The First Technical Education Scheme in King’s County/Offaly, 1902–30: a time of exciting innovation and experiment. By Michael Byrne

In these days when there is so much of war and pestilence it is good in looking at the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland to focus on the positive. Things that were done the good of which is still with us. So it is with technical education. Today we look at the early efforts and how positive and innovative were the early pioneers. Our own founder of Offaly History in 1938-9, James Rogers, was one who contributed. So too did those unsung heroes E. J. Delahunty and Willie Robbins. In regard to technical, or what is sometimes referred to as practical education, the earliest attempt in the county to provide such a facility was made at Birr about 1841 when the Parsonstown Mechanics Institute was established in, or to the rear, of the memorial hall at John’s Mall.[1] It was not a success. There were other experiments in agricultural education and model schools, but the first real attempt to provide children and adults with opportunities for technical or practical education came with the passing of the Technical Instruction Act, 1889. A further important stimulus was the passing of the Agricultural and Technical Instruction Act. 1899, which led to the setting up of a new department of agriculture and technical instruction. As a result of the two acts over fifty committees throughout Ireland were working to promote agriculture and technical instruction by early 1900.[2]

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Shops and pubs designed by Michael Scott in the 1940s for D.E. Williams. By Fergal MacCabe

At a time of economic stringency, the architect Michael Scott delivered several elegant retail buildings for a prominent midlands business family. These were executed in a Modernist style and incorporated natural materials in an innovative fashion.

D.E. Williams

In a recent Offaly History blog, Michael Byrne described the expansionary retail strategy of the notable Offaly commercial firm of D. E. Williams in installing high quality shops and pubs in virtually every town and village across the county in the period 1884-1921.

This courageous approach had not deserted the go ahead commercial family when during the Second World War, then modestly referred to as ‘The Emergency’, they ambitiously embarked on the redevelopment of their most prominent retail outlets in Dublin, Athlone and Birr and and most importantly, delivered a flagship shop and public bar in Patrick Street in Tullamore. To implement their progressive strategy they turned to Michael Scott.

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Offaly County Administration in 1920 and 1921 during the Military Regime. Specially Contributed

In the first issue of the Athlone-based Offaly Independent on 4 February 1922 (about fifteen months after the destruction of the newspaper by Crown forces) an article appeared setting out the changes in public health administration in County Offaly, settled in 1921. This involved the closure of the workhouses in Edenderry and Birr and the adaptation of that in Tullamore as ‘the County Home’ and Offaly County Hospital. The workhouse infirmary in Tullamore was re-named the County Hospital and the Tuberculosis dispensary and beds in the new (1915) building at the back of the old county infirmary in Church Street was to continue to operate there at least for a time. The closing of the county infirmary in Church Street, Tullamore in 1921 (first opened on that site in 1788) and having about thirty beds in use at any time, and a dispensary, did not even get a mention in the 1922 review. The change over in the administration involving the switch from Local Government Board to Dail funded management based on local rate collection was a remarkable achievement.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Homan Potterton sale features three painters with Offaly connections. By Michael Byrne

The Homan Potterton sale on 7 September 2021 at Adam’s, Dublin features three painters with Offaly connections. But first a word about Potterton. After secondary education at Kilkenny College and Mountjoy School he began studying to be a solicitor, but (great for him ) he switched to art history at Trinity with the formidable Anne Crookshank. He was the youngest director of the National Gallery of Ireland ever appointed (1979) but stayed for only eight years. He retired in 1988 out of frustration with the bureaucracy, the bullying Charlie Haughey, and his being unable to secure much needed funds for the gallery. That was back in the difficult 1980s. Had Potterton remained he would have been able to oversee the wonderful gallery there is today. All the great institutions saw money flow in from the 1990s with the support of EC funds and the lift in the economy from 1993. While he took over the editorship of the Irish Arts Review in the 1990s (then an exciting annual event) he later moved to France and we heard no more of him save for several family histories, a memoir and a novel.

The jacket of Potterton’s memoir of 2017 with the arresting painting in the great classical style by Festing.
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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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The origins of the Leix-Offaly Plantation. By Dr Diarmuid Wheeler.

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 info@offalyhistory.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.

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