The First Technical Education Scheme in King’s County/Offaly, 1902–30: a time of exciting innovation and experiment. By Michael Byrne

In these days when there is so much of war and pestilence it is good in looking at the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland to focus on the positive. Things that were done the good of which is still with us. So it is with technical education. Today we look at the early efforts and how positive and innovative were the early pioneers. Our own founder of Offaly History in 1938-9, James Rogers, was one who contributed. So too did those unsung heroes E. J. Delahunty and Willie Robbins. In regard to technical, or what is sometimes referred to as practical education, the earliest attempt in the county to provide such a facility was made at Birr about 1841 when the Parsonstown Mechanics Institute was established in, or to the rear, of the memorial hall at John’s Mall.[1] It was not a success. There were other experiments in agricultural education and model schools, but the first real attempt to provide children and adults with opportunities for technical or practical education came with the passing of the Technical Instruction Act, 1889. A further important stimulus was the passing of the Agricultural and Technical Instruction Act. 1899, which led to the setting up of a new department of agriculture and technical instruction. As a result of the two acts over fifty committees throughout Ireland were working to promote agriculture and technical instruction by early 1900.[2]

The Offaly committee (or King’s County committee as it then was) held its first meeting in June 1901 with John Powell, vice chairman of the county council and editor and owner of the Midland Tribune, in the chair. Later in the meeting Henry Egan, a leading Tullamore businessman, and chairman of the county council was elected chairman of the new county agriculture and technical instruction committee. The Offaly scheme was to be based on schemes in operation in Meath, and Tyrone that provided for the appointment of an agricultural instructor, a poultry expert, a diary lecturer, prizes for best kept cottages and farms and so on.[3] To borrow from Roy Foster’s recent study these men and women were the revolutionary generation in rural Ireland and its small towns and villages.

Progress of the Technical Scheme

In November 1901 an outline of a technical scheme for Offaly which would provide evening technical schools for Birr and Tullamore was approved. The subjects suggested included manual instruction, building construction and drawing, cooking and needlework. Michael Kenny, was appointed the first secretary to the committee, but he resigned in late 1903 and was replaced in February 1904 by E. J. Delahunty, a twenty-six-year-old Clonmel man who continued as secretary until the demise of the old scheme in 1930. Delahunty was a real pioneer and did much for Offaly. In 1917 he was given overall executive responsibility for the technical scheme and was to devote his full time to it which included ten hours of teaching each week.[4] In earlier days the secretary had also acted as organiser of the agricultural scheme, but this role passed to William Robbins at that time and he stayed with it for almost fifty years. Delahunty and Robbins are worth further study and we have already featured some of his work in helping to get the first public library in Offaly in 1921 (see earlier blog). We hope to look at his work for the Tullamore Students Union later this summer from papers now in Offaly Archives. Other new material, now in Offaly Archives, on the work in agricultural instruction of the county committee will make much deeper study possible.

E.J. Delahunty is centre back row

As early as 1901 local sub-committees at Birr and Tullamore were agreed to and were empowered by the parent committee to spend specified sums furthering technical instruction in their respective centres and for outlying areas. An Edenderry sub-committee was formed in 1902.[6] These local sub-committees served a useful function at a time when communication and travel were difficult. The Tullamore sub-committee selected St Bridget’s national school as a suitable premises and decided to hold classes in drawing and building instruction on two nights each week. Admittance was limited to those who had reached the age of fourteen years and over. [7] In Birr the memorial hall – once mechanics’ institute – was selected while Edenderry, Cloghan and Kilcormac (Frankfort) were adopted as sub-centres. That in the Birr memorial hall was formally opened in September 1902 by Archdeacon Phelan. The four classes given by the headmaster, G. H. Smith, were well attended and it was found necessary to provide an extra class from 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. The attendance of men and boys was almost forty with over sixty women for the domestic science classes.[8] In Tullamore it was later decided to hold the classes in the courthouse and rooms known as the ‘little record court’, the kitchen and dining room were selected as suitable premises for technical instruction and cookery. [9] In Kilcormac the Reverend Mother of the Mercy convent there agreed to provide rooms for cookery and laundry at a reasonable rent.[10] Despite the problems involved in safeguarding equipment purchased for use in temporary accommodation the committee sanctioned the expenditure of £20 by Miss Scott, the poultry instructress, on the purchase of a magic lantern and slides for the use in illustrating her lectures.[11] Fees for classes varied throughout the years of the technical scheme.

In the early years of the scheme evening classes held by the committee extended over almost every part of the country. The headmaster, G.H. Smith, reported the average attendance at the late 1903 sessions as: Kilcormac 39, Seir Kieran 410, Shinrone 38, Fancroft 37, Tullamore 28, Clara, 33.[15] This is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that the itinerant instructor usually had to cycle to each centre from a local base such as Birr, or Tullamore. The teaching staff was small with no more than two or three and some part-time or visiting lectures.

The much later Banagher school famed in Elsie Naughton’s time

Expansion of the Technical Scheme

It was agreed that the new joint county technical committee for Birr and Tullamore be established in 1905. An entirely separate committee was set up to promote agricultural instructions thus forming the prototype for the county committees of agriculture which were established in 1931. It was as headmaster of this separate Birr scheme that J.J. Horgan, later Offaly C.E.O., came to Birr in 1918 and we plan to write about his work in a later article.

In a review of the scheme in 1909 E.J. Delahunty. said that Tullamore was hampered by the lack of suitable classrooms and the need for a more centrally situated venue than the courthouse.[16] In this regard Birr had made progress and now had a new school.[17] The Tullamore tradesmen were not well represented at the classes, but ‘nearly every apprentice in the town attended’. The itinerant classes continued to be successful and pupils would walk four or five miles in winter – and home again at a late hour such was their enthusiasm.[18] In 1912 a new Tullamore school was opened on premises shared with the Tullamore U.D.C.  at the rear of the large three-storey house at the corner of O’Moore Street and Cormac Street. Three teachers were appointed – a domestic economy instructress, a manual instructor and a commercial teacher.[19] By 1914 the school also provided an introductory course in English and Maths, a course in Irish and later a French class.[20] The average attendance at the different classes amounted to 319.[21]For the 1915/16 session 185 pupils entered the school which was the highest to date.[22] By 1917 enrolment was up to 256.[23]

The first Tullamore Technical School was here (off O’Moore Street) and shared with the Tullamore U.D.C.

The first of the additional ‘permanent centres’ was opened at Banagher in 1916. An itinerant class had been in operation there since 1904 and this laid the basis for the new school which was a ‘splendid success’ and achieved an enrolment of 86 in its first session.[24] A day class was held at the school through the cooperation of the Shannon Steam Cabinet factory.[25] (This company was established by E.E. Williams Ltd. to manufacture furniture and was located in the former distillery. See an earlier blog and an article in Offaly Heritage 11 (2020) A technical school was established at Clara in 1916 and had an enrolment of 68.[26] Hopes to start a permanent school at Edenderry were dashed by the department‘s refusal to give a grant for equipment and instead the committee was advised to develop Clara and Banagher first.[27] However, two years later the committee established a permanent school at Edenderry, now fourth in the county scheme.[28] In the department‘s annual report for 1920 all four schools were described as being in a flourishing condition.[29]

The new technical school in Tullamore of 1937

The so War of Independence, the Civil War, and the transfer of power to the new Free State government made the administration of the county technical scheme extremely difficult. The absence of a minute book for this crucial period (not unusual) makes it impossible to follow the story at close quarters. Clara was closed because of unrest in the district and the partial destruction of the school. In Edenderry only a limited programme was in operation while Banagher continued as before. The Tullamore school was suffering from an acute accommodation problem because the house in which the school was located was now being used as temporary office for county council staff and as a labor exchange. [30] In 1921 the courthouse was occupied by the British military and in July 1922 was burned down by the anti-Treaty forces in the opening months of the civil war. As a result the chronic accommodation problem continued at Tullamore up to 1927 when the new courthouse was opened. That did not sort matters and it was ten more years before a permanent school was opened in Tullamore.

The technical committee had little direct involvement with industry prior to 1930. Such industry as existed in Offaly did not lend itself to the provision of training opportunities. Birr had very little industry of any kind, and in Tullamore it was difficult to bring technical instruction in line with the main industries there – brewing and distilling.[31] Clara proved more suitable and here classes were provided for Goodbody workers in the flour and jute mills while in Edenderry Alesbury’s furniture factory staff could avail of technical instruction.

Another problem was the lack of funds and it could be said throughout the years of the technical committee (1901–1930) and perhaps right up to 1960 it was generally a question of a trade-off between several competing projects rather than development on many fronts.

The partial destruction of the Clara school in the ‘Troubles’ left Clara downgraded from its status as a permanent centre. [32] Edenderry had also lost out as did Kilcormac with its rural science school.

An overview of the technical education scheme in the county including Birr is available from the data supplied to the Commission on Technical Education for the academic year ending July 1925. Enrolment in classes at Birr school was 100 with 42 taking commerce, 53 science and 5 handcraft. Enrolment at classes in the Offaly committee’s two permanent centres, Tullamore and Banagher, was 209 with 40 following an introductory course, 109 in commerce, 23 in handcraft and 46 in domestic economy. Enrolment in classes at itinerant centres was 68 for manual instruction at two centres, 15 for domestic economy at one centre and 53 for home spinning at three centres. Irish was taught at ten centres and had 190 pupils, but this was a low figure by comparison with almost all other counties.[33]

Despite the difficulties experienced by the Tullamore school in the early 1920s there was sufficient enthusiasm among staff and students to avail of an offer from Carnegie Library Trust to supply 100 books twice a year to the Tullamore student’s library and reading room which was managed by a student committee under the control of the Offaly Technical Committee.[34] This formed the basis of the Offaly County Library system established in 1925 following a considerable amount of organizational effort by the secretary, E.J.D.[35]

Published in 1980. Chapter One looks at the pre-1931 period. That chapter draws on the old minute books on the technical instruction side. These minute books have not been located so far and were last seen by MB in 1980.

Hampered by the lack of truly permanent centres – all the school buildings were rented – the committee was never on a very secure footing. The level and depth of development of the system in 1929/30 was not, outside Tullamore, any different from what it had been in early in the century. There were a number of reasons for this, of which the primary one was lack of finance and a stop-go policy in regard to funds; another reason was that the committee and its staff were experimenting and lacked expertise. Yet, it should be remembered that the early technical committee members and their staff were pioneers. Not only were staff called upon to teach at what would now be considered unsociable hours, in addition they were to walk four or five miles, often on winter’s evenings, to attend classes. The first technical scheme provided a starting point and served to indicate what could be achieved given adequate funding.


[1] Leinster Express, 22 Aug. 1845.

[2] Mc Elligott, op. cit., p. 102.

[3] The committee’s minute books, 5 Oct 1901 (herein after MB, 5 Oct. 1901. The date here should read June1901. See note under caption above.

[4] MB, 13 Mar.1917.

[5] MB, 15 Apr. 1902 and 13 Dc.1904

[6] MB. 15 Apr. 1902 and 25 Aug. 1902.

[7] MB, 12 June 1902.

[8] MB, 16 Sept  1902

[9] Ibid

[10] MB. 26 Sept. 1902.

[11] MB. 13 Dec. 1902.

[12] MB, 20 Oct. 1903

[13] MB, 14 Sept 1903.

[14] MB, 13 June 1922

[15] MB, 26 Jan .1904.

[16] MB, 9 Nov. 1909

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] MB, 11 June 1912

[20] MB, 12 Sept. 1916

[21] MB, 7 July 1914 and 10 Dec. 1914

[22] MB, 6 DEC.1915

[23] MB, 12 June 1917.

[24] MB, 1 July 1916.

[25] MB, 12 June 1917.

[26] MB, 9 Nov 1916.

[27] MB, 12 June 1917

[28] MB, 4 June 1919

[29] Offaly Independent, 18 Sept. 1920.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Mb, 9 Nov. 1909

[32] MB. 15TH May 1922

[33]  Report of the Commission on Technical Education : Appendix2, p. 161 and Appendix4, p. 167

[34] MB, 14 Dec. 1922

[35] MB 1 April 1926

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