Placenames and folklore from the townlands of Ballinagar district and the 1550 Survey of Offaly. By John Malone

An often-overlooked heritage is that of our townlands, even the few unassuming townlands that surround Ballinagar village are a treasure trove of folklore and history. These places were once full of ‘rambling houses’ where locals gathered to play cards or enjoy music and stories. There were stile-ways through the countryside, used when crossing fields was more common than using roads.

Work by John O’ Donovan in the 1840s and later P.W. Joyce, and more recently Thomas Lee along with a survey in conducted by the English in 1550 give some understanding of the townland names and how they have developed over the years.

From the map with the edition of the 1550 Survey of Offaly edited by Edmund Curtis in 1930 based on the 1563 map in the British Library and that in TCD.

Tuath  Eishill

Today these townlands are in the parish of Killeigh and the Barony of Geashill, this area roughly corresponds to the ancient Tuath Eishill . The area is first mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters , where they say a battle was fought between Hermon and Heber at the brink of the Bri Daimh and this was called the battle of Geishill.

The Killeigh parish is an amalgamation of smaller parishes which were substations of the famous monastery at Killeigh founded by St. Senchal the elder.  It was a noted centre of learning and had a long and turbulent history, including being sacked by the Danes in 840.

The first mention of a ruling tribe is that of O’ Hamirgin or Bergin whose battle cry was ‘Bergin ,Geahill and the sky over it’. They were a sub-sect of the O’Connors who ruled the area and had forts in Geashill, Killeigh, Daingean and Croghan. Their chiefs were buried in Killeigh. The O’Connors were a warlike clan and resisted the various invaders well into the 1600s.

An item associated with them is the Geashill Cauldron which is now housed in the National museum. It was said that it was banged as they entered battle. One such occasion was in 1406 when Calvagh O’ Connor struck the cauldron with a stone it produced such a noise that it struck a sudden fear and panic into the hearts of the plunderers.

Townlands in the barony of Geashill and close to Ballinagar

With the coming of the Normans a castle was built in Geashill and the land was eventually held by the Fitzgeralds who as most Anglo-Norman families became more ‘Irish than the Irish themselves’. The family produced many rebels including Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a leader of the United Irishmen. In a letter to the Irish Press Tommy Dunne recounts a story about Lord Edward –“Is the record or the memory still kept of Dempsey the faithful yeoman who kept sentry on Leixlip bridge in ‘98. Lord Edward then on his keeping approached him disguised as a farmer driving his sheep to the city market and inquired whether there was pasturage abouts “No my lord there is not” answered the faithful yeoman, showing that he knew Lord Edward but would not betray him for the £1000 pound that was on his head.

In my early days there used to be a pilgrimage to the grave of the faithful yeoman, is it forgotten”.

The last in the Fitzgerald line in the Geashill area was Lettice who famously held Geashill castle in spite of a siege by the O’Dempseys. Through her marriage to Robert Digby, the area passed into the hands of the Digby family, who were the landlords until the breakup of the estate in the early 1900s.

The O’ Connors were involved in many uprisings through the years and after Silken Thomas Fitzgerald’s failed uprising, the 1550 survey was conducted to find the extent of Brian O’ Connor’s land. Although the survey was flawed on many fronts such as the names were written ‘clumsy English phonetics’ from what they heard from the native Irish speakers , it still provides a good base to start the journey through the townlands. Some Irish words are still recognisable such as glais [stream] curragh [ moor] bohir [road] loch [lake] and eanach [marsh].

Ballinagar before the road widening, about 1960

Ballyduff South

Ballyduff south is described in 1550 asBallindowe. From fyrcloghe alonge the diche to curraghbaitte then alonge to clonardebriske then to glaishbiallacroe & so to glynnegartaghe & then to fyrcloghe.

Some of the names of the townland through the years were Ballydoughe, Balleindo with water mill and Ballyduffon a Digby map of 1797.

John O’ Donovan interpreted the name as Baile ui Dhuibh Theas or O’ Duffs townland. Folklore says there was once a church here. Older people still refer to the townland as High Ballyduff. There was also a famous bush growing on the hill which when seen by men on the run during the War of Independence knew they were in a safe area. Tommy Dunne had an interesting story concerning the battle of Aughrim.

And who Tom asks has not heard of the dog of Aughrim who guarded his master’s bones on the battlefield from July to October until he was shot by English soldiers who were passing that way.

Then there is one other story not generally known of Terence O’Dunne’s horse who when his rider fell mortally wounded galloped home to Clonaslee. Terence O’ Dunne was himself carried by the O’ Gormans to Killeigh where he died and was buried in the Abbey burial ground. Tom says he has learned that St. Ruth’s bush has disappeared from the Battlefield. In his father’s time a portion of it was brought to Ballinagar.

The Hackett family for years looked after the wooden tabernacle of the early church in Ballinagar and in 2006 Larry and George Hackett presented it to the new church. Larry was a famous thatcher whose work was admired far and wide.                                                                                                                                 In 1984 part of a wooden trackway or Togher was discovered in the bog during Bord na Móna work.

Ballyduff south lost many families through the clearances on the Geashill estate. The most famous of the emigrant ships was the Erin go Bragh. Another was the Chatsworth which brought 451 passengers to Queensland, ‘a large proportion were from the King’s county with the most of those being from the celebrated Barony of Geashill.’

A drainage scheme undertaken on the townland by William Steuart Trench helped win prizes for Lord Digby in exhibitions in England.

The survey of Offaly in 1550 from Hermathena 1930

 Ballycue

The Townland was described as Ballykee from Glaishebiallacroke alonge the streame to Dyrrensheishe then alonge the streame to Biallecromlyne , so alonge a streame to Biallagare, thence alonge the streame to Breakanballyndowaghe, then alonge a diche to Glayshebiallecroke.

Some names through the yearsareBallynmakkue[1558]Ballickhugh [1612]B.Crine [1685]and in 1830Ballycue.

Both John O Donovan and P.W. Joyce translated the name as Baile Mic Aodha MacKay’s or McHughs place or townland. McHughs still live in the area and in the 1901 census spelt their surname McCue.The population in 1841 was 152.

Ballycue contains an old townland named Bluebell which local lore says was once a village and the Clash bridge which was blown up during the war of independence, on the Geashill road. It borders the Tullamore river and the Killeigh road. This area along with Ballymooney and Ballyknockan was thought by some including O’ Donovan for a time to be the site of the battle between Herman and Heber and that the Bri Daimh was the Tullamore river.                                                                                                           The area had once numerous mounds of gravel deposits which were said to be dug away during famine relief works. Ballycue has also one of the few remaining thatched cottages. There is also supposed to be a graveyard called the burial hill where children who died before they were baptised were buried.

The 1838 ordnance survey map shows the ruins of a school in Ballycue near Ballinagar village This was probably the school mentioned in the bluebook survey of 1824 where the principal was Michael Ford.

The various schools in Ballinagar have been extremely lucky with the standard of schoolteachers they have had over the years. A former principal David O’ Shanahan reflects on a predecessor of his ‘old master Phelan’, in an article written in 1950 lamenting the old schoolhouse, which is now the community centre, going to ruins.

The spirit of old master Phelan stands once more by the now rickety, worm bored old rostrum, as with raised hand and pointed finger he shouts out the orders of the day, admonishing, rebuking , instructing , and for all his supposedly outmoded teaching methods , producing great scholars just the same .Look at the local remnants of his pupils that still survive the hand of time .

No less a distinguished scholar than professor P— himself from U.C.G. came all the way from the city of the tribes to spend a weekend with Tommy —- the local chronicler and local historian, who has chapter rhyme and verse for all noteworthy events in the parish since God knows when.

Or take good humoured jolly J —- the yank, who got his first great chance in America because of his familiar sharp knowledge of the simple rule of proportion .

Not forgetting Mike —- the local Gobawn Saor, whose knowledge of figures and mensuration enabled his gifted hands to plan and build for half the parish around .

The professor mentioned was an T’Athir Fhinn a folklore collector who visited Tommy Dunne in 1945. Another legendary Ballinagar school principal Michael Cunningham was a pupil of his in U.C.G.

Where the Curtis edition of the Survey was published. In the 1990s Offaly History bought the last copies when the Printing House in Trinity was closing after more than 200 years. Copies are now scarce but is probably on JSTOR
A short version of the text of the 1550 survey will be found in the new edition of the state papers for 1547-53 edited by Colm Lennnon (as above)

To be continued and with thanks to John Malone. This month’s blog reach will be 10,000. Last year was 103,000. Like and share.

Offaly History: pictures and captions

PS Are you joining us on Zoom this Tuesday 26 Jan at 7.30 p.m. Email us at info@offalyhistory.com for the link to James Scully’s lecture on Stories and Glories from the graveyards of Offaly.

Available to buy online from http://www.offalyhistory. You can join John O’Donovan on his field survey of Offaly.