The Summer of 1921was heralded as having some of the best Irish weather days in ten years.1 Many people used the opportunity to cycle their bicycles along the countryside roads and lanes, whilst keenly observing the fields of green and gold ripening barley. The slight breeze gently blowing the ears of grain with the browny blue hues of the Slieve Bloom mountains to the southwest as background. The farmers were looking forward to a decent crop that year, and to attract good prices when selling to the local malt houses, brewers, and distillers. They would be able to take on additional seasonal labour to get the harvest in on time. After yet another long Winter, much needed outdoor activity and laughter was a recipe for relief from the underlying and not too far off reality of political turmoil, criminality, and civil strife. ‘The Truce that came into effect on 11 July 1921 officially ended what is now most often referred to as the War of Independence and came as the culmination of the most violent six months of the war.’2 ‘Relieved civilians celebrated the arrival of peace and Volunteers returned home to bask in newfound freedom, safety, and adulation.’3 But sadly, it was to be a summer that would be remembered not for the good weather alone.
The Tan Yard
The Tan Yard just off Tullamore’s, O’Connor Square housed the transport department of the merchant and brewing firm, P & H Egan Limited. Vans, lorries and carts were dispatched fully loaded or to be manually loaded at the brewery yard, the bonded warehouses, or maltings on Henry Street. These consignments were then delivered to the firms branch houses throughout the midlands. A particular concern was the growing number of incidents of canal barge looting. The two-day trip down from Dublin saw some barges limping into Tullamore harbour, past the Whitehall Bridge to finally berth and offload what remained of their cargo.4 Of equal concern was the safety of the men doing these deliveries. Random criminal acts targeted businesses, farms, private homes, and infrastructure. The firm’s branch houses at the Cat and Bagpipes in Tubber, managed by James McPhillips and at other branch houses in Ballycumber, managed by Charles Whelahan and his assistant Thomas Fagan, and at Ballycommon managed by Joseph Digan and his driver James Bolger, were burgled. These were tense times during the War of Independence (1919-1921) and the dreadful aftermath during the Irish Civil War (28 June 1922 to 24 May 1923).5 One can imagine the topics of discussion down the Tan Yard during the occasionally tea breaks. John Spain, a carpenter employed at Egan’s Tan Yard was arrested five years earlier during the fracas upstairs at the Gaelic League rooms on Colmcille St, an incident later known for the first shots fired of the 1916 Rising.
Among his fellow workers at the yard were the Campbell brothers from Cappincur, fellow carpenter James Pidgeon of Emmett Terrace, John Dunne and James Whelan of Tea Lane and Thomas Egan. The Campbells and Thomas Egan had been friends for years. Helping ‘save the hay’, thinning turnips, and other farm chores, Thomas ably helped on the Campbell farm. He soon met and became friends with their sister Annie Campbell (b. 1 April 1884 d 29 Nov 1951) They married 29 May 1915, and their best man was Charles Egan, his younger brother. That summer of 1921 while cycling to and from the Campbell farm, he may have noticed a young nine-year -old lad, Brian O’Nolan, waving hello from the old Odlum house: ‘The Beeches’. He may have noticed a passing pony and trap, driven by P. F. Adams, off to tend to his undertenants at lands he let at Clonmore, two years earlier in 1919.
Thomas Egan however, also had family troubles on his mind. In 1911, before marrying, he and his brother Charles were staying with their widowed sister Rosanna or Rose (b 28 November 1874) and her four children. The three roomed accommodation was tight and was all that was available in town. Rose had a tough life by most standards. She married labourer Joseph Kelly (b. 1872 d. 27 Oct 1910) of Ballduff and was four months pregnant when her husband died of TB at the Union Workhouse. Tomas and Charles moved in to support her and the kids in a house they rented in Puttaughan. This was the overcrowded location close to the Union Workhouse where people came to look for accommodation, particularly those returning from periods overseas or out of county. Next door to Rose, lived the Sheas who spent time in America, and three doors down Henry Adams (first cousin of P F Adams, Town Commissioner) and his family had returned from South Africa. Across the street juxta-positioned to the flat midland accents were the northern accents of retired Royal Irish Constabulary (R.I.C.) pensioners James Irvine and Robert Brennan and his wife, as well as Miss Henrietta Spence.6 Rose decided to pick up her life, and married William Cahill on 8 November 1914, and they had a daughter Mary. But, by the summer of 1921, Rose was having trouble with her eldest son Columb, now nineteen. He was unemployed, not often home, and was rumoured to have joined the IRA Volunteers. Thomas Egan helped-out the family where he could but had little sway over his nephew.
Footnote: ‘Flann O’Brien (1911-66) was the well-known Irish novelist and political commentator. He was born in County Tyrone as Brian O’Nolan and raised mostly in Dublin. The writer spent about four years in Tullamore where his father, Michael V Nolan worked with the Revenue keeping an eye to the duty or taxes to be collected on Tullamore whiskey when it was removed from the bonded warehouse.’7 He wrote a piece for the Irish Times, 17 November 1961 for his column The Foggy Dew, recalling: ‘…the great house of P. & H. Egan which survives to this day, there you could buy a pound of butter and a pound of nails, but not mixed.’
Little had been heard from Columb up until the end of 1922. There were further rumours, that he had left the Volunteers and was on the run and involved in burglaries, but no one really knew. Until one fateful day his mother received the following harrowing letter from her eldest son.
Fig 2. The harrowing letter from Columb Kelly to his mother Rose Kelly before being executed at Birr Castle on the 26 January 1923. Courtesy Rosaleen Monaghan.
Young Columb Kelly (21), Patrick Cunningham (22), and William Conroy, all Tullamore natives were arrested, and tried by a military court at Roscrea on 5 January 1923. They were charged with the possession of arms without the proper authority, and for armed robbery on houses at Ballycowan and for stealing jewellery, money, and other items on 21 November 1922. They were found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad at Birr Castle on the 26 January 1923 at 8 am.8 Their heartbroken mother Rose, her young family, and the families of the Cunningham and Conroys would have to wait until Tuesday the 28 October 1924, for the bodies of their executed sons to be returned for burial. Once more she tried hard to move on with her life, but the tragedy of losing her husband and eldest son was a huge burden for her to bear.
Release of Papers
In total ‘77’ Volunteers were executed by the Free State Government in 1923.9 ‘As of the 2018 release from the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (MSPC) files relating to 73 of the 81 executed between 17 November 1922 and 30 May 1923 during the Irish Civil War are now available. Interestingly the files reveal that question marks also hung over the cases of William Conroy (DP147), Patrick Cunningham (DP3916) and Columb Kelly (52APB4023) of 1 Offaly Brigade – all executed on 26 January 1923 at Birr Castle and traditionally seen as part of the “77”. Statements on William Conroy’s file from former Offaly IRA officers Sean McGuinness and Michael Galvin indicate that all three were suspended and awaiting IRA court-martial in relation to alleged indiscipline at the time of their arrest. Indeed, McGuinness goes even further and states that the three “…committed a couple of minor robberies…” during this suspension which led to their arrest and executions. In any case their activities and IRA memberships were recognised, and awards were granted to their dependants.’10
The Summer of 1921 no more
The harshness of the sentence, where the ultimate price had been paid was unforgettable. The Kelly family were distraught, some chose to leave the county, while in time others chose to leave the country for good. What if those warm summer days of 1921 around Tullamore could return? What if they could be wished back? What if one could turn back the clock?
Footnote: The family of Rosanna (née Egan) Kelly were: Columb Kelly (b 1902 d 26 Jan 1923), Joseph Dillon Kelly ( b 17 June 1906 m Ellen or Nellie Dunne 11 February 1931), Christina Kelly (b 27 December 1907), Charles Kelly (b 7 June 1910 d 21 December 1967, Wembley m 1. Bridget Cosgrave 2. Mary Murray). In 1914, Rose married William Cahill and they had a daughter, Mary Ellen (b 23 April 1915). The family of Thomas Egan were: Thomas Anthony Egan (b 21 Nov 1917), Christina Egan, Elizabeth Josephine Egan (b 1 March 1916 m James Buckley), Charles Egan (b. 15 December 1920).
- McNeill, I. A Century of Irish Summers (1980). Irish Astronomical Journal, vol. 14 (5/6), p. 165. Available at: http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1980IrAJ…14..165M (Accessed: 9 May 2021)
- Farry, The aftermath of revolution, pp. 17–19; Dan Breen, My fight for Irish freedom (Dublin, 1981; 1st edn. Tralee, 1964), p. 166
- Hughes, B. Defying the IRA? (2016). Liverpool University Press. Available at: https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/f3054409-91b1-47dd-a4da-c8f315839260/626393.pdf. (Accessed: 9 May 2021)
- McConway, P. (2006) The Midland Tribune, 26 December. Available at: https://www.offalyhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/01/5_civil_war.pdf. (Accessed: 9 May 2021)
- Egan, M.G. and D.F.M., (2020). The Egans of Moate and Tullamore: Business and Politics. Esker Press.
- The National Archives of Ireland. Census 1911. Available at: http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/ (Accessed 2 May 2021)
- Byrne, M. Flann O’Brien, and the Tullamore Connection. Offaly Literary Associations, (2019). Available at: https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2019/06/24/flann-obrien-and-the-tullamore-connection-the-flat-countryside-around-tullamore-left-a-deep-impression-on-the-future-writers-mind-and-when-20-years-later-he-wrote-an-exi/ (Accessed: 1 May 2021)
- Larne Times (1923), 3 February
- Dependency claims for the Civil War executed in the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (2018). Available at: https://militarypensions.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/dependency-claims-for-the-civil-war-executed-in-the-military-service-1916-1923-pensions-collection/.
Offaly History is working with the Offaly County Council Heritage Office, Offaly County Library and historians throughout Offaly , Ireland and abroad to bring you this series of fifty blogs on the years 1912-23. It is part of the Government of Ireland Decade of Centenaries initiative and has succeeded beyond our expectations. Very soon we launch a new web platform to provide free access to fifty articles on the period, videos, podcasts and photographs. As with the Zoom lecture programme since January 2021 we expect it will be popular. Reaches for this blog since January are close on 65,000. Please share our material to your site to spread the story and support a new nuanced understanding of this period.