Offaly and the River Shannon. By Paul Clements

For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey along the River Shannon, following in the footsteps of the writer and singer Richard Hayward. His book looks back at Ireland in the 1930s but also considers the present-day Shannon which he believes is now undergoing a renaissance. [ 

The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the street in a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off and some areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration. Life was shaped by the rhythms of the agricultural year and farming was the mainstay of the economy.  Despite the poverty, there was another more carefree side to life which respected the arts and cultural history. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had. This was the Ireland that fascinated the writer, singer and actor Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland.

1. Richard Hayward, star of Irish films of the 1930s, and author of the  bestselling Where the River Shannon Flows (1940).

Noted for his travel books on the country, he explored the River Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of World War II. He set off on his journey from the Shannon Pot in Co. Cavan in a 12 horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan. He travelled with a photographer and cameraman and made a 25-minute black-and-white film of his river journey shown at cinemas across Ireland. The Shannon is largely the same river that Hayward admired in his book Where the River Shannon Flows, published in 1940. As a chronicler of the river, he was one of the first in the twentieth century to write about it in detail. His book was reviewed by Maurice Walsh in The Irish Times that summer and was top of the paper’s non-fiction section, ‘What Dublin is Reading.’

2. Cover of Hayward’s book Where the River Shannon Flows, jointly published in 1940 by Dundalgan Press and Harrap, with a foreword by Maurice Walsh. The book was reprinted in 1950, and in 1989 for the fiftieth anniversary of Hayward’s 1939 journey.

Since then, the river has nourished artistic souls and influenced many writers. Numerous epithets have been applied to it by travellers, poets, musicians and other chroniclers. The Kerry novelist, Maurice Walsh, who wrote the foreword to Hayward’s book, called the river ‘immense’. He said it once separated the Pale from Hell – ‘though there was a small dispute as to which side Hell lay’. The elegist of the midlands, John Broderick, was less flattering, referring in The Waking of Willie Ryan to the river’s ‘silent, menacing presence’. Writing in his autobiography Nostos, the Kerry-born poet, mystic and philosopher, John Moriarty, described the estuary from Tarmons Hill, near Tarbert, as ‘A grandeur of water … the Shannon flowing through it with a landscape that had in it a remembrance of Paradise’. In the final passage of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, he writes of the ‘dark mutinous Shannon waves’.

One literary connection to the Shannon that is not so well known is the fact that Flann O’Brien’s novel, At  Swim Two Birds, takes its title from an island on the river between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge. Although born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, O’Brien’s family moved to the midlands when he was nine and his childhood was spent near Tullamore.

3. The title of the Flann O’Brien novel At-Swim-Two-Birds was inspired by an island in the River Shannon, north of Shannonbridge. O’Brien’s other book, The Third Policeman also influenced Paul Clements to go off in search of Shannon-related information on O’Brien who lived in Tullamore in his youth.  

 As part of my quest, and as a dedicated ‘Flannorack’, I set off, naturally enough by bicycle, to try to pin down information about two small islands which I had come across on an old map: Curley’s Island, and just south of it, Devenish Island, or Snámh-dá-Ean (literally ‘Swim-Two-Birds’). In the Anglo-Norman era, Curley’s Island was guarded by the castle of Clonburren on the west side of the river. Some accounts also state that St Patrick crossed the river into Connacht at this point.

The road from Shannonbridge followed hedges overflowing with cow parsley and bright yellow gorse. When I reached the riverside callows, I came across a fellow cyclist and dog-walker, who introduced himself by the name of Flan – a serendipitous encounter, which the author himself would have enjoyed, even though he spelt his name only with one ‘n’. We talked about the title of the O’Brien book with which Flan was familiar and walked across the callows to get as close as we could to the edge of both islands. The meadows were filled with a sea of buttercups, pignut, plantain, gleaming cowslip, the bobbing heads of bog cotton and cuckoo flower all starring the grass. The river here is low-lying here but it was clear that the two islands appeared to be made up mostly of grass and stone. Curley’s Island, a thin six-acre strip of grass and sand, lies to the north of Devenish Island which is larger. There was an architectural grandeur to the lofty tottering reed beds rising with a towering palisade of stems up to six metres. When we reached the river we made out the division with one part falling down like a finger to Devenish. Cattle were relaxing on the island, in no hurry to move anywhere.

‘Curley is a common name, more so in south Roscommon,’ Flan explained,  ‘where in the old graveyards a lot of those names are buried. There was a ford here which meant that the water was so shallow you could literally walk across it. You’d be walking through water up to your ankles and Devenish Island was likely dug out or drained to make it navigable. Once they dug it, then there was an island in the middle. The small ford that would have been used by people to cross the river and salmon would have loved it too.’

4. A cabin cruiser makes its way between Curley’s Island  and Devenish Island, which translates as ‘Swim-Two-Birds’  (Snámh-dá-Ean), and which provided the inspiration for Flann O’Brien’s famous novel At- Swim-Two- Birds.

It was intriguing to discover that At Swim-Two-Birds exists as a real place. I recalled a quotation from another of O’Brien’s books, The Third Policeman celebrating the romance and mysticism of cycling: ‘How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle, the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame? I felt that I had known her for many years and that she had known me and that we understood each other utterly.’

My travels around Offaly involved spending time at Clonmacniose, attending events such as the Banagher horse fair and the annual vintage barge rally on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour. The rally, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, is where the owners of many carefully tended classic old boats and barges – some dating back to 1846 – congregate to celebrate their colourful heritage.

5. Shannon Harbour barge rally, an annual event which attracts many classic boats and barges and is organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland.   

Another summer highlight of the Shannon Harbour weekend is the annual opening of the Canal Bar beside the handsome single-arch Griffith humpbacked road bridge. It is an example of what a welcoming midlands bar should be: a half-door with a stone floor, low ceiling and dim lighting, cushioned benches beside a turf fire, red wainscoting with black trim, and a few jigs and reels coming from a corner. For years, many towns turned their backs on the river but are now embracing it. Today farmers, fishermen and recreational users all have a different relationship with it compared to the days when Hayward travelled along it, but the twenty-first century Shannon and its hinterland has been neglected by various agencies. However, Fáilte Ireland have launched a new regional tourism branding scheme, ‘Hidden Heartlands,’ a route running from Sligo to Limerick, taking in both banks of the Shannon. Along with a new marketing plan from Waterways Ireland, and the Atlantic Edge campaign in Limerick, the Shannon is clearly having a moment.

Developments in Offaly are taking place too, such as work on the defensive Shannon Napoleonic fortifications brooding over strategic river crossing points. This summer, Fort Eliza in Banagher, a five-sided, four-gun battery, built around 1812 and looking out over the river, was awarded a grant of €35,000 from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (match-funded by Waterways Ireland as part of its Conservation Management Plan) for important renovation work. But many feel that more still needs to be done, especially in relation to small towns such as Banagher where the crumbling Royal Shannon Hotel has been boarded up since its closure in 2005. The striking disused Georgian building with bow-fronted windows, was where the novelist Anthony Trollope lived when he worked for the post office in the 1840s. Now tumbleweeds sprouts from its roof, the garden is choked with dead plants, paint peels from its walls, while broken slates and smashed windows add to its pitiful condition.

6. Paul Clements at the ‘Snake in the Lake’ cycling and walking boardwalk, Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.

This year life has slowed down for many people who have reconnected with their surroundings and discovered places on their doorstep. It has also redefined our relationship with the natural world and led to a river revival. The callows, bogland parks such as Lough Boora or Clara Bog, the new blueways and cycleways around Lough Derg, as well as those in Athlone and Drumshanbo are attractive places in which to spend time holidaying at home, experiencing the gentle comfort of sitting by the riverbank.

7. Cover of Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time

Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time by Paul Clements is published by The Lilliput Press at €15.and is available from Offaly History.

Offaly GAA blessed with some great club history publications: sources for Offaly History and Society, no. 7. By Kevin Corrigan

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.

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The King’s/ Offaly County Council election of June 1920: ‘remarkable, memorable, and revolutionary’.

0.1 Prelims front cover The Courthouse & gaol Tullamore c. 1910 cover
The seat of civil and judicial governance in Offaly about 1910 and the place of correction in the background with the houses of the ‘turnkeys’, Charleville Street, Tullamore.

The verdict of county secretary James P. Kingston on the county council elections of 2 June 1920 was that the election was not just remarkable and memorable but revolutionary. Kingston believed it was even more revolutionary than the 1899 elections that saw only three members of the old grand jury transfer to the new county council. In that election James Perry Goodbody was elected for Clara unopposed and William Adams defeated distiller and grand jury member Bernard Daly to secure the Tullamore seat. Goodbody was a leading Quaker businessman and Adams a large farmer and publican. Adams retired from the council in 1912 and was succeeded at the council by his son P.F. Adams who was married to Rosaleen Egan, a daughter of Henry Egan, chairman of the county council from 1899 to 1910. Goodbody served on the council as chair of the Finance and Proposals Committee from 1900 and was vice-chairman of the council from 1912. Both P.F. Adams and James P. Goodbody sought election to the new council of 1920 in the first post-war elections and both were defeated. Sinn Féin secured 19 of the 21 seats and acceptable Labour men two seats. For Secretary Kingston the election was also a turning point as he was forced out of office within a year, just as his predecessor Thomas Mitchell had been in 1899.

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Interesting Graves and Graveyards of Offaly. By Stephen Callaghan

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

Johnny Gorman the tailor of Ferbane. The Story of a Fenian. By Tomas O Cleirigh M.A. and Offaly History

19341201 Johnny Gorman Irish Press
Johnny Gorman, 1847-8 – 143

Some died by the glenside, some died ‘mid the stranger,
The wise men have told us their cause was a failure;
But they stood by old Ireland an’ never feared danger,
Glory O! glory O to the Bold Fenian Men”
Peadar O’ Cearnaigh

Ferbane is a little place of about three hundred inhabitants. They often been wonder why the Shannon Scheme went out of its way to come to them. It’s queer to see it all lit up at night, because I think the whole three hundred go to bed at nine. There is bog all around it- miles and miles of good, hard bog, and a clean cold wind that makes fine men. Johnny Gorman is one of them.
Johnny is a brisk and blue-eyed little fellow – a tailor by trade with a halo of glory by way of his having been once upon a time a bold Fenian man. I went to see him early on a Monday morning, and wondered if he could spare me a few minutes. That made Johnny laugh;
“Musha, it’s not in New York ye are now, my son, and even so, sure Monday’s tailor’s holiday and I can stay talking to you all day if you wish.”

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Memories of Rural Electrification and the Arrival of the ‘Electric’ in County Offaly An Oral History Project John Gibbons

 

SCAN0302In October 2014, following an introduction by Amanda Pedlow and Stephen Callaghan, an understanding was reached with the late Stephen McNeill, the then President and Micheal Byrne Secretary of the Offaly and Archaeology Society for them to assist and source interviewees in connection with my project to record persons talking about their memories of life around and about ‘The arrival of the rural’ in Offaly, to date I have recorded over 30 persons in Offaly. Since August 2016,utilising excepts from recordngs, a 45 minute audio/slide presentation which was shown by me to members of History Societies in Edenderry, Tullamore, Rhode, in March 2019 a fourth presentation was shown to members of the Ballinteer Active Retirement Association. A fifth presentation is scheduled for showing in Bury Quay, Tullamore in early 2020.
This Blog seeks to briefly explain aspects of the Rural Electrification Scheme in Ireland and what Michael Shiel in his book called The Quiet Revolution (Dublin 1984) [JPG0292]

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Marking the Wonderful World and Tragic Death of Mary Ward on the 150th anniversary of Ireland’s first recorded road fatality in Birr in 1869.

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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.

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In search of bog memories By Emily Toner, Clara Bog Visitor Centre, Monday 19 August at 2-4 p.m.

 

As a Ferbane student wrote in the School Folklore Collection: “There’s a large amount of bogland in the locality round here.” County Offaly is a place covered in peatlands–more than a third of the county was classified as peat soil by in the National Soil Survey of Ireland published by Teagasc in 2003. Offaly is also the county with the highest proportion of homes using those bogs for turf. At 37.9% of households heated with turf according to 2016 Central Statistics Office data, Offaly outcompetes the next county highest county, Roscommon, where 26.6% of households have the turf fire burning. The prevalence of bogs and bog-connected people is what brought me to live in Tullamore for a year.

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Early Aviation in and around Offaly by Guy Warner

No 2 Squadron at Limerick in 1913.
No 2 Squadron at Limerick in 1913.

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.’

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Offaly and the First Air War: Joe Gleeson

2_D.H.4
2. D.H.4 bomber, aircrew posing with map (IWM, Q12021)

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.

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