and provoked uproar. He was released after three months but his health was broken and he died in July 1888. The coroner’s inquest unequivocally linked his death to the brutal prison regime.

The DIB includes a number of Irish emigrants, and the most notable Tullamore exile is Hugh Mahon (1857–1931) who was born the thirteenth child of a local farmer and attended the town’s CBS. A journalist, he became involved in political radicalism and was briefly imprisoned for Land League agitation. Threatened with further imprisonment he fled to Australia in March 1882 under an alias. There he continued as a journalist, both editing and owning various newspapers, while organising fund raising tours for John Redmond. He was regularly embroiled in public controversy as he sought to rebut anti-Irish prejudice in the Australian media. Elected for the Labor party to the Australian parliament he ‘quickly established a reputation as a bruising political operator, cold and ruthless, and won some admirers but few friends; the Westralian Worker judged him “a democrat whose snobbish coldness of demeanour would make a snake shudder”.’

Mahon held various ministerial positions in the Australian government, causing a series of cabinet rows along the way. ‘Always committed to Irish affairs, he was at the centre of national controversy in November 1920, when he made a speech in Melbourne bitterly condemning the British government for the death of Terence MacSwiney … The reaction was immediate and hostile, and his many enemies used the speech as a pretext to get rid of him. On 11 November, the prime minister, W. M. Hughes, made an extremely personal and vitriolic attack on Mahon … Mahon was expelled from the house in a unique procedural case’. Driven from politics, he worked thereafter as managing director for the Catholic Church Property Insurance Company.

William O’Connor Morris

In contrast the judge and local landowner William O’Connor Morris (1824–1904) was a pillar of the Protestant Ascendancy. ‘His uncompromising position on land reform and his hostility to tenants earned him much criticism and he became very unpopular.’ He published a number of books on military history but according to the DIB entry they were ‘polemical, poorly researched and inconsequential’.

Other significant locals include the catholic bishop of Meath John Cantwell (1792–1866) and pioneering peat industrialist David Sherlock (1850–1940) who set up the Rahan Peat Works, which successfully carried out fuel and peat moss production for fifty years. The surgeon Robert Henry Woods (1865–1938) was the son of a Tullamore shopkeeper and after studying ear, nose and throat surgery in Vienna practised as a laryngologist in Dublin, gaining European-wide renown. ‘His work was characterised by skill and thoroughness, and he was famous for his operations to remove an entire larynx, affected by malignant disease as well as for his aftercare, treating patients to produce intelligible voice.’

Pat Egan

Businessman Patrick Joseph Egan (1876–1960) was born into a prosperous Tullamore merchant family. ‘Operating one of the first department stores in the midlands, he conducted a considerable retail and wholesale trade and expanded strongly throughout the midlands.’ The DIB entry describes him as one of the foremost business personalities in Ireland but he is particularly noteworthy for his support of the IRA in the War of Independence.

‘During the 1919–21 troubles he drew close to Sinn Féin, contributing generously to the Dáil Éireann loan, and serving as chairman of the dáil-appointed trustees who from summer 1920 managed the secret account of the Sinn Féin-controlled King’s County Council. He placed his company’s lorries and motorcars at the disposal of republican forces, and maintained on full salaries some eighteen employees interned or on the run.’ Later he was elected Cumann na nGaedheal TD for Laois–Offaly.

Finally, the most recent Tullamore born subject to be treated is Sister Genevieve O’Farrell (1923–2001). The daughter of a local farm manager ‘her decision to enter the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul surprised people since she was not notably pious.’ She taught children on the Falls Road, Belfast, from 1956, becoming principal of St Louise’s secondary school in 1963.

‘A former student, Mary Costello, fictionalised her in a novel as Sr Bonaventure: “stern, courageous, intelligent; and for a nun, unconventional, an odd-bod. She was also the only nun with sex appeal I’d ever met” … Another description was as “Margaret Thatcher with a spiritual dimension”.’

Following the outbreak of the Troubles, she ‘took on the British army, refusing to allow them to search the school and, on one occasion, demanding that a soldier who snatched a girl’s beret make a public apology. However, she stated publicly that the most dangerous aspect of life in the Troubles was the paramilitaries’ grip on communities … Her stance against paramilitaries earned her the title of ‘best man on the Falls Road’ and did her little harm within the community, but her cooperation with British authorities roused criticism. Her acceptance of an OBE in 1978 and her invitation in 1983 to Jane Prior, wife of the secretary of state, to visit the school brought angry denunciations … However, she insisted that enhancing the image of the school benefited the students, and in general her achievements were enough to silence criticism.’

If you have any queries regarding the DIB, please contact us through our website at http://dib.cambridge.org/home.do