Does anyone have a bottle of Birr whiskey now? The destruction of Birr’s last distillery in March 1889 was seen as a death blow to the town. The population of Birr in 1841 on the eve of the Famine was 6,336 persons with another 554 in Crinkill. However, the next eighty years saw a period of decline such that over the period 1861 to 1926 the population fell by 44.6 per cent or from 6,146 to 3,402. The decline was exacerbated by the closure of the distillery in 1889 and the military barracks in 1922. In 1921 the workhouse (erected c. 1840) was brutally closed and amalgamated with Tullamore.
Birr had strong associations with whiskey distilling from at least the 1800s. Probably the large military barracks at Crinkill acted as a stimulus to production. In 1818 only two distilleries were in operation in County Offaly and both were located in Birr. In competition with Birr was the Birch distillery at Roscrea. One of the Birr distilleries was that of Robert Robinson and was located at Castle Street and formed part of what was until the 1980s the Williams Waller Ltd grain handling depot (formerly Birr Maltings Ltd.), and now partly demolished with the remainder incorporated in The Maltings guest house. The second distillery, established in 1805 by the Hackett family, was located at Elmgrove on the eastern side of the town. A third distillery, described as the ‘old distillery’ in 1838 was located near what is now the Mill Island Park and part of which is incorporated in the Birr Technology Centre. Thus ample remains of all three distilleries still survive.
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.
The story of Alderborough Nursery, Geashill is a must have for delightful summer reading. This book tells the story of Reamsbottom & Co., Alderborough and West Drayton, and the development of the Alderborough strain of the St Brigid Anemone which made it famous around the world. Geashill was for decades at the center of Irish horticulture with an international reputation for the quality of its plants. Alderborough Nursery competed with the best nurseries in the world, winning awards, medals and accolades from judges and gardening publications. From 1890 to the 1980’s Anemones and a wide range of plants were exported from Geashill. Archives of all the important horticultural shows in Ireland and Britain record that Reamsbottom & Co. exhibited their produce and won prizes, particularly for their St. Brigid Anemones. By 1907, Reamsbottom & Co., had won 33 medals for Alderborough St. Brigid Anemones, including four gold. [This is a beautiful book and adds to the growing Geashill library of attractive volumes reaching a wide and enthusiastic market.]
I first began to take notice of things in the village when I started school in 1926. Kinnitty was very different then to what it is now and indeed even twenty years after I started school there were already many changes taking place. It was a very busy and prosperous place in those times and it had a great array of businesses and personnel.
Tullamore is a well-preserved town and is the county town of Offaly since an act of parliament in 1832 displaced Philipstown (Daingean) which had been the county town since the shiring of Offaly as part of the new colonial government policies in 1557. The new county to be known as King’s County was then comprised of the baronies reflecting the Gaelic lordships of the O’Connors and that of the O Dempseys. The king in question was none other than Philip II of Spain married at that time to the tragic Queen Mary of England (1553–58) hence the new forts of Philipstown and Maryborough (Portlaoise). The county was extended about 1570 to include the territory of the O Molloys (now to be the baronies of Ballycowan, Ballyboy and Eglish) and also that of the Foxes in Kilcoursey and the MacCoghlans in what would be called Garrycastle. In 1605 the territory of the O Carrolls (to form the baronies of Ballybritt and Clonlisk) was added, as also was the parish of Clonmacnoise (1638) at the behest of Terence Coghlan of Kilcolgan. Those looking for an exciting seventeenth-century history for Tullamore will be disappointed as the surviving evidence of town growth in that troubled century is thin. This week we continue to series to mark the 400th anniversary of Tullamore as a town.
“Some of old stonies will hold their heads high, and carry with them to the grave the feeling that they have left their mark on many a church, and on many a building, and that in years to come, there will be people to admire the work they have left behind them, as we of this generation respect and understand the work of the men of long ago. All men hope for praise of some sort, and it is a nice thing to see a man smile when he knows you are in earnest in liking his work. We become children again, and are mightily pleased with ourselves and want to show that we can do even better.”
From the book Stone Mad by Seamus Murphy, stone carver, 1966.
In this article, I write about some of the fine buildings and monuments in other parts of Ireland built using limestone from the Ballyduff quarries. There is a section on aspects of the lives of stoneworkers in Tullamore in the 19th century, and finally I have a look at a couple of Tullamore families that were prominent in stoneworking over long time periods.
Thomas Armstrong, son of Andrew Armstrong and Lucy Charnock, was born on 22nd August 1702 and when he retired from his position as First Director of his Majesty’s Engineers, Chief Engineer of Minorca and Senior Engineer in the service, purchased the estate of Moorock and built a house there. He died in 1747, unmarried and the estate passed to his brother Warneford Armstrong.
On the 9th October 1793, Warneford Armstrong (1699- 1780) made a lease agreement for three lives and thirty one years of the House, Gardens and Land of Moorock to Richard Holmes, a gentleman of an old King’s County family based in nearby Prospect House. The 390 acres had been leased to James and John Reamsbottom. In 1795 Warnesford Armstrong demised the whole estate of Moorock to Richard Holmes of Prospect House for “lives renewable forever”.
The memorial to the Offaly Volunteers who fought in the War of Independence was unveiled on the lawn of the county courthouse, Tullamore in 1953. It was Peadar Bracken (1887–1961) former OC Offaly Brigade and from 1922-3 the Tullamore district court clerk who ensured that the IRA Volunteer monument was placed on the lawn of the courthouse. Besides, a site in O’Connor Square was not an option from 1926 when the war memorial was completed. Given that it was principally to the Tullamore courthouse that the feared judges of the assizes would arrive it has strong symbolism. The Volunteer monument was completed in 1939 but not unveiled until 1953 due to the difference between the Free Staters (National Army) and the Republicans.
As noted in an earlier article in Offalyhistoryblog the last of the assizes was held in July 1921 with Judge Wiley presiding and a large force of military to protect him as the symbol of the British state. Now with the marking the 100th anniversary of the Treaty and the departure of Crown forces from Ireland it seems appropriate to look again at the twice-annual display of British power in the assize towns of Ireland.
Today, 23 March 2022 we mark the 170th anniversary of the death of John de Jean Frazer (1804–1852). A poet and a cabinet-maker, a native of Birr county Offaly he was born into a Presbyterian family. While `J. De Jean` was his preferred nom-de-plume, he also used pseudonyms `Z`, `Y`, `F` and `Maria`.
His first major poem was Eva O`Connor published in 1826, by Richard Milliken, Grafton Street, Dublin. During the 1840s individual poems, increasingly expressing radicalised politics, appeared in newspapers and periodicals of the day including The Nation, The Dublin University Magazine, The United Irishman, The Felon and The Freeman`s Journal.
In 1845 a substantial number of his poems were gathered together and published as Poems for the People by J. Browne, Nassau Street, Dublin. This collection contained eighty-two poems, a mixture of lyrical and polemical pieces.
[An article on de Jean Frazer appeared in the 1903 issue of Tullamore’s Ard na hEireann magazine by Sean MacCaoilte (Forrestal, d. October 1922) and as such was part of the cultural context for the Gaelic League and the Irish Cultural Revival in the Tullamore locality. Thanks to Offaly Archives which holds a copy. Ed.]
On the 1809 map of King’s County by William Larkin, one can easily fail to spot the tiny T-shaped symbol about 1 mile northwest of the town of Tullamore. There is no description to inform the reader what the object represents. Its shape and its location, however, leave no doubt as to what it symbolizes. It is the first post-Reformation Catholic church in the parish of Tullamore. Erected in 1775 in the townland of Ballyduff, the chapel’s out of the way location some distance from the town of Tullamore seems peculiar today. Another look at the 1809 map provides at least a partial clue to its location. Not more than about a hundred metres from the chapel is a quarry, probably one of the earliest limestone quarries to be opened in the area and almost certainly the source of the stone of which the chapel was built. The chapel was presumably built by the workers and tradesmen of the local quarries. Today the ruins of the Ballyduff chapel are located in the middle of the Axis Business Park accessed from the Clara Rd.