A new chapter in Westmeath historiography: the recent publication of Westmeath History and Society, an address by Dr Harman Murtagh at the launch in Athlone.’ Without doubt, this is the greatest book ever published on Westmeath. It’s a monument to our county’s culture, history, society and creativity – and an expression of Westmeath’s very distinctive identity.’

The Mullingar and Athlone launches of Westmeath History and Society have provided two interesting and original addresses on the status of local history in Westmeath, our neighbouring county. The Offaly History and Society volume was published in 1998 and is long out of print. A few copies were secured by Offaly History some years ago and are offered for sales as scarce titles. We thank our friend Dr Harman Murtagh for a copy of his address on 31 3 2022 and we have added some pictures for our readers. Enjoy the address in Athlone and you can get the book at Offaly History Centre and online at www.offalyhistory.com, over 900 pages, hardback, €60.

My friends,

This is the south Westmeath launch of this magnificent volume, Westmeath history and society.

A week ago it was launched in north Westmeath by the archbishop of Dublin, the very Reverend Dr Farrell; south Westmeath must make do with the most irreverent Dr Murtagh.

The book is 900 pages long. As the archbishop observed in Mullingar, it’s about the size of a concrete block: in my view, its only fault is that it’s rather heavy to hold in bed.

Westmeath history and society is one of a series of county books – incredibly it’s the twenty-ninth in the series. The series has been appearing at the rate of a volume a year since 1985.

The series founder, general editor and manager from the start is Dr Willie Nolan, aided and abetted by his wife, Theresa. Their contribution to Irish  society and to local studies  is without equal. In France they would undoubtedly be awarded the Legion of Honour; in Britain surely Sir Willie and Dame Theresa? In Ireland, and here in Athlone, we can offer at least our enormous admiration for their magnificent achievement – twenty-nine county volumes of this size down, and only three to go!   Wow!

The system they use is to have an academic editor with local connections for each county. In Westmeath, their inspired choice was Seamus O’Brien. Believe me, it’s no easy task to herd thirty-five very diverse scholars into researching and writing their contributions, and accepting standard academic disciplines –  all by a certain date. Seamus did it – over ten years – by charm, patience, understanding and friendly  urging. Personally,  I felt I couldn’t let him down, and I imagine my fellow contributors may have entertained similar sentiments.

And between the three of them – Willie, Theresa and Seamus –  Westmeath history and society is a fine example – a very fine example – of Irish book production. It is outstanding for the high quality of its editing, design, typesetting and printing. Moreover, the book is richly illustrated with plates, figures and maps.

How appropriate therefore that this launch is in the Aidan Heavey Library, named after the great Athlone-born bibliophile, who donated one of the finest private collections of books in Ireland to his native town, and which today is shelved in the room below us. Aidan is specially mentioned in the acknowledgements to the book.

A hand-coloured cartouche to the published in 1685 Petty Map for County Westmeath [with supporters from Athlone and Mullingar!]

And I recall too the name of Billy English, who pioneered, and instructed so many of us, in local studies and antiquities.

I feel certain that the spirits of Aidan and Billy are around tonight to applaud the publication of Westmeath history and society.

This library is also the repository of an important collection of local material of all sorts, largely gathered by Gearoid O’Brien during his time as our enlightened and wonderful librarian. 

County Westmeath, which was established in 1542, has always had something of an identity problem. No other county in Ireland has a name which suggests that somehow it is a limb or an extension or a residue of somewhere else, in our case Meath; and this conundrum is accentuated by the location of the ‘bishop of Meath’ and his cathedral church in Mullingar.

Athlone, which is in the dead centre of Ireland, paradoxically is on the periphery of almost everything else. And I think that it in particular has a difficulty in identifying with County Westmeath.

Published in 1770

For a start, even though the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 sensibly included in Westmeath the then west town, since that time the expansion of the urban area to the west and north-west has meant that today a quarter of Athlone’s population now lives in County Roscommon.

Map of Kilbeggan area from Vallancey edition of the Chorographical Description 1682, published 1770

Map of the Kilbeggan district in c 1838

The act made Athlone an urban district, the successor to an earlier corporation. Athlone gained its own council that in turn provided it with a degree of political autonomy. Therefore, it was only in 2014 that Athlone was fully incorporated into the county of Westmeath, when the urban council was abolished, and the town merged into a new and greatly extended so-called county municipal district.

However, efforts to bring the urbanised part of south Roscommon into Westmeath foundered, as indeed did Roscommon County Council ‘s counter-resolution to reincorporate all of west Athlone back into Roscommon.

Another divisive factor  in Westmeath is the poor physical communications – rail, bus or road –  between Athlone and north Westmeath. In my experience very few people in – say – Mullingar have much knowledge of this locality – roughly the old baronies of Kilkenny West, Clonlonan and Brawney. While equally few people down here are familiar with, say,  the magnificent undulating countryside, patchwork of handsome little lakes and impressive architectural heritage in the north of the county.

This corner of south Westmeath lies outside the diocese of Meath, and indeed Athlone is sub-divided between the diocese of Elphin west of the river and the little diocese of Clonmacnoise, so small and poor that for over 250 years it has been united to Ardagh, with its bishop and its cathedral  in Longford. The Church of Ireland incorporated Clonmacnoise into Meath in 1570: it was rational decision, but one that also ignored the existence of Westmeath.

In Athlone, we have two GAA clubs, and the town has contributed players like Dessie Dolan to the Westmeath county team. But while in Ireland as a whole the GAA is a major force for county identity, in this respect – at any rate so it seems to me – it is less impactful in Athlone.

All of which brings me to the point of saying, or even hoping, that a book like this, dwelling as it does on so many facets of Westmeath’s past, should raise awareness of our collective identity and consolidate our confidence in Westmeath as a particular, individual and special place – as our place – rather than a rump of Meath or a toehold in Roscommon. A common history is one of the most potent forces that distinguishes a society and glues it together.  

So that’s the wider spinoff  that the county of Westmeath, or if you like the people of Westmeath, can get from this book Westmeath history and society.

I’m not saying that this is a function of the book, because to my mind attributing a function to historiography – the study and writing of history – is dangerous ground that leads all too easily to the distortion of analysis and the subversion or even suppression of truth. I admit of course that historians don’t work in a vacuum, but nor should they work to serve a cause other than, as best they can, the objective truth as they see it.However, none of these valuable publications has thirty-five authors, all experts in their fields, and covering a vast range of topics on so many different aspects of Westmeath’s past. I pay tribute to my fellow authors because I know myself how much research, composition, nervous energy and sheer hard work lies behind academic writing. We’re not in it for the money (because there’s none) but solely because  we want to make a contribution – as Simon Schama puts it – to the war against forgetfulness.

There have been important books about Westmeath in the past: Sir Henry Piers’s study of the county in 1684; John Charles Lyons’s Book of survey and distribution  and Grand juries of Westmeath, published in the mid-nineteenth century; James Woods’s Annals of Westmeath (1907); Paul Walsh’s Placenames of Westmeath (1957); John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey letters, written in 1837 but first published by Michael Herity in 2011; Marian Keaney’s  Westmeath authors and her guide to the sources for local history in Westmeath; Tom Hunt’s History of sport in Victorian Westmeath; and our own Donal O’Brien’s recent Houses and landed families of Westmeath. And of course there have been many more focused local studies, too numerous to mention, but generally associated with the Old Athlone Society, the Westmeath Archaeological and Historical Society and Moate Historical Society.

The book has simply something for everyone; and it is a publication that you can dip into and read whatever articles attract you, because all the essays stand on their own. It isn’t in that sense a narrative history of the county, where you have to begin at page 1 and work your way through to page 900, perhaps falling by the wayside en route.So whether you’re interested in historic settlement, local government, the Irish language, the Normans, the Celts, the saints, the GAA, the Famine, war, religion, art, literature, politics, architecture, folklore, industry, agriculture  and God knows what else, they’re all represented in these pages, and there’s something here for you.

 

The book is rich in personalities: I never knew, for example, that Dr Thekla Beere, the first woman to be  secretary-general of a government department, grew up in Kilbixy. I never knew either that the artist Erskine Nicholl lived on an island on Lough Derravarragh – the book’s beautiful dustjacket depicting boating on the lake is a detail from one of his paintings.In the book’s pages we meet the Ó Dalaighs, the Ó Cobhtaighs, the Ó Breens, the Nugents, the Handcocks, the Dillons, the Magawleys, the Macgeoghehans, the Rochfords, the Levinges, the Malones, James Joyce, JP Donleavy, Brinsley MacNamara, Oliver Goldsmith, together with our own John Broderick, Desmond Egan, Conleth Ellis and Vona Groarke.There are hundreds more. Boxer Moran, including several modern politicians, whose story is still far from over.

One of my favourites is Earl Nugent of Carlanstown in north Westmeath. In the eighteenth century, he became one of the richest men in these islands. He gave the term ‘ to nugentise’ to the English language. It means to marry a succession of wealthy widows, which was the way he accumulated his fortune.Peggy Plunkett, or Mrs Leeson as she called herself, also puts in an appearance. She was a courtesan, who operated  the most fashionable and famous eighteenth-century Dublin brothel, and wrote her memoirs (which can’t have been too popular with her clients!). I know that Athlone people will  be relieved – or perhaps disappointed? – to know that she came, not from around here, but from a gentry family in north Westmeath.

Most of the general essays touch on south Westmeath and Athlone. However, three in particular are specific to this area: Dr Padraig Lenihan’s study of military events in Athlone in the 1640s; Gearoid O’Brien’s essay on post-Famine Athlone, and John Burke’s analysis of the Midland Volunteers and their historiography. Other local authors have penned more general studies: Professor Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, Professior Cathal Ó Háinle, Dr Aengus Ó Fionnagáin and myself.

Thanks to Dr Murtagh for the text. Images save the group from Offaly History

The launch in Athlone on 31 March 2022. Front row, from left Editor Seamus O’Brien and Harman Murtagh. Series editor, Willie Nolan seated second from right. Courtesy Old Athlone Society

Without doubt, this is the greatest book ever published on Westmeath. It’s a monument to our county’s culture, history, society and creativity – and an expression of Westmeath’s very distinctive identity. It’s well worth acquiring a copy.

And if you have siblings, sons or daughters, uncles or aunts, who live outside Westmeath – in Sydney, Boston, London, Dublin or wherever – what a present it would make for them à la recherche du temps perdu; to recall their own roots, their own past!

So the publication of Westmeath history and society is an important cultural event in the life and history of the midlands, and especially of County Westmeath. It deserves our support

Now, without more, and by virtue of the authority I have from the editors and publishers of this splendid volume, it is my privilege to formally launch in the  great town of Athlone Westmeath history and society.

 

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