We welcome this week Dr Diarmuid Wheeler on an important subject for Ireland and for the midlands, being the colonial experiment known as the Leix-Offaly Plantation. For those interested in the Decade of the Centenaries, the resurgence of interest in the Irish language, 1916 and the War of Independence, knowing the roots of the conflict is essential. The fort of Philipstown would soon be adopted as the county town for the new King’s County of the 1550s. The courts of assize to display the might and power of English law continued to be held in King’s County until 1921 while the name of the county was changed only in 1920 to Offaly. The Civil War of 1922–3 would witness the burning of houses such as Ballyburly, owned by the Wakely family, who had come to Ireland as soldier settlers in the time of Elizabeth.
Dr Wheeler will give his lecture on the Leix-Offaly Plantation to Offaly History from his home in the United States on Monday night 22 March at 7.30 p.m. Email us at email@example.com with the subject heading ‘Zoom Wheeler’ for the access code [Ed.]
The beginnings of the midlands colonial project can be traced back to the early sixteenth century when the Tudor government, who firmly believed that Ireland rightfully belonged to the English crown and that the country’s keeping was essential to England’s overall safety, sought to restore the island to its twelfth century “conquered” state from which the crown hoped to profit. Brendan Bradshaw argues that the Tudors and the Old English of Ireland were heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism that encouraged them to bring reform to Ireland. But the administration lacked significant knowledge and experience of the country, particularly during Henry VIII’s reign and quickly realised that reforming the island would take significantly more military and financial resources than they had anticipated. By the final years of the 1530s, it was apparent that a certain degree of coercion and military force would be necessary to bring about wide scale reform. Yet the Tudors were also aware that they could not employ outright force to achieve their objectives, lacking the necessary resources to do so. Instead, the Tudor administration recognised that they would need to accommodate the natives of Ireland, at least somewhat, in order to make their aspiration a reality.
Now that we are all locked down in our various counties I miss my occasional trips to Offaly to visit old friends. I keep an eye on local news on line and love the Tullamore Tribune and the Offaly Express. I was dismayed the other day to see a report on the Express that Offaly ranked lowest in Ireland on a Liveability Index! What in the name of Heaven is a Liveability Index!! I decided to look into it all a little further. Seemingly a father and son (with obviously too much time on their hands!) decided to rate every county in Ireland on four (4!!) parameters. One criterion was natural amenity which they assessed by developing ‘a unique method of ranking the natural amenity of a particular area using the percentage of each area covered by water and mountains and attributed as urban’ (Leinster Express 16 Jan 2021 Lynda Kiernan). Having spent so many happy years in Offaly I would certainly disagree with the findings and would challenge that duo to explain them fully! The very fact that Offaly is not covered with water and mountain makes it one of the most attractive counties in Ireland. Offaly’s unique landscape is one of peace and tranquility. The wide open stretches of bog covered with the most wonderful heathers and gorse throughout the year make it a joy to behold in any season. A mid 19th century saying that when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season is certainly true of midland scenery!
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.
The architect and town planner Frank Gibney (1905-1978) is today recognised as one of the most talented, influential and prolific housing designers of mid-20th c. Ireland.
Responsible for almost six thousand local authority dwellings in every part of the country, his deep concern for human scale and for good living standards delivered homes of a quality which have stood the test of time, while today many of their contemporaries have been altered or demolished.
Principal amongst his many achievements are the six Midland bog villages built in the 1950s for Bord na Mona workers, which were inspired by the aspirations of Patrick Pearse and Eamon de Valera for national self-sufficiency and which have been described by the Yale University Press/Royal Irish Academy volume on Irish architecture as ‘models for rural living’. These beautiful urban set pieces are cherished by their proud present day inhabitants and beg the question as to why contemporary housing policies have not emulated their success.
Gibney’s numerous and extraordinarily ambitious town planning schemes founded on Garden City and Beaux Arts principles, were less successful, being proposed at a time of cultural conservatism and financial stringency. His passion for plans based on aesthetic principles which would preserve the best of towns while creating new and beautiful public areas found little local response. Nonetheless, he was engaged by many Irish towns and cities including Waterford and Drogheda to chart their future and elements of his proposals are still capable of fulfilment today.
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 →
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.
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.
The Longworth family and George Dames of Tullamore
Reading in the National Archives some time ago I came upon a small envelope of papers that Athlone-born Revd George Stokes had put together on the Longworth family. He was constructing a family tree and it was that family’s connections with Athlone that appealed to him. The envelope included two Wills. One was that of George Dames of Tullamore, dated 1662, who died in June, 1666. In it, Dames is described as a yeoman. The Dames and the Longworth families intermarried in successive generations and it is no surprise that this Will was filed with some of the Wills of the Longworth family. They were both Cromwellian families that settled in the midlands.
Back in 2014 I was an intern in the Heritage Office in Offaly County Council. I compiled a database of all known post 1700 burial grounds in the county. Compiling the database required thorough desk and field based research. During fieldwork I visited 170 of the 187 burial grounds I recorded. While visiting these places I noted many interesting and unusual features, some of which are the basis for this blog post. The list is of course subjective. There are certainly more interesting and unique features waiting to be discovered in Offaly burial grounds. Continue reading →