The contemporary arts scene in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1970s and to a certain degree in Offaly also, was dominated by the friendship between the architect Michael Scott and the Jesuit priest Fr. Donal O’Sullivan. Both Scott and O’Sullivan were close friends of Desmond Williams, the managing director of Irish Mist and a director of Williams’s whose commercial interests extended beyond the famous whiskey brand to a chain of grocery shops and pubs in Offaly and Westmeath. Williams and his wife Brenda, whose father Oliver St John Gogarty had been an early supporter of the painter Jack B. Yeats, owned many superb works by the artist.
The Longworth family and George Dames of Tullamore
Reading in the National Archives some time ago I came upon a small envelope of papers that Athlone-born Revd George Stokes had put together on the Longworth family. He was constructing a family tree and it was that family’s connections with Athlone that appealed to him. The envelope included two Wills. One was that of George Dames of Tullamore, dated 1662, who died in June, 1666. In it, Dames is described as a yeoman. The Dames and the Longworth families intermarried in successive generations and it is no surprise that this Will was filed with some of the Wills of the Longworth family. They were both Cromwellian families that settled in the midlands.
Leaving to one side the work of the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s, the work of Petrie at Clonmacnois, and that of Cooke at Birr in 1826 and 1875, the references to and work done or written up on the historical sites of north Offaly in the nineteenth century are hard to come by. Fr Cogan published historical material on the Offaly parishes in the diocese of Meath in his three-volume work, 1862-1870; Thomas Stanley corresponded with the Royal Society of Antiquaries (RSAI) in 1869 in regard to the nine-hole stone or bullaun at the Meelaghans while Stanley Coote contributed an illustration of Ballycowan Castle for the Memorials of the Dead – a published record from the 1880s to the 1930s of selected tombstone inscriptions in Ireland and in County Offaly.
Last week’s article on the cholera outbreak in Offaly in 1832 attracted a huge readership. This week Dr O’Neill (a Mucklagh, Tullamore native) contributes this piece on Pandemics in Ireland. The Offaly History research team has added some local material on the effects of the Spanish Flu (1918–19) in the county and some pictures by way of further reading. Enjoy and stay positive. Read our 179 articles posted to offalyhistoryblog and catch up on Camus.
Cholera was the epidemic disease most feared around the world in the nineteenth century.A letter from Tullamore of 1832 describes the devestating disease of cholera. ‘We had 165 deaths. All bridges to the town are cut and broken. Every house is shut up and there is no such thing as business. Men who would eat their breakfact in perfect health would be buried before dinner.’
In the eighteenth century neighbouring countries began to suffer from the disease and in the nineteenth century it attacked Europe. Cholera spread around the world in great epidemics from its traditional base in the Indian sub-continent and carried with it high mortality rates, severe suffering and terrifying symptoms. These began in 1817 but the first wave did not reach Europe and was halted temporarily at the shores of the Caspian Sea. From there in 1829 it spread rapidly through Europe. It arrived in Ireland around St Patrick’s Day 1832. This was the most serious cholera outbreak in Ireland in the nineteenth century and it has been estimated that 25,378 people died during that epidemic. The Irish death rate was high when compared to other countries for the same period.
Ernie O’Malley was in Tullamore in April 1918 helping the Volunteers with the work of the North King’s County by-election (won by Sinn Féin without a contest because of overwhelming support in the aftermath of proposed imposition of conscription. This extract is from O’Malley’s famous account of the War of Independence years – On another man’s wound – first published in 1936. This extract from the Anvil edition of 1979 with the original pagination shown in square brackets. ‘On Another Man’s Wound, is primarily an account of that war, the only work of high literary quality to emerge directly from the violence. Upbringing had combined with temperament to make him half an alien in his own country. This gave him the detachment of a natural observer; the war forced him to live close to the people:’
 Mulcahy [Dick Mulcahy Assistant Chief of Staff] told me to report to the director of Organisation I found Micheal Collins in his office on Bachelor’s walk Dublin. He was pacing up and down. We shook hands. He jerked his head to a chair to indicate that I should sit; he took a chair which he tilted back against the wall. On shelves were green membership cards, heaps of The Irish Volunteer Handbook, and stacks of white copies of the organization scheme. Behind his desk was a large map of Ireland marked with broad red streaks radiating from Dublin. He was tall, his shoulders were broad; his energy showed through rapid movement. A curving bunch of hair fell on his forehead; he tossed it back with a vigorous head twist.
“I’m sending you to Offaly, there’s an election coming off [the by-election of April 1918]. I want you to organise a Brigade in that county. There are a few good chaps in Tullamore and they’re on the run. He had a strong singing Cork accent his brown eyes studied me fixedly. He pointed out companies on a map and mentioned officers’ names.
“It looks like conscription” he said. “That’ll make some slackers wake up.
He pointed out communication routes on the wall map. I was to improve and keep them tested by despatch riders. He gave me a bundle of organization schemes, instructions for the preparation of emergency rations, lists of equipment that could be made locally. “Read that and see what you think of it.” He handed me notes on the destruction of railways, bridges and engines with and without explosives.
 It was signed by Rory O’Connor, Director of Engineering. He crossed to the window whilst I read. “My bail is up, he said. “They’re looking for me now.” “They” meant the “G” men, who carried out political arrests in Dublin. Collins had been arrested by for a Volunteer recruiting speech; he had been released on bail. That was unusual. Volunteers were not allowed to accept bail. “Two nights ago “G” men brought off a raid; they found empty packing cases and a pile of cartridge wrappers in a store. Bruton said: This looks as if there were brains behind it; I bet it’s that fellow from Mountjoy Street” Collins laughed; it meant himself “Good luck now, Earnán” he said, as he shook hands. As I walked across O’Connell Bridge I wondered at the risks he ran, coming and going to and from his office, whilst detectives watched for him.
Austin Stack of Kerry who had recently fought a jail war in Belfast was in Tullamore with Darrel Figgis. Stack had a quizzical turn in his deep brown eyes which he half shut when he told a long story. He was grave and quiet; he spoke slowly. Figgis was not popular; it was thought that he was too vain. Stories were told about his Christ like beard. His manner, his insistent focus of attention for his words, was of the porcupine quill effect of an artist amongst those who thought of nationality alone. He was egotistical; it could be seen in his face and mannerisms; his image was reflected in the half suppressed smiles of his listeners. He had come from another life; he would find it hard now, I felt. I had read his novels: Children of Earth was the best book I had read about the West of Ireland. He was pleasant when he talked to me of his books; but he had unfortunate habit of making enemies. Eamonn de Valera was due to arrive. There was intense excitement; work speeded up. Volunteers, Cumann na mBan, and Sinn Fein Clubs arranged a parade. I heard a new song: “Convict 95” his number when on penal servitude.
“Twas in Kilmainham prison yard our fifteen martyrs died
And cold and still in Arbour Hill they are lying side by side,
But we will yet pay back the debt for the spirit is still alive.
In men who stood thro’ fire and Blood and Convict 95.
Eoin Plunkett was with me in English’s Hotel when de Valera walked in. We made a machine spring to attention  and remained tense, glued with admiration till he spoke to us and asked us to sit down. He was tall and lean; his hair rifted on his forehead. His face was long and sallow. He wore rimless glasses. He had a very deep voice that welled up, a fairly immobile face save when he spoke, and then the muscles, to one who had watched them in repose, played tricks. On the platform there was a hard unemotional feel to his voice and he twisted his body in emphasis.
His gravity we noticed most; he was patient and kindly to the many demands for his signature. “Have you seen Dev?” I would be asked in the country. It was easy to take on heroic build of one had seen or talked to any of those whom the people admired.
An Irish Convention called by Lloyd George had been in session for nine months; Sinn Féin refused to send representatives. It met and talked. The Irish vote in Australia had helped to defeat conscription there; a second referendum would succeed, Premier Hughes said, if the English could in any way settle the Irish Question. Irish Americans fighting for small nationalities and to make the world safe for democracy made their government anxious to have some patch-up in Ireland. The first draft of a conscription Bill was passed in England the same say that Lloyd George announced the failure of the convention; an emasculated Home Rule Bill was to be given as a gift. In England conscription had been imposed by degrees; in Ireland all males between eighteen and fifty-one could be taken. As a nation Ireland was not deeply concerned with the world war. Proganda about territorial violation and outrages could be paralleled at home. The people had long watched politicians play their thimble trick at the Imperial circus: “Walk up gentlemen. See freedom is here. You cannot lose. You give your youth and you take your chance.” The wild Irish who always looked for fight, who were never happy unless smashing heads with ponderous shillelaghs now wanted to fight to prevent themselves from fighting. What an Irish bull; the dear, delightful Irish, so picturesque and such charming brogues; they were broths of people; they were entirely.
A meeting of political enemies was held in Dublin.  They issued a statement: “The passing of the Conscription Bill must be regarded as a declaration of war on the Irish people.” The Irish Parliamentary Party left the House of Commons as a protest. Labour carried out a day of general strike. A parish fund was organised to raise money. In Offaly committees and subcommittees worked on Transport and Food supply; statistics were compiled; offers of help came from strange places. I paraded battalions in Tullamore; we were skirmished and manoeuvred through towns and the country side followed by police. Officers were arrested and at once replaced. To save the officers I commanded the companies of a parade in turn. I was not interfered with. In small towns I drew my gun when police asked me my name.
In daytime I could now enter a town to practise quick mobilization. Shop boys, carpenters, shop owner’s clerks, fell into line quickly. They practised bayonet fighting with brush handles up and down streets; they sat on pathways or in halls to listen to my talks from the destructions of railway plant to street fighting.
Men relieved each other during the day to mould lead to buck shot; gun cartridges were collected and refilled. Jewellers and locksmiths made revolver springs; they repaired weapons. Telegraphic clerks held classes with buzzers and tappers or taught Morse to signallers; harness and boot makers worked at belts and equipment, smiths and carpenters made pikes and pike handles. Cumann na mBan sewed signalling flags and haversacks. They gathered medical supplies made splints and packed first field dressings.
Shops were raided for cartridges and detonators, quarries for explosives. Volunteers came to houses whose owners were hostile or had permits from the police; the police searched Volunteer and friendly houses for arms. One raiding party would often followed close on the other.
Railways would be destroyed when conscription came; through communication routes by road were worked out. There were many branch lines in Offaly and Westmeath. Some companies were always on duty. Day and night, despatch riders on bicycles tried to improve time speeds. All despatches had time sheets; the time was checked by  each company through which they passed. The time sheet from Dublin to Castle bar or to Tralee would be lengthy. Despatches were hidden in the collar or tie; sewn up in the coat, put in a part of the bicycles or in socks. The despatch might be a smelly remnant when it reached its last station.
I was told that warrants had been issued for my arrest. I changed my sleeping quarters frequently. In Clara I slept in the house of a publican [presumably P.J. White’s]. The owner came into my bedroom one night. He found two improvised hand grenades on the floor and a revolver beside my bed. He hurriedly made piles of empty porter barrels at points inside the back wall to help my escape.
[Stopped at Philipstown/Daingean]
Three Royal Irish halted me in Philipstown. They carried revolvers in black holsters. “What’s your name?” the sergeant asked in a deep voice; the thumb of his right hand was stuck behind his broad flat belt.
My name is O’Malley, do you want more information? I half drew my gun from inside my coat. The police were irresolute. They had evidently intended to arrest me. I waited. The sergeant took out a note book; he wrote quickly with a pencil. They watches as I cycled away.
People remarked that officers had been afterwards arrested for drilling when I had been afterwards arrested for drilling when I had been in charge or for carrying out my orders. Some said I was a spy and that the police did not want to arrest me. A few women said I was leading the boys astray. I met mutterings in many forms.
In an island of the Bog of Allen which covers a large part of eastern Offaly I had a farmer friend. “We’ll give them what’s what in the bogs” he said “if it wasn’t for them bloody peelers less than a snipe id never get in here.” He had a white horse for me. “When fighting begins up you get and lead us all against the English” I liked the white horse. He was a fine mettlesome beast and he could “lep a house,” but he savoured of the range mark. I could see myself stuck up to my middle in bog water or crawling close to gorse and heather instead of leading a procession against the near post. I was in Athlone. I had met an Irish battalion sergeant- major from the castle barracks. He had been fifteen years  in the British army and had seen much fighting. A tall man, sturdy with independence; he was resilient in will trained muscle. He had a well handled, pointed moustache. He was willing with some soldiers to help us capture the magazine; they would fight, if nessacary, during the raid, and they would join us when conscription came. I received a despatch from Collins; I was to go to South Roscommon at once.
A short note on the 1918 by-election in North King’s County/Offaly, Michael Byrne (see Offaly Heritage 9 for the full article)
The sitting MP for North King’s County, E.J. Graham, died in a Dublin hospital on 26 March 1918, aged only 51, thereby creating the possibility of another contested war-time by-election in North King’s County/Offaly in April 1918. His death brought about the election of Dr Patrick McCartan, the Sinn Féin candidate, without a contest. McCartan had been defeated in the Armagh South by-election of February 1918, but was returned in North King’s County after the hint of a contested election. He was again returned unopposed for the entire county in December 1918 at the general election. He too was an imposed candidate continuing a tradition broken only in December 1914. His non-contested by-election came in the wake of the big demonstrations against conscription in Tullamore and everywhere else. What looked like compromise on the part of IPP leader Dillon was recognition that the win for the IPP in Armagh South would not be repeated. The Tribune had stated in its editorial of 6 April 1918 that Dr McCartan was a certainty and that the greatest enthusiasm existed for Sinn Féin. ‘The electors state that they are only anxious to give the party a better reverse than it got in 1914.’
The Sinn Féin by-election campaign began at the end of March with meetings in every parish in the constituency after Sunday mass and speeches from visitors Dan McCarthy, Austin Stack, Stephen Mara, Joseph McGuinness and in Tullamore from Tribune editor, Seamus/James Pike, the draper Michael Berrill and P.J Bermingham. There was broad acceptance of the Midland Tribune view that McCartan would succeed and confusion in the IPP as to who might stand. All parts of the constituency were said to be solid for Sinn Féin save perhaps Tullamore ‘which is pretty evenly divided’. On Sunday 8 April De Valera spoke in Tullamore (the meeting was chaired by Bermingham.) on Ireland’s ‘fateful hour’ and the right of Ireland to self-determination. De Valera had first spoken in the town in the aftermath of his East Clare victory in July 1917. Meanwhile the vacancy in the IPP candidature was not and would not be filled. When deputations from both Nationalists camps in Tullamore (the IPP and Graham supporters) met John Dillon, the IPP leader who succeeded Redmond in March, it was to tell him that they would agree on one candidate. But the conscription crisis was about to overtake the matter of an IPP candidate and Dillon told the deputation that now was not the time for a local contest. Notwithstanding this prohibition it appears that John Dooly of Birr, the chairman of the county council, was selected. Dillon persisted and Dooly withdrew his candidature. McCartan was duly elected on 19 April 1918 with sixty nominations and no opposition. Lyons points out that the conscription crisis could not have come at a worse time. In the three by-elections fought since the beginning of 1918 – South Armagh, Waterford City and East Tyrone – the IPP had beaten off the challenge of Sinn Féin. As so often before the government had stepped in to revive Sinn Féin fortunes. That said the lack of a suitable candidate for North King’s County and a local press united against the IPP made the chance of winning the seat highly remote. McCartan went to take the seat again in the general election of December 1918 without a contest.
In 1910, about six weeks before the first successful powered flight in Ireland by Harry Ferguson in Co Down, the King’s County Chronicle reported as follows, ‘Mr Michael Carroll, cycle mechanic, conducted experiments in aviation in the hills adjoining Birr reservoir. An apparatus constructed from calico and bamboo made one or two fitful attempts to ascend. The incredulous may laugh at his efforts but it should not be forgotten that every great invention has its beginning in failure.’ One week later it was noted that the Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland [founded in Dublin in 1903] had been discussing aviation, ‘The opinion was expressed that flying through the air was not an accomplished fact, though eventually it would be, that flying was not of any practical use and that men now engaged in a series of experiments in aviation would not die in their beds.’
Offaly had a small but significant part in the early years of military aviation. In September 1913 Offaly was an important base for some of the earliest uses of aircraft in the annual British Army manoeuvres; some of the Royal Flying Corps’ earliest crashes took place in Offaly during those operations. Approximately 85 men who served in the Allied flying services were born or from Offaly, but their impact was far greater than would be expected. Ferbane hosted an operational wartime base at ‘RAF Athlone’, and there was a landing ground at Birr during the 1918-1920 mobilisation period.
As Patrick Kavanagh might have put it, I was ten Christmasses of age and living in a place called Clerhane, a townland some two miles south of Clonmacnoise.
We were farmers, and there were five of us residing on the farm, my maternal grandparents, my uncle Joe, my mother and I. My father for economic reasons worked in Dublin, and I would only see him three times a year, the Easter break perhaps three days, his summer holidays that took place during the first two weeks in August, and of course for Christmas break which generally lasted two or three days depending, on how Christmas fell. You can imagine the excitement that built up in me as a child with the prospect of the approaching Christmas.
The Christmas I am talking about was 1954, indeed as time would prove, my last Christmas residing in west Offaly, as the following summer my mother and I moved to Dublin to live with my father, who had just purchased a house.
1954 is best remembered for the floods, the river Shannon reaching the highest level since 1925. I remember soldiers from Athlone assisting the farmers that year with the harvest. Folk were really looking forward to the bit of Christmas cheer.
If I may paraphrase Dylan Thomas , I am not sure if I was six years of age when I had the misfortune to get the whooping cough that lasted five weeks or I was five years of age and it lasted six weeks. I was then living in Clerhane, a townland near Shannonbridge with my mother, her parents and my uncle. My father was living in Dublin, where he worked as a mechanic. He and his father had run a public house in Shannonbridge in the hungry thirties, and when it did not do very well he was forced to go to Dublin to seek work.
So to set the scene for the little generational tug of war I am about to relate, my grandfather Michael Claffey was from Bloomhill, Ballinahown and was born in 1868. His wife, my grandmother was an Elizabeth Molloy from Parkwood, Moote, County Offaly and was born in 1880. My uncle Joe was born in 1918 , and my mother Margaret had been born in 1914. We all lived in a three roomed thatched cottage, which did not have electricity or piped water, on a farm which also included a quarry. Continue reading →