Tullamore on the verge of the War and Home Rule: the image of stability. By Michael Byrne

Change is always about but perhaps more so since ‘Nine Eleven’ 2001 and March 2020 than we care to appreciate. Changes in eating out in Tullamore’s streets in recent days would have come as a shock to our predecessors of 1914. We are not Spain as Brewery Tap owner, Paul Bell, recently remarked but the fine weather and the adoption of coffee over tea are all helping. In the interior things are changing too. The love of banking halls is gone and now it is all doors and screens as new ways of working come in. The new county offices inTullamore (2002), and in many other buildings, may yet have to be reconfigured, and as for nightclubs what are we to do. On top of that some Tullamore municipal councillors are talking of revisiting our list of Protected Structures to remove those buildings that cannot be sold and are falling down.

All this talk of change, inside and out, suggests that we look again at what we had in the way of streetscapes before that period of great turbulence when Ireland was on the verge of Home Rule and Partition was unmentionable. It was ‘The Sunday before the War’ time. Thanks to the work of photographer Robert French (1841–1917) and the Lawrence Studio (1865–1942) we can look back, not in anger or nostalgia, but in awe at what was achieved in our towns over the period from the 1740s to 1914, but more especially in the years of growth and prosperity from 1891 to the First World War.

The Lawrence Collection of some 40,000 photographs are well known. Perhaps less so that the online catalogue from the National Library (nli.ie) is in large format, high resolution, for the Offaly towns, allowing us to dig down/zoom in to see the detail that escapes one looking at the ubiquitous printed photograph in the pub or the tablemat. There are almost 200 Lawrence photographs for the Offaly towns and villages. For Tullamore there are at least 17, for Birr over 70, Banagher 3, Clara 20, Edenderry over 16, Portarlington 18, Kilcormac 12 including four placed in County Cavan, Clonmacnoise at least 33, Kinnitty 3, Mountbolus 1, and perhaps more to be identified.  These figures are estimates and likely to change such as one of the earliest for Tullamore (late 1890s perhaps) that became available in recent years, or at least better known and the subject of this blog.

A very fine book from Kieran Hickey and Allen Lane (1973)
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Saint Manchan’s Shrine – Art and Devotion in 12th Century Ireland

‘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.

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Crannógs in County Offaly. By John Dolan

While Offaly has a huge range of Early Christian church and monastic sites it would not have been noted for crannogs, unlike its neighbour in Co. Westmeath.  Surprisingly, Offaly has 13 crannog sites recorded in the National Monuments database, however they are in many ways different from the usual picture of the small, man-made island in a lake. Many of these crannogs are located close to natural esker and drumlin routeways and survive as wetland settlements in or close to bogs.  One third of Offaly is covered by peatland.

Crannogs in Ireland.

The name crannog is obviously the Irish names of ‘crann’ for tree and ‘óg’ in this case referring to small and not young.  But we will see that ‘small tree’ does not account for the size and scale of wood used in the construction of these lake dwellings which are generally in open bodies of water.

There is no agreed figure for the number of crannogs in Ireland.  Some have suggested 1,200 over the whole country while others take the number over 2,000!  Crannogs were constructed in the sixth and seventh centuries and occupied and used up to the end of the seventeenth century.  As a monument in the landscape that has changed considerably with the reduction in water, lake and river levels, along with the drying out of the bogs since the Middle Ages, it is only by accident that a new crannog is discovered. Continue reading

It was a `shame` about my granduncle Kieran Claffey of Bloomhill County Offaly: explorations in family history and a sad legacy. By Padráig Turley

With the recent publication of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the notion and concept of shame is very much in the news. Shame is a negative influence that is so powerful that it can destroy and ruin lives. It can have appalling consequences. It can be public or private.

Shame guilt and apologies. The county council apology this week for things past Offaly Independent 20 3 2021. The council’s record on tuberculosis prevention was good with a central dispensary opened at the back of the county infirmary in June 1916. Dr O’Regan had been appointed to the prevention campaign in 1912 and four years earlier Lady Aberdeen had visited the town in support of her personal campaign.

Public shame is easier to deal with, for example the Government`s handling of such and such a problem was shameful. This is easy to handle as the Government is a distant entity, and their nonfeasance or apparent nonfeasance can be punished at the next election.

However personal shame is much more traumatic and can have devastating consequences. We have seen over the last forty or so years a series of scandals all of which had catastrophic effects on very innocent victims. When we look at these `scandals` from today`s vantage point it is hard to understand how the particular activity involved could have caused the outrage they did. It is difficult to understand that what is today accepted as quite normal could stigmatize an individual to such an extent that their lives were ruined and indeed that such ignominy could attach itself to an entire family.

However, the story I wish to relate is a simple enough tale, where a totally innocent condition had to be hidden. The person I wish to talk about is my grand uncle Kieran Claffey. He was one of twelve children born to Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery, who were married in Shannonbridge in 2nd January 1853. They were farming folk who lived in Bloomhill near Ballinahown.

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The Round Towers of County Offaly. By John Dolan

It is unclear where the idea for a Round Tower came from, little research has been carried out on their origins. There were a few examples of cylindrical towers in northern Italy, the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna is an example. European churches had started to connect bell towers and crypts to their churches between the 900 – 1,100AD. These towers were built stand-alone and later joined to other church buildings. But European bell towers were nearly all rectangular.

What was happening in Ireland?

In Ireland churches continued to be built as small rectangular buildings, single celled with one doorway and perhaps a window or two. Irish church buildings changed from wood to stone during the 8th century. However, monasteries blossomed as locations of education, agriculture, metal and wood working, vellum production, with their skills retained in-house or shared with other church establishments. External trade and travel with Europe were a regular occurrence. Most monasteries had wealthy, secular sponsors who were frequently related to the abbot or bishop. Monasteries also acquired lands and other riches e.g., wealth from pilgrimages and relics.

Round Towers enhanced the prestige and wealth of the monastery as they created a huge visual impact. Round Towers were to see and be seen, similar to some of the buildings built in the time of the Celtic Tiger. Continue reading

John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters of King’s County, 1837 – 1838: Banagher, Clonmacnoise, Fercall, and Durrow. By John Dolan

Ordnance Survey of Ireland 1824 – 1842

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

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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The Rag Trees of County Offaly. By John Dolan

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

No 2, Sources for Offaly History & Society: some of the older printed books – Sir Charles Coote, General view of the agriculture and manufactures of the King’s County with observations on the means of their improvement. Dublin, 1801.

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John Foster’s copy of Coote’s, King’s County Survey. Offaly Archives is collecting all the rare books on the county for the county collection. Foster was the last Speaker in the old Irish Parliament and strongly opposed the Union. He was a vice-president of the [Royal] Dublin Society until the 1820s and was ennobled as Lord Oriel. He and his father were great improvers even when it was not economic for them to do, or prudent. Foster was a great bibliophile which may have been a comfort to him in his cash-straitened latter years.

This week as a substitute for our  cancelled lectures during Covid we list some of the older books on Offaly History and some of which are still of use and must be consulted. The list is by no means complete and does not cover archaeology or geology. By older we mean studies mostly published before 1920 and many being diocesan histories. One book that is essential to look at is the Dublin Society survey of the county in 1801. This is the first book published about County Offaly/King’s County and deserves a read before moving on.  John O’Donovan when preparing the ordnance survey memoirs in the 1830s had occasion to use Coote, among other books, and considered Coote a blockhead and worse. Yet, there are some nuggets for those who are patient. Coote was trying to promote for the Dublin Society (later Royal Dublin Society) agricultural education. The farming societies were not started until the 1840s and wilted in the Famine years. It was the 1900s before countrywide education in agricultural methods began with Horace Plunkett, agricultural cooperation and the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction.

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FAITHFUL IMAGES: Offaly through the eyes of artists. Fergal MacCabe

031040 Clonmacnoise book pages, 2003
Clonmacnoise from the Harris’s edition of Ware’s Antiquities (Dublin 1739) showing the work of Blaymires and Dempsy his companion. 

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.

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