Kinnitty is very much on the tourist trail in Offaly and is arguably the finest planned village in the county. In this the second extract first published in 2011 in Paddy Lowry’s Kinnitty my home in the Slieve Bloom (2011) Paddy Lowry looks back to almost 100 years ago. Courtesy of Kilcormac Historical Society. Offaly History has some copies of this now scarce title for sale.
Some of the locals in Kinnitty were fond of making up rhymes to annoy and tease each other and I remember when we were young the following would often be heard.
On Monday 21 February 2022 Offaly History will host a public lecture on the photographic work of Middleton Westenra Biddulph (1849–1926) of Rathrobin, Tullamore. The lecture will also be streamed via Zoom and will start at 8 p.m. at/from Offaly History Centre. Biddulph’s photographs of Offaly and midlands interest together with Big Houses in Ireland have been published in Michael Byrne, Rathrobin and the two Irelands (Tullamore, 2021).For the link to Zoom email firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no charge.
Middleton Westenra Biddulph was born on 17 August 1849 at Rathrobin, Mountbolus, King’s County. He was one of six children and the eldest surviving son of Francis Marsh Biddulph (1802–1868) and Lucy Bickerstaff (d. 1896). She was born in Preston, Lancashire and they married in 1845 when F.M.B. was 45 and Lucy 24. The Bickerstaff connection was to be an important one for the surviving sons of F.M.B. and led to a substantial inheritance in the 1890s for Middleton W. Biddulph (M.W.B.) and his brother Assheton who lived at Moneyguyneen, Kinnitty. F.M.B. was of a large family of eleven children. All were girls save their one surviving brother. F.M.B. lived with at least three of his sisters at Rathrobin, few of whom married and at least three emigrated to Australia or the United States.
The whole of Ireland will be watching Mountbolus today for perhaps the first time in its history. None would want the attention it will receive as the family of Ashling Murphy, her friends and representatives of state, gather for her final mass in the lovely church dominating the village of Mountbolus. The family who have given and suffered so much may now need privacy in their great sorrow.
We are publishing this essay of thirty-five years ago to honour all the people of the barony of Killoughy who have kept the Irish musical tradition vibrant and have a great love of their local history. It is also to mark the passing of Ashling Murphy and in support of her family and all her neighbours in the Blue Ball, Mountbolus and Kilcormac areas. Thanks to Paddy Heaney who did so much for local studies and wishing him well and a big shout out for all he and Paddy Lowry did for local studies. The barony of Ballyboy lost two-thirds of its population over the period 1841 to 1911.
If you ever stand on the summit of Knockhill on a frosty moonlight night, and if your hear voices, and the thunder of hooves coming from the direction of the mountain, don’t be afraid, it’s only the ghosts form the distant past on their way to the fair of Frankford.
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.
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 photographs taken by 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 keenly aware of the plantations of the 1550s to the 1650s. He appreciated the needs of the farm labourers and was decent to his own tenants, indoor staff and farm workers. His entire estate was not much more than 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 Biddulph’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.
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
On the road to Birr, and not far from Kilcormac, are the classical gate piers of Temora – all that is left now of the home of the family of Magawly family. This Catholic family owned much of Kilcormac and, after a long legal battle, had the benefit of the articles of the Treaty of Limerick and were able to retain some of their lands. Temora may have been built in the 1750s or 1760s and the naming of the house possibly had an eye to the poem, Temora, of 1763 by James Macpherson. The illustrious history of the Magawly family can be recalled in the memorial inscription in the Catholic church in Kilcormac, placed there a few years after the completion of that church in 1867. The family had been obliged to sell the last of their landholding in 1852, but the pressure was on from the mid-1840s when the process servers were sniffing about. Money problems may have gone back at least 100 years earlier to the 1740s and 1750s when much of the Magawly landholdings were sold by way of long leases. The house itself was occupied by the Free State army in the early 1920s and destroyed by arson about 1930.
There are only a few studies available on the development of retailing in Ireland, either of a general nature or in connection with particular firms. It is well known that in the first half of the nineteenth century and up to the Famine years retail outlets were not widely available and many in the smaller towns were no better than huxter shops. There were exceptions and that is clear from the photographs of c. 1900 of shops such as Williams. Egan, Goodbody and Lumley (in Tullamore); O’Brien in Edenderry and O’Meara and Fayles in Birr. In looking at the revolutionary period from 1912 to 1921 to mark the decade of centenaries it is also worth looking at revolutions in other areas such as transport, energy and shopping. Like the political revolution retailing exhibited signs of stress after 1921 and did not recover until the coming of the supermarkets to the provincial towns in the 1960s.
The trade directories, and from the 1840s the valuation records, will facilitate investigation of retail outlets. By the 1860s living standards had improved and this is reflected in the increasing number of shops; per capita tobacco consumption rose to English standards about 1870 and per capita consumption of tea was not far off the English level by the end of the 1870s. The considerable economic progress of the early 1870s, began to slow down by the end of that decade. The 1880s is looked on as a period of industrial crisis with industries closing down in all the principal towns, or destroyed by fire as with the Goodbody tobacco factory in Tullamore and the Birr distillery in 1889.The railways and the canals (especially in the midlands) facilitated the easy removal of heavy goods and livestock from towns all over Ireland, but it also left it easier to import foods easily and cheaply. As a result, the Irish industrial base (such as it was, especially in southern Ireland) receded while the retail and services sector began to grow albeit slowly.
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.