The D.E. Williams branch shops in the midlands, 1884–1921: A revolution in retailing. By Michael Byrne

There are only a few studies available on the development of retailing in Ireland, either of a general nature or in connection with particular firms. It is well known that in the first half of the nineteenth century and up to the Famine years retail outlets were not widely available and many in the smaller towns were no better than huxter shops. There were exceptions and that is clear from the photographs of c. 1900 of shops such as Williams. Egan, Goodbody and Lumley (in Tullamore); O’Brien in Edenderry and O’Meara and Fayles in Birr. In looking at the revolutionary period from 1912 to 1921 to mark the decade of centenaries it is also worth looking at revolutions in other areas such as transport, energy and shopping. Like the political revolution retailing exhibited signs of stress after 1921 and did not recover until the coming of the supermarkets to the provincial towns in the 1960s.

The Williams head office with the Barrack Patrick Street shop to the right before more intensive motorised transport from 1915. Branch house managers were appointed of which the last under the old system (before the switch to supermarkets) was T.V. Costello.

The trade directories, and from the 1840s the valuation records, will facilitate investigation of retail outlets. By the 1860s living standards had improved and this is reflected in the increasing number of shops; per capita tobacco consumption rose to English standards about 1870 and per capita consumption of tea was not far off the English level by the end of the 1870s. The considerable economic progress of the early 1870s, began to slow down by the end of that decade. The 1880s is looked on as a period of industrial crisis with industries closing down in all the principal towns, or destroyed by fire as with the Goodbody tobacco factory in Tullamore and the Birr distillery in 1889.The railways and the canals (especially in the midlands) facilitated the easy removal of heavy goods and livestock from towns all over Ireland, but it also left it easier to import foods easily and cheaply. As a result, the Irish industrial base (such as it was, especially in southern Ireland) receded while the retail and services sector began to grow albeit slowly.

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The Railway Men: 1st Battalion, Offaly No. 2 Brigade the War of Independence and the attacks on trains in the Ballycumber- Clara area. By Pat McLoughlin

We welcome Pat McLoughlin this week as a new contributor writing about attacks on trains in the Clara-Ballycumber area during the War of Independence. Pat writes: I grew up between Clara and Ballycumber in the townland of Clonshanny.  Thomas Bracken who was Adjunt Officer 1st Battalion, Offaly No. 2 Bde. is my grandfather, Brigid Bracken (née Reilly) Cumann na mBan is my Grandmother.  The Bracken family who at that time lived in Erry, Clara were all involved on the War of Independence.  My neighbours Tommy and Annie Berry (née Morris) and John Minnock were among many veterans in that community.  The War of Independence I grew up with was fought in Clara, Ballycumber, The Barney Bridge, The Island, on the Banagher line, the people who fought it were the people we lived alongside.  The people and stories were part of our lives, then came funerals with Tricolour draped coffins, Military honours for Irish War Heroes and life moved on.  100 years on the Military Archive maintained by the Irish Defence Forces gives me an opportunity to recreate some of the history of the community where I grew up.

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The courts of assize in King’s County/Offaly in the years from 1914 and the last assizes of July 1921. By Michael Byrne

The administration of law in Ireland in 1914–19 was pervasive with petty sessions’ courts across the county in the smallest villages and towns. These were attended to by paid resident magistrates and on a voluntary basis by local gentry and merchants, both Protestant and Catholic, who had been deemed suitable by Dublin Castle for the conferring of a commission of justice of the peace. After 1916 it was becoming a doubtful honour and many nationalists, including P.J. Egan of Tullamore (chairman of the town council 1916-24 and managing director of a large business), resigned the commission when the War of Independence in 1919-21 intensified. The country had been subject to the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) since 1914 but it was not much invoked in Offaly before 1916 and the civil courts of petty sessions, quarter sessions and assizes (usually held in Tullamore, but often held in Birr from mid-1916 to 1921) continued in the county. The Sinn Féin courts will be the subject of a later blog.

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Daingean GAA Club experienced lean times during the Revolutionary Years, 1913-23. By Sean McEvoy

While Daingean celebrates the completion of its new Sports Centre it is good to look back to how things were 100 years ago. The country is currently celebrating and remembering what have become popularly known as the Revolutionary years or era spanning the timescale 1913–23.  These years witnessed the formation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, the Howth Gun Running in 1914, as well as the Easter Rising, the growth of Sinn Féin, and the formation of the first Dáil in 1919.  The events of this time are finally capped off with the War of Independence (1919–21), the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, and the calamitous Civil War (1922–31) which followed.  During this period also, the Great War (1914–18) and the Spanish Flu epidemic had varying degrees of impact on the life of the country.  There is no doubt that this train of events combined had a great impact on almost all GAA clubs then in existence. Some clubs fared better than others, for example, during the years in question Killeigh captured two Senior football titles while Rhode who had won only one title to date, captured three in six years.  For Daingean however, these years brought no titles in any grade.

At the recent opening of the Daingean GAA Sports Centre. All pictures courtesy of Daingean GAA Club.
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Catherine Mahon (1869-1948) – Birr’s radical republican feminist. By Margaret Hogan

This week’s Decade of Centenaries blogpost is by Margaret Hogan, retired teacher of St Brendan’s Community School, Birr, and local historian.

Introduction

Catherine Mahon is represented in most of the strands of the Decade of Centenaries: the labour movement, the women’s movement, the nationalist movement and even the implications of World War One for women teachers and agriculture. She became principal teacher at Carrig Mixed National School in Birr parish in 1892, and many of her friends and ex-pupils remembered the building of the nucleus of the present school by direct labour in 1911 and spoke about her activities during the Decade of Centenaries.

Feminist principles

She was co-opted to the executive of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) in 1907 after she protested that the executive was all male in a majority female profession. Her ability was recognised, and she became first woman president of the INTO in 1912 for two years. Female teachers then had to work longer hours than male teachers, training girls in laundry, needlework and cookery, and often buying products at their own expense, even though their salaries were much lower than those of male teachers. Then a pregnant woman teacher was obliged to take three months’ leave and employ a substitute at her own expense, and this enraged ‘Miss Mahon’, as she came to be known. It was alleged that inspectors at the time operated ‘a reign of terror’, humiliating, fining, demoting and having teachers dismissed in an arbitrary way. The UK government set up the Dill Commission to investigate teachers’ conditions of work and it is agreed that Miss Mahon starred when she gave evidence at the inquiry, with able responses to stiff challenges.

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Sir Edmund Spenser and Croghan Hill -a Damascus moment? By Dr Mary O’Connor

When renowned Offaly archaeologist Caimin O’Brien, cited Sir Edmund Spenser’s inclusion of a verse on Croghan Hill in his most famous poem, The Faerie Queene, in Stories from a Sacred Landscape: from Croghan Hill to Clonmacnoise; the curiosity bells began to ring.  This was an amazing revelation and posed questions as to how Spenser was familiar with Croghan Hill and its religious history? Had he visited the area? When did he visit? What were the circumstances pertaining to his visit? And latterly, the question arose as to whether it was possible that this visit influenced him in some distinctive way? And furthermore, whether that influence was positive or negative?

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Clara at the time of Partition – the lives of David Beers Quinn, historian (1909 – 2002) and Vivian Mercier, literary historian (1919-1989). By Sylvia Turner

There are many people of note from Clara, but two particularly can be seen as associated with the period of  Partition; David Beers Quinn and Vivian Mercier. Despite the ongoing War of Independence, the British government passed the Government of Ireland Act in December 1920, providing for the setting up of two parliaments in Ireland. The 3rd May 1921 marked the formation  of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so partitioning the island of Ireland. Vivian Mercier and David Beers Quinn had just reached their 2nd and  12th birthdays respectively. Although born a decade apart, in terms of Protestant identity, they represent different socio-economic backgrounds, illuminating what it was to be Protestant and Irish in the South of Ireland.

Inchmore where David Quinn worked as a gardener.

David Beers Quinn’s father, also named David, was a member of the Church of Ireland from Tyrone, He was employed as a gardener at the Goodbody house, Inchmore. His mother, Albertina Devine was also a member of the Church of Ireland from Cork with English parentage. Mercier’s father was from a Methodist family of Huguenot origin and his mother from a Church of Ireland clerical background from Monaghan. They lived in Cork Hill, Clara. The Mercier family, like the Goodbody family, were millers. Mercier’s father was born in Durrow, near Abbeyleix, Laois and was employed as a commercial clerk in jute manufacture at the Goodbody mills.

Vivian Mercier

The partition of Ireland affected the education of Quinn and later Mercier. Quinn and Mercier attended Protestant National Schools, Quinn attending Clara No 2 Protestant school and Mercier, Abbeyleix South National School. Why Mercier attended school in Abbeyleix is unknown as the Clara National School was still under the tutelage of Miss Bannon who taught Quinn. However, it is known that Mercier corresponded regularly with Mrs Thompson, a later teacher at the school in Clara. Possibly the Mercier family had moved out of Clara due to unrest to the comparative safety of his father’s family home in Abbeyleix, approximately 60km south.

David Beers Quinn taking a look at one of his editions of Drake’s Voyages for the Hakluyt Society.

Quinn’s parents came to realise that their son was gifted.  Finding good Protestant Irish education for a child from a working-class family was almost impossible if they stayed in rural Southern Ireland. The family moved to Belfast in 1922 where his father gained employment and in 1923 Quinn was able to attend the prestigious Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He continued his studies as an undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast between 1927 and 1931.  

Mercier similarly left the South for Northern Ireland for his secondary education, attending  the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen,  one of the Public Schools founded by Royal Charter in 1608 by James I. Samuel Beckett (1906 –1989) was a former pupil.  Critique of Beckett’s writing, particularly ‘Waiting for Godot’ was to shape much of Mercier’s career. Mercier and Beckett shared an affluent background and Huguenot descent in common.

Quinn attended Queen’s College, Belfast (QCB) from 1927 to 1931 and then went to London University for his Masters’ Degree which he was awarded in 1934. There followed an academic career starting at Southampton (1934–9) and QUB (1939–44). After wartime secondment to the BBC European Service in 1943, Quinn moved to University College, Swansea the following year where he remained until 1957 when he moved to Liverpool university until 1976. Between 1976-1978 and 1980-1982 he was Senior Visiting Professor at St Mary’s College of Maryland. Alongside his academic teaching career, he wrote extensively on the voyages of discovery and colonisation of America. Many of his publications appeared as volumes of the Hakluyt Society. However, he continued to engage with Irish history writing The Elizabethans and the Irish (1966). Quinn also contributed substantially to both the second and third volumes of the New History of Ireland series (1987, 1976). However,  his enduring influence on Irish history has been to link England’s involvement in Ireland with concurrent adventures in the Atlantic. Quinn married Alison Robertson whom he met whilst at Southampton in 1937. They were both politically active in radical politics. Alison worked with him particularly after their children grew up. She moved beyond indexing his work to becoming co-author and co-editor of several of his later publications.

One of Quinn’s first books. Still well thought of and now rare.

Mercier attended Trinity College, Dublin between 1936 and 1939. In 1940 he married American, Lucy Glazebrook. Whilst studying for his PhD, he worked as a journalist for the Church of Ireland Gazette and contributed to the Bell, a magazine of literature and taught at Rosse College. Mercier pursued  an academic career at Bennington College, Vermont City (1947–8) before moving to City College, New York, where he taught English 1948–65. He married Gina di Fonzi in 1950. He became known as an academic who enjoyed teaching. He co-edited, the anthology A thousand years of Irish prose (1952), which became a standard teaching resource. He also compiled Great Irish short stories (1964). During regular visits to Dublin in the 1950s, Mercier studied Irish with Trinity and UCD academics. These studies gave rise to The Irish comic tradition (1962), dedicated to Gina, which broke new ground by combining Irish-language and Anglo-Irish material in support of its central thesis that comedy preceded tragedy in Irish literature and that it was possible to trace a degree of continuity between work in both languages, paying particular attention to Swift and Beckett. Although initially receiving a hostile response, the book is now generally regarded as a key text in the development of Irish studies. In 1965, due to Gina’s declining health, Mercier moved to the University of Colorado as professor of English and comparative literature. Gina died in 1971. In 1972 Mercier was visiting lecturer at the commemoration by the American University of Beirut of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses. Mercier married the Irish author, Eilis Dillon in 1974 and took up his last academic position as professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During these years Mercier and Dillon moved between California, Italy, and Dublin.  Mercier retired in 1987 and he and Dillon moved permanently to Ireland. Here he reviewed books, contributed to literary journals and was a popular speaker at summer schools. He was writing a summative two-volume study of Modern Irish Literature when he died and his wife edited it and had it published in 1994.

Vivian Mercier

Quinn’s obituary in the Irish Times at the time of his death in April 2002 suggests his initial interest in the history of colonisation may have derived from his childhood years. He came from a Church of Ireland ‘colony’ within a ‘colony’ of the Quaker Goodbody family set inside a predominantly Catholic town. In 1998 Quinn wrote an affectionate account of his childhood years growing up there, explaining the relationships between different sectors of the community.

Mercier similarly was influenced by growing up in Clara, believing his experience of going to school ‘under the curious gaze of Catholic contemporaries whose world differed so widely from his own’ as separating him from the Protestant populations around Dublin who were confident in their own identity.

David Quinn at School through the Fields, Clara 1920 with Miss Bannon (teacher) and a former OH member May Wiggins. The roll books are now in Offaly Archives.

David Quinn died 19 March 2002, predeceased by his wife Alison who died in 1993. He was survived by his three children. Mercier died whilst on a visit to London on 3 November 1989. He was buried with his parents in Clara after an ecumenical funeral service at St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin. He was survived by his wife and three children.  Quinn and Mercier had diverse careers but it would seem that growing up as Protestants in Clara at a time of when religious communities were divided, influenced the work of them both. Their legacy to Irish scholarship is significant.

Sylvia Turner, May 2021 with thanks to James Gibbons for additional material

Bibliography

N. Canny and K. O. Kupperman, ‘The scholarship and legacy of David Beers Quinn, 1909–2002’, The William and Mary Quarterly, lx (2003), 843–60; ODNB

Irish Times ‘ Irish historian who investigated exploits of British explorers’available @ https://www.irishtimes.com/news/irish-historian-who-investigated-exploits-of-british-explorers-1.1085040

D. Kiberd, introduction to Vivian Mercier, Modern Irish literature: sources and founders (1994)

D. B. Quinn, ‘Clara: a midland industrial town, 1900–1923’, Offaly: history and society, ed. Timothy P. O’Neill and William Nolan (1998)

A. Roche, ‘Vivian Mercier 1919–1989’, Irish Literary Supplement, spring 1990, p. 3

The Guardian David Quinn: Historian who defined our role in the discovery of America available @ https://www.theguardian.com/news/2002/apr/06/guardianobituaries.highereducation

Colmcille or Columba – the founder of Durrow. By Brian Lacey

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 info@offalyhistory.com. Congratulations on his new book on Adomnán , the great biographer of Colmcille.

The Patron or Pattern Day at Durrow on 9 June 2014

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. 

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Derravane: a safe house in the bog at Lemanaghan during the War of Independence and the Civil War. By Angela Kelly

The name comes from the Irish Daire which means an oak grove on an island that is surrounded by peat or bog land

Lemanaghan and Derrravane

Derravane House is situated on a little bog island on Lemanaghan bog, in the townland of Thumbeagh.  The house was owned by the Connor family. 

John Connor and Ellen Costello

John Connor, Thumbeagh (1838-1921) married Ellen Costello, Kilgarvin (1863-1939) on September 11, 1886 in Ballinahown church. The couple had six children. Their house in Derravane, was made of mud with a thatched roof.  It had two rooms with three windows at the front. It was described in the 1901 Census as a 3rd class house. They also had a cow house, a piggery and a hen-house.

Ann Connor

One of their daughters, Anne born in 1893, left home around 1915 and operated her own dressmaking business in Athlone. She joined Cumann na mBan, which was the women’s arm of the recently formed Irish Volunteers and served in the Athlone Brigade.  In the early days, she was involved in first-aid training, drilling, fund-raising and political activities for Sinn Féin.  In April 1919, she was sent to Galway to form a new branch of Cumann na mBan and became its first president. From October that year, she became more involved in the campaign in the Athlone area, carrying dispatches and doing Intelligence work as well as rendering first-aid to wounded Active Service Unit men.  At one point, she took two wounded ASU men to her family home in Derravane and arranged medical help for them.  Dr William Meagher, Ferbane, attended the wounded. Her mother, Ellen Costello Connor was also a bonesetter. These skills were also useful.

Anne (Nan) became a full-time IRA member in 1921 and was appointed special courier for the Brigade area. Amongst her activities was the buying of a rifle and ammunition from the enemy (British) soldier and carrying them through Athlone to be handed over to Brigade headquarters.

The safe house on the bog of Lemanaghan at Derravane

During the War of Independence (1919-1921), the house at Derravane was used extensively as an unofficial field hospital (safe house) by the IRA.  Because of its location in the middle of a bog, it was fairly inaccessible for the Black and Tans in their motor vehicles, as there was only a narrow lane to the island.  Brigadier General George Adamson, from Moate, was cared for in Derravane, following an ambush at Carricknaughton, Athlone in 1921. There is a story that Dan Breen, the famous IRA volunteer, spent time in Derravane also. Nan Connor remained active to the end of hostilities and then returned to her dress-making business. She was also Director of Communications during the Civil War (1922-1923) in the Athlone and Galway areas.

Anne married Edward (Ned) Dowling, from Carricknaughton, in 1927 and moved to Dublin.

Sadly, the little house on the island in Lemanaghan bog is in ruins today, but what stories it could tell.

Thanks to Angela Kelly who is a new contributor and a long standing committee member of Offaly History. If you have a history or archaeology story to tell, get in touch with us by email to info@offalyhistory.com. We publish twice a week and have reached 56,000 since 1 January. These articles give enjoyment and do good service in spreading an appreciation of human endeavour over centuries. We are currently working on a new 1912-23 platform as part of the Decade of Centenaries and expect to unveil phase 1 in June on www.offalyhistory.com.

For guidelines for contributors to the blog articles email us info@offalyhistory.com. You have almost 300 articles waiting to review in the meantime.

Forthcoming blogs:

Wednesday 2 June, Offaly’s Grand Jury records: recovering local archives in a national context. By Lisa Shortall

Saturday 5 June, Colum Cille or Columba – the founder of Durrow. By Brian Lacey

And after that: Kinnittty in 1821, the Moving Bog of Clara and Placenames in Ballinagar to name a few delights in store.