Teresa Wyer (1868–1959): the first woman chairperson of a public board in County Offaly and prominent in Sinn Féin in the revolutionary years. By Owen Wyer and Michael Byrne

Teresa Wyer was born in Ballykeenaghan, Rahan, Tullamore, County Offaly on 29 November 1868. She was the third youngest of eleven children of Michael and Anne Mary Wyer. Teresa Wyer went to Rahan National School and thereafter to Killina Secondary School. She joined the Convent of Mercy Athy, County Kildare on 22 February 1890 where she was called Sr Mary Baptist. She left the convent in 1900 and ran a shop and public house at No 6 Church Street bought by the first author’s grandfather, Owen Wyer, brother of Teresa Wyer, from Abraham Colton, the Tullamore auctioneer and hotelier in early 1901. Owen Wyer was also a Sinn Féin activist and chaired a great Sinn Féin meeting in Rahan in September 1917.

Drama in Tullamore from the Gaelic League, c. 1906 with a backdrop of a painted view of William/Columcille Street. Owen Wyer is second from the right in the back row.

Church Street was a busy commercial street at that time with at least five public houses, a hotel and a number of private residences. Wyer’s neighbours included the long-established Warren family drapery stores with two shops. In 1901 Teresa Wyer (then describing herself as 30) was living with her brother over the public house and they had a shop assistant and servant living with them. Owen Wyer was a maltster with the Egans of Tullamore and she a publican. By 1911 she described herself as a grocer and aged only 36, single and with four assistants living over the shop. Teresa Wyer married James Wyer from Ard, Geashill on 24 February 1914.

Church Street about 1910 with the two Warren shops, the Andrew Anderson store (later Morris) and below the Shambles and P & Egan – formerly Stirling (see our blog this week). Below that Lee’s bar then Helen Healion and Williams (later Wyer’s) pubic house. The street had five pubs and Hayes Hotel with its pre-1902 licence and the hotel dating to 1786. The new buildings on the right were erected by hotelier James Hayes.

Prominent in Sinn Féin Mrs Wyer was nominated by local organiser and chairman of the North Offaly executive, T.M. Russell for the Tullamore board of guardians in 1918, but his motion was defeated in favour of  Tullamore business man Frank Egan by 32 to 19 votes. Russell, said in her favour that it was important to have some women on the board and that she was a Sinn Féiner and it was Sinn Féin who stood against conscription when others were on recruiting platforms. A vote for her was for Ireland and against for the Empire.

Teresa Wyer about 1920. The picture was probably by Charles Leonard, the reporter in Tullamore

Mrs Wyer was elected in 1920 to the board of guardians of the Tullamore Union and soon after was selected as the first woman chairman of the Tullamore board of guardians. Here she was joined by two other women (Mrs Margaret Neary and Mrs Mary Anne Dunne) for the implementation of sweeping reforms which would include the closing of Birr workhouse. Not long after she was elected to the chair she and her two co-women guardians reported on the state of the house and on the number of mothers of illegitimate children who were in Tullamore workhouse.

The Tullamore Workhouse, later St Vincent’s County Home. This was the porter’s lodge and the board room was overhead. To the right was the public dispensary until c. 1972 and to the left the workhouse morgue. It was all built in 1841 for 700 and by 1900 had about 300 patients called ‘inmates’. Mrs Wyer was the first woman chairperson but her role and that of other women in civic society did not last long. Not much more was seen of women in local participation in public life until the late 1960s. Pic MB

Mrs Wyer and her committee were complimented by Russell for the frankness of the report on the mothers and children (of which no details were provided in the press), but which according to Russell was the first time this issue had been properly addressed by the board. The Sinn Féin courts might be used to have the putative fathers pay for their support. In Russell’s view the report justified having ‘lady members’ on the board. Mrs Wyer was co-opted to Offaly County Council in January 1921 following the resignations of Sinn Féin activists in the field, Thomas Dunne, James O’Connor and Martin Fleming. This appointment was short-lived and appears to have been solely while these men were on active duty with the IRA. All were back on the council within six months and there would be no further women elected or nominated to the county council until the 1970s. Mrs Wyer’s chairmanship of the board of guardians was also short as the boards were abolished by 1922 and the duties taken over the by county council. Once T. M. Russell resigned from the county council in  October1920 there does not appear to have been anyone of forward thinking to replace him or to advocate a role for women on the local boards. Mary Daly suggests in her essay on Offaly county government in 1920 to 1924 that Mrs Wyer by the autumn of 1921 was seeking to obstruct Sinn Féin’s new county scheme. It had caused great hardship and upset in Birr and Edenderry as did the closing of the infirmary in Tullamore (the latter part of a two-tier health system in those days).

The Wyer public house

During the course of the War of Independence Mrs Wyer and other Sinn Féin activists were subjected to considerable harassment by the Black and Tans. In March 1920 her licensed premises in Church Street was searched and nothing found. In the aftermath of the shooting of Sergeant Cronin in Tullamore on 31 October 1920 the nearby Foresters Hall was burned as were the shops of Mrs Wyer and O’Brennan’s of Church Street and the hairdressing establishment of James Clarke in William/Columcille Street. Houses visited by the Black and Tans included that of Whelan’s in O’Connell Street, Mrs Mooney, Crowe Street, Barry’s in O’Moore Street, Taylor in the same street, Kelly’s in High Street, Daly’s and Digan’s in Cormac Street. James O’Connor, the town councillor and president of the local branch of the Transport Union was resident in Mrs Heavy’s in Harbour Street and having been seized by the police was lucky to escape. On 3 November 1920 the premises and business of the Athlone Printing Works including its Offaly Independent were destroyed. A second attack on Mrs Wyer’s premises was made a few days after the Cronin shooting.

Teresa Wyer took the anti-Treaty side in 1922. In 1925 she sold her business premises to William Scully and moved to 25 Upper Gardiner Street, Dublin. Mrs Wyer was at the founding meeting of Fianna Fáil in 1926. She sought a nomination to the Seanad in the 1930s from Fianna Fáil. Teresa Wyer died a widow at 25 Upper Gardiner Street on 21 February 1959, at the age of 86, and was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in the St Patrick’s section. It was the same cemetery as her long deceased advocate T.M. Russell. Russell had died in Dublin in 1932 and her brother Owen in 1946. He had continued as a maltster in P. & H. Egan and was with the Tullamore firm for almost fifty years. T.M. Russell and Teresa Wyer had been prominent in Tullamore in the revolutionary period but were long forgotten by the 1960s.

One of the earliest postcards of Tullamore (about 1902) with Alexander (later Tullamore Drapery) and several public houses including Healy, Egan-Condron, Helen Healion (now Lee’s), Williams (later Wyer) and Hayes’ Hotel. What may be Wyer’s is the fourth building from Alexander drapery – later Carroll Furniture/Roma. It was a six-day licence and Owen Wyer was first publican followed by his sister Teresa.
The gas lighting was replaced by electricity 100 years ago this year. We may crop but we will not colour the pictures.

A full annotated version of this ‘bio’ will be published in Offaly Heritage 12 later this year.

On Wednesday next we publish a birthday tribute to Tullamore builder John Flanagan who invested all his time and money in the promotion of Tullamore for over fifty years.