We welcome Brian Lacey this week. He agreed to contribute this blog in advance of his lecture to Offaly History on Wednesday 9 June at 7.30 p.m. via Zoom. You can book a place via email@example.com. Congratulations on his new book on Adomnán , the great biographer of Colmcille.
This is the 1500th anniversary of the birth of Colmcille (the name he is usually known by in Irish) or Columba (name in Latin). In the Middle Ages Colmcille was honoured as one of Ireland’s three patron saints, along with Brigid and Patrick. Patrick, of course, was not Irish but British, and it is an open question as to whether Brigid really existed as a person at all, or if her legendary character is just the Christianisation of stories about a pagan goddess. While there are many things we don’t know or are unsure about Colmcille, he was definitely a real Irish person who lived for most of the sixth century.
His fame however was not confined to Ireland. Somewhat akin to the Joycean and Yeatsean literary ‘industries’, vast amounts have been written about Colmcille since his death while his name has also been honoured in works of art, placenames, dedications etc. The resulting Colmcille is a cultural and social construction (not in itself unusual in relation to individuals who are honoured as ‘saints’) which is only partly based on ‘history’. In fact, when it is all boiled down, we actually know very little about the original person. But the fact that we know anything at all about someone who lived so long ago is itself rare and extraordinary, and a testament both to his own personality and to those who worked to perpetuate his memory.
In the Pigot directory of 1824 Birr was described ‘as far the most considerable of any of the towns in the King’s County. It is situated on the river Birr [Camcor], and adorned with a fine castle, built by the family of the Parsons, the residence of the second earl of Rosse, the proprietor of the town. This town it was said has since been rebuilt by the present earl’. Birr was the leading town in the county from the 1620s until the 1840s but began to loose out because of the lack of an easy and direct link with Dublin, and it being that bit more distant from the capital and less central for local administration. The decline would accelerate after 1900 with the loss of political and administrative influence. By the 1820s Birr had new Protestant and Catholic churches (the latter nearing completion at the time of the census and the publishing of the Pigot directory), two Methodist chapels and a Quakers’ meeting house. The charitable institutions of Birr, were a fever hospital and dispensary, supported by county grants and annual subscriptions; a Sunday school for children of all denominations; a free school for boys, and another for girls. Birr had a gaol and a courthouse (from c. 1803), where the sessions were held four times a year. The prisoners were sent to Philipstown, which was the county town until 1835 for trial for serious crimes. From 1830 when the new gaol was built in Tullamore Birr prison was more a holding centre only. The ruins of the old church near the castle wall are still visible. One mile from the town were the barracks, ‘a large and elegant building, capable of holding three regiments of soldiers’. Birr has two large distilleries and two breweries, which, it was said, gave employment to the poor of the town.
William Dudley Wordsworth accurately noted in his 1876 study of the Dublin Foundling Hospital that: ‘dead children, like drowned sailors, tell no tales’. The same can be said in the context of this analysis of Civil Death Records in County Donegal where unidentified (those registered as deceased without a known forename or surname) infant deaths occurred in their hundreds. This study was inspired by an article in Irish Historical Studies called ‘Registered ‘Unknown’ Infant Fatalities in Ireland, 1916-32: Gender and Power’ by O’Halpin and Breathnach, where the evidence suggests that many unidentified infant fatalities were homicides that occurred as a result of deliberate action, or inaction, i.e., infanticide. This is also true in the case of Donegal from 1870-1950, as the vast majority of unidentified death records belonged to infants, many of whom unfortunately died in suspicious circumstances. Wordsworth’s ‘drowned sailors’ too make an appearance in this set of records and can illuminate local communities’ experiences of Irish neutrality during the Emergency. Unidentified death records also shed light on another marginal group of society: mendicants. This cohort would have been familiar faces to many on the streets of Donegal, but utterly nameless to most, especially when they died. Similar studies could, and should, be undertaken in other counties, such as County Offaly, to further illuminate the ‘unknown’, marginalised or the forgotten in Irish society.
In January 1864 it became obligatory to register all births, marriages, and deaths with the local authorities. Not all deaths, natural and unnatural, however, came to official notice, as popular understanding of the law pertaining to Civil Registration was poor. It can be assumed that the deaths of many people of all ages remained unregistered, particularly in rural areas, for some time after the law was passed. Registrations were collated according to Superintendent Registrar’s Districts. 350 unidentified deaths were recorded in total in the districts of Ballyshannon, Donegal, Dunfanaghy, Glenties, Inishowen, Letterkenny, Londonderry, Milford, Strabane, Stranorlar and Castlederg. Of the death records, 196 were infants and 104 were adults. The remaining 84 death records could not be identified by age. Of the 196 infants, 162 were regarded as suspicious, such that an inquest was held by the local Coroner.
The illegitimate status of a child was a common motivation for infanticide in nineteenth and twentieth Ireland, due to the societal stigma associated with pregnancy and childbirth out of wedlock (for further reading, see Rattigan and Farrell). Pursual of this crime through the courts could only occur, however, if the infant was identified and a suspect detained through police enquiry. This leads the historian to probe a number of questions regarding the Donegal case: How many infant bodies were never recovered, particularly due to quick decomposition, from the rural landscape? Of those that were, how many new-borns were never identified and thus the perpetrator escaped a court trial? It is important, however, not to lay all of the blame on women who committed infant murder. They too were victims of a patriarchal society which valued familial landholding over the life of an apparently illegitimate child.
With the recent publication of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the notion and concept of shame is very much in the news. Shame is a negative influence that is so powerful that it can destroy and ruin lives. It can have appalling consequences. It can be public or private.
Public shame is easier to deal with, for example the Government`s handling of such and such a problem was shameful. This is easy to handle as the Government is a distant entity, and their nonfeasance or apparent nonfeasance can be punished at the next election.
However personal shame is much more traumatic and can have devastating consequences. We have seen over the last forty or so years a series of scandals all of which had catastrophic effects on very innocent victims. When we look at these `scandals` from today`s vantage point it is hard to understand how the particular activity involved could have caused the outrage they did. It is difficult to understand that what is today accepted as quite normal could stigmatize an individual to such an extent that their lives were ruined and indeed that such ignominy could attach itself to an entire family.
However, the story I wish to relate is a simple enough tale, where a totally innocent condition had to be hidden. The person I wish to talk about is my grand uncle Kieran Claffey. He was one of twelve children born to Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery, who were married in Shannonbridge in 2nd January 1853. They were farming folk who lived in Bloomhill near Ballinahown.
Offaly History intended to have a walk on 26 December 2020 through the historic Lloyd Town Park, Tullamore, but had to cancel due to the imposition of the third wave of restrictions since March 2020 designed to reduce the impact of the Covid-19 virus. An historic year and one we will be glad to see the back of. After fifty-years of mostly progress since the 1960s we have become accustomed to the shock of change for the worst since the banking crisis and the bail-out. Now it’s the Covid-19 virus and in the background climate change, and in Offaly the end of the bogs – so much a part of growth in Offaly from the 1950s. Today we are visiting the Lloyd town park, Kilcruttin, Tullamore and reflecting on its historical features and change in the landscape of the area and the town of Tullamore since the 1700s.
Killings such as that of Sergeant Cronin were rarely spoken of in Tullamore in the years from 1920 to the 1990s. As to who shot Cronin there were so many suggestions – men from out of town, a policeman siding with the I.R.A. and so on. Like the Spanish Civil War there was a pact of forgetfulness (olvidados) for those who were there. When Peadar Bracken made the Offaly I.R.A. Brigade return in 1940 (filed in confidence for over seventy years) in connection with service and pensions for those who had fought in the 1916–21 period he described the Cronin killing outside Cronin’s house in Henry/O’Carroll Street as
‘31st Oct., 1920 – Sergeant Cronin ‘wounded returning to Barracks, at Tullamore. Died subsequently.’
Today we know that the causes, course and consequences of any national struggle are complex and that the results can be not what was anticipated. In Ireland it became a Free State with a Civil War that set back the country for many years. Perhaps until after the emigration of 400,000 in the 1950s.
As a political agitator, journalist, businessman and politician, Hugh Mahon had a varied and fascinating life. Born in Offaly, he and his family migrated to America in 1869, but returned to Ireland in 1880 after their American dream failed. He was active in the Land League in County Wexford which led to his arrest and imprisonment with Parnell in 1881, and exile to Australia. As a crusading journalist he exposed corruption and became a thorn in the side of the Forrest government in Western Australia during the 1890s. He was elected to the first Commonwealth parliament in 1901 and served in four Labour ministries, rising to Minister for External Affairs during the First World War. He has the distinction of being the only person expelled from the Commonwealth parliament after he criticised British rule in Ireland.
This book, the second part of a two-volume biography of Mahon, covers the period from his election to parliament in 1901 until his death in 1931. It describes his almost 20 years as a backbencher and a minister during which he gained a reputation as one of the brainiest men in parliament as well as one of the most controversial. It provides an insight into his reluctant decision to oppose conscription in 1916 and examines in depth his commitment to Irish self-government and the circumstances of his dramatic expulsion from parliament in 1920. The volume also looks at Mahon’s career as managing director of the Catholic Church Property Insurance Co. and his intervention in Irish politics during the debate over the Anglo-Irish treaty. It is the story of a flawed genius who simultaneously evoked high praise and damning criticism.
The verdict of county secretary James P. Kingston on the county council elections of 2 June 1920 was that the election was not just remarkable and memorable but revolutionary. Kingston believed it was even more revolutionary than the 1899 elections that saw only three members of the old grand jury transfer to the new county council. In that election James Perry Goodbody was elected for Clara unopposed and William Adams defeated distiller and grand jury member Bernard Daly to secure the Tullamore seat. Goodbody was a leading Quaker businessman and Adams a large farmer and publican. Adams retired from the council in 1912 and was succeeded at the council by his son P.F. Adams who was married to Rosaleen Egan, a daughter of Henry Egan, chairman of the county council from 1899 to 1910. Goodbody served on the council as chair of the Finance and Proposals Committee from 1900 and was vice-chairman of the council from 1912. Both P.F. Adams and James P. Goodbody sought election to the new council of 1920 in the first post-war elections and both were defeated. Sinn Féin secured 19 of the 21 seats and acceptable Labour men two seats. For Secretary Kingston the election was also a turning point as he was forced out of office within a year, just as his predecessor Thomas Mitchell had been in 1899.
It was generally in late May of each year that school tours and school sports were held and provide happy memories of times past. Besides the serious stuff there were lots of fun events such as the sack race, the egg and spoon, wheelbarrow and much more. Charleville Demesne, Tullamore had sports days back in the 1830s for its tenantry with events such as climbing a greasy pole and other fun and frolics fit to be described by Carleton or Hardy. These early efforts have been much studied and collated in early tomes such as Blaine’s Rural Sports and W.H. Maxwell’s Wild sports of the West. Durrow, Tullamore man, Paul Rouse, has surveyed the traditional sporting pattern and the onward commercialising and politicisation of sports by the late nineteenth century in his acclaimed history published as Sport and Ireland (2015).