Support for the Belgian Refugees in County Offaly and in Portarlington following the outbreak of the First World War. By Offaly History and the late Ronnie Mathews

When we in Offaly History set out early in 2021 to mark the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland in our eighty plus contributed blogs on the Decade last year little did we think that an article on Belgian refugees to Ireland and the First World War would have resonance in the Ireland of 2022. Now we are talking of at least three million people forced out of Ukraine and have concerns about a third world war. Our efforts for the Belgians in 1914 look very slight when put beside what is needed today. In 1914 we were wholly reliant on the printed newspaper with no radio or social media.

Continue reading

Offaly GAA blessed with some great club history publications. By Kevin Corrigan

Offaly GAA is very fortunate to have a number of fabulous club history publications at its disposal, not to mention a myriad of other book. Clubs such as Clara, Daingean, Edenderry, Kilcormac/Killoughey, Seir Kieran and Tullamore have produced particularly comprehensive and detailed club histories and their value to members is immense.

  I  started research last year on my latest project, a comprehensive, detailed history of Offaly GAA. It is a very big undertaking with a huge volume of research required before you even consider putting pen to paper. It will be a three year plus project and trying to get a picture of all eras and factors in the growth of the GAA in Offaly is quite daunting.

  My aim is to do a proper history of Offaly GAA, one that transcends its mere sporting contribution to the county. To a very large degree, the GAA successes from the 1960s through to the 2000s contributed greatly to the well-being of Offaly and helped give the county its own distinct, unique and powerful identity. Whether you have any interest in sport, GAA doesn’t float your boat or you prefer other sporting codes, the importance and contribution of the national games to Offaly simply can’t be understated.

Continue reading

Offaly and the Treaty Debate: widespread acceptance. Specially contributed

Early 1922 saw just two local organs of public opinion in Offaly – the Midland Tribune and the King’s County Chronicle. The Tribune was owned by the long-term nationalist Mrs Fanning, widow of the late Dr Fanning and herself active in regard to Sinn Féin policy on amalgamation of the workhouses. Her editor was James Pike from Roscore, long-term supporter of Sinn Féin who was now ready to recommend acceptance of the Treaty. So also was Archie Wright, owner of the Protestant and unionist Birr-based Chronicle. The Offaly Independent was more representative of North Offaly, but its printing works had been destroyed by crown forces in November 1920 and did not re-emerge until late spring 1922. During the course of 2022 we plan to bring you articles on the evolving situation in Ireland and Offaly in 1922 and we will be looking into the Offaly Archives, Offaly History Centre and Offaly Libraries to dig deeper for the nuggets.

Continue reading

Well that Beats Banagher!! A humourous expression of amazement. By Kieran Keenaghan and James Scully

This famous phrase or exclamation or some version of it has been in use for hundreds of years. There are few instances if any in the English-speaking world where a placename appears in this manner. In all cases it was used dramatically to emphasise in a humorous way what has been said or written. The phrase was seldom if ever employed in a derogatory sense. It was regularly used by public speakers such as members of parliament or lawyers and judges in court. While it was often referred in Great Britain, and indeed in other countries throughout the world, the most common usage was by people at all levels of society in Ireland and it was very much an Irishism. It appears in the works of many famous writers such as AnthonyTrollope, William Carelton, W.B.Yeats, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Plunkett’s Farewell Companions. It also featured regularly in newspapers and on other media as can be seen in the selection below:

Continue reading

A novel approach to Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon. By James Scully

Pauline Clooney’ Charlotte & Arthur, an imaginative recreation of the Charlotte Brontë’s honeymoon in Wales and Ireland, is an exciting combination of fact and fiction. The extensive historical research which preceded the writing of the book is evident throughout and this coupled with the creation of less historic characters and the weaving in of more fictional nuances ensures a work that is at once refreshing and convincing. While the sources of history are comparatively plentiful for this episode due to Charlotte’s prolific letter writing and an abundance of biographies of the two main characters, it is the richness of Pauline Clooney’s writing that makes the work engrossing and appealing.

Continue reading

The internees released from the camps following the Treaty of 6 December 1921. A time of ferment in politics. By Michael Byrne

The scene at the railway station [Tullamore] will long be remembered. Long before the hour for arrival of the train, the stream of people to the station premises and surroundings was continuous. There was joy everywhere and the light and hope that the glad tidings brought were seen in the faces of the huge gathering. The railway station premises were thronged while from every point of vantage round about it people awaited the home-coming of the boys whose familiar faces they yearned to see once more. 

Ballykinlar autograph courtesy Offaly Archives. For further on this see Offaly History and Decade of Centenaries/ gallery. ‘Autograph books were an important aspect of the material culture of the camps and the internees signed each other’s books with political quotes, inspirational messages, and artwork depicting the camps or political ideals. Although prisoners were released from the camps following the Truce in 1921, anti-treaty republicans were again interned in prison camps such as Tintown in the Curragh during the Civil War.‘ – Offaly Archives

Late 1921 was a time of ferment in Offaly. Once the Truce was announced in July 1921 attention turned to matters such as reforms in public health that would see the county infirmary along with the workhouses at Edenderry and Birr closed. The former workhouse at Tullamore was now to serve as county hospital and ‘county home’. It was a major reform pushed through by Sinn Féin who dominated much of local government, save in the urban councils of Birr and Tullamore. As more people were pushed out of the institutions and the economic situation deteriorated the demand for home help grew. Some of the ratepayers were concerned but not the Midland Tribune which was then owned by Mrs Margaret Powell who was one of the few women involved in the Birr local health committees.[1] Her editor from 1912 to late 1940s was James Pike from Roscore, Screggan. Four women sat on the Tullamore Hospitals and Homes Committee chaired by Mrs Wyer. Pike in an editorial on 17 December 1921 was to describe it as a momentous week with the secret debates in the Dáil. Offaly Technical Committee did not wait for the outcome of the Dáil debate and supported the Treaty almost immediately.[2] Supporters included the chairman Fr O’Reilly, Kilcormac, Revd John Humphreys and James Rogers as did Revd R.S. Craig.

Continue reading

Christmas Reading from Offaly History – twelve new titles of Offaly interest, one for every day of the Festive Season. Another bumper year for local studies.

All the books here can be purchased from Offaly History (Bury Quay, Tullamore and online) and at Midland Books, Tullamore. You can also view/ borrow at Offaly Libraries and consult at Offaly History Centre.

Rathrobin and the two Irelands: the photographs of Middleton Biddulph, 1900-1920. Michael Byrne (Offaly History, Tullamore, 2021), 330 pages, 280×240, hardcover, €24.99.

Rathrobin is a book that keeps on giving. Its 250 Biddulph photographs from the 1870s to 1920s, all carefully captioned, depict the two Irelands – unionist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant, landed and cabbage garden. What is interesting about the pictures of Colonel Biddulph (1849-1926) of Rathrobin near Mountbolus are the nuances. He was of the lesser gentry, was a tenant of the Petty Lansdownes, and was well aware of the Plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries. He appreciated the needs of the farm labourers and was decent to his own tenants, staff and farm workers. His entire estate was not much more than a 1,000 acres. Biddulph’s circle was also the lesser gentry and those who served it such as land agents, bankers and clergy. The Catholic Protestant divide was strong but landed Catholic families did mix in Bidduph’s set, but not merchants or traders (even if very rich). Biddulph had an empathy with his farm workers and their families and sought their advancement. Many local families were photographed, together with the farming activities of his own employees.

Biddulph’s story, and that of his associates and friends, is illustrated by a selection of over 300 pictures in all, of which 250 are from the Biddulph Collection in Offaly Archives, and fifty more to illustrate the introductory essay and provide the all-important context. The essay and the photographs provide a more nuanced understanding of Ireland in the revolutionary period of 1900–23. Biddulph’s wonderful house at Rathrobin that he had so carefully ‘restored’, and all his farm improvements, were lost in the Civil War in 1923. Many other big houses from Ashford, to Ballyfin, Durrow, Brookfield, Screggan Manor and Charleville are also recorded in this volume. Some such as Brockley Park in Laois are now gone thereby making this an important work of record. The photographs by Middleton Biddulph were taken at a crucial moment in Ireland’s history. Their publication now could not come at a better time. Rathrobin is the portrait of one small estate and Killoughy parish in Offaly from the 1650s to the 1920s, but the story is of national interest. T.E. Lawrence spoke of the Arab Revolt, perhaps in Ireland we can talk of the Irish Revolt and not the full circle Revolution. You decide.

Rathrobin was supported by the Decade of Commemorations Unit in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media

Continue reading

Opening of Offaly Archives by Minister Malcolm Noonan, 18 Nov. 2021.

Offaly History is pleased to announce the opening of Offaly Archives at unit 1F, Cluster Two, Axis Business Park, on Thursday 18 November 2021, by minister of state at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Malcolm Noonan.

Offaly History completed the building of its second premises in 2019 to coincide with its 50th anniversary. The new repository is a state-of-the-art archives building managed by a professional archivist, Lisa Shortall, and houses the collections of Offaly History and Offaly County Library. The mix of the voluntary and the public sectors, under professional management, provides a unique blend of enthusiasm, specialist knowledge and continuity that can only enhance Offaly Archives over time.

Continue reading

Turning on the electric light in Tullamore and Birr: 100 years ago – September 1921. By Michael Byrne

Tullamore made the switch from gas lighting to public lamps powered by electricity on 27  September 1921 and Birr about a week earlier. The change in Tullamore was coming for over twenty years and Charleville Castle and D. E. Williams both had electric light from about 1900 and earlier. Lord Rosse had it in Birr Castle in the 1880s. Birr was earlier to have public lighting by gas lighting than Tullamore and had a town supply and town commissioners in 1852.

Tullamore elected its town commissioners and adopted gas lighting in 1860. Before that public lighting was non-existent in Tullamore with just one candle lamp in Charleville/O’Connor Square in 1854.  By the beginning of the First World War the number of gas lamps in Tullamore was almost 80 and the lighting system had been greatly improved with ‘the illuminating power of the lamps having been greatly increased by the adoption of inverted incandescent burners’ (1915). The gas was supplied by a private company comprised of local merchants who were the owners and directors. Change was flagged in 1913 but little progress could be made during the war. In 1918 Birr registered a company to take charge of the local public lighting undertaking and Tullamore did likewise in 1920-21. Birr business contributed £9,000 and Tullamore £13,000 to the new undertakings. The lighting was switched on in Birr in 1920 but only for short time and was not finally in place until a week before Tullamore in mid September 1921. Roscrea had electricity at least a year earlier via a tender from Roscrea Bacon Factory.   The Tullamore investors included D.E. Williams £5,000, P.J. Egan €1,000, P & H Egan Ltd £1,000, Fr Callary £500, Sisters of Mercy £200 and others. What is striking about the list of promoters of public lighting is that where Quaker and Methodists businessmen led the way in 1860 (Goodbody and Lumley), in 1921 it was Catholic merchants and Catholic institutions (Egan, Williams, the parish priest and the Mercy nuns). The 1921 directors were all Catholics save the Methodist W.C. Graham.

Tullamore’s High Street with Sergeant Ahern talking in what is now the Dew Inn (former Bus Bar), about 1910. Courtesy of NLI.

A Tullamore school boy records the date in his diary

Patrick Wrafter, better known in later life as P. A. Wrafter, kept a short diary relating to national and Tullamore events during the War of Independence and the Civil War. For its simplicity and directness, it is attractive and provides an insight into how crucial events in Ireland’s history impacted on the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy. Most of the diary entries were about the War of Independence and the Civil War. The move to electricity began during the War of Independence and was completed during the Truce period, i.e. when negotiations had started but before the delegation went to London. Wrafter wrote:

Started to build the Electric Light Shed over in the square on the 3rd January 1921. The same day as we went back to school.  [This was the shed used to house the electricity generating equipment in the Market Square. The ESB acquired the Tullamore Electric Light Company in 1930 and the shed was demolished in 1999.]

Alo Brennan, Church St., Tullamore, was arrested on the 18 January 1921.  [Later of Cormac Street, he was prominent in the Volunteers.]

Masked and armed men entered the Post-Office in Tullamore on the 20th January 1921 and took away the mails for the R.I.C.

Peace Conference started on July the 3rd 1921, in the Mansion House, Dublin.

Mr D. E. Williams, Tullamore died on the 3rd July 1921 aged 72 years.  R.I.P.

Truce declared in Ireland in July 1921.  [9th July.]

At least 80 prisoners escaped from the Rath Camp, Curragh by a subterranean tunnel 50 ft. long dug by themselves with pieces of iron etc.  Sept. 1921 [LE, 17 Sept. 1921.]

Electric light was lit in the streets and houses on September the 27, 1921.

The electricity generating shed in Market Square, Tullamore, 1921-1999. It was to the rear of the old gas company buildings

Young Patrick Wrafter might have added that the poles to carry the electric cable were in course of erection in the streets of the town from July 1920. These were not the first of many poles to ‘grace’ the streets as those for telephones had been provided from about 1908–11. Of the 80 or so gas lamp standards in Tullamore only one survives at Moore Hall, O’Moore Street. The Truce of 11 July 1921 was holding with a Truce dance in the Foresters new hall over the co-operative bakery in September and a big meeting in Tullamore on 2 October to welcome Dr McCartain. In the same month a young girl of 20 was tied to the railings of Tullamore church with the word ‘Immorality’ written on a card attached to her. Two more girls were chained to the new electric poles near the church with the card attached ‘Beware of I. . . There are others too’. Presumably these were girls who had been overfriendly with the occupying forces, or it may have been the highly moral new republican police acting on possible sentencing in the Dáil courts.

The provision of public utilities in a town is a measure of its civility. Here we are talking of lighting, water, sewerage, roads, footpaths, a market house, and nowadays a public library (see OH blog of May 2021), and a swimming pool. Arts centres, public archives and museums would be down the list, but even here we are well on the way with only the county museum missing from the galaxy of facilities. Hospitals, courthouses and jails were early on the list of institutional facilities with a county hospital of sorts in Tullamore from 1767.

In a blog on 20 October 2020, we wrote that the start-up of the Tullamore Gas Company was in 1859 and the company survived until September 1921. Gas lighting for Tullamore had been mooted as early as 1845 but it took sustained pressure from the local press and the business acumen of the Goodbody brothers of the Tullamore tobacco factory to get it done. Others who helped were Alfred Bury of Charleville (later fifth earl) and the young Tullamore-born barrister Constantine Molloy. Initial opposition had come from the parish priest Fr O’Rafferty (died 1857), and later from the ratepayers led by the Acres family – the principal tenement property owners in Tullamore. Birr had street lighting from 1852 and Mullingar and Newbridge by 1859. The completion of the new railway connection to Tullamore in September 1859 was another boost to forward thinking about the status of Tullamore and its potential. The opening of the streets for lamps meant the adoption of a small measure of local government and the provision of town commissioners – the first town council in Tullamore from 1860. It did not mean that buildings were to be lighted and places such as Tullamore courthouse were still without gas lighting in 1868, as was much of the workhouse in 1897. The latter was using 36 lbs of candles per week in the late 1890s. Gas was later provided but as late as of 1910 the infirmary section of the workhouse was still lit by oil lamps.

The question of lighting Tullamore by electricity surfaced as early as early as 1897. Daniel E. Williams, who was the first to have a motor car in Offaly, introduced electrical generation in his own business in the 1890s. In 1909 the Tullamore town clerk, E.J. Graham, estimated that it would cost £4,000 to bring electricity to Tullamore. At the time the town was serviced by 69 lamps at £2 each per year. This would increase to 78 lamps by 1916. By this time the council had spent large sums on waterworks and housing but less so on sewerage. Economy was a watchword and, as noted, the gas lamps were not activated on moonlit nights. The Tullamore rector, R.S. Craig wrote to the press in early 1914 in the aftermath of the rejection of electric light for Tullamore in 1913 on the grounds of the need for a town sewerage system needed to have a prior call on local expenditure.

The public lighting of Tullamore is not in the hands of the Urban Council as it should be. It is farmed out to the local Gas Company, and one of the conditions – economic conditions – is that there is no occasion to light the lamps on moonlight nights. This is a condition , as the Rev Mr. Craig very aptly says, has nothing to commend it, but ancient precedent. The same bad precedent in the matter of this arrangement is followed in Athlone, and many of the other provincial towns. On the nights when we should have moonlight, but very often have not, there is no public lighting, and pedestrians and visitors or strangers doing business within our gates move about to the imminent danger of breaking their necks. There was the recent case in Tullamore when on the occasion of the great National Demonstration many thousands of people were gathered in the town. Before they could get out of it nightfall overtook them. The business houses were, of course, closed, and there was no assistance to be had from friendly shop windows. The moon was expected that night to give light to the wayfarer, but was in no particular hurry in coming to our help. The Gas Company economised according to their arrangement with the Urban Council and did not light the gas lamps. The inconvenience of the situation need not be emphasised.

Rector Craig’s letter was an expression of his frustration at the council not being able to proceed with the change over to electricity in 1913. The big shops already had electric power and were in no rush to suffer a possible rates increase from the council to provide the funds for the new scheme. It was only in 1917 that Griffith of the new Turf Works in Pollagh agreed to give his expertise to assisting in getting electricity going in Tullamore.

The provision of electric lighting in the smaller towns and villages was slow in coming. A Banagher writer in late 1921 noted that the town was in the dark: ‘The only bit of light we have had for the past three or four years was that provided on the night of Dr McCartan’s arrival’. McCartan was the last MP elected for King’s County/Offaly and the first for the Sinn Féin Party (April and December 1918). Electricity for Banagher lighting had been mooted as early as 1911 by the local improvement association. The visit of Dr McCartain to Tullamore on 2 October 1921 may have been the incentive to get the electric light installation completed in time for the big welcome.

From the Midland Tribune, 1 October 1921

No less than six Offaly based private companies were taken over by the ESB over the period 1928 to 1956. The Tullamore company with 240 customers in 1930 (about one-third to one quarter of the number of houses) was taken over by ESB in that year. In 1929 Birr had 342 customers, rising to 596 in 1947 when transferred to ESB. The Edenderry business was transferred in June 1928, but the number of customers is not now known. Banagher obtained the ESB Shannon supply in 1930 and Clara in the same year.

The offer for subscribers for shares in the new Tullamore company. It was alongside the obituary for Terence MacSwiney. Sgt Cronin of Tullamore was shot a few days later in reprisal. Ordinary life and the War of Independence coexisted side by side in a strange way.

Disputes with staff working for the Tullamore Electric Light Company started within months of the light being switched on and a strike was called off in November 1921 when the three men employed by the company agreed to accept £3 7s. 6d. per week for a 56-hour week, in lieu of the £3 10s. demanded. The town council was the main customer and was paying up to £300 per year for 75 lamps. No great change in public provision from the days of gas. We do not know at this point what was the take up of power from the private and domestic sector. In the home it would have been for lighting only and that sparingly in many houses up to the 1960s. At the time of the move to ESB in 1930 and the takeover of the local provider it was reported that ESB men were preparing posts to replace existing standards where necessary. Also that ‘Mechanics are affixing electric fittings in several houses’. The firm of Siemens Schuckert was finishing the installation of electric light in the Catholic church and that Oppenheimer was finishing mosaic work to sanctuary. Dreamy altar boys will recall these mosaics with St Brendan navigating the billowing sea and which were destroyed in the fire of 1983.

A 1901 advert for a supplier featuring Charleville Castle. By 1912 the castle had been largely vacated by its owner Lady Bury. Courtesy of Irish Times

 It is hard to believe now that before the 1850s there was no public lighting in any of the Offaly towns. Neither was there any on moonlit evenings up to 1921, or after 12 midnight up to the early 1960s. Visitors to the Aran Islands will recall walking on its pitch-black roads, and, nearer home, those living in the countryside experience it every evening if making a short journey on foot. Rural electrification did not follow the towns until the late 1940s in many areas in Offaly and this has been documented in lectures at Bury Quay and the records of interviews now in Offaly Archives. See also a useful piece on the arrival of ESB provided electricity on http://www.esbarchives). Surprisingly there is nothing surviving of the minutes of the local gas companies in Offaly or the private electricity companies that were taken over by ESB in c. 1930. The company’s dealings with the urban council can be followed in the local press and in the minute books of the council (now in Offaly Archives). The Tribune was the only Tullamore newspaper in 1921 as the printing works of the Offaly Independent had been destroyed by the British military in November 1920. It reported the switch-on while the Birr Chronicle did likewise a week earlier.

Sales of electrical goods took off only in the 1960s. Here the well-known Tom Gilson’s shop, Tullamore

Next blog is on Saturday 18 on Charleville by Dr Judith Hill. Email info@offalyhistory.com for the link to the Monday lecture.

On 25 Sept. Dr Mary Jane Fox on Columcille and copyright disputes

The Railway Men: 1st Battalion, Offaly No. 2 Brigade the War of Independence and the attacks on trains in the Ballycumber- Clara area. By Pat McLoughlin

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.

Continue reading