Placenames and folklore from the townlands of Ballinagar district and the 1550 Survey of Offaly. By John Malone

An often-overlooked heritage is that of our townlands, even the few unassuming townlands that surround Ballinagar village are a treasure trove of folklore and history. These places were once full of ‘rambling houses’ where locals gathered to play cards or enjoy music and stories. There were stile-ways through the countryside, used when crossing fields was more common than using roads.

Work by John O’ Donovan in the 1840s and later P.W. Joyce, and more recently Thomas Lee along with a survey in conducted by the English in 1550 give some understanding of the townland names and how they have developed over the years.

From the map with the edition of the 1550 Survey of Offaly edited by Edmund Curtis in 1930 based on the 1563 map in the British Library and that in TCD.

Tuath  Eishill

Today these townlands are in the parish of Killeigh and the Barony of Geashill, this area roughly corresponds to the ancient Tuath Eishill . The area is first mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters , where they say a battle was fought between Hermon and Heber at the brink of the Bri Daimh and this was called the battle of Geishill.

The Killeigh parish is an amalgamation of smaller parishes which were substations of the famous monastery at Killeigh founded by St. Senchal the elder.  It was a noted centre of learning and had a long and turbulent history, including being sacked by the Danes in 840.

The first mention of a ruling tribe is that of O’ Hamirgin or Bergin whose battle cry was ‘Bergin ,Geahill and the sky over it’. They were a sub-sect of the O’Connors who ruled the area and had forts in Geashill, Killeigh, Daingean and Croghan. Their chiefs were buried in Killeigh. The O’Connors were a warlike clan and resisted the various invaders well into the 1600s.

An item associated with them is the Geashill Cauldron which is now housed in the National museum. It was said that it was banged as they entered battle. One such occasion was in 1406 when Calvagh O’ Connor struck the cauldron with a stone it produced such a noise that it struck a sudden fear and panic into the hearts of the plunderers.

Townlands in the barony of Geashill and close to Ballinagar

With the coming of the Normans a castle was built in Geashill and the land was eventually held by the Fitzgeralds who as most Anglo-Norman families became more ‘Irish than the Irish themselves’. The family produced many rebels including Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a leader of the United Irishmen. In a letter to the Irish Press Tommy Dunne recounts a story about Lord Edward –“Is the record or the memory still kept of Dempsey the faithful yeoman who kept sentry on Leixlip bridge in ‘98. Lord Edward then on his keeping approached him disguised as a farmer driving his sheep to the city market and inquired whether there was pasturage abouts “No my lord there is not” answered the faithful yeoman, showing that he knew Lord Edward but would not betray him for the £1000 pound that was on his head.

In my early days there used to be a pilgrimage to the grave of the faithful yeoman, is it forgotten”.

The last in the Fitzgerald line in the Geashill area was Lettice who famously held Geashill castle in spite of a siege by the O’Dempseys. Through her marriage to Robert Digby, the area passed into the hands of the Digby family, who were the landlords until the breakup of the estate in the early 1900s.

The O’ Connors were involved in many uprisings through the years and after Silken Thomas Fitzgerald’s failed uprising, the 1550 survey was conducted to find the extent of Brian O’ Connor’s land. Although the survey was flawed on many fronts such as the names were written ‘clumsy English phonetics’ from what they heard from the native Irish speakers , it still provides a good base to start the journey through the townlands. Some Irish words are still recognisable such as glais [stream] curragh [ moor] bohir [road] loch [lake] and eanach [marsh].

Ballinagar before the road widening, about 1960

Ballyduff South

Ballyduff south is described in 1550 asBallindowe. From fyrcloghe alonge the diche to curraghbaitte then alonge to clonardebriske then to glaishbiallacroe & so to glynnegartaghe & then to fyrcloghe.

Some of the names of the townland through the years were Ballydoughe, Balleindo with water mill and Ballyduffon a Digby map of 1797.

John O’ Donovan interpreted the name as Baile ui Dhuibh Theas or O’ Duffs townland. Folklore says there was once a church here. Older people still refer to the townland as High Ballyduff. There was also a famous bush growing on the hill which when seen by men on the run during the War of Independence knew they were in a safe area. Tommy Dunne had an interesting story concerning the battle of Aughrim.

And who Tom asks has not heard of the dog of Aughrim who guarded his master’s bones on the battlefield from July to October until he was shot by English soldiers who were passing that way.

Then there is one other story not generally known of Terence O’Dunne’s horse who when his rider fell mortally wounded galloped home to Clonaslee. Terence O’ Dunne was himself carried by the O’ Gormans to Killeigh where he died and was buried in the Abbey burial ground. Tom says he has learned that St. Ruth’s bush has disappeared from the Battlefield. In his father’s time a portion of it was brought to Ballinagar.

The Hackett family for years looked after the wooden tabernacle of the early church in Ballinagar and in 2006 Larry and George Hackett presented it to the new church. Larry was a famous thatcher whose work was admired far and wide.                                                                                                                                 In 1984 part of a wooden trackway or Togher was discovered in the bog during Bord na Móna work.

Ballyduff south lost many families through the clearances on the Geashill estate. The most famous of the emigrant ships was the Erin go Bragh. Another was the Chatsworth which brought 451 passengers to Queensland, ‘a large proportion were from the King’s county with the most of those being from the celebrated Barony of Geashill.’

A drainage scheme undertaken on the townland by William Steuart Trench helped win prizes for Lord Digby in exhibitions in England.

The survey of Offaly in 1550 from Hermathena 1930

 Ballycue

The Townland was described as Ballykee from Glaishebiallacroke alonge the streame to Dyrrensheishe then alonge the streame to Biallecromlyne , so alonge a streame to Biallagare, thence alonge the streame to Breakanballyndowaghe, then alonge a diche to Glayshebiallecroke.

Some names through the yearsareBallynmakkue[1558]Ballickhugh [1612]B.Crine [1685]and in 1830Ballycue.

Both John O Donovan and P.W. Joyce translated the name as Baile Mic Aodha MacKay’s or McHughs place or townland. McHughs still live in the area and in the 1901 census spelt their surname McCue.The population in 1841 was 152.

Ballycue contains an old townland named Bluebell which local lore says was once a village and the Clash bridge which was blown up during the war of independence, on the Geashill road. It borders the Tullamore river and the Killeigh road. This area along with Ballymooney and Ballyknockan was thought by some including O’ Donovan for a time to be the site of the battle between Herman and Heber and that the Bri Daimh was the Tullamore river.                                                                                                           The area had once numerous mounds of gravel deposits which were said to be dug away during famine relief works. Ballycue has also one of the few remaining thatched cottages. There is also supposed to be a graveyard called the burial hill where children who died before they were baptised were buried.

The 1838 ordnance survey map shows the ruins of a school in Ballycue near Ballinagar village This was probably the school mentioned in the bluebook survey of 1824 where the principal was Michael Ford.

The various schools in Ballinagar have been extremely lucky with the standard of schoolteachers they have had over the years. A former principal David O’ Shanahan reflects on a predecessor of his ‘old master Phelan’, in an article written in 1950 lamenting the old schoolhouse, which is now the community centre, going to ruins.

The spirit of old master Phelan stands once more by the now rickety, worm bored old rostrum, as with raised hand and pointed finger he shouts out the orders of the day, admonishing, rebuking , instructing , and for all his supposedly outmoded teaching methods , producing great scholars just the same .Look at the local remnants of his pupils that still survive the hand of time .

No less a distinguished scholar than professor P— himself from U.C.G. came all the way from the city of the tribes to spend a weekend with Tommy —- the local chronicler and local historian, who has chapter rhyme and verse for all noteworthy events in the parish since God knows when.

Or take good humoured jolly J —- the yank, who got his first great chance in America because of his familiar sharp knowledge of the simple rule of proportion .

Not forgetting Mike —- the local Gobawn Saor, whose knowledge of figures and mensuration enabled his gifted hands to plan and build for half the parish around .

The professor mentioned was an T’Athir Fhinn a folklore collector who visited Tommy Dunne in 1945. Another legendary Ballinagar school principal Michael Cunningham was a pupil of his in U.C.G.

Where the Curtis edition of the Survey was published. In the 1990s Offaly History bought the last copies when the Printing House in Trinity was closing after more than 200 years. Copies are now scarce but is probably on JSTOR
A short version of the text of the 1550 survey will be found in the new edition of the state papers for 1547-53 edited by Colm Lennnon (as above)

To be continued and with thanks to John Malone. This month’s blog reach will be 10,000. Last year was 103,000. Like and share.

Offaly History: pictures and captions

PS Are you joining us on Zoom this Tuesday 26 Jan at 7.30 p.m. Email us at info@offalyhistory.com for the link to James Scully’s lecture on Stories and Glories from the graveyards of Offaly.

Available to buy online from http://www.offalyhistory. You can join John O’Donovan on his field survey of Offaly.

Skeletal remains by the roadside in County Offaly. By Stephen Callaghan

Imagine passing construction work on the street or in the countryside, what might you expect to come across or see? Perhaps old masonry, historic detritus or nothing at all?! How about a skeleton? Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century it was not too unusual to come across human remains during construction work or in sand pits owing to the historic nature of an area. This blog post looks at some of the human remains uncovered around Offaly over the past 200 years which were reported in local newspapers.

In August 1860 a party of soldiers found the skeleton of fully grown man while digging earth works in the Fourteen Acres, adjacent to Birr Barracks. The skeleton was found three feet underground. There was no trace of a coffin or clothing. Despite no signs of trauma to the remains it was assumed at the time that the remains belonged to a murdered man. The burial almost certainly pre dates the barracks (1809-1812) and it would not be surprising if it had been there a great deal longer.

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Agriculture in Offaly on the eve of the Great Famine. By Ciarán Reilly

On the eve of the Great Famine in 1845 the backwardness of Irish agriculture was seen by many as the reason for much of the country’s economic woes. About Irish farmers, it was stated that they knew nothing of the ‘English’ method of farming or indeed welcomed its arrival. However, there was amongst many Irish landlords, and their agents, a growing understanding of the benefits of the ‘science’ of agriculture and many had willingly adopted such methods in the management of their estates. In particular, many land agents were the leading pioneers of better agricultural practice. The employment of agriculturalists; the establishment of agricultural societies and the trips undertaken to observe foreign models of agriculture all highlight the progression of Irish agriculture by the early 1840s.

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Mother and Child Report: an opportunity to reflect and research our family and social history.

One in every three illegitimate children died within one year of birth in 1924. The mortality rate was said to be five times higher than that for parented children.

The death rate of infant illegitimate children in the institutions was high as they were undernourished.

The high level of infant mortality seemed to cause surprise when research on Tuam workhouse and infant mortality in the 1920s was published in 2014 (Sunday Independent, 15 June 2014). However, as long ago as 1941 in an article by M.P.R.H. on ‘Illegitimate’ in The Bell, vol. 2, no. 3 (June, 1941), pp 78-87 it was stated that in 1924 one in every three illegitimate children died within one year of birth. The mortality rate was said to be five times higher than that for parented children.

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The Dowris Hoard. By John Dolan

Bronze Age Ireland

The Irish Bronze Age dates from approximately 2500BC to 500BC. The period is characterised by the wealth of new, innovative and exciting metalworking techniques. The population of Bronze Age Ireland was highly organised. This period was a time of extraordinary wealth and international exchanges between Ireland, Britain, central Europe and Spain. Among the exceptional Irish hoards discovered in the Late Bronze Age are the great gold hoard from Mooghaun North in County Clare which contained in excess of 146 gold items and the Dowris Hoard in County Offaly with a minimum of 218 bronze objects. The end of the Late Bronze Age came with the arrival of the Iron Age and brought an end to the manufacture of Dowris bronzes.

The Dowris Hoard was discovered on the grounds of Whigsborough House, Fivealley just north of Birr, Co Offaly. Whigsborough House is now called Dowris House, is a listed building, and contains 10 bedrooms, 6 reception rooms and a library.  The Dowris bronzes have been dated to 900 – 600BC, the Late Bronze Age period.  These bronzes are of European significance due to the quality of the metal, the skills of the workmanship and the size of the find. Continue reading

The Tullamore Grand Canal Hotel, 1801–1974. By Michael Byrne

The first hotel constructed in Tullamore in 1786 cost £200. The second in 1801 about £4,5,00. Even by multiplying by 200 for the cost of living today, this expenditure was light in the context of the three new hotels in Tullamore in 1997- 2008 which may possibly represent a total expenditure of €25 million for 270 beds. And yet the canal hotel of 1801 was a major investment and may have never made a return to the Grand Canal Company. The need for it disappeared within five years of its construction. By contrast the deprecated Bury Arms (Hayes/Phoenix Arms) in the centre of town was in business for over 200 years.

The Bury Arms (later Hayes Hotel) erected in 1786, demolished 2000. From the Hanly Collection Offaly History. This view in the late 1950s.

The first hotel (that we know of) to be constructed in Tullamore was the Bury Arms Hotel (later the Phoenix Arms, demolished 2000, now Boots Pharmacy), erected in 1786 as an inn for Tullamore at a cost to the landlord, Charles William Bury, of £200. We know that in 1798 it had 13 beds for letting. The hotel was first leased to John Tydd at a yearly rent of £20. John Tydd and his son Benjamin were both dead by 1798 at which point the innkeeper was one Mr Doherty. Captain William Evans, who had been a director of the Grand Canal Company until c.1796, but remained with the Company providing engineering advice until 1805, was critical of the Bury Hotel on his visit there in 1798. His departure from the company in 1805, possibly following soon after the completion of the works to Shannon Harbour in 1804. Notwithstanding Evans’ criticism of the Bury Arms hotel Sir Richard Colt Hore who stayed at the hotel in 1806 wrote: ‘At Tullamore I found a good inn and accommodation at Doherty’s (the Bury, now Charleville Arms) near the Bridge’ (Tour, p. 32). The hotel had changed its name in line with that of the ennobling of the town’s landlord who became Lord Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and earl of Charleville in 1806. It should be mentioned that there was at least one earlier inn in Tullamore, that of Hugh Clough in the 1760s and other smaller hotels post 1800.

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Robert Goodbody, amateur doctor in Clara and Tullamore during the Famine. By Michael Goodbody.

This is our first blog of 2021 and we are pleased to have a growing number of contributors as the interest in local studies continues to expand in Offaly and in Ireland. Last year our blog posts (82) reached over 103,000 and amounted to 144,000 words. Michael Goodbody has two important articles on Clara houses, Drayton Villa and Inchmore, in Offaly Heritage 11 (published in December 2020). The latter house now in a very different state to 2007 and the former lately bought by Offaly County Council. Robert Goodbody was the founder of the Clara dynasty of Quaker merchants and was born at Mountmellick in 1781 and died at Drayton Villa, Clara (later the Parochial House) in 1860. In 1825 he moved to Clara to set up his sons in business at the Brosna mills. He built Inchmore, Clara in 1843 and for a time lived at Tullagh House, Tullamore. During the Famine years he practised as an amateur doctor. He had six sons of whom five survived to make a huge contribution to industry in Clara and Tullamore. If you have an article on Offaly history for the blog, email us at info@offalyhistory.com.

It was not unusual for amateur doctors to practice their skills and theories among the poor in Ireland during the nineteenth century. One such was Robert Goodbody of Clara, who earned the gratitude of the Earl of Charleville for his activities around Tullamore during the Great Famine of 1846–49.

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Thomas Armstrong (1797–1875): benefactor in Banagher and businessman in Argentina. Sources for the Irish in Argentina. By Eduardo García Saenz

This week we have a blog provided by Eduardo García Saenz (member of Champagnat Rugby Club, Economist, Journalist and Sports’ Historian, especially in rugby, soccer and horse Polo. In this article he is presenting about THOMAS St. George ARMSTRONG (1797-1875); born in Garrycastle, near Banagher and who made a fortune in Argentina. His son bought Garrycastle House, Banagher in 1890 and is in Burke’s Landed Gentry 1912 edition with lands in Garrycastle and a residence in Paris. This is our last blog of this year and so far we have achieved 103,000 views for our blogs since 1 Jan. 2020. Thanks contributors and readers for all your help and wishing you all the best in 2021. Like our blog to ensure you get it every week per an email advice. All our blogs can be found at Offalyhistoryblog and our web platform http://www.offalyhistory.com. We post them every week to Facebook and Twitter (Offaly History).

Eduardo García Saenz

Eduardo is the the great-great-grand child (Chozno Grandson) of Thomas Armstrong who died in Buenos Aires in 1875. Eduardo has visited Dublin and Malahide, but has not yet had the opportunity to visit Banagher, Birr  and Tullamore. He is aware of our ‘delicious Irish whiskey and also the malt’. In rugby he knows that there are two good rugby clubs in Co, Offaly: Tullamore RFC and Birr RFC. 

Eduardo writes that the Armstrong family gave the land in Banagher to build St. Rynagh’s Church in 1826 and donated the bells for the church. Thomas Armstrong was also a donor to the Catholic church in Banagher in 1873 (King’s County Chronicle, 20 Mar. 1873). In 1847 he donated £50 to support famine relief in Banagher and Lusmagh, and later to the Crimean War Fund.

We would welcome blogs from overseas on the contribution of people from the midlands of Ireland in their adopted country (to info@offalyhistory.com). We draw attention to the Dictionary of Argentina Biography and the like for Australia. These are now online. The Irish DIB goes on line free in 2021.

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Five-k walks in Tullamore and district. A walk in Lloyd Town Park and the legacy of change in Tullamore over 250 years. By Michael Byrne

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.

The park area in 1838 on the six-inch scale with Water Lane, gazebo and the new courthouse and jail. A second Methodist church was located in Crow/Tara Street from the 1820s to 1877. The landscaped gardens of Acres Hall can be seen on Charleville Street, now Cormac Street.
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Dancing in Ireland since the 1920s: Your recollections needed. Maria Luddy

Many readers and their parents will have great recollections of the dancing scene in Ireland. You can help write the history. Share your thoughts and send on the stories needed to build a picture of the dancing scene in Ireland. Many will recall Je t’aime played in the 1960s in St Mary’s Hall, or the Harriers, Tullamore. But what about the County Ballroom and the parish halls in Clara, Birr, Rahan, Killeigh and so many more. Did dancing bring about the ‘ruin of virtue’?

Dancing has always been a source of expression, fun and entertainment in Ireland.  People danced at the crossroads, in each other’s houses, at social events, festivals, and in licensed dancehalls all around the country.  From the early twentieth century the Catholic hierarchy became particularly concerned with the opportunities that might arise for sexual immorality in dancehalls.  In October 1925 the bishops and archbishops of Ireland issued a statement which was to be read at ‘the principal masses, in all churches on the first Sunday of each quarter of the ecclesiastical year.’ The statement referred to the ‘evils of dancing’ and it was ‘a grave and solemn warning to the people with regard to the spiritual dangers associated with dancing’.  The statement noted: ‘We know too well the fruit of these [dance] halls all over the country. It is nothing new, alas, to find Irish girls now and then brought to shame, and retiring to the refuge of institutions or the dens of great cities. But dancing halls, more especially, in the general uncontrol of recent years, have deplorably aggravated the ruin of virtue due to ordinary human weakness. They have brought many a good innocent girl into sin, shame and scandal, and set her unwary feet on the road that leads to perdition’.  The behaviour of the men did not elicit much comment. From the mid-1920s and throughout the early 1930s there were constant references in the newspapers to the problems of dancehalls and motor cars.  In 1931 Cardinal McRory combined the two and saw a growing evil in ‘the parking of cars close to dancehalls in badly lighted village streets or on dark country roads.  Cars so placed are used … by young people for sitting out in the intervals between dances’.  ‘Joy-riding’ had a very different connotation in the period than it does now.  Reporting on a sermon by the bishop of Galway, the Irish Independent noted that ‘joy-riding’ was conducted by ‘Evil men – demons in human form come from outside the parish and outside the city – to indulge in this practice.  They lure girls from the town to go for motor drives into the country, and you know what happens… it is not for the benefit of the motor drive.  It is for something infinitely worse’.

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