On a walk recently, listening to the crows squawking, I was reminded of a visit to Geashill parish church, dedicated to St Mary, in the diocese of Kildare and county of Offaly just over a year ago and hearing the same sound from the trees by the path to the church.
I have become very attached to the church as it is where my great–grandparents and grandparents were married and where many of my great–aunts and great–uncles were baptised and buried, sadly in unmarked graves. As the world comes to terms with the Covid–19 pandemic, I think of my grandmother, Elizabeth Kerin née Evans (1881–1967) who was born in Geashill. She lived through the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century that killed her father and ten of her twelve siblings, the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic and the War of Independence (1919–1921), a particularly dangerous time for Protestants such as her remaining family in Geashill and her growing family living nearby in Clara.
My grandmother’s early life up to the 1920s was little known to her children and it is only in comparatively recent years that the tragedy she encountered in Geashill has been fully realised. Her only known relatives were her parents, two sisters and two brothers. Access to further information came to me 16 years ago when I contacted the incumbent of Geashill and Killeigh parish at the time, the Revd J. Leslie Crampton. He transcribed all the births and deaths he had for the family. The information concerning the true number of siblings she had and how many had died of tuberculosis, many as young adults, was truly shocking to my grandmother’s daughters and grandchildren. However, it has enabled us to appreciate all the more that the loving and caring person we knew who was sustained by her family and her faith. We realise now she also held the qualities of strength and resilience.
The now permanent release online with free access of some 11,000 lives in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) will be a huge bonus to historical research. And yet there will be many people at county level who will not feature but deserve to have their work recorded in dictionaries of county biography. Offaly History began this process in its publication Offaly Heritage 9 (2016) but more so in the recent issue of Offaly Heritage 11 (2020) where the following ‘Brief Lives’ were recorded by way of:
Short biographies of revolutionary figures in Offaly, 1912–23
P.J. Bermingham (1872–1975), 2–3.
Eamonn Bulfin of Derrinlough, 26–7
Father Thomas Burbage (1879–1966), 42–5
Revd Philip Callary (1849–1925), 73–4
Cumann na mBan in Offaly, 80–81
Thomas Dunne (1884–1968), 90–91
James Perry Goodbody (1853–1923), 134–5
Catherine Mahon (1869–1948), 157–8
Patrick McCartan (1878–1963), 179–80
Seán McGuinness (1899–1978), 189–90
T. M. Russell (1868–1932), 205–6
These short essays of less than 1,000 words each were contributed by independent scholars – Brian Pey, Michael Byrne, Margaret White, Ciara Molloy and Lisa Shortall.
It is to the final life in that recent collection we focus on here. It was that of T.M. Russell, a man with huge potential, which remained unrealised when the opportunity came for a revolutionary change in local government in June 1920. This was following on from the election of the first Sinn Féin controlled county council and the implementation of self-reliance and breaking with the Dublin Castle based Local Government Board.
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’.
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 →
Our traditional view of the Vikings in Ireland was established by our early primary and secondary schooling. We were aware that the Vikings commenced raiding in 795 AD by their raid on Rathlin Island. Eventually they settled in a few areas around our coastline. However, most of the country was within reach of Viking raiding parties. One of the primary bases from which Viking raids emerged was from the city of Limerick. Limerick provided a springboard for raids up the Shannon, affecting areas on either side of the river.
These raids were on church monasteries resulted in the slaughter of monks and workers in the monasteries. It also appears that the Vikings knew exactly where these monasteries were located and regularly their arrival coincided when particular religious events were underway. From other evidence they were after people, cattle and very occasionally the gold and silver in the monasteries. People were regularly taken to be sold at slaves. The largest such raid was carried out at Howth in the year 821 AD where over 600 females were taken away by ship for slavery. In later times Dublin became the largest Viking slave centre in Western Europe; Kiev in Ukraine was their largest slave centre in the East.
Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin
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 →
This week as a substitute for our cancelled lectures during Covid we list some of the older books on Offaly History and some of which are still of use and must be consulted. The list is by no means complete and does not cover archaeology or geology. By older we mean studies mostly published before 1920 and many being diocesan histories. One book that is essential to look at is the Dublin Society survey of the county in 1801. This is the first book published about County Offaly/King’s County and deserves a read before moving on. John O’Donovan when preparing the ordnance survey memoirs in the 1830s had occasion to use Coote, among other books, and considered Coote a blockhead and worse. Yet, there are some nuggets for those who are patient. Coote was trying to promote for the Dublin Society (later Royal Dublin Society) agricultural education. The farming societies were not started until the 1840s and wilted in the Famine years. It was the 1900s before countrywide education in agricultural methods began with Horace Plunkett, agricultural cooperation and the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction.
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 new book comprising a selection of fifty of the poems and ballads of Edward Egan of the Meelaghans, Tullamore has just been published by Offaly History. The book was edited by Michael Byrne, Anne O’Rourke and Tim O’Rourke and is a fitting tribute to a man who died 80 years ago and in his time was revered throughout the midlands for his timely poetic commentaries on the social and political scene in his native county and his appreciation of all that was beautiful within a day’s walk of his home place.
Leaving to one side the work of the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s, the work of Petrie at Clonmacnois, and that of Cooke at Birr in 1826 and 1875, the references to and work done or written up on the historical sites of north Offaly in the nineteenth century are hard to come by. Fr Cogan published historical material on the Offaly parishes in the diocese of Meath in his three-volume work, 1862-1870; Thomas Stanley corresponded with the Royal Society of Antiquaries (RSAI) in 1869 in regard to the nine-hole stone or bullaun at the Meelaghans while Stanley Coote contributed an illustration of Ballycowan Castle for the Memorials of the Dead – a published record from the 1880s to the 1930s of selected tombstone inscriptions in Ireland and in County Offaly.