A big welcome to Martin Moore this week as a new contributor to Offaly History blog and with a new topic. A big thanks also for the work of the sports historians in the county including the late John McKenna on association football in Tullamore in the 20th century.Martin is preparing an article for Offaly Heritage 12 (forthcoming later in the year).
Recent research into the origins of association football in Ireland has demonstrated that Offaly was – for a brief period – a centre of early soccer activity, involving one of the first soccer teams in Ireland. The traditional understanding is that soccer was consciously ‘introduced’ to Belfast in 1878, from where the game eventually spread around the rest of the island. The real story, however, is not quite so straightforward. We now know that soccer was played in other parts of Ireland before 1878 and Offaly, Tipperary and Sligo were centres where the code was played in the late 1870s and early 1880s, though it failed to take root and was not sustained.
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 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 email@example.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.
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’.
John O’Donovan stayed in Banagher from 10-21 January 1834 where he was accompanied by Thomas O’Connor. As mentioned in a previous blog he used his time there to look at two historic sites in particular, in addition to his normal work. He first concentrated on Clonmacnoise, writing his first substantial and detailed letters on 15 January 1838. This followed on from his request that documents be sent from Dublin ahead of his arrival. He had visited Clonmacnoise and had collected a considerable amount of information about the church site and general area.
He first concentrated on the individual monuments on the site as detailed in earlier manuscripts and associated the monument to the relevant family names. His local contact was a man named Patrick Molloy but O’Donovan was sceptical about the accuracy of the information provided by him. In addition, he dealt with the map produced by Sir James Ware dated 1705; on this map Ware had identified 10 churches at Clonmacnoise, see below. For each monument O’Donovan checked the age of each as indicated in the Annals, checked the background of each one and compared that to a report in Petrie’s possession. Continue reading →
An attractive new book on the history and memorials of Saint Rynagh’s Old Graveyard in Banagher has just been published. The book has 192 pages, almost 400 photographs and historical images plus a collection of essays and short articles on eminent souls buried there and on aspects of the site’s ecclesiastical history. The book is written by James Scully, a long-time student of Banagher’s history. This is your Saturday blog coming early because of Halloween.
Over the past few months I have been finalizing a book on the memorials in Saint Rynagh’s Graveyard in Banagher. For some time now the recording of the transcriptions has been complete but the decision to add a description of each memorial has absorbed more time than intended. It has however been a most rewarding task because now when I visit other graveyards I look at memorials with a more trained eye and with greater awareness of the skills and talents of the stonecutters. This has fostered a greater appreciation of the decorative carvings and lettering styles which are abundant throughout County Offaly. It has also prompted greater recognition of unusual features such as ligatures, mirrored letters, ampersands and other hallmarks of a vernacular style. Above all it has stimulated a resolve to publicize those monuments which are unique whether it be for the occupational or funerary symbols portrayed on them or that they are fine examples of a particular stonecutter. Tombstones which have a dedication of literary merit or those which carry symbols of the Passion of Our Lord will also be a focus of attention.
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.
It must be conceded that the unassertive landscapes of County Offaly have never been a great source of inspiration to painters, most of whom just made a quick stop at historic Clonmacnoise before dashing on to record the West of Ireland.
Yet, others took the trouble to look more closely (or were paid to do so) and found inspiration in its lush farmland, bogs and woods, slow rivers, rolling hills and ancient ruins. Happily, their numbers have grown in the recent past.
The Cotton Map
The first, and in my opinion the finest, artistic image of Offaly is the Cotton Map of 1565. Prepared to assist the Elizabethan Plantation, this is an imaginative creation more akin to Harry Potter’s ‘Marauder Map’ or Robert Louis Stevenson’s chart of Treasure Island than a realistic cartographic exercise. One wonders if its unknown compilers ever visited Offaly or were relying on travellers’ tales.
In August 1939 the Irish travel writer Richard Hayward set out on a road trip to explore the Shannon just two weeks before the Second World War broke out. His evocative account of that trip, Where the River Shannon Flows, became a bestseller. The book, still sought after by lovers of the river, captures an Ireland of small shops and barefoot street urchins that has long since disappeared.
Eighty years on, inspired by his work, Paul Clements retraces Hayward’s journey along the river, following – if not strictly in his footsteps – then within the spirit of his trip. From the Shannon Pot in Cavan, 344 kilometres south to the Shannon estuary, his meandering odyssey takes him by car, on foot, and by bike and boat, discovering how the riverscape has changed but is still powerful in symbolism. Paul Clements will be giving an illustrated lecture on Monday 17 Feb. at 8.00 p.m. at the Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore ‘The spirit of the Shannon: a journey along the River Shannon in Richard Hayward’s footsteps’ Admission is €5 and includes tea and biscuits. So why not come along to hear and see this wonderfully illustrated talk.
The Williams company of Tullamore (1884–1996) was in the malting business from 1892. Other Tullamore firms included Egan, Tarleton and B. Daly, the Tullamore distillery. In this article Michael Power tells his story. This piece was first published in Jip-cat, pig’s head, petticoats and combinations: our lives, our times in Tullamore and surrounding districts; editor Feargal Kenny. Tullamore: Tullamore Active Retirement Association, 2002 (available from Offaly History Centre).
As a seasonal worker in the Maltings, you started in September when the harvest came in and wound up in May when the malting was over. I became a permanent worker [at Williams/B Daly/Tullamore Distillery [in 1932 and remained there for fifty years. The work was hard, labouring work, carrying sacks, working in the malthouse, screening malt and barley and carrying sacks of grain.