As a native son of the county, it gives me great pleasure to be invited to launch Westmeath: History and Society. Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County, the 29th volume in the Irish County series; this volume of thirty-five essays covering themes from the prehistoric to the present era utilises a multidisciplinary approach to explore at the county level broader regional and national themes. It contains contributions from historians, geographers and cartographers, archaeologists and Irish scholars (Cathal O Háinle –Westmeath Bardic Poetry). It charts the economic, social, religious and political life of the county. The aim is to achieve an understanding, rather than to produce desiccated informatio
In Ireland “the County” evokes a strong identity arising in large measure from the importance of the GAA since the late 19th century, and the establishment of local government structures around the same time.
Prophecy and history are generally considered not to mix too well. In fact, historians are often thought of as prophets in reverse, charting the safe regions of accomplished fact, while prophets, in the strict biblical sense, engage in the much more perilous task of trying to read the signs of the times and to speak out the truth fearlessly in charting a course for the future. Too often, history is seen as little more than how Edward Gibbon described it: “the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” And about the only thing we learn from history is that men and women never seem to learn from history.
Such a charge could not be levelled at the contributors to the volume we are launching this evening. They have succeeded in producing a vivid history and description of society in Westmeath from earliest times right down to the present day; their search for knowledge of the past was never allowed to issue in mere dusty record, or an accumulation of all available facts about the County, but was transformed into a charter for the present and future. Apart from a few notable exceptions, Fathers Paul Walsh and John Brady, Leo Daly, Marian Keaney and Jerry Sheehan very few local histories have been published in County Westmeath—whatever the excuse, it cannot have been the lack of source material. The publication of Westmeath History and Society is evidence that such arguments are not sufficient to explain this neglect. Rather than lamenting what has been destroyed either deliberately or by accident, the contributors to this history have made good use of what has survived. Westmeath: History and Society will be the most comprehensive study of the county yet published and as its contributions from historians and other academics from all areas of the county and beyond, examining the evolution of society here over the millennia, it makes a very important contribution not only to the history of the lake county but also for its inhabitants’ sense of identity with that history.
To study the three variables people, place and time that all historians are concerned with the contributors to this volume employed not only the standard sources, but also source material of unequalled diversity: original ‘raw material’, estate papers (articles by Timothy P O’Neill and Eugene Dunne, cartography (Arnold Horner) diaries, correspondence, photographs and submissions to the Folklore Commission. Particular use of the latter is made in Chapter 7 on the survey of “Holy Wells in Moycashel Barony” which reminds us that people were not constrained in their beliefs by church doctrines, weaving for themselves a religiosity which was relevant to everyday life. It is also a reminder that the ‘the church’ is not the same as ‘the clergy’, and that a history of the laity as members of the church is an essential part of any attempt to understand the nature of ecclesiastical structure and norms. I note here Lesley Whiteside’s chapter on “Church of Ireland Parish and People in Westmeath,” where she remarks that “while priestly leadership remains vital, perhaps the most positive indicator is the growing confidence in the ministry of all believers” (p. 572).
The political, religious and settlement changes of the 17th century were revolutionary particularly as Westmeath occupied a strategic corridor between the Pale and the west, which encompassed Trim, Mullingar, Ballymore and the pivotal bridgehead at Athlone. It is appropriate that this century is the most comprehensively covered in the volume as the outcomes of the two sieges in Athlone had national ramifications and the beneficiaries of the Cromwellian confiscations following the 1641 rebellion, dominated economic, political and cultural life in the county for the following two centuries. (Chapters, 9, 10, 11, 12 and partially in 13, 14 and 15). Individual case studies and generic analyses of the new ascendancy landholding class reveal the extent of the changes to the cultural landscape they accomplished; the accommodations the native Gaelic society had to adopt and the fate of their language are also considered.
Westmeath: History and Society is a fascinating story for it is the ageless Irish story of struggle and frustration, of success and failure, of sanctity and sin, of life and death. I read with admiration how our forebears struggled to keep the faith alive, to provide a living and an education for their families. I read with regret how many people were forced to migrate and emigrate. Similarly, the hidden Westmeath beyond the county is revealed through the fate of tenants on the Chapman estate in Killua assisted to a new life in New South Wales. (Chapter 19 “Assisted Emigration from Clonmellon Parish to New South Wales by Eugene Sheehan). Chapter 33 deals with the assisted small subsistence holders from Galway and Mayo who were assisted to start new lives in Castlepollard. The volume reflects on the experiences of these migrants and the contribution they made to their new homeland, not least the successes they facilitated for the county’s football and hurling teams.
The volume is concerned with one of the chief building blocks of the Irish nation — a community which had common bonds and assumptions about religion, politics, economics, society and culture. What comes across is not just a sense of place, but rather a sense of the social networks that evolved in Westmeath. Even more important, the contributors have succeeded in demonstrating how the people of Westmeath with their political and religious affiliations interacted with wider world which includes economics, culture, society, landscape and the fabric of everyday life.
Essays on rural land agitation, as the crisis worsened in the 1870s, present a perspective on Westmeath which is at variance with its general perception as a quiet midland county. (Chapter 23, “A Disgrace to a Civilised County; Making Sense of Westmeath at Westminster, 1871). But politics was not always about the relationships between owners, tenants and the landless as tensions within the nationalist community are revealed in the conflict surrounding the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell. (Chapter 24).
What no history can adequately tell is the spirit and faith of our forebears, their trust in God, their love for one another — in good times and bad, in sickness and health, in poverty and wealth. Without them our lives would be quite different.
The publication of this volume represents an important moment in the historiography of Westmeath. The bringing together of the expertise of academics, across many disciplines, working in third level institutions in Ireland and abroad with the knowledge of practitioners in local studies in Westmeath has produced a corpus of material which will be the definitive reference work on the county for the foreseeable future. I commend it highly.
With no expense spared in the book’s level of illustration and typographic design, Westmeath, History and Society is a visual delight, a fitting celebration of the county’s history. Its value is greatly enhanced by an index that runs to 55 pages. I pay tribute to the dedicated work of the Series editor, Willie Nolan, and editor of this volume, Seamus O’Brien, and commend this excellent miscellany of essays to all who would like to understand the historical, economic, religious and cultural development of County Westmeath. In producing a co-operative work of this size—900 pages—and complexity, I have no doubt the editor accumulated numerous obligations and came to rely on the goodwill and grace under pressure of many individuals. Seamus, I hope people appreciate that without your durability and commitment Westmeath: History and Society, might not have appeared in print. As you noted, it has been ten years in gestation.
However, I think it is safe to say that for Seamus is was all a labour of love. Local history comes about when academics begin to take seriously the complex problems involved in the writing of local history. In a sense Seamus was the catalyst. His constant interest and enthusiasm ensured that the project went more smoothly than it otherwise might. This handsome volume which if it succeeds only in arousing the curiosity of its readers about the complexity of the evolution of County Westmeath will have achieved its aim and fulfilled one of his dreams.
For all these reasons, and many others, it gives me the greatest possible pleasure to launch Westmeath, History and Society. Interdisciplinary Essays on the History of an Irish County.
Our thanks to His Grace, Archbishop Farrell, for permission to reproduce the address above. We congratulate the general editor of the series Dr Willie Nolan and his wife Teresa Nolan for this the 29th volume in the series. Congratulations to Seamus O’Brien and all the contributors.
Westmeath: History and Society
Interdisciplinary essays on the history of an Irish county
Seamus O’Brien editor
with a Foreword by Marie Coleman, Queen’s University, Belfast
This is the twenty-ninth volume in the acclaimed county History and Society series.
Contents: 1. The Physical Endowment of County Westmeath, Robert Meehan. 2. Prehistoric Barrowsin Westmeath, David McGuinness. 3. Gaelic political assemblies and power-display in borderlands of Westmeath Lordships, Elizabeth Fitzpatrick. 4. Crossing the Brosna at Mullingar: the early topography of the town and district, Paul Gosling. 5. The Anglo-Norman Conquest and Settlement, Rory Masterson. 6. St. Féichín of Fore and his monastery, Rory Masterson. 7. Survey of the Holy Wells in Moycashel Barony, Caimin O’Brien. 8. Westmeath Bardic Poetry, Cathal Ó Háinle. 9. Besiegers without guns: Athlone 1641-43, Pádraig Lenihan. 10. The 1641 Rebellion in County Westmeath, John Cunningham. 11. A county in transition: cartographic evidence for landscape and social change in early modern Westmeath, Arnold Horner. 12. War and society in Westmeath, 1689-91, Harman Murtagh. 13. The Irish Language in Westmeath c.1600-1900, Aengus Ó Fionnagáin. 14. Westmeath: literary ‘stories so far’, Mary Shine Thompson. 15. Local Government in County Westmeath (1542-2019), Matthew Potter. 16. Class and Conflict in Pre-Famine Westmeath, John Kenny. 17. Gigginstown and Crown Lands in Westmeath in the early 1800s, Timothy P. O’Neill. 18. Famine in the county town – Mullingar 1845-49, Seamus O’Brien. 19. Assisted Emigration from Clonmellon Parish to South Australia in 1847, Eugene Sheridan. 20. Between happiness and distress: Erskine Nicol’s paintings of rural life in Westmeath in the 1860s, Amelie Dochy-Jacquard. 21. The Corn and Flour Mills of County Westmeath, Seamus Mimnagh. 22. Church of Ireland parish and people in Westmeath, 1897-1996, Lesley Whiteside. 23. ‘A disgrace to a civilised country’; making sense of Westmeath at Westminster, 1871, Michael Kenny. 24. Religion and politics: the Parnellite split in Westmeath, Michael Nolan. 25. The decline of the aristocratic estates of County Westmeath, 1879-1923, Eugene Dunne. 26. Post-Famine Athlone, Gearoid O’Brien. 27. The Gaelic Athletic Association in Westmeath 1884-1905, Tom Hunt. 28. The Midland Volunteers Force and the Irish Volunteers: towards reconciling history and historiography, John Burke. 29. Barrack and community in a time of revolution: the East Yorkshire Regiment in Westmeath, 1919-21, Paul Hughes. 30. Westmeath Elections 1918-1970, Adrian Kavanagh and Caoilfhionn D’Arcy. 31. Modern Mullingar: 1923-1993, Ruth Illingworth. 32. Some aspects of vernacular culture and oral history in Co. Westmeath: Jim Delaney and his work with Patsy Johnson, Bairbre Ní Fhloinn. 33. From Cregganbaun, Co. Mayo to Kiltoom, Co. Westmeath: a case-study of a Land Commission group migration scheme, Mary Burke and John Burke. 34. Westmeath Elections 1970-2020, William Durkan. 35. Westmeath’s Archives, Gretta Connell.
9780906602980 937 pages 127 illustrations €60.00 Publication Date 24 March 2022
Available from Offaly History Bury Quay, Tullamore and online at http://www.offalyhistory.com