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.

Researching Offaly History and using the DIB – No 8 in the Sources for Offaly History and Society Series. By Terry Clavin

The Dictionary of Irish Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at Offaly History Centre

This article was written by Terry Clavin in 2014 for the Lions Tullamore Annual and we thank him for permission to use it. The Dictionary of Irish Biography has proved invaluable since it was first issued in nine hard cover volumes in 2009. Now it runs to eleven volumes and much more online. It is at present free to consult and we hope will remain free to consult when Covid ends. From this wicked pestilence some good may come! Since Terry’s article we have a recent book on the Egans of Moate and Tullamore, the third earl of Rosse and last week the second volume of Jeff Kildea’s biography of Hugh Mahon. So keep in touch by consulting the online version of the DIB, our weekly blog and our website. See also our online library catalogue to keep in touch. We add new history books every week to our library at Bury Quay, Tullamore. We congratulate Tullamore man Terry Clavin on his research work for the dictionary and the entries he has written up and also edited.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) is the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary yet published in Ireland. It contains over 9,000 biographical articles ranging in length from 200 words to 15,000 words, which describe and assess the careers of subjects in all fields of endeavour. The subjects eligible for inclusion are those who were born in Ireland with careers inside or outside Ireland and those born outside Ireland with careers in Ireland.

The time span covered by the DIB ranges from the earliest times to the early 21st century. All subjects included in the print edition must have died before the end of 2002. The online version (dib.cambridge.org; subscription only) includes all the entries in the 2009 edition as well as twice-yearly batches of new entries for subjects who have died since 2002. A forthcoming update will include a biography of Tullamore businessman Daniel Edmund Williams (1928–2007) [since published online]. Apart from the more recently dead, every two years we publish a batch of entries of ‘missing persons’ who were overlooked in the 2009 edition. In that respect we are keen to be advised on significant figures not originally included.

As far as possible each article includes details of birth, death, family education, the chronological sequence of career and details of significant awards, distinctions, or promotions. As well as basic biographical information, personal relationships and characteristics are commented on. A bibliography of the sources consulted is provided at the end of each life. As a result the DIB serves both as a work of reference and as a starting point for more detailed research.

The DIB features various Tullamore natives and also figures whose lives related to the town. Charles William Bury (1764–1835), first earl of Charleville, provides a good starting point as by granting new leases to his Tullamore tenants after the great fire of 1785, he created the town’s modern layout and enabled it to recover and thrive. He hired the renowned architect Francis Johnston for the Market House and St Catherine’s Church, and then for the construction of a Gothic castle just outside the town in Charleville Forest. The DIB notes ‘Begun by November 1800, [the castle] was completed in 1808, to which a terrace, lawns, artificial lake, grotto and 1,500 acres of woodland were added.’

C.K. Howard Bury

Bury’s descendent Charles Kenneth Howard–Bury (1883–1963) was raised in Charleville Castle before pursuing a career as an explorer, mountaineer and soldier. In 1921, he was part of a group of distinguished climbers who were the first Europeans to explore and map Mount Everest. During his travels he acquired a Russian bear and regularly wrestled with it, keeping the bear in the arboretum of his Mullingar residence. His life partner Rex Beaumont is described as an ‘inseparable’ friend.

One of the most notorious incidents outlined in the DIB involving Tullamore concerned the ill treatment in the town’s jail of the National League activist John Mandeville (1849–88). After being convicted for inciting tenants to defend their homes from evicting landlords, he was imprisoned in Tullamore in October 1887 where at the behest of Arthur Balfour, the chief secretary for Ireland and future British prime minister, he ‘became the target of bullying punishment designed to break his insistence on political status … Repeated periods of solitary confinement on coarse bread and cold water in foetid draughty cells brought about painful rheumatism, chronic sore throat, and continual diarrhoea. Stripped of his clothes by warders, he remained semi-naked for a day in extreme cold. The prison doctor, James Ridley, callously certified him fit for punishment whatever his state … By late December, Mandeville had shed over three stones in weight, trembled constantly, and had lost vision.’

Mandeville’s plight became public knowledge and provoked uproar. He was released after three months but his health was broken and he died in July 1888. The coroner’s inquest unequivocally linked his death to the brutal prison regime.

The DIB includes a number of Irish emigrants, and the most notable Tullamore exile is Hugh Mahon (1857–1931) who was born the thirteenth child of a local farmer and attended the town’s CBS. A journalist, he became involved in political radicalism and was briefly imprisoned for Land League agitation. Threatened with further imprisonment he fled to Australia in March 1882 under an alias. There he continued as a journalist, both editing and owning various newspapers, while organising fund raising tours for John Redmond. He was regularly embroiled in public controversy as he sought to rebut anti-Irish prejudice in the Australian media. Elected for the Labor party to the Australian parliament he ‘quickly established a reputation as a bruising political operator, cold and ruthless, and won some admirers but few friends; the Westralian Worker judged him “a democrat whose snobbish coldness of demeanour would make a snake shudder”.’

Mahon held various ministerial positions in the Australian government, causing a series of cabinet rows along the way. ‘Always committed to Irish affairs, he was at the centre of national controversy in November 1920, when he made a speech in Melbourne bitterly condemning the British government for the death of Terence MacSwiney … The reaction was immediate and hostile, and his many enemies used the speech as a pretext to get rid of him. On 11 November, the prime minister, W. M. Hughes, made an extremely personal and vitriolic attack on Mahon … Mahon was expelled from the house in a unique procedural case’. Driven from politics, he worked thereafter as managing director for the Catholic Church Property Insurance Company.

William O’Connor Morris

In contrast the judge and local landowner William O’Connor Morris (1824–1904) was a pillar of the Protestant Ascendancy. ‘His uncompromising position on land reform and his hostility to tenants earned him much criticism and he became very unpopular.’ He published a number of books on military history but according to the DIB entry they were ‘polemical, poorly researched and inconsequential’.

Other significant locals include the catholic bishop of Meath John Cantwell (1792–1866) and pioneering peat industrialist David Sherlock (1850–1940) who set up the Rahan Peat Works, which successfully carried out fuel and peat moss production for fifty years. The surgeon Robert Henry Woods (1865–1938) was the son of a Tullamore shopkeeper and after studying ear, nose and throat surgery in Vienna practised as a laryngologist in Dublin, gaining European-wide renown. ‘His work was characterised by skill and thoroughness, and he was famous for his operations to remove an entire larynx, affected by malignant disease as well as for his aftercare, treating patients to produce intelligible voice.’

Pat Egan

Businessman Patrick Joseph Egan (1876–1960) was born into a prosperous Tullamore merchant family. ‘Operating one of the first department stores in the midlands, he conducted a considerable retail and wholesale trade and expanded strongly throughout the midlands.’ The DIB entry describes him as one of the foremost business personalities in Ireland but he is particularly noteworthy for his support of the IRA in the War of Independence.

‘During the 1919–21 troubles he drew close to Sinn Féin, contributing generously to the Dáil Éireann loan, and serving as chairman of the dáil-appointed trustees who from summer 1920 managed the secret account of the Sinn Féin-controlled King’s County Council. He placed his company’s lorries and motorcars at the disposal of republican forces, and maintained on full salaries some eighteen employees interned or on the run.’ Later he was elected Cumann na nGaedheal TD for Laois–Offaly.

Finally, the most recent Tullamore born subject to be treated is Sister Genevieve O’Farrell (1923–2001). The daughter of a local farm manager ‘her decision to enter the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul surprised people since she was not notably pious.’ She taught children on the Falls Road, Belfast, from 1956, becoming principal of St Louise’s secondary school in 1963.

‘A former student, Mary Costello, fictionalised her in a novel as Sr Bonaventure: “stern, courageous, intelligent; and for a nun, unconventional, an odd-bod. She was also the only nun with sex appeal I’d ever met” … Another description was as “Margaret Thatcher with a spiritual dimension”.’

Following the outbreak of the Troubles, she ‘took on the British army, refusing to allow them to search the school and, on one occasion, demanding that a soldier who snatched a girl’s beret make a public apology. However, she stated publicly that the most dangerous aspect of life in the Troubles was the paramilitaries’ grip on communities … Her stance against paramilitaries earned her the title of ‘best man on the Falls Road’ and did her little harm within the community, but her cooperation with British authorities roused criticism. Her acceptance of an OBE in 1978 and her invitation in 1983 to Jane Prior, wife of the secretary of state, to visit the school brought angry denunciations … However, she insisted that enhancing the image of the school benefited the students, and in general her achievements were enough to silence criticism.’

If you have any queries regarding the DIB, please contact us through our website at http://dib.cambridge.org/home.do

The Story of Bog Butter. By John Dolan

Bog butters are large white or yellow waxy deposits regularly discovered within the peat bogs of Ireland and Scotland. They represent an extraordinary survival of prehistoric and later agricultural products, comprising the largest deposits of fat found anywhere in nature. Often found in wooden containers or wrapped in animal bladders, they are considered to have been buried intentionally by past farming communities. While previous analysis has determined that Irish bog butters derive from dairy fat, their precise characterisation could not be achieved due to chemical compositional alterations during burial in subsequent years. They generally produce a distinctive, pungent and offensive smell.

The largest Irish example weighed 23kg (50lbs) from a find in the Galtee Mountains in 1826.  Bog Butter is primarily held in the National Museum with some held by local museums.

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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 rediscovery of Bloomville, County Offaly. Christopher Fettes

Bloomville, Cloneygowan, County Offaly

On June 15th 1991, I climbed a locked gate marked Bloomville, just as the rain stopped and the sun came out.  There were some lovely beeches, but no sign of a house. I then spotted two ancient chestnuts, and it was only then that I could see the house in the distance.

It was a case of love at first sight, with everything sparkling in the sunshine, and I wondered why the agent’s advertisement had not included a photograph.  Only when I approached the house could I understand the reason.  The traditional roses (still flourishing 29 years later) looked pretty, but, close up, the house looked very neglected.

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6 Sources for Offaly History and Society. ‘Offaly one hundred Years Ago’: A compendium by John Wright and published in 1890 as ‘The King’s County Directory’ was reprinted in 1989 as ‘Offaly one hundred years ago’.

Written and compiled by John Wright- owner/editor of the King’s County Chronicle, Birr, from 1872 until his death in 1915 – the book was published early in 1890 as ‘The King’s County Directory’.  His son Archie succeeded and died in 1954. Increasingly, over the intervening years, it has been treasured as an invaluable source of reference for local historians but it has long been out of print and only a few copies remain extant.  It was reprinted in 1989 now in hard back form, in a facsimile edition which reproduces its 368 pages – including 24 pages of advertisements and a number of drawings of noteworthy buildings. Since then it has also been made available on CD.

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5 Researching Irish history – using historic maps: exploring Geashill village, County Offaly since the 1830s

 

Researching Irish family history can be challenging due to the lack of written records. Owing to variation in the legislative union of Ireland, Scotland and Wales with England, registration of births, deaths and marriages was different in each country and comparatively late in Ireland. In Ireland, state registration of non-Catholic marriages began in 1845, but the registration of all births, marriages and deaths did not begin until 1864.   Additionally, Church records are often incomplete and those that exist are rarely found before 1800, particularly in rural areas.

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Thomas Dunne of Ballinagar, Offaly: ‘A Sterling Irishman’. By John Malone

 

47 Ballinagar Village, Co. Offaly - 1950's maybe!!
Ballinagar village early 1960s

In December 1968 Thomas [Tommy] Dunne received the tribute of a soldier’s burial from surviving I.R.A comrades in Offaly and the army in Annaharvey graveyard, near Tullamore.

Thomas Dunne grew up in Ballinagar (between Daingean and Tullamore) along with his siblings Mary, Richard, Margaret and James in the late 1800s. Their father was Tommy and their mother was Anne Brien from nearby Clonmore. Tommy was in his time a leading member of the local Fenian movement and came to Ballinagar from Rathfeston during the time Trench was the land agent for Lord Digby. The family tradition was that Tommy was about 27 at the time and by all accounts was a fine strapping young man. A family of Dunne’s owned the farm at the time, they were relatives of Tommy’s, but because they were all females and because of the impossible situation of that time, they were about to throw up the farm. Trench had someone in mind for the farm but Tommy took it over. One day Trench arrived on the farm and spent a while staring and trying to unsettle the young Dunne. Then Trench spoke “I see you have come Dunne.”  “Yes” was the firm reply. Trench then said “On account your family has been here for so long I will let you stay, but instead of the rent being 7 shillings and sixpence an acre it will now be 30 shillings an acre.” This left it nearly impossible to farm but he managed. This incident took place shortly after the infamous evictions on the Geashill estate, where it was reported that the evicted tenants of Geashill filled the streets of Tullamore. A lot of these tenants went on a ship called Erin go bragh to Australia which was charted by a Fr Dunne from Daingean who raised funds for this purpose. He was possibly a relation of the Ballinagar Dunnes.

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No 2, Sources for Offaly History & Society: some of the older printed books – Sir Charles Coote, General view of the agriculture and manufactures of the King’s County with observations on the means of their improvement. Dublin, 1801.

IMG_8438~photo
John Foster’s copy of Coote’s, King’s County Survey. Offaly Archives is collecting all the rare books on the county for the county collection. Foster was the last Speaker in the old Irish Parliament and strongly opposed the Union. He was a vice-president of the [Royal] Dublin Society until the 1820s and was ennobled as Lord Oriel. He and his father were great improvers even when it was not economic for them to do, or prudent. Foster was a great bibliophile which may have been a comfort to him in his cash-straitened latter years.

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.

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Unmoving Statues: Public Sculpture In Offaly. By Fergal MacCabe

 

 

TT086090 memorial to 1913-21
War of Independence Memorial Tullamore, unveiled in 1953

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.

030391 Market Square Birr
Manchester Martyrs Memorial Birr 1894

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.

Maurice Harron
Maurice Harron’s Saints and Scholars Tullamore 2009

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.

Harron Sculpure 1

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.

030502 3rd Earl of Rosse, Birr
Foley’s Third earl unveiled in 1876

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.

030373 Main Street Birr 1910
The Duke is gone but the column has survived – 1747

Pure Dynamite

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.

TT1112GS.

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.

IMG_2121
A son of Banagher – Johnny McEvoy

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.

001701 Statue in Edenderry
Edenderry’s progressive landlord – the third marquis of Downshire – 1845

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

010 Distillery Monument, 1999
Pot  Stills in Market Square 1999

2 Unveiling of the War Memorial at O'Connor Square 1926
Unveiling the Great War memorial in Tullamore in 1926  Widows of those killed were seated

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.

060185 Banagher Town 2011 (87)
Banagher’s tribute to the old IRA

Fergal MacCabe

July 2020