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.
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.
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.’
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.
The Parker Brothers of Clara and John Martin of Tullamore. One of the Parker boys was killed as was John Martin on 8 October 1918.
There was very little published work relating to Offaly in World War I until recent times. The 1983 essay by Vivienne Clarke was a first and rare examination of the period in Offaly, until Tom Burnell’s Offaly War Dead in 2010, and 2014’s Edenderry in the Great War by Catherine Watson. And so nearly every essay published in Offaly and the Great War which was launched to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War represents new and original historical research and findings, a very exciting prospect in the world of history publishing.The seventeen contributors have submitted essays that cover every aspect of the war and from almost all corners of the county.
If I may paraphrase Dylan Thomas , I am not sure if I was six years of age when I had the misfortune to get the whooping cough that lasted five weeks or I was five years of age and it lasted six weeks. I was then living in Clerhane, a townland near Shannonbridge with my mother, her parents and my uncle. My father was living in Dublin, where he worked as a mechanic. He and his father had run a public house in Shannonbridge in the hungry thirties, and when it did not do very well he was forced to go to Dublin to seek work.
So to set the scene for the little generational tug of war I am about to relate, my grandfather Michael Claffey was from Bloomhill, Ballinahown and was born in 1868. His wife, my grandmother was an Elizabeth Molloy from Parkwood, Moote, County Offaly and was born in 1880. My uncle Joe was born in 1918 , and my mother Margaret had been born in 1914. We all lived in a three roomed thatched cottage, which did not have electricity or piped water, on a farm which also included a quarry. Continue reading →