Robert Goodbody, amateur doctor in Clara and Tullamore during the Famine. By Michael Goodbody.

This is our first blog of 2021 and we are pleased to have a growing number of contributors as the interest in local studies continues to expand in Offaly and in Ireland. Last year our blog posts (82) reached over 103,000 and amounted to 144,000 words. Michael Goodbody has two important articles on Clara houses, Drayton Villa and Inchmore, in Offaly Heritage 11 (published in December 2020). The latter house now in a very different state to 2007 and the former lately bought by Offaly County Council. Robert Goodbody was the founder of the Clara dynasty of Quaker merchants and was born at Mountmellick in 1781 and died at Drayton Villa, Clara (later the Parochial House) in 1860. In 1825 he moved to Clara to set up his sons in business at the Brosna mills. He built Inchmore, Clara in 1843 and for a time lived at Tullagh House, Tullamore. During the Famine years he practised as an amateur doctor. He had six sons of whom five survived to make a huge contribution to industry in Clara and Tullamore. If you have an article on Offaly history for the blog, email us at

It was not unusual for amateur doctors to practice their skills and theories among the poor in Ireland during the nineteenth century. One such was Robert Goodbody of Clara, who earned the gratitude of the Earl of Charleville for his activities around Tullamore during the Great Famine of 1846–49.

Robert Goodbody, 1781-1860.

            Robert, who was born in Mountmellick in 1781 and a survivor of smallpox when seven years old, had an abiding interest in health and medicine and would probably have liked to have been a doctor. As a Quaker, whose rules prohibited the swearing of oaths, he was precluded from going to university or obtaining the necessary qualifications. A clue to his interest in medicine is in his memoirs, written in later years, in which he describes in considerable detail the illnesses and deaths of various members of his family.

            When famine broke out in late 1846 Robert was in his sixties and had effectively handed over the successful milling business he had started in Clara to three of his sons. He also had strong links with Tullamore, where he had set up another two sons in a general store. Having time on his hands, he was free to turn his hand to helping starving families who were also afflicted with disease. As the crisis developed the government formed local committees to handle relief, with Robert and his sons in Clara actively involved. The Quakers as a whole provided relief through their own operations, which were run from Dublin, and in many instances these were more effective than the official ones.

            An indication of trouble to come is in the diary of Lydia Goodbody, wife of Robert’s son Jonathan, who recorded on 1 October 1845 that 700 barrels of corn had been sold at the weekly market in Clara. This reflected the shortage of potatoes, where prices were soaring. Francis Berry, Lord Charleville’s agent, also reported that one third of the potato crop had been lost and that the price had doubled.

            In March 1846 a letter from Robert Goodbody & Sons to the Commissioners for Employment of the Poor enquired about terms for obtaining supplies of Indian meal, a cheap substitute which they wanted to hand out free of charge. During the year relief schemes were organised by the government-sponsored Kilcoursey Relief Committee, where Marcus Goodbody, Robert’s eldest son, acted as secretary. Under the chairmanship of the local vicar, Skelton Gresson, the committee organised employment schemes for improving the infrastructure and also collected funds, which the government were supposed to match.

Marcus Goodbody

            As the situation deteriorated over the next few years and government efforts became less effective, Irish Quakers felt they needed to take matters into their own hands, so they formed the Central Relief Committee to collect subscriptions from their own community at home and overseas. In November 1846 Marcus went on a fact finding tour of the west and north-west of the country on behalf of the Society of Friends in London. Through a series of sub-committees the Central Committee used these funds to distribute food and clothing and open soup kitchens. The Goodbody brothers played their part in this, also instigating works in connection with their mills, which fortunately were making good profits. Clara and the surrounding area were severely hit by famine and, combined with a hard winter, the local people were suffering badly. Lydia recorded that they ate the last of their own potatoes in December and one day after Christmas they ‘did little more than give out soup tickets’.

Tullamore workhouse at Ardan Road. 1841.

            The famine worsened as 1847 wore on and government schemes were failing to provide enough work or food, mainly through lack of funds. The Kilcoursey Relief Committee continued with its activities and in February Marcus reported to the Commissioners in Dublin that £56. 18. 6d. had been raised for a soup kitchen and asked for further support. The following month he wrote that £324. 5. 0d. had been raised, principally from local millers and landowners, a sum which the Lord Lieutenant was supposed to match.

            Meanwhile typhoid, caused by poor sanitation and dirty drinking water, was taking hold in the distressed areas around Tullamore. The workhouse, built in 1841 following pressure from Lord Charleville, had 900 inmates by March 1847, although it was designed for only 700. King’s County was not thought to need funds as much as other areas because the government believed erroneously that it would be helped by its several large estates. The largest estate owner around Clara was the absentee Earl of Mornington, who was in financial difficulties and not inclined to help.

The second earl of Charlevilee d. 1851. He departed Tullamore in 1844 due to money problems.

            Robert Goodbody was now devoting much of his time to working among the poorer communities in an effort to treat their illnesses and improve working conditions. Believing that poor hygiene and dirty living conditions were the main cause of sickness he probably concentrated on this aspect of their lives, rather than quack remedies which were widely sold at the time. He is reputed to have had a remedy for cholera, a recurring disease in nineteenth-century Ireland however this may have been based on prevention rather than a cure.

            According to his great-grand daughter Catherine Williamson, who wrote about her life in a book Come Along With Me, Robert used to bathe before he got home. In order to do so ‘he built a bath house about a mile away from his home, under the level of the river. He then placed several large tubs in the bath house and ran a pipe from the river into the tubs’, which filled with ice-cold water. Writing in 1971, she said that this construction could still be seen.

Inchmore in 1890 with the benefit of additions

            That story may be just hearsay but it is certainly true that Robert believed in personal cleanliness, for Lydia records that, soon after her arrival in Clara in 1843, she took ‘a warm shower bath’ at Robert’s house at Charlestown and a week later Jonathan ‘took a bath before breakfast & I took one before dinner’. Clearly this was something of a novelty for them.

            In the autumn of 1848 Robert moved to live in Tullamore in order to leave his house in Clara free for Marcus, who married in December. He continued with his relief work around the district as cholera was now spreading across the country, reaching Tullamore in April 1849. In an attempt (probably futile) to prevent it reaching Clara, trenches were dug across the road from Tullamore and sentries were placed to stop anyone from crossing. Robert was one of the few people allowed to pass because of the work he was doing. It is questionable whether the attempts to keep Clara free of the disease were successful for Lydia recorded on the 29 July that a ‘woman died at our gate this morning & was buried in a few hours.’

            For all his exposure to the disease, Robert’s strong constitution saved him for another ten years and he finally died of a stroke in January 1860 aged 78. After the Famine the Earl of Charleville presented him with a silver tea service in recognition of what he had done for his tenants around Tullamore.

Offaly Heritage 11 (2020) has articles on Inchmore and Drayton Villa together with Clara during the War of Independence. Click and collect at Offaly History Bury Quay, Tullamore when safe to do so.

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