The partial destruction of Offaly’s county records in the courthouse fire of 20 July 1922. A contribution from Offaly History to the Decade of Centenaries. Lost Archives stories no 4

@offalyarchives @offalyheritage @courthouses @offalycountycouncil. See our blog of 6 January in regard to a vacancy at Offaly Archives for an archivist.

Vacancy for an Archivist, Offaly Archives: a singular opportunity https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2023/01/06/vacancy-for-an-archivist-offaly-archives-a-singular-opportunity/

Reports vary as to how much destruction of the Offaly County Council’s papers took place. A report of 22 July 1922 was upbeat as to how much material was saved. This optimism appeared to be ill-founded:

It is feared that valuable books and papers have been burned.  Later, it appears one of the staff of the Co Council was knocked up at his lodgings a short time before the burning of the courthouse, and when he visited the place saw it filled with armed men and the smell of petrol everywhere. They gave him a few minutes to remove some books, documents, etc, to a place of safety. Most of the books, including the rate books, and documents were found undamaged in the strong rooms after the fire. A good deal of documents, including correspondence, was, of course, burned, but at the time of writing it is impossible to make any accurate estimate of missing property. It is stated that the records of the Clerk of the Crown and Peace Office escaped burning in the strong room. . .    Thursday Evening, Mr Costello, Co Surveyor’s clerk, Mr Barney Coughlan, Co Council staff, were called before the fire started and with the help of the courthouse caretaker’s daughters (Misses Mooney) and some others, removed before the fire started, large numbers of books and papers. The work had to be done speedily as very little time was allowed for it, but as a result of the efforts made, and the fact that the strong rooms saved most other documents, very little is missing belonging to the Co Council. Cart loads of stuff are being taken to the Urban Council and Technical building, [offices in what is now Banon’s yard in O’Moore Street]

part of the Tullamore jail in the mid-1930s. After the burning there was general plunder of the fittings

where it is intended to re-establish the Co. Council offices. The Co. Council staff are returning to the same offices as they occupied while the British military were in possession of the Courthouse [Jan. 1921–Jan. 1922] Large crowds spent the day viewing the burning remains of the buildings and visiting the interior of the prison. Very few heard anything unusual last night and it was only about 6 or 7 a.m. this Thursday morning the destructive ravages of the fire became generally known.[1]

The original Tullamore courthouse of 1835 was destroyed by the Republican IRA on 19-20 July 1922 with the barracks and the jail. It was rebuilt in 1927 for £10,000, and again in 2007 for €10 million.

Things must have been appallingly chaotic for the council staff trying to sort the mess and later having to move back to very confined office, not being much more than ‘a stuffy little office in High Street’.[2] The council staff was now headed by John Mahon who had been the county accountant and was now also acting county secretary following the dismissal/forced retirement in January 1921 of Charles P. Kingston by the new Sinn Féin dominated council on the alleged grounds of neglect of duty.[3] Kingston had been the council’s chief administrative officer since 1900 and would have worked with the old parliamentary party councillors who dominated the scene until the local elections in June 1920. When the results were coming in that June Kingston commented that the ‘election was remarkable and even more revolutionary than the elections of 1898 when only three members of the old grand jury were returned’. Probably Kingston had anticipated the change, did not like it, and was preparing for his departure. He had clashed with the Sinn Féin county organiser and ideologue, T. M. Russell, who had been on the council since early in 1917 and was much too clever for Kingston’s liking. Kingston was enterprising and had erected ‘two fine blocks of double villas’ at Clonminch Road, Tullamore in 1909.[4] He had sold his own house in this development to John Williams (son of D. E. Williams) in late 1918 and perhaps moved to Dublin at this time as he was involved in the Kingston Drapery business from the 1920s. In any case the Kingston removal put considerable pressure on the remaining officials in the councils. All this emerged with the investigation into the council’s affairs and its dissolution in 1924.

The Tullamore jail was partially destroyed on 19-20 July 1922. ‘This is where I have been staying lately.’

The council’s own Finance Committee minute book recorded on 3 August 1922 that:

A meeting of the finance Committee was held in the Urban Council Hall, Tullamore, on the 3rd day of August 1922.

Mr John O’Meara presiding.

The other Members present were: – Messrs Luke Scally and James O’Connor

Payments to the amount of £1,377. 11s.3d. on foot of Works in charge of the County Surveyor, salaries, & c. were made.

The secretary reported, for the purpose of the record on the Minutes, that the County Courthouse and all the contents of same were burned and totally destroyed on the 19th July, and that the Safe, which was in the County Council Office, and which contained Ledgers and Abstracts, Vouchers, Paying Orders, Cheques, Bonds, Bank Pass Books, &c., had fallen to the bottom of the Courthouse, and when it was opened, all the contents were found to have been totally destroyed, being burned into ashes. Certain other books, such as the Minute Books, Rate Collectors’ Books, &c., were stored in the Strong Room in the Crown and Peace Office, by the courtesy of the Assistant Clerk of the Peace, [Mr Holohan] and were found to be safe.

The Secretary also reported that Messrs Healy, Coghlan and Costello had saved all the Rate Books, Expenditure Books, some documents, &c., and County Surveyor’s Books that they possibly could from the fire, and that they had worked hard at great personal risk, and he (Secretary) recommended them to the consideration of the Committee. The County Surveyor also supported this recommendation, and the Committee granted the three persons concerned a sum of £7 each, subject to the approval of the Local Government Department.[5]

Thomas Holohan is obliged to sue the council for the balance of £2 due

In October 1922 the council agreed to pay Mrs Mooney, the former caretaker of the courthouse a sum of £7 for her work in saving a considerable amount of furniture from the fire in the courthouse.[6] The council was less liberal with Thomas Holohan, the deputy clerk of the peace working in what would later be the county registrar’s office.[7] He had requested the council to pay him the balance of £2 due to him of the total sum of £5 he had paid to a carter to assist in moving the court documents and some ratepayer material from the brick-lined safe. This included some 5,000 items relating to land registration. It took three days to remove the material at the expense of £5 paid by Mr Holohan, who also had had the assistance of his own family in the removal for which he had not charged anything. The council had let the matter go to quarter sessions rather than refund Holohan the balance of €2 of his out-of-pocket expenses for the transport of the documents. Judge Fleming awarded the amount claimed. Ironically, some of the documents saved may well have been included in the planned destruction about 2010 of old land folios in all the county registrars’ offices across the country showing previous transactions on the title. This was done as part of the moving online of the land registry folios but at the loss of much useful historical material.

Thomas Holohan (1860-1949) was a member of the rising middle classes of Tullamore. He became Assistant Clerk of the Peace in 1892 and retired as Senior Clerk in the Circuit Court Office in 1942. In 1909 he moved his family from their rented house in Store Street into ‘Innisfree’ (now ‘Loughmore Lodge’) one of the four substantial semi-detached villas on Clonminch Road built as a speculative development by the County Secretary, Charlie Kingston.

The county council was dissolved on 4 September 1924 and a commissioner appointed. This followed on from a report in May 1924 by the Ministry of Local Government’s chief engineering inspector on the state of the county’s roads and that the results of expenditure on road maintenance were about as bad as could obtain.[8] The situation was aggravated by the difficulty in collecting rates since June of 1920 and the repudiation of the Local Government Board. Furthermore, the accounts books had been seized by both the IRA and the RIC from June 1920. The council staff had been evicted from their courthouse offices in January 1921 and only allowed return in March 1922. Their stay only lasted four months. These reasons and the lack of a trained accountant following on from the promotion of John Mahon to county secretaryship were advanced by Mahon as the reasons for the shortcomings in the council’s management of local affairs. Mahon resigned from the county secretaryship in April 1925 due to chronic illness.[9]

Republican IRA marking the destruction of the jail during the building works for Salts factory in 1937. Included in the picture are Messrs Digan, Clarke and Brennan.

The records of the council’s predecessor – the King’s County Grand Jury

In the several references in the press to the surviving records of the council and the clerk of the crown and peace nothing at all was said as to the fate of the grand jury records (see previous blogs). These would have included the presentment books and perhaps an old county map of the 1750s or perhaps that of 1809. John Wright had drawn on what appears to be a surviving series of presentment books from 1817 for his guide to Offaly published in 1890.[10] These were probably printed in Birr by Thomas Legge who was the only printer in Birr from that time until his death in 1826.[11] Wright did have access to what may have been a list of the sheriffs from 1787 and a summary of the judicial business, but not until 1817 the presentments or ‘Jobs’ books. He was able to list the full list of grand jurors from 1803 and presentment business (as was of interest to him) from 1820.[12] The fact that so much was destroyed in 1922 makes Wright’s book valuable today. The Offaly Archives catalogue provides listings of what survived. In the case of the council from 1912 and for the grand jury generally from 1830. But there may be more out there from 1817 because a collection was sold at Purcell’s for the very high price of £4,000. The rumour was that the National Library bought them but that may not be the case. A buyer from Offaly History went to £1500 but dropped out at that point to great disappointment.

The good news is that our county records are now housed in Offaly Archives.

[1] Midland Tribune, 22 July 1922; Offaly Chronicle, 27 July 1922.

[2] Ibid., 29 July 1922; Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 4 Sept. 1915.

[3] This saga can be followed in Michael Murphy, Anne Coughlan and Grainne Doran, Grainne, Grand jury rooms to Aras an Chontae: local government in Offaly (Tullamore, 2003) pp 143–5.

[4] King’s County Chronicle 19 Aug. 1909.

[5] Offaly Archives: The minutes of Finance Committee meetings 3 Aug. 1922 to 5 Oct. 1923 are bound in with the later council minute book for 1941–45.

[6] Finance committee minute of 19 Oct. 1922.

[7] Holohan (1860-1949) was a member of the rising middle classes of Tullamore. He became Assistant Clerk of the Peace in 1892 and retired as Senior Clerk in the Circuit Court Office in 1942. In 1909 he moved his family from their rented house in Store Street into ‘Innisfree’ (now ‘Loughmore Lodge’) one of the four substantial semi-detached villas on Clonminch Road built as a speculative development by the County Secretary, Charlie Kingston. A noted figure on the Offaly legal scene, to the end of his days, Holohan still dressed in the senior civil servant’s uniform of sponge bag trousers, winged collar, a short ‘Parliamentary’ jacket and a bowler hat. He was dismayed by the actions in the Civil War of the Anti-Treaty forces, whom he always referred to in later life as ‘The Irregulars’. Information from Fergal MacCabe.

[8] Offaly Archives: minute book of Offaly County Council.

[9] Murphy, Michael, Coughlan, Anne and Doran, Grainne, Grand jury rooms to Aras an Chontae: local government in Offaly (Tullamore, 2003), pp 145-6.

[10] [John Wright (ed.).]  The King’s County directory, 1890, including a short history together with coloured map, almanac and calendar.  Parsonstown: King’s County Chronicle, 1890. Reprinted as Offaly one Hundred years ago with a new introduction by Michael Byrne (Naas, 1989).

[11] Michael Byrne, Printing and bookselling in Offaly in the nineteenth century (Tullamore, 2020), pp 52–3.

[12] John Wright (ed.).  The King’s County directory, 1890, pp 253–62.

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