Skeletal remains by the roadside in County Offaly. By Stephen Callaghan

Imagine passing construction work on the street or in the countryside, what might you expect to come across or see? Perhaps old masonry, historic detritus or nothing at all?! How about a skeleton? Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century it was not too unusual to come across human remains during construction work or in sand pits owing to the historic nature of an area. This blog post looks at some of the human remains uncovered around Offaly over the past 200 years which were reported in local newspapers.

In August 1860 a party of soldiers found the skeleton of fully grown man while digging earth works in the Fourteen Acres, adjacent to Birr Barracks. The skeleton was found three feet underground. There was no trace of a coffin or clothing. Despite no signs of trauma to the remains it was assumed at the time that the remains belonged to a murdered man. The burial almost certainly pre dates the barracks (1809-1812) and it would not be surprising if it had been there a great deal longer.

In 1864 during the construction of the new railway line between Birr and Portumna, workmen came across a perfectly preserved skeleton at Riverstown. The find was reported to Constable Sheehan of the Riverstown police. The constable took possession of the remains and brought them to Dr Wallace of Birr. The doctor was of the opinion that the bones had been placed there by someone of a past generation and therefore no inquest was required. It was presumed the bones had been there for a very long time. The remains were later reburied.

While working, a labourer found a skeleton of fully grown man in June 1877 at Rathbeg, just outside Birr. The skeleton was reported to the constabulary. A search revealed that the body had been buried only a few inches below the surface and it had been decapitated before it was put in the ground. An inquest was held and it was revealed that the person had died by fowl means. Through the work of the constabulary they discovered from a man named John Maher that in 1854 a young man named Noonan aged 22 years, had a dispute with some neighbours. After he disappeared suddenly and was never heard from again. The people whom he had the dispute with also left the country. The doctor’s testimony at the inquest indicated that the body was that of a man around 23 years old. There was little doubt the skeleton was that of the murdered 22 year old man, Noonan.

The skeleton of an infant was found in Scuragh, Birr on 16 November 1900. The remains were interred in Clonghill Cemetery the following day.

The old graveyard at Birr. The original site was much larger.

On 19 February 1901 there was a ‘gruesome find’ on St Brendan’s Street. A skeleton was uncovered during work on a sewage scheme. A workman found a skeleton around 18 inches from the surface imbedded in red clay. The bones were humanly collected and the coroner was informed. Dr Woods was shown the bones. He was of the opinion that the person was 18 years old. He also mentioned that when the street had been previously opened 15 years ago several skulls had also been found.  Considering the close proximity of St Brendan’s Church and graveyard, these remains mark the extent of the old medieval graveyard before it was encroached upon during the redevelopment of the town. The skeleton was interred in Clonoghill Cemetery the day after it was found. Curiously its religion was given as Roman Catholic!

In August 1911, during excavation for labourers cottages at Derrinduff Lane, Birr a skeleton of an adult was discovered. It was assumed that the remains had been there for sometime. The side of the skull was broken, indicated that the person had met with a violent end. The police were contacted. The remains were later interred in Clonoghill Cemetery on 29 August.

Filled in quarry pond at the 14-acres Birr and where a skeleton was found.

Other curious finds around the county include a mysterious find at Cornafurrish, Ballycumber. In December 1905, a sensation was caused when a skeleton was found under a large flag stone while a ditch was being dug by Mr Joseph Gilligan. The police and coroner were called for, it was decided that the bones were placed there a long long time ago and no inquest needed. It was noted that the remains had been placed in some sort of vault, the top flag being six inches deep.

Near Tullamore at Aharney a skeleton was found in sand in September 1912 while part of the Silver River was being cleaned. From the condition of the bones it was impossible to say how long they had been there. No inquest was held and the remains were interred.

In May 1919 three skeletons were found at Fenter, near Killeigh, by men raising road material. The area had previously been a plantation and was now being used a gravel pit. One of the skeletons was very large, over six feet. They had been found a foot below the surface.

This is just a selection of historic cases mentioned in newspapers, it is almost certain many more finds went unreported.  

Coming up: Saturday The townlands of Ballinagar