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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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’.Continue reading
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
The current issue of Irish Historical Studies (no. 165, May 2020) has a featured review of five issues from the Maynooth Local Studies series published in 2019. That brought the number issued to 144. We attach the list to 144 for your convenience and we bring to your attention the latest batch of four. Raymond Gillespie is the quiet man behind the series and who has acted as general editor since its inception in 1995. The reviewer in IHS, Maura Cronin, reminds of his characterising local history as being ‘primarily about people in places over time’. Place is described as the bedrock of local history, but it must be seen in the context of the actions of people and the pivotal role of historical research is looking for the forces of disruption and of cohesion. What brought people together and what drove them apart.
The four new issues of 2020
Four new volumes have been published in the Maynooth Studies in Local History series (general editor Professor Raymond Gillespie). The volumes by Denis Casey, Emma Lyons, Brendan Scott and Jonathan Wright and can be ordered via Offaly History Centre.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
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.
A Golden Age
Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.
The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.
Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.
This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.