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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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

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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John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters of Kings County, 1837 – 1838: Scientific Survey, Clan Maliere and Placenames. By John Dolan

Ordnance Survey of Ireland 1824 – 1842

Townlands are the smallest official unit of administration in Ireland, followed by the Parish.  Our townlands are ancient divisions and some have existed under other names since pre-Christian times.

By the early 1800s, local taxes were based on the valuation of townland units. These valuations were based on hopelessly obsolete information and poor mapping, and it was necessary for the boundaries of townlands to be mapped accurately in order to provide a framework for new valuations. There are 64,642 townlands in the Republic of Ireland, with over 1,000 in Offaly.

The Duke of Wellington authorised a survey of Ireland in 1824 in response to requests from his brother, the Marquess of Wellesley, who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time. The task was given to Lt Col Thomas Colby and officers and sappers of the Royal Engineers with civil assistants. First established as a military office, all the staff were military employees until the 1970s, when recruiting of civilians started.

It was decided to carry out an experimental triangulation survey in 1824, using Ireland as a test area. When completed the Irish survey would be a model for Great Britain and other areas of the Empire. The aim of the survey was to standardise and anglicise the representation of the Irish landscape. Continue reading

Birr Barracks and burials: a new military and family history record published. Sources for Offaly History and Society, no. 13. By Stephen Callaghan

A new book detailing the history of Birr Military Cemetery has been published by Offaly County Council. Researched, written and designed by Stephen Callaghan the book gives an authoritative history of the cemetery and all those identified as buried there. While the cemetery only contains 52 inscribed memorials, the book gives biographical details of a further 230 people buried there. The memorials which survive are also examined and described in detail, including information about type, symbols and details about the materials used and the stonecutters who made them. The cemetery is one of the few surviving features of Birr Barracks and is an important link to the past. The people buried there are a mix of soldiers, soldiers’ wives and children, the latter make up most of the burials.  

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The Vikings in Offaly. By John Dolan

Our traditional view of the Vikings in Ireland was established by our early primary and secondary schooling. We were aware that the Vikings commenced raiding in 795 AD by their raid on Rathlin Island. Eventually they settled in a few areas around our coastline. However, most of the country was within reach of Viking raiding parties. One of the primary bases from which Viking raids emerged was from the city of Limerick. Limerick provided a springboard for raids up the Shannon, affecting areas on either side of the river.

These raids were on church monasteries resulted in the slaughter of monks and workers in the monasteries. It also appears that the Vikings knew exactly where these monasteries were located and regularly their arrival coincided when particular religious events were underway.  From other evidence they were after people, cattle and very occasionally the gold and silver in the monasteries.  People were regularly taken to be sold at slaves. The largest such raid was carried out at Howth in the year 821 AD where over 600 females were taken away by ship for slavery. In later times Dublin became the largest Viking slave centre in Western Europe; Kiev in Ukraine was their largest slave centre in the East.

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

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Tullamore Gas Company: the missing archives. By Michael Byrne Sources for Offaly History no. 11

Now where is this in Tullamore ?

So here we are talking about sources that have been lost. We have a new Offaly Archives since March 2020 and we are working to fill it, but yet we have to regret what has been lost. There are many such collections in Offaly – grand jury records (some) mostly pre-1820 are missing, county infirmary records (very little surviving), the records of Tullamore town commission ( all gone). We should do a list of what we are missing. Somebody out there may have them.  The writer of 1915 had access to the minute books of the Tullamore Gas Company, but where are they now.? Where are the books for Birr?

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Offaly GAA blessed with some great club history publications: sources for Offaly History and Society, no. 7. By Kevin Corrigan

Offaly GAA blessed with some great club history publications: sources for Offaly history and society, no. 7. GAA is very fortunate to have a number of fabulous club history publications at its disposal. 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 have started research earlier this 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 as a county and provided its own distinct unique 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.

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The rediscovery of Bloomville, County Offaly. Christopher Fettes

Bloomville, Cloneygowan, County Offaly

On June 15th 1991, I climbed a locked gate marked Bloomville, just as the rain stopped and the sun came out.  There were some lovely beeches, but no sign of a house. I then spotted two ancient chestnuts, and it was only then that I could see the house in the distance.

It was a case of love at first sight, with everything sparkling in the sunshine, and I wondered why the agent’s advertisement had not included a photograph.  Only when I approached the house could I understand the reason.  The traditional roses (still flourishing 29 years later) looked pretty, but, close up, the house looked very neglected.

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