Trade Directories for Offaly one hundred years ago. From Offaly History

A contribution to marking the Decade of Centenaries in Offaly and recalling the past generations and the towns and villages on the eve of the War of Independence

In marking the years from 1912 to 1923 we may think that the years around 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War were times of unmitigated strife. Not so. Normal life continued, if punctuated by violent acts, such as the shooting of policemen in Kinnitty, Kilbeggan or Tullamore. The finding of bodies of spies, ‘the disappeared’, in Mountbolus or Puttaghaun. The holding of brief gunbattles in Ballycommon or Charleville Road. Worst of all the organised state violence condoned by Churchill and Lloyd George in the form of the Black and Tans racing through towns and villages in the dead of night and taking shots at anything that moved. Yet normal life continued and no better illustrated than by the issue, almost every week, (Offaly Independent excepted as the printing works was destroyed by British forces ) of the three or four local papers in Offaly and from time to time trade supplements or special publications such as trade directories that very much illustrate local business in most of the Offaly towns. Recently Offaly History acquired the 1919 MacDonald’s Trade Directory for Ireland to add to its collection at Bury Quay, Tullamore.

In the case of Offaly the directories began with that of Pigot in 1824, followed by Slater in 1846, 1856, 1870, 1881 and 1894. Covering these will take several blogs. In the new twentieth century there was Porter’s in 1908. Various issues of the MacDonald directories have been published since 1887. Our friends in Ask about Ireland have uploaded two for the late 1930s and have added a useful note:

The Offaly History collection at Bury Quay of the less rare items. Most are in the Thom’s series. MacDonald’s bottom right

The annual edition of MacDonald’s Irish Directory and Gazetteer was first published in 1887 and depended upon subscriptions and patronage. It was initially an all-Ireland directory but after the political partition of Ireland in 1922 it was divided into two sections: Eire ( Ireland ) and Northern Ireland. Information provided in the gazetteer include the details of elected parliamentary members, the judiciary and other national and local public officials, markets and early closing days, population statistics from official censuses, the banking industry, railways and town/city maps. Also included is information about merchants, traders, manufacturers and other business trading between Ireland, England and Scotland.

Courtesy of Ask About Ireland

Of historical interest are the business lists, addresses and contact details for every county in Ireland including the cities of Dublin, Belfast, Limerick, Londonderry and Cork as well as the larger towns arranged in alphabetical order. These demonstrate the plethora of local firms, usually family-owned businesses, manufacturers, traders, suppliers and many other commercial operations throughout the island of Ireland. Publications such as MacDonald’s Irish Directory and Gazetteer were vital for Irish business people who faced unprecedented challenges in the early years of Irish independence. 

The National Library has copies of issues over some years from 1902 to 1960. So far as we know the provincial towns are not covered by Thom’s Directories until 1927. We have some issues over the period from 1844 (start date) up to the 1940s (see photograph).  The lack of coverage in the nineteenth century for the Offaly towns is what makes Pigot and Slater so useful.

Two important publications highlight the value of local directories that published in 1884 by the Midland Tribune and in 1890 by John Wright of the King’s County Chronicle. Both are still available from Offaly History. We wrote of our reprint of the 1890 book:

First published as the King’s County Directory in 1890. Reprinted in 1989 by Esker Press.

Since its first publication in 1890 as the King’s County Directory this work has been constantly sought for its historical value for all interested in County Offaly, its towns, villages, industries and people. Long out of print and almost impossible to obtain, this facsimile edition with a new introduction and table of contents was made available to make the centenary of its first publication. Offaly One Hundred Years Ago has stood the test of time well and no one interested in Offaly history, be he a serious student or a casual observer, can afford to ignore the opportunity this facsimile edition presents to acquire a book that will endure.

Just to tell you there are less than forty copies left and when they are gone etc.

The Epitome is more history than trade but good for the adverts and articles on local industries. The only known original was donated to Offaly Archives soon after it opened in 2020. We wrote of it:

Not only was John St George Joyce a journalist, he was a historian,
poet and playwright. His book The King’s County, epitome of its
history, topography
(Birr 1883) is now very rare. The first issue in
December 1883 consisted of 41 closely printed pages of history. The
second issue soon after carried the same text and some forty pages of
local advertisements. It is scarcely surprising that copies are not
known to have survived since it was „published for gratuitous
circulation‟ at Christmas (1883) among readers of the Midland
established in 1881.

In a blog of 2017 in our Offaly History Blog series Dorothee Bibby wrote:

The book was republished by Offaly History as it had access to the last intact copy of the original edition. This only copy known is the property of one of our members. The book provides an invaluable guide to Offaly of the 1880s through its opinions and perhaps most revealing of all, through its advertisements. It is a history and record of the area as it was known at the time. The book was launched at a function in the OHAS centre, Bury Quay Tullamore in 1998 by Derek Fanning, senior reporter with the Midland Tribune who is the fifth generation of his family to be involved with the newspaper. Mr Fanning recalled that the Tribune had been originally established to give a voice to the nationalist cause and as a result his great-great grandfather, John Powell, the newspaper’s second editor had been imprisoned on a number of occasions. The publication was first issued free of charge with the ‘Tribune’ in October/November 1883 and was issued some time later with 40 pages of advertisements. J. St George Joyce, the book’s author and Tribune first editor, was a fervent nationalist and had spent a number of years in the United States before returning to Ireland in the 1860s or 70s. He joined the Midland Tribune, which had been founded as a Land League organ by four curates from the diocese of Killaloe in 1881.

So there is some of the background to the directories we hope to write of the use that can be made of these directories in another blog. Reverting now to the MacDonald’s issue of 1919 and here are the entries

Banagher 1919

Well known names here including the Harp Hotel. It then had a Bank of Ireland, a fine building by Symes. Flynn’s were there and J.J. Neilan. No mention of the Maltings of Williams and the furniture factory had closed the previous year.

Birr 1919

We see three banks (the same as Tullamore in number). Hickey builders , Goldon and Myles pharmacies in Main Street (then called Duke Street). Kingston’s – the family of the county secretary and of ‘Mrs Cathal Brugha’. Cycle Agents Lee’s in Castle Street and almost twenty drapers listed. Dooly’s Hotel was there (owned by the Midland Hotels Group) and Murphy’s garage in Castle Street. Publicans listed are low in number warning you that these directories are not comprehensive and much depended on subscription. Sheppard’s in Duke Square was listed as stationer and no longer a bookshop as it had been back to the 1830s. The Barber family jewellers is there and we think since the 1890s.


White and Williams are the big stores here with two banks and the big player was, of course, Goodbody flour mills (then undergoing very expensive refurbishment after a fire) and the jute factory. Farrell’s and Flynn’s also – shops with attractive shopfronts – some of which have survived.


Alsebury dominated and some interesting entries for the emerging peat business and for Moore’s butchers (records now in Offaly Archives).


Of Hiney, Hamill and Perry among others


Coffey, Williams and, of course the Egan store (later Gath’s).


Thomas Marshall was specialising in breeches making. We had the famous McCann’s hotel.


The town began with Ashe, architect but he was gone the following year. O’Carroll Pawnbrokers had two shops. The town had the well-known bakers of English and Lumley, and Gorry’s were the famous newsagents up to the late 1990s. This was the home of the Egan and Williams companies with branch shops throughout the midlands. Michael Gill’s we mentioned in a recent blog and now you get to see some of the competition. Three cycle agents including Kilroys (up to 2007), Walshe (that was Poole until 1920) and Egan’s. Scally bought the old Poole shop in William Street c. 1910-12) and demolished to build the new store of 1912.

Every entry in this directory has a story. So why not sit down and write it now for this series. If you have ledgers, accounts, diaries, pictures, stories, bill heads, memorial cards, give them a safe home,