Mary Ward takes her place alongside the Rosses, Jolys and Stoneys in the King’s County/Offaly people of science gallery. Born Mary King, at Ballylin, Ferbane on 27 April 1827 she died in a shocking accident at Birr on 31 August 1869 (see our blog of 24 August 2019). On Saturday 31 August 2019 we mark the 150th anniversary of her death and say something of her achievements. So join us on Saturday from 3.30 pm at Oxmantown Mall, Birr. All are welcome. The book launch is at 5 pm in the Courtyard Café, Birr Demesne. The book will be general sale from 1 September at Birr Demesne, Offaly History Centre and Midland Book, Tullamore.
How many people have died in road fatalities since the first to occur in Ireland at Birr in county Offaly (then known as King’s County) on 31 August 1869, just 150 years ago next week? Few of us have not been touched by some sad incident involving collision with a motor vehicle. That in Birr involved a steam-powered carriage possibly constructed by the fourth earl of Rosse, a brother of Charles Parsons, later famous for his steam turbine. Perhaps the making of the engine was the work of the two brothers. The fatal accident occured at the corner of Oxmantown Mall and the junction with Cumberland/Emmet Street near the church and close close to where the theatre is today. It was here that the young Mary Ward, then aged 42, a woman of talent and a mother of a large family (11 pregnancies), was killed on the last day of August 150 years ago.
For the past 51 years Birr Vintage Week has commenced around the month of August, with only in recent years it taking in the August bank holiday weekend. While the festival is in its 51st year, 100 years ago on 4 August 1919 the army at Birr Barracks had organised a program of military sports and spectacles. An antecedent of Birr Vintage Week perhaps?!
The events took place on the military training grounds adjacent to the barracks, the ‘Fourteen Acres’. The events kicked off at two o’clock. While the weather was not desirable it held dry until the events had finished up. The program was organised and promoted by Lieutenant Noel Edward Fasken, while Lieutenant Leslie M. Codner was responsible for the ground arrangements. Both officers were members of the Royal North Devon Hussars. The day’s program consisted of 26 events which lasted beyond six o’clock. While the barracks occasionally held large events and concerts, one of this scale was likely not seen before.
One of the main spectacles was the air display by Captain Brooks. ‘His daring feats in the air were witnessed with interest and admiration, and showed the possibilities of a flying machine in the hand of a capable pilot.’ Captain Brooks was likely piloting an Avro 504k, a two seat trainer biplane. The airfield in Birr had only been constructed in February and consisted of a detachment of six aircraft from 106 Squadron, Royal Air Force. The airfield was dismantled in October of that same year 1919..
Men under the command of Second Lieutenant E. A. Grainger and Sergeant W. A. J. Leonard enacted a battlefield play, entitled ‘The Sacrifice’. The demonstration was reminiscent of a scene from the Great War. It was apparently not without a sense of humour! The centre of the sports ground was chosen for this display, it had been mocked up to look like ‘anywhere on the battlefield’; there were sandbagged trenches, mines, and a ‘shattered’ house. The house had been temporarily erected for the event. It is quite likely that the sandbagged trenches were in fact the practice trenches dug to training men during the Great War. These trenches were excavated during August 2018.
Second Lieutenant Grainger took command of about twelve British soldiers, while Sergeant Leonard played the role of a German officer and took command of twelve ‘enemy’ soldiers. The battle was set as if it had taken place three hours after dawn. The idea was that at dawn that morning a line of trenches had been captured from the enemy.
The ‘shattered’ house was occupied by a ‘British’ gun team, they had defended against a ‘German’ attack which had attempted to recapture their old trenches. The attacked opened with the explosion of mines, the ascension of rockets and the crack of rifle and Lewis gun fire. The outpost was supplied with ammunition by courageous runners.
The lone outpost held out until the very last man gave his life in its defence, thereby giving their comrades time to prepare for a counter attack. The display was well preformed and a stark reminder of the horror of the recent Great War.
Another item of interest was the physical training exhibition by a squad of the Royal North Devon Hussars under Corporal Snwothey.
Humour was provided in the form of Corporal Hatch and Private Ash acting as gentlemen the worse for ware, another soldier acting as a lady. Hatch and Ash both competed for the affection of ‘the lady’.
The day long events were reported in the King’s County Chronicle as a ‘splendid source of entertainment’, with the events being well attended by the people of Birr and the surrounding areas. The events themselves were also well patronised by competitors. Prizes for the sports were presented by Brigadier General James Graham Chaplin.
What a marvel it must have been in Birr in the year 1851. The town and the country were barely emerging from the shocking catastrophe of Famine and the associated fevers and deaths. Emigration was everywhere and Irish towns presented a shocking appearance of want and degradation. The town’s historian, Thomas Lalor Cooke, had reflected on the quietness and lack of social life in the mid-1840s. Birr suffered many deaths, especially from fever in the late Famine years. Yet, a spirit of optimism was in the air and many improvements would follow in the 1850s including railroads, gas lighting and local government.
Ruth Baldesera is Quality Engineer at CAP Works, Newcastle, Tyne and Wear, where Sir Charles Parsons (1854-1931), son of the 3rd Earl of Rosse, founded his world famous engineering works. Sir Charles is best-known for inventing the steam turbine which revolutionised marine transportation and the mass production of electricity. Over the past few years Ruth has spearheaded a heritage project in Newcastle dedicated to the achievements of Sir Charles Parsons and in this article she outlines the scope and outcome of the project.
Sir Charles Algernon Parsons “…the first Engineer to use a steam turbine to produce large amounts of power for electricity generation and driving ships”.
In 1889, Charles Parsons established C. A. Parsons & Company in Heaton, Newcastle, to produce turbo generators to his design. In the same year he set up the Newcastle and District Electric Lighting Company (DisCo) and in 1890, DisCo opened Forth Banks Power Station, the first power station in the world to generate electricity using steam turbo generators. Continue reading
The 11th March 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Sergeant Gordon Brooker of the Leinster Regiment, a soldier who for the best part of the last 96 years was buried in an unmarked grave in Clonoghill Cemetery, Birr. This is his story.
Gordon McNeill Brooker was born around 1886 in the parish of St John’s, Barbados. He was the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Brooker. They lived on a plantation in the parish of St Philip. Gordon enlisted in Barbados for a short term of military service (3 years with the army and 9 years in the reserves) with the Lancashire Fusiliers on 11 September 1903, aged 18 years. He gave his previous trade as an engine driver at water works. Upon enlistment he was recorded as being 5 feet 6 and a half inches tall and having blues eyes and brown hair. He was tattooed on both forearms and his right breast. Continue reading
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.
The Parker Brothers of Clara and John Martin of Tullamore. One of the Parker boys was killed as was John Martin on 8 October 1918.
There was very little published work relating to Offaly in World War I until recent times. The 1983 essay by Vivienne Clarke was a first and rare examination of the period in Offaly, until Tom Burnell’s Offaly War Dead in 2010, and 2014’s Edenderry in the Great War by Catherine Watson. And so nearly every essay published in Offaly and the Great War which was launched to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War represents new and original historical research and findings, a very exciting prospect in the world of history publishing.The seventeen contributors have submitted essays that cover every aspect of the war and from almost all corners of the county.
In July 2018 an interesting Great War campaign medal appeared on eBay, a single 1914–15 Star awarded to Private Frederick McDonald of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The description provided by the seller stated that Frederick was born in Birr, and that he had been killed in action during the war.
Further research unravels a forgotten story, which gives insight into the life of Frederick and his family. It is a story not too dissimilar among the many working class Catholic families in Birr, because serving in the British Army was a source of steady employment and a means to support a family.