Placenames and folklore from the townlands of Ballinagar district and the 1550 Survey of Offaly. By John Malone

An often-overlooked heritage is that of our townlands, even the few unassuming townlands that surround Ballinagar village are a treasure trove of folklore and history. These places were once full of ‘rambling houses’ where locals gathered to play cards or enjoy music and stories. There were stile-ways through the countryside, used when crossing fields was more common than using roads.

Work by John O’ Donovan in the 1840s and later P.W. Joyce, and more recently Thomas Lee along with a survey in conducted by the English in 1550 give some understanding of the townland names and how they have developed over the years.

From the map with the edition of the 1550 Survey of Offaly edited by Edmund Curtis in 1930 based on the 1563 map in the British Library and that in TCD.

Tuath  Eishill

Today these townlands are in the parish of Killeigh and the Barony of Geashill, this area roughly corresponds to the ancient Tuath Eishill . The area is first mentioned in the Annals of the Four Masters , where they say a battle was fought between Hermon and Heber at the brink of the Bri Daimh and this was called the battle of Geishill.

The Killeigh parish is an amalgamation of smaller parishes which were substations of the famous monastery at Killeigh founded by St. Senchal the elder.  It was a noted centre of learning and had a long and turbulent history, including being sacked by the Danes in 840.

The first mention of a ruling tribe is that of O’ Hamirgin or Bergin whose battle cry was ‘Bergin ,Geahill and the sky over it’. They were a sub-sect of the O’Connors who ruled the area and had forts in Geashill, Killeigh, Daingean and Croghan. Their chiefs were buried in Killeigh. The O’Connors were a warlike clan and resisted the various invaders well into the 1600s.

An item associated with them is the Geashill Cauldron which is now housed in the National museum. It was said that it was banged as they entered battle. One such occasion was in 1406 when Calvagh O’ Connor struck the cauldron with a stone it produced such a noise that it struck a sudden fear and panic into the hearts of the plunderers.

Townlands in the barony of Geashill and close to Ballinagar

With the coming of the Normans a castle was built in Geashill and the land was eventually held by the Fitzgeralds who as most Anglo-Norman families became more ‘Irish than the Irish themselves’. The family produced many rebels including Lord Edward Fitzgerald, a leader of the United Irishmen. In a letter to the Irish Press Tommy Dunne recounts a story about Lord Edward –“Is the record or the memory still kept of Dempsey the faithful yeoman who kept sentry on Leixlip bridge in ‘98. Lord Edward then on his keeping approached him disguised as a farmer driving his sheep to the city market and inquired whether there was pasturage abouts “No my lord there is not” answered the faithful yeoman, showing that he knew Lord Edward but would not betray him for the £1000 pound that was on his head.

In my early days there used to be a pilgrimage to the grave of the faithful yeoman, is it forgotten”.

The last in the Fitzgerald line in the Geashill area was Lettice who famously held Geashill castle in spite of a siege by the O’Dempseys. Through her marriage to Robert Digby, the area passed into the hands of the Digby family, who were the landlords until the breakup of the estate in the early 1900s.

The O’ Connors were involved in many uprisings through the years and after Silken Thomas Fitzgerald’s failed uprising, the 1550 survey was conducted to find the extent of Brian O’ Connor’s land. Although the survey was flawed on many fronts such as the names were written ‘clumsy English phonetics’ from what they heard from the native Irish speakers , it still provides a good base to start the journey through the townlands. Some Irish words are still recognisable such as glais [stream] curragh [ moor] bohir [road] loch [lake] and eanach [marsh].

Ballinagar before the road widening, about 1960

Ballyduff South

Ballyduff south is described in 1550 asBallindowe. From fyrcloghe alonge the diche to curraghbaitte then alonge to clonardebriske then to glaishbiallacroe & so to glynnegartaghe & then to fyrcloghe.

Some of the names of the townland through the years were Ballydoughe, Balleindo with water mill and Ballyduffon a Digby map of 1797.

John O’ Donovan interpreted the name as Baile ui Dhuibh Theas or O’ Duffs townland. Folklore says there was once a church here. Older people still refer to the townland as High Ballyduff. There was also a famous bush growing on the hill which when seen by men on the run during the War of Independence knew they were in a safe area. Tommy Dunne had an interesting story concerning the battle of Aughrim.

And who Tom asks has not heard of the dog of Aughrim who guarded his master’s bones on the battlefield from July to October until he was shot by English soldiers who were passing that way.

Then there is one other story not generally known of Terence O’Dunne’s horse who when his rider fell mortally wounded galloped home to Clonaslee. Terence O’ Dunne was himself carried by the O’ Gormans to Killeigh where he died and was buried in the Abbey burial ground. Tom says he has learned that St. Ruth’s bush has disappeared from the Battlefield. In his father’s time a portion of it was brought to Ballinagar.

The Hackett family for years looked after the wooden tabernacle of the early church in Ballinagar and in 2006 Larry and George Hackett presented it to the new church. Larry was a famous thatcher whose work was admired far and wide.                                                                                                                                 In 1984 part of a wooden trackway or Togher was discovered in the bog during Bord na Móna work.

Ballyduff south lost many families through the clearances on the Geashill estate. The most famous of the emigrant ships was the Erin go Bragh. Another was the Chatsworth which brought 451 passengers to Queensland, ‘a large proportion were from the King’s county with the most of those being from the celebrated Barony of Geashill.’

A drainage scheme undertaken on the townland by William Steuart Trench helped win prizes for Lord Digby in exhibitions in England.

The survey of Offaly in 1550 from Hermathena 1930

 Ballycue

The Townland was described as Ballykee from Glaishebiallacroke alonge the streame to Dyrrensheishe then alonge the streame to Biallecromlyne , so alonge a streame to Biallagare, thence alonge the streame to Breakanballyndowaghe, then alonge a diche to Glayshebiallecroke.

Some names through the yearsareBallynmakkue[1558]Ballickhugh [1612]B.Crine [1685]and in 1830Ballycue.

Both John O Donovan and P.W. Joyce translated the name as Baile Mic Aodha MacKay’s or McHughs place or townland. McHughs still live in the area and in the 1901 census spelt their surname McCue.The population in 1841 was 152.

Ballycue contains an old townland named Bluebell which local lore says was once a village and the Clash bridge which was blown up during the war of independence, on the Geashill road. It borders the Tullamore river and the Killeigh road. This area along with Ballymooney and Ballyknockan was thought by some including O’ Donovan for a time to be the site of the battle between Herman and Heber and that the Bri Daimh was the Tullamore river.                                                                                                           The area had once numerous mounds of gravel deposits which were said to be dug away during famine relief works. Ballycue has also one of the few remaining thatched cottages. There is also supposed to be a graveyard called the burial hill where children who died before they were baptised were buried.

The 1838 ordnance survey map shows the ruins of a school in Ballycue near Ballinagar village This was probably the school mentioned in the bluebook survey of 1824 where the principal was Michael Ford.

The various schools in Ballinagar have been extremely lucky with the standard of schoolteachers they have had over the years. A former principal David O’ Shanahan reflects on a predecessor of his ‘old master Phelan’, in an article written in 1950 lamenting the old schoolhouse, which is now the community centre, going to ruins.

The spirit of old master Phelan stands once more by the now rickety, worm bored old rostrum, as with raised hand and pointed finger he shouts out the orders of the day, admonishing, rebuking , instructing , and for all his supposedly outmoded teaching methods , producing great scholars just the same .Look at the local remnants of his pupils that still survive the hand of time .

No less a distinguished scholar than professor P— himself from U.C.G. came all the way from the city of the tribes to spend a weekend with Tommy —- the local chronicler and local historian, who has chapter rhyme and verse for all noteworthy events in the parish since God knows when.

Or take good humoured jolly J —- the yank, who got his first great chance in America because of his familiar sharp knowledge of the simple rule of proportion .

Not forgetting Mike —- the local Gobawn Saor, whose knowledge of figures and mensuration enabled his gifted hands to plan and build for half the parish around .

The professor mentioned was an T’Athir Fhinn a folklore collector who visited Tommy Dunne in 1945. Another legendary Ballinagar school principal Michael Cunningham was a pupil of his in U.C.G.

Where the Curtis edition of the Survey was published. In the 1990s Offaly History bought the last copies when the Printing House in Trinity was closing after more than 200 years. Copies are now scarce but is probably on JSTOR
A short version of the text of the 1550 survey will be found in the new edition of the state papers for 1547-53 edited by Colm Lennnon (as above)

To be continued and with thanks to John Malone. This month’s blog reach will be 10,000. Last year was 103,000. Like and share.

Offaly History: pictures and captions

PS Are you joining us on Zoom this Tuesday 26 Jan at 7.30 p.m. Email us at info@offalyhistory.com for the link to James Scully’s lecture on Stories and Glories from the graveyards of Offaly.

Available to buy online from http://www.offalyhistory. You can join John O’Donovan on his field survey of Offaly.

Agriculture in Offaly on the eve of the Great Famine. By Ciarán Reilly

On the eve of the Great Famine in 1845 the backwardness of Irish agriculture was seen by many as the reason for much of the country’s economic woes. About Irish farmers, it was stated that they knew nothing of the ‘English’ method of farming or indeed welcomed its arrival. However, there was amongst many Irish landlords, and their agents, a growing understanding of the benefits of the ‘science’ of agriculture and many had willingly adopted such methods in the management of their estates. In particular, many land agents were the leading pioneers of better agricultural practice. The employment of agriculturalists; the establishment of agricultural societies and the trips undertaken to observe foreign models of agriculture all highlight the progression of Irish agriculture by the early 1840s.

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The Tullamore Grand Canal Hotel, 1801–1974. By Michael Byrne

The first hotel constructed in Tullamore in 1786 cost £200. The second in 1801 about £4,5,00. Even by multiplying by 200 for the cost of living today, this expenditure was light in the context of the three new hotels in Tullamore in 1997- 2008 which may possibly represent a total expenditure of €25 million for 270 beds. And yet the canal hotel of 1801 was a major investment and may have never made a return to the Grand Canal Company. The need for it disappeared within five years of its construction. By contrast the deprecated Bury Arms (Hayes/Phoenix Arms) in the centre of town was in business for over 200 years.

The Bury Arms (later Hayes Hotel) erected in 1786, demolished 2000. From the Hanly Collection Offaly History. This view in the late 1950s.

The first hotel (that we know of) to be constructed in Tullamore was the Bury Arms Hotel (later the Phoenix Arms, demolished 2000, now Boots Pharmacy), erected in 1786 as an inn for Tullamore at a cost to the landlord, Charles William Bury, of £200. We know that in 1798 it had 13 beds for letting. The hotel was first leased to John Tydd at a yearly rent of £20. John Tydd and his son Benjamin were both dead by 1798 at which point the innkeeper was one Mr Doherty. Captain William Evans, who had been a director of the Grand Canal Company until c.1796, but remained with the Company providing engineering advice until 1805, was critical of the Bury Hotel on his visit there in 1798. His departure from the company in 1805, possibly following soon after the completion of the works to Shannon Harbour in 1804. Notwithstanding Evans’ criticism of the Bury Arms hotel Sir Richard Colt Hore who stayed at the hotel in 1806 wrote: ‘At Tullamore I found a good inn and accommodation at Doherty’s (the Bury, now Charleville Arms) near the Bridge’ (Tour, p. 32). The hotel had changed its name in line with that of the ennobling of the town’s landlord who became Lord Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and earl of Charleville in 1806. It should be mentioned that there was at least one earlier inn in Tullamore, that of Hugh Clough in the 1760s and other smaller hotels post 1800.

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Thomas Armstrong (1797–1875): benefactor in Banagher and businessman in Argentina. Sources for the Irish in Argentina. By Eduardo García Saenz

This week we have a blog provided by Eduardo García Saenz (member of Champagnat Rugby Club, Economist, Journalist and Sports’ Historian, especially in rugby, soccer and horse Polo. In this article he is presenting about THOMAS St. George ARMSTRONG (1797-1875); born in Garrycastle, near Banagher and who made a fortune in Argentina. His son bought Garrycastle House, Banagher in 1890 and is in Burke’s Landed Gentry 1912 edition with lands in Garrycastle and a residence in Paris. This is our last blog of this year and so far we have achieved 103,000 views for our blogs since 1 Jan. 2020. Thanks contributors and readers for all your help and wishing you all the best in 2021. Like our blog to ensure you get it every week per an email advice. All our blogs can be found at Offalyhistoryblog and our web platform http://www.offalyhistory.com. We post them every week to Facebook and Twitter (Offaly History).

Eduardo García Saenz

Eduardo is the the great-great-grand child (Chozno Grandson) of Thomas Armstrong who died in Buenos Aires in 1875. Eduardo has visited Dublin and Malahide, but has not yet had the opportunity to visit Banagher, Birr  and Tullamore. He is aware of our ‘delicious Irish whiskey and also the malt’. In rugby he knows that there are two good rugby clubs in Co, Offaly: Tullamore RFC and Birr RFC. 

Eduardo writes that the Armstrong family gave the land in Banagher to build St. Rynagh’s Church in 1826 and donated the bells for the church. Thomas Armstrong was also a donor to the Catholic church in Banagher in 1873 (King’s County Chronicle, 20 Mar. 1873). In 1847 he donated £50 to support famine relief in Banagher and Lusmagh, and later to the Crimean War Fund.

We would welcome blogs from overseas on the contribution of people from the midlands of Ireland in their adopted country (to info@offalyhistory.com). We draw attention to the Dictionary of Argentina Biography and the like for Australia. These are now online. The Irish DIB goes on line free in 2021.

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Frank Gibney: A visionary Irish architect and planner. A new source for some of the finest midlands housing schemes. By Offaly History

The architect and town planner Frank Gibney (1905-1978) is today recognised as one of the most talented, influential and prolific housing designers of mid-20th c. Ireland.

Responsible for almost six thousand local authority dwellings in every part of the country, his deep concern for human scale and for good living standards delivered homes of a quality which have stood the test of time, while today many of their contemporaries have been altered or demolished.

Principal amongst his many achievements are the six Midland bog villages built in the 1950s for Bord na Mona workers, which were inspired by the aspirations of Patrick Pearse and Eamon de Valera for national self-sufficiency and which have been described by the Yale University Press/Royal Irish Academy volume on Irish architecture as ‘models for rural living’. These beautiful urban set pieces are  cherished by their proud present day inhabitants and beg the question as to why contemporary housing policies have not emulated their success.

Gibney designed housing estate at Clarecastle, County Clare

Gibney’s numerous and extraordinarily ambitious town planning schemes founded on Garden City and Beaux Arts principles, were less successful, being proposed at a time of cultural conservatism and financial stringency. His passion for plans based on aesthetic principles which would preserve the best of towns while creating new and beautiful public areas found little local response. Nonetheless, he was engaged by many Irish towns and cities including Waterford and Drogheda to chart their future and elements of his proposals are still capable of fulfilment today. 

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The policies of the Offaly Independent and its destruction by the Black and Tans in November 1920. No. 14 in Sources for Offaly History and Society. By Michael Byrne

There is an increasing appreciation of the records of the local press: the Midland Tribune, Leinster Express, Tullamore and King’s County Independent and King’s County Chronicle, without which our knowledge of the county of Offaly since 1831 would be so much the poorer. The press was the only source of news for the public in the pre-‘wireless’ days up to the 1920s and 1930s. This week we mark the burning of the Athlone Printing Works and with it the machinery of the Offaly Independent and Westmeath Independent in early November 1920 and look at the evolution of its editorial viewpoint from pro-war to pro- Sinn Féin and the Irish Republic.

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The killing of Sergeant Henry Cronin in Tullamore on Sunday 31 October 1920 and the consequences in Tullamore and Clara. By Michael Byrne

Killings such as that of Sergeant Cronin were rarely spoken of in Tullamore in the years from 1920 to the 1990s. As to who shot Cronin there were so many suggestions – men from out of town, a policeman siding with the I.R.A. and so on. Like the Spanish Civil War there was a pact of forgetfulness (olvidados) for those who were there. When Peadar Bracken made the Offaly I.R.A. Brigade return in 1940 (filed in confidence for over seventy years) in connection with service and pensions for those who had fought in the 1916–21 period he described the Cronin killing outside Cronin’s house in Henry/O’Carroll Street as

 ‘31st Oct., 1920 – Sergeant Cronin ‘wounded returning to Barracks, at Tullamore. Died subsequently.’

Today we know that the causes, course and consequences of any national struggle are complex and that the results can be not what was anticipated. In Ireland it became a Free State with a Civil War that set back the country for many years. Perhaps until after the emigration of 400,000 in the 1950s.

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Birr Barracks and burials: a new military and family history record published. Sources for Offaly History and Society, no. 13. By Stephen Callaghan

A new book detailing the history of Birr Military Cemetery has been published by Offaly County Council. Researched, written and designed by Stephen Callaghan the book gives an authoritative history of the cemetery and all those identified as buried there. While the cemetery only contains 52 inscribed memorials, the book gives biographical details of a further 230 people buried there. The memorials which survive are also examined and described in detail, including information about type, symbols and details about the materials used and the stonecutters who made them. The cemetery is one of the few surviving features of Birr Barracks and is an important link to the past. The people buried there are a mix of soldiers, soldiers’ wives and children, the latter make up most of the burials.  

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Hunstanton Norfolk to Hunston Offaly and the L’Estrange family. By Sylvia Turner

Hunston is the name of a townland in the west of Offaly, close to where the Brosna and Shannon rivers meet. It is unlike many place names in Ireland which relate to an anglicised geographical description. It originates from a planter family who came to Ireland from England in the 16th century during the first plantation of Ireland.

Following Henry VIII claimed of kingship over all of Ireland in 1541, the English wished to extend their control further than the area called the Pale around Dublin to the whole of Ireland. One way was to drive the Irish landowners off their land and replace them with English or Scottish settlers, called ‘planters’. The first plantation took place in the region now known as Offaly and Laois in 1556. It was from this area that the O’Connor and O’Moore clans had invaded the Pale. The Government divided the land into Counties. Present day Laois was named Queen’s County, after Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and present-day Offaly was named King’s County after Mary’s husband King Philip of Spain. Forts were built at Maryborough (Portlaoise) and Philipstown (Daingean).

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The Maynooth Local Studies Series, recent issues, the Offaly volumes and the entire series listed here. Sources for Offaly History and Society, number 10.

The current issue of Irish Historical Studies (no. 165, May 2020) has a featured review of five issues from the Maynooth Local Studies series published in 2019. That brought the number issued to 144. We attach the list to 144 for your convenience and we bring to your attention the latest batch of four. Raymond Gillespie is the quiet man behind the series and who has acted as general editor since its inception in 1995. The reviewer in IHS, Maura Cronin, reminds of his characterising local history as being ‘primarily about people in places over time’. Place is described as the bedrock of local history, but it must be seen in the context of the actions of people and the pivotal role of historical research  is looking for the forces of disruption and of cohesion. What brought people together and what drove them apart.

The four new issues of 2020

Four new volumes have been published in the Maynooth Studies in Local History series (general editor Professor Raymond Gillespie). The volumes by Denis Casey, Emma Lyons, Brendan Scott and Jonathan Wright and can be ordered via Offaly History Centre.

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