‘The town of Birr or Parsonstown, is the prettiest inland town in Ireland.’ – The Illustrated London News of 1843.

A two-page feature on Birr and its new telescope (s) was featured in the Illustrated London News of 9 September 1843. It was the first such international treatment for Birr and was combined with valuable illustrations of the town. It was also the first treatment by a national or international publisher promoting ‘Offaly Tourism’. It was the third earl of Rosse who organised the publicity for Birr and was now on the UK stage himself with his presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The window on Birr would be the first of many arising from the completion of the larger telescope in 1845. Birr town was the principal settlement in Offaly since the 1650s and was the premier shopping town, as is clear from the Pigot directory of 1824. Cooke would go on to write of the town’s significant history in his 1826 book – a first in the midlands and just six years after Hardiman’s Galway. What is interesting about the article of 1843 was the active role given to Mary Rosse in her work in the demesne and the town of Birr.

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Grand Juries in Ireland: the politics of power in the counties. By Michael Byrne

The county grand jury system will be the subject of much focus from mid-2022 with the uploading of links to the county archives records throughout Ireland by way of the Beyond 2022:Virtual Record Treasury Project. The first thing to say is that a useful and well-illustrated booklet People, Place and Power: the grand jury system in Ireland (Brian Gurrin with David Brown, Peter Crooks and Ciarán Wallace, online 2021) can now be downloaded from the Beyond 2022 website as well as useful material from the county archives in Offaly, Wicklow and Donegal. Furthermore, Brian Gurrin has published online an interim listing of the records held in each county. The scope of the records is well illustrated and draws on more detailed catalogues for counties such as Offaly and Donegal where listings are available on the online catalogues from the county archives. For more on Offaly material see the blog and presentation by Lisa Shortall now on YouTube and as a video on the Offaly History Decade of Centenaries platform on http://www.offalyhistory.com.

In summary the access position to these records will be revolutionised within the year and will greatly facilitate family historians, those interested in the workings of local government and how local elites interacted. What elite families provided the power brokers and controlled local patronage? All were men, most were landowners, representative of the county families, and, of course, most were Protestant from the early 1700s and the enactment of the Penal Laws. It was not until the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 that Catholics were admitted, and being a select club were scarce until the 1830s.

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The assassination in 1856 of Valerio, the fourth Count Magawly of Temora, Kilcormac and of Parma. By Michael Byrne

On the road to Birr, and not far from Kilcormac, are the classical gate piers of Temora – all that is left now of the home of the family of Magawly family. This Catholic family owned much of Kilcormac and, after a long legal battle, had the benefit of the articles of the Treaty of Limerick and were able to retain some of their lands. Temora may have been built in the 1750s or 1760s and the naming of the house possibly had an eye to the poem, Temora, of 1763 by James Macpherson. The illustrious history of the Magawly family can be recalled in the memorial inscription in the Catholic church in Kilcormac, placed there a few years after the completion of that church in 1867. The family had been obliged to sell the last of their landholding in 1852, but the pressure was on from the mid-1840s when the process servers were sniffing about. Money problems may have gone back at least 100 years earlier to the 1740s and 1750s when much of the Magawly landholdings were sold by way of long leases. The house itself was occupied by the Free State army in the early 1920s and destroyed by arson about 1930.

Temora on the 1838 OS sheet
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Profitless Bog- The impact of energy generation on the landscape of the Midlands. By Fergal MacCabe

‘….The lean road flung over profitless bog,

Where only a snipe could nest…

…..The soft and dreary midlands, with their tame canals,

Wallow between sea and sea, remote from adventure….’

‘Dublin Made Me’      Donagh MacDonagh

Lumcloon

Once a month, my uncle Billy Holohan who was the Assistant County Engineer for West Offaly, would come to Tullamore to report to his superior, the County Engineer Tom Duggan, in the courthouse. 

After the meeting he would sometimes pick me up from my mother’s house in Clonminch and bring me to stay with himself and his wife Nell in Gallen Lodge in Ferbane. The highlight of the journey, for both of us, was an inspection of the progress on the construction of the two cooling towers of Lumcloon Power Station.

We watched as immense rings of slim, angled columns emerged and were tied together by large circular bands to form the base from which the structures would rise. Over the next few years we marvelled at the gradual ascent of the elegantly modulated shapes, first curving inwards and then subtly outwards to form a lip. Billy tried to explain to me the structural engineering concepts behind the design, but as a small boy I could only marvel at the height and sheer scale of the undertaking.

An impression of the proposed mills at Leamanaghan. Very high and very prolific. Our thanks to Kenneth Smyth for this picture.

Leamanaghan Castle

Unusually for an engineer, Billy had a deep interest in history. He brought me along on his site inspections and introduced me to Clonmacnoise and Sier Kieran. His favourite stop on our return journey to Tullamore was Leamanaghan where we roamed amongst the remains of the Monastery. He delighted in showing me the hoof mark inside the gate of the school which marked the passage of St Manchan’s stolen cow and  then brought me over the fields to St Mella’s Kell which I still believe is one of the most romantic spots in Ireland.

Lemanaghan Castle, top left. This was where the Annals of Clonmacnoise was completed. The castle was demolished in the 1950s as was Kilcolgan nearby to provide filler. Courtesy of Offaly Archives

Then in 1959, in an act which was deeply symbolic of Ireland in that peculiar time between economic stagnation and rapid growth, Leamanaghan Castle was bulldozed to provide hardcore for works at Lumcloon Power Station. The Castle, which was derelict but still substantial, had been the ancestral home of the Mac Coghlans. Cardinal Rinuccini had stayed there (or more likely nearby Kilcolgan, also demolished) during his time as Papal Nuncio to the Confederation of Kilkenny and the Annals of Clonmacnoise were translated into English in the house. I was dumbfounded but hadn’t the courage to ask Billy whether it was the ESB or the County Council who were responsible.

Cooling towers of the old economy, so succesful for Offaly from the 1950s to the 2000s in regard to employment.

The Cooling Towers

The cooling towers were completed and over the years, became part of the public perception of the Midland landscape.

Driving westwards you knew you were approaching Kildare and Offaly when the Allenwood towers became visible, then Portarlington and Rhode emerged with Lumcloon in the far distance. Their harmonic shapes complemented Croghan, Endrim and Bellair hills and provided  points of vertical interest in an otherwise soft and dreary plain. The bogs, which had been perceived for centuries as profitless and impassable were now a proud testimony to national energy self-sufficiency and local technological advance.  

However, with the passage of time, what was originally considered a solution, became a problem and peat extraction began to be wound down with grievous personal and economic consequences which are still being felt. The Power Stations were closed, their towers and buildings demolished and their sites converted to other uses. 

Portarlington was the second last to go. At 10.30 on the morning of the 4th of April 1997, the cooling tower that had taken three years to build and stood for forty seven years, vanished in three seconds at the hands of an English demolition expert who already had many redundant cooling towers on his c.v..

Futile last minute efforts to save it were led by the Heritage Council and a local preservation group organised by Progressive Democrat Senator, Cathy Honan.  Architect Gerard Carty of Clonbullogue, now a director of the world famous Grafton Architects, wrote in protest that the Power Station was  ‘A monument to those visionaries who grafted a semi-industrial outlook onto the principally agricultural psyche of the Midlands’.  Their protests crumbled in the face of the ESB’s assertion that  ’ It was built for power generation and that function is over’.

The crowds watching the spectacle of the demolition were serenaded by local accordionist Louis Melia who played his composition ’The Tower I Loved So Well’  during the countdown to the explosion. 

An era had ended and the advent of wind power was at hand.

Wind Turbines

Because of the absence of nearby dwellings but with existing connections to the national grid, the Midland bogs were identified very early on as first choice locations for large scale wind energy generation. But, whatever about their ecological impacts, the visual impacts of turbines can be a lot more substantial than those of cooling towers.

Unlike one or two isolated towers, turbines spread haphazardly over large areas of the landscape. Though man-made, their scale and large array results in their being read as part of the natural landscape itself- which can be visually disturbing. As the blades rotate in different cycles, they can often cause visual irritation, even from very far away. The scale of the turbines can be incongruous and though they are generally no higher than the former cooling towers, there are a lot more of them. All in all, their visual impacts are significant and often unassimilable. But then, maybe the cooling towers were also, but in the 1950s any development was welcome, while today’s affluence allows us to make choices.

But whether it is cooling towers or turbines, the greatest sensitivity should always be shown when their development impinges on historic sites. Leamonaghan paid a price for the construction of Lumcloon and shouldn’t be put in the firing line a second time.

The old world that was partly destroyed in the 1950s.But the shrine at Lemanaghan survived in its original locus. A remarkable survival in its locale. Ballycumber castle was used for filler as was Kilcolgan. So much for heritage in 1920s to 1960s Ireland. Heritage was in a linguistic form only and divorced from real life. So much empty platitudes.

A Flashpoint

With the imminent lodgement by Bord na Mona of its proposal for a 17-turbine wind farm with blade heights of up to 220 m, the bogland island of Leamanaghan with its ancient monastery and graveyard will be in the forefront of the conflict between architectural heritage and power generation. Preliminary images show turbines dominating its surrounding landscape on its northern side.

However, just as in the 1950s, the likelihood is that national energy needs will trump all other considerations- particularly in the light of the recent correspondence from the Office of the Planning Regulator directing the Council to dramatically increase Offaly’s megawatt production.

This should not mean that the vulnerable character of Leamanaghan be disregarded, but that the most careful consideration needs to be given to the interface between it and the future wind farm. As one of the most sensitive locations in Offaly (and also to make restitution for the shameful razing of the Castle) the balance of the argument should favour the protection of its history and beauty.

The windmills of the past or a message of hope. Lemanaghan 120 years ago before the data centres and when most things were in the head of the local person and not in the Cloud. Courtesy of Offaly Archives

A Return to Profitless Bog?

As wind replaces peat extraction, it is not unthinkable that it may in turn be replaced by a less visually obtrusive or ecologically harmful form of energy production.Turbines last for about twenty years before they need replacement and a point may come when this is no longer economical.

In March of this year the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe declared that ‘Nuclear energy can be a critical component of a decarbonised energy system for those member states that choose to consider it as a part of their sustainable development and climate change strategy’. It will be interesting to see how other European countries respond to the technological advances which are now delivering safer nuclear energy.

I wonder if in seventy- or eighty-years’ time, as the last of the turbines come down and the land gently recedes back into its ancient role of profitless bog abounding in nesting snipe, will a small and nostalgic group emerge to campaign for the preservation of the remaining few of these iconic structures?

With thanks to Fergal MacCabe

Fergal MacCabe 

September 2021

Text: Fergal MacCabe

Pics and captions: Offaly History

A Rethink: Colmcille’s Copying of a Psalter. By Dr M.J. Fox

We are pleased to welcome a new contributor and old friend Dr Mary Jane Fox. She has contributed to Offaly Heritage journal.

Saint Colmcille[1] is very much a part of Offaly’s history, almost exclusively due to the early monastic site of Durrow. It is not certain exactly when he founded Durrow, but the land for it was possibly gifted to him either by Aedh, a son of Bréanainn, king of southern Uí Néill kingdom of south Tethbae,[2] or Ainmuire mac Sétnai, a prince from the Cenél Conaill branch of the northern Uí Néill. In both cases it was likely to have taken place around 553.[3

There has been significant controversy over the years regarding St. Colmcille’s copying a psalter belonging to his teacher, St. Finnian of Moville. Doubt about the event itself and events subsequent to it still persist, and the mystery has never truly been solved. For something that occurred almost 1500 years ago, how would that be possible anyway? Granted, it might never be solved, but we might find ourselves a few steps closer to what happened if we reconsider what sort of evidence we are seeking and what we consider acceptable.

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Clonmacnoise parish, County Offaly supports Charles S. Parnell in his defamation action against The Times in the late 1880s. By Padráig Turley

While perusing some late 19th century newspapers a reference to The National Indemnity Fund 1888 caught my eye. The object of this fund was to provide an indemnity for Parnell against an Order for costs in the event of him loosing a defamation action against the Times.

This fund received contributions from virtually every parish in Ireland, and also from outside Ireland. I found records of fundraising events in England, Scotland, U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.

However, I was more interested in the small contributions made by the ordinary people of Ireland, the vast majority of whom would not have been in any way well off. They would have been tenant farmers who lived a very precarious life due to their lack of security of tenure and volatile rents. Reflecting their means some the contributions are very small reminding us of the story of the widow`s mite in the gospel of St. Mark.

I was very pleased to find contributions from my own neck of the wood in west Offaly. I found a fascinating letter from Michael Reddy of Shannonbridge in the Freeman’s Journal of 26th October 1888.

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The Midland Tribune was 140 years old in September 2021. By Michael Byrne

The Midland Tribune and King’s County Vindicator was first published at Birr on 15th September, 1881. The aim of its promoters, three Birr Catholic priests of the Killaloe diocese,  was to provide a ‘thoroughly independent organ of popular opinion in a district hitherto without the semblance of national journalism’.  In politics it declared itself as a supporter of Home Rule.  Its tone would be Catholic while at the same time endeavouring to promote ‘the union of Irishmen of every class and creed.’  On the land question the Tribune adopted the programme of the Land League and on education the views of the Catholic hierarchy

Seamus Dooley, Geoff Oakley, the late Dorothy Oakely and an NUJ function in Tullamore in recent years. Geoff was editor of the Tullamore Tribune from 1978 to 1994. Seamus was a well-known reporter with the newspaper.

The Tribunewas founded in what is generally considered the most exciting decade of the nineteenth century.  The 1880s saw the development of the most powerful democratic movement in Irish history, based at first on the struggle of tenant farmers to wrest the land they tilled from the landlords and later the right of Ireland to manage her own affairs.  These twin aims, Home Rule and a solution to the land question were welded together into a popular mass movement led by Parnell, Davitt, and O’Brien. But, in the 1880s the masses came on the political stage as leading players rather than as extras. 

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Homan Potterton sale features three painters with Offaly connections. By Michael Byrne

The Homan Potterton sale on 7 September 2021 at Adam’s, Dublin features three painters with Offaly connections. But first a word about Potterton. After secondary education at Kilkenny College and Mountjoy School he began studying to be a solicitor, but (great for him ) he switched to art history at Trinity with the formidable Anne Crookshank. He was the youngest director of the National Gallery of Ireland ever appointed (1979) but stayed for only eight years. He retired in 1988 out of frustration with the bureaucracy, the bullying Charlie Haughey, and his being unable to secure much needed funds for the gallery. That was back in the difficult 1980s. Had Potterton remained he would have been able to oversee the wonderful gallery there is today. All the great institutions saw money flow in from the 1990s with the support of EC funds and the lift in the economy from 1993. While he took over the editorship of the Irish Arts Review in the 1990s (then an exciting annual event) he later moved to France and we heard no more of him save for several family histories, a memoir and a novel.

The jacket of Potterton’s memoir of 2017 with the arresting painting in the great classical style by Festing.
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My four years as a boarder at Tullabeg/ St Stanislaus College, Tullamore, 1882–86 recalled seventy years later in 1951. By Senex and Offaly History.

Starting in Tullabeg as a boarder in September might mean not getting home until the following June. Tullabeg, the Jesuit boarding school near Tullamore was opened in 1818 and closed in 1886 as a boarding school, following amalgamation with Clongowes Wood. This account of the four years spent there as a schoolboy was written in 1951 and published almost seventy years after the event.

On the 2nd of September, 1882, close on seventy years ago (almost 140 now), my father left me at St. Stanislaus’ College, Tullabeg. At that time Fr. Sturzo, an Italian, was Rector ; he was succeeded later by Fr. George Kelly. Fr. Wisthoff was Higher Line Prefect, Fr. Vincent Byrne, who lived to be ninety years of age, was Third Line Prefect. I forget who was Lower Line Prefect, though I remember that Mr. Charles Farley, S.J., held that position sometime later; whoever it was, I am sure that he had a hard time. The captain of the Third Line, known to us then as Billy O’Leary, was afterwards the famous seismologist at Rathfarnham Castle, Fr. William O’Leary. The youngest and, I think, smallest boy in the house at that time was Paddy Rath, who became Captain of the House in Clongowes in 1890. The oldest person in the house was, strange to say, Fr. Young, S.J.

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Stills from Offaly Remembers 1916 – the film of the 1966 Commemoration Parade in Tullamore. By Offaly History

The film made of the 1966 Commemoration parade on Easter Monday 1966 may be the first film made of a public civic event in Tullamore. It was commissioned by the organising committee for the parade and was made by Eamonn O’Connor Studios, Limerick. The cost was £265. In 2015 funds were provided under the aegis of the 2016 commemoration committee to have the film restored and digitised (Midland Tribune, 2/7/2015). The script was by Denis Wrafter and the commentator was Padraic O Raghallaigh who worked with Raidió Teilifís Éireann (which commenced broadcasting on 31 December 1961). The Offaly committee had been chaired by Alo O’Brennan and the secretary was Paddy Minnock of Offaly County Council (Midland Tribune, 14/1/1967). The film was later deposited in the Offaly County Library and was shown on a few occasions since the 1970s. It was made available to the public in 2016 and has now been uploaded to the Decade of Centenaries site on the platform provided by Offalyhistory.com on behalf of the contributors to the project. Our thanks to Offaly County Library. See also our discussion on the film with John Flanagan – On YouTube Offaly History. The film is about twenty minutes long and in black and white.

The report of the parade from the Offaly Independent, 16 April 1966 with Jack Drumm and Paddy Molloy, representing the two sides of the old IRA, coming together to lay a wreath. Far right is a picture of Enda Bracken, son of Peadar Bracken, reading the Proclamation. Peadar Bracken had died in 1961.
Revd A.T. Waterstone to the left of the 1916 veterans James Kelly and Seamus O’Brennan.
People assembled at Bridge Street for a view of the parade
Enda Bracken reading the Proclamation from the steps of the courthouse. The 2016
Possibly from Dolan’s Pharmacy
Stalwarts from Croghan area with the old tin mugs
Tom Galvin of Ardan Road, a former chair of Offaly History
The Duffy family on extreme right
Mick Forrestal of Clontarf Road on the right and Ned Connor behind
The Pender family to the front and Jim Toner to the back

Pat Minnock, hon sec to committee and John Horan
OI, 16 April 1966