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 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.
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.
Bogs are in the news again and were very much so 200 years ago this month because of the phenomenon known as ‘the moving bog at Kilmaleady [Kilmalady big] near Clara’. It was reported in the national press (there was no local press back then) and in 1825 in Brewer’s account of Ireland. It had earlier appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for 21 July 1821. The Freeman’s Journal for 29 June 1821 reported that : On the 26th June great confusion was caused in the district of Clara by the south front of Ballykillion bog (a large and extensive of one of about one and a half square miles, and a depth of about 25 feet) moving with great violence and carrying before it everything in its way. It tore up the meadowlands and carried it along on its surface. Its direction was across an extensive valley. It dislodged a river and ran with extensive violence against an opposite hill, then recoiled and ran down the valley until it met another hill and road that checked its progress, after which it piled up in large broken fragments an immense heap of bog from 20 to 40 feet deep and covered about 150 acres of choice meadow and pasture land. This land was let from £2 to £3 an acre and was the property of the representatives of the late George Clibborn of Moate. ‘Its progress was awful and the noise tremendous. The people were enabled with difficulty to drive off their stock. The water is now confined and the river is stopped up, and the most serious apprehensions are entertained that the water will again put the huge mass in motion. It is estimated that a thousand acres of meadow will be destroyed unless timely prevented by immense labour.[Here the writer advocated the need for drainage of bogs and the want of employment.] . .
The Summer of 1921was heralded as having some of the best Irish weather days in ten years.1 Many people used the opportunity to cycle their bicycles along the countryside roads and lanes, whilst keenly observing the fields of green and gold ripening barley. The slight breeze gently blowing the ears of grain with the browny blue hues of the Slieve Bloom mountains to the southwest as background. The farmers were looking forward to a decent crop that year, and to attract good prices when selling to the local malt houses, brewers, and distillers. They would be able to take on additional seasonal labour to get the harvest in on time. After yet another long Winter, much needed outdoor activity and laughter was a recipe for relief from the underlying and not too far off reality of political turmoil, criminality, and civil strife. ‘The Truce that came into effect on 11 July 1921 officially ended what is now most often referred to as the War of Independence and came as the culmination of the most violent six months of the war.’2 ‘Relieved civilians celebrated the arrival of peace and Volunteers returned home to bask in newfound freedom, safety, and adulation.’3 But sadly, it was to be a summer that would be remembered not for the good weather alone.
‘A rich and dazzling Celtic bewilderment, a perpetual challenge to the eyes and a perpetual delight.’ T.D. Kendrick (Archaeologia 86, 1936)
Saint Manchan’s shrine is one of the most remarkable survivals from Ireland’s medieval past, having been safely kept and venerated in the same locality since its creation in the early twelfth century. This masterpiece of medieval art is now proudly and reverently displayed in the rural parish church of Boher in County Offaly, not far from its original home at the ancient church site of Lemanaghan. St Manchan’s shrine is a gabled-reliquary, taking the shape of steeply pitched roof or tent, and is fitted with carrying rings, which enabled it to be carried in procession by two bearers using poles. It is not only the largest reliquary surviving from medieval Ireland but is also the only remaining example of its type. It enshrines what are believed to be the bones of its eponymous saint, St Manchan, whose death is recorded in AD 664.
During the early Christian period the midlands region was covered with great oak forests and vast expanses of bogland left over from the last ice age. Transport was only possible on glacial ridges or eskers and important monasteries had been built along these trackways. The most famous of these roadways was the Eiscir Riada which runs westward across the northern edge of Co Offaly on its way between Tara and Clonmacnoise which was always a significant Shannon crossing point into Connacht. A second great roadway connected Tara to north Munster; this was referred to as the Slighe Dhála and runs through the southern part of Co Offaly. There was a connecting link between both of these main roadways by a North South running corridor on which a number of additional monasteries were built. Continue reading →
Everywhere in the world today, the role and validity of public art, particularly statues of historical figures, is under scrutiny. At the same time it is the policy of our new Government to place an increased emphasis on urban quality-which presumes the installation of even more public art. This could be a recipe for conflict but much can be learnt from an examination of the history and experience of the provision of sculpture in County Offaly, and its errors and successes.
The Three Tests
I suggest that three criteria, all of which are of course totally subjective, apply to any reconsideration of the role of public art. The first is the continuing historical acceptability of the person or event which is commemorated. In Offaly, it is beyond doubt that the Manchester Martyrs Memorial in Birr or the War of Independence Memorial at the Courthouse in Tullamore would pass that test. The second is the intrinsic artistic quality of the work and ‘Saints and Scholars’ by Maurice Harron on the Tullamore bypass is generally agreed to be both striking and imaginative. Finally, there is the work’s contribution to a planned urban ensemble and in this respect both the Downshire Memorial in Edenderry and the Barnes-McCormack Memorial in Banagher which close vistas or reflect their settings, would qualify. It gets a lot trickier however when a work satisfies some of the criteria but not all.
For example, in our capital city the statue of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, marks the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears his name and having been designed and executed by the greatest Irish sculptor of his day John Henry Foley, it clearly fulfils all three criteria of artistic worth, civic design contribution and an historically enhanced reputation.
However, further along the same street the statue of Horatio Nelson failed the public acceptability test and along with its beautiful and blameless Doric pillar, was blown up in 1967.
Interestingly, Birr provides a precisely similar scenario. The image of the third Earl of Rosse in John’s Mall is also a fine example of Foley’s skill, and the reputation of ‘The Astronomer Earl’ has grown over the years. The statue, by virtue of its scale and location, is an integral part of a well-designed public space. Thus all three criteria are fulfilled.
In nearby Emmet Square stands the finest urban ensemble in Offaly and the only extant example in Ireland of the use of a central column as a focus for a public plaza. Whatever about the artistic merit of his statue which stood atop its elegant Doric pillar, the brutal reputation of the Duke of Cumberland was anathema to many and the discovery of a crack gave a valid excuse for its removal by Birr Town Council in 1915. Had Dublin Corporation adopted the same approach, the column upon which Nelson stood and which contributed to the scale and architectural character of O’Connell Street, might still be with us but as in Birr, we would probably still be debating a suitable replacement to cap it.
The issue of whether existing public art is still relevant and making a contribution to its locality can sometimes be contentious, but the location and nature of new public art is always pure dynamite, as the persistent vandalism of the Luke Kelly statues in Dublin (whether for aesthetic reasons or not) demonstrates.
Ideally public art requires public consensus and the smaller communities of Offaly who have got together to commission and install works of high artistic quality to celebrate their own local heroes or legends have shown the way in this regard and their approach deserves study and emulation.
Killeigh commemorates its famous local greyhound ‘Mick the Miller’ with a beautiful bronze piece by Elizabeth O’Kane. Cadamstown remembers local boxer Dick McRedmond in a lovely stone bust by Dermot Scully. In Ballycumber the wonderful little ‘Pilgrim’ trudges wearily to Clonmacnoise along the Erry Way in a delightful work by local artists Gerry Dooley and Lorie Quinn.
It is acknowledged by everyone that in Offaly both semi-State and local authorities have been to the forefront in providing good public art. The ambitious installations provided by Bord na Mona in the Lough Boora Discovery Park make it one of the best sculpture parks in Europe and it is the calling card of Offaly Tourism. Through its operation of the Percent for Art scheme, Offaly County Council has provided many imaginative and successful works in every part of the county, most recently Holger Lonze’s ‘Cruinne’ in Geashill and the ‘Marker Stone’ on top of Croghan Hill by Ciaran Byrne.
The elephant in the room however, is that almost all of these are in rural, village or remote locations and therefore their theme and siting is relatively uncontentious. A proposal to install a major piece of sculpture in the centre of any of the principal towns of the county on the other hand would immediately raise the questions of where, who, why, by whom and at what cost and inevitably cause a row. Nonetheless, busy central public spaces, both existing and planned, should now be the first choice locations for new artwork and these issues must be faced and a reasonable public consensus sought.
The county capital, Tullamore town centre has only three significant sculptural works, the two long established War Memorials and the 1999 ‘Pot Stills’ in Market Square by Eileen McDonagh. The recent Street Enhancement Scheme which might have provided the opportunity for the installation of a significant new work, instead inexplicably and without giving public notice, required the removal of the Memorial to the Dead of the Great War from O’Connor Square, despite its designation as a Protected Structure. Following an outcry and Ministerial intervention, it was saved but its generous planted setting vanished and it now stands looking a little lost and unhappily compromised by car parking. A more considered and consultative approach to our urban heritage is urgently required
A Phoenix arises?
The installation of a fine new piece of sculpture to adorn the historic centre of Tullamore is long overdue and the imminence of a new town plan presents the opportunity for its delivery. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, the new plan will include a coherent vision for the preservation and enhancement of the town’s architectural heritage.
It might also follow the lead of other local authorities and outline the role that urban art would play in making the centre more attractive and even suggest where new sculpture or installations might be placed. The Offaly County Council Public Art Working Group could then initiate a debate as to appropriate subjects. One relatively uncontentious idea that has been around for years and which would certainly stimulate the imagination of a talented artist, would be that of the Phoenix- the symbol of the town.
This is now the time to start the debate on how Tullamore can celebrate its history, remember those who made a contribution to it and furnish its historic centre with new and exciting public art.
‘While some counties have done much in the matter of publicizing their part in the fight for freedom, very little has been heard of the part played by Offaly in that great struggle, and yet it was within the borders of this historic county that some of the bravest and most daring deeds were done. It is not right, he said, that these should be allowed to pass into complete oblivion, and it is hoped the writing of this story of the Clara R.I.C. barrack attack will encourage others into penning the complete story of Offaly’s fight during that critical period of Irish history.’ These were the words of P. O’M. in 1960, basing his account on that published in the local press on 5 June 1920. (P O’M was brought to our attention as Paddy O’Meara who wrote a number of good articles on Clara history and was a local news correspondent.) The witness statement of Séan O’Neill, a manager in P.J. White’s Clara shop (Bureau of Military History) supports the press reports of the time. So to do the recollections of Harold Goodbody (forthcoming). IRA man and county councillor Sean Robbins of Clara was critical as was Fergus O’Bracken, writing to vindicate the role of his father, overall IRA commandant Peadar Bracken, in the episode.
The first week of June 1920 was a momentous week in Offaly with the major raid on Clara Barracks in the early morning of 2 June with upwards of 200 men. The outcome was a defeat in the short term with four men seriously injured, one of whom died in 1921. In the same week the first county council elections since the changed political landscape after 1916 were held and now with proportional representation. Clara’s Sean Robbins topped the poll. It was a victory and a defeat in the same week. The bomb and the ballot in different times. The Brigade Activity Reports reports, now published online from the Military Archives (forming part of the Military Service, 1916-23 Pensions Collection), provide a useful summary of activities in Offaly in the War of Independence, 1919–21. The reports from Offaly Brigade 1 were submitted by officers, Peadar Bracken of Tullamore and Seán Kelly (Gorteen Coy) of Mucklagh in 1940 to the Military Service Pensions Board. Particulars for the 4th Batt, Offaly No 1 Brigade were submitted by James Earle of J.K.L. St., Edenderry.
Back in 2014 I was an intern in the Heritage Office in Offaly County Council. I compiled a database of all known post 1700 burial grounds in the county. Compiling the database required thorough desk and field based research. During fieldwork I visited 170 of the 187 burial grounds I recorded. While visiting these places I noted many interesting and unusual features, some of which are the basis for this blog post. The list is of course subjective. There are certainly more interesting and unique features waiting to be discovered in Offaly burial grounds. Continue reading →