Offaly History have a vacancy for a qualified archivist at Offaly Archives (see our blog of 6 Jan. 2023 in regard to the post). Arriving for interview by air balloon would strike a chord. Speaking of which the balloon fire of 10 May 1785 is perhaps the best-known event in the history of Tullamore and yet there are few surviving accounts.
First there were almost no local newspapers serving the midlands at the time. Neither have diaries or letters survived of any of the townspeople of that period save one letter of 12 May 1785 published by way of reportage in the Hibernian Magazine of the fire that occurred on the fair day. This would have been on Tuesday 10 May 1785. The letter from the Tullamore correspondent is clearly the most useful and more informed than similar reports in Finn’s Leinster Journal and Faulkner’s Dublin Journal. Some of these reports put the loss at 130 houses and not 100 as advised to us by the letter writer. One other short note was penned by Molly Burgess (née Pennington) of the Methodist Community who lost their church (dated to 1760) in Swaddling Lane off Barrack/Patrick Street. This lane was also known as Ruddock’s Lane and post 1905 as Bride’s Lane. After the fire the Methodists build a new chapel or preaching house on the site of the present-day church. The current church was build 101 years after the first
on that site.
Offaly History recently acquired a copy of the 1785 volume of the Hibernian Magazine to place in Offaly Archives because of its published report of the famous fire. The Hibernian Magazine was printed over the period 1771–1812. The first of the monthly issues of 1785 contains a report of the first successful manned flight of an air balloon in Ireland – that of Richard Crosbie – who had married an Offaly woman, Margaret Armstrong in 1780. She was said to be a daughter of Archibald Armstrong and possibly from the Ballycumber district (see Bryan MacMahon, Ascend or die, History Press, 2010) The May issue of the Hibernian has the report from Tullamore; also an account of an explosion in the powder room at Cloghan, King’s County barracks (gun powder that is) and the report of Richard McGwire’s ascent via balloon over the Irish sea and later rescue. McGwire stepped in for Crosbie and received a knighthood for his pluck and bravery. As a young Trinity student he probably knew Charles William Bury, the owner of Tullamore and who came of age in June of that spectacular year. The Hibernian is indeed a primary source for Irish history and good to have this important book in the Offaly Archives collection for its first-hand account of ballooning in Ireland and its consequences for Tullamore.
The Tullamore letter as published in the Hibernian Magazine was as follows:
Tullamore May 12: A most dreadful fire took place on the fair day, by which near an hundred houses and offices were totally consumed. The melancholy accident was occasioned by the liberation of a fire-balloon, or Montgolfier, which two gentlemen of that quarter encouraged an English adventurer to prepare for the amusement of their friends. Having being launched from Doctor Bleakley’s yard, it took its direction with a smart wind towards the barrack, where its progress was interrupted by the chimney; and having, on the shock, taken fire it communicated to Christopher Beck’s house, and raged with ungovernable fury, notwithstanding the efforts and the assistance of a number of people collected by the circumstance of the fair, till every house front and rear in Barrack Street (except one thatched and four slated houses) was entirely destroyed. The utmost distress has been experienced by the miserable inhabitants, whom the remaining houses are scarcely sufficient to afford shelter; and several of the wealthier residents have suffered losses nearly to their total ruin, particularly Mr. Norris whose dwelling house, office and malthouse containing a considerable quantity of grain were destroyed. This dreadful calamity rendered more poignant, perhaps from the absurd and dangerous practice from which it proceeded, has overwhelmed this ill-fated town with inconceivable distress and inconvenience.
Dr Bleakley’s yard was that of the first county infirmary (opened in Tullamore since about 1768) and preceded that erected in Church Street in 1788 (still standing and now apartments). Bleakley’s house may have been in the vicinity of what is now Hugh Lynch’s pub and perhaps the balloon passed across to the barracks and thereafter crashing into Beck’s thatched house. Beck was provided with a new house west of what is now the credit union in a scheme of four houses built by Charles William Bury, the town’s landlord, who came of age in June of the same year. The Mr Norris was a maltster and grain agent and much of Barrack/Patrick St south was comprised of this business. The destruction of the many single-storey thatched houses in Barrack Street and the lanes adjoining led to the redevelopment of the street. Another casualty in that fire was, as we noted, the first Methodist church in Ruddock’s/Swaddling Lane behind what is now Sirocco’s.
Offaly Archives has maps and leases for Tullamore that identify where the barracks was, who was Bleakley and Beck, and lots about Charles William Bury including the library of books in his possession in the mid-1790s. He and his wife went on to build the extravagant Charleville Castle in 1800-12 and he died in 1835. It seems his best years were those before the expense of Charleville and that of his only son got the better of him. Bury became earl of Charleville in 1806 and was president of the Royal Irish Academy until his resignation in 1812 following a long period as an absentee to the chair.
Some have supposed that Crosbie or McGuire were in Tullamore on 10 May 1785 but the evidence points to them being in Dublin preparing for the 12 May flight. And now with such a colourful history we expect to have lots of enquiries from archivists for the post advertised by Offaly History and Offaly Archives. Time to balloon down – only an hour from Dublin. For further see our blog of 6 Jan. or email email@example.com.