As the decade of centenaries draws to a close, one centenary not on the government’s list of official commemorations is the 1922 visit to Ireland of the Hon. Hugh Mahon, a former cabinet minister in the Australian government. Nevertheless, at a local level, the people of County Offaly may find more than a passing interest in this event from one hundred years ago.
Born in 1857 at Killurin, six kilometres south of Tullamore, Mahon was forced to leave his native land in 1882 and emigrate to Australia to avoid being arrested for his activities in the Land League. Forty years later he returned to Ireland for the first time, visiting family and friends in and around Tullamore. The years in between had been eventful for Mahon, leading to one of the most contentious episodes in Australia’s political history. And the return visit to his homeland also was not without controversy.
When we in Offaly History set out early in 2021 to mark the Decade of Centenaries in Ireland in our eighty plus contributed blogs on the Decade last year little did we think that an article on Belgian refugees to Ireland and the First World War would have resonance in the Ireland of 2022. Now we are talking of at least three million people forced out of Ukraine and have concerns about a third world war. Our efforts for the Belgians in 1914 look very slight when put beside what is needed today. In 1914 we were wholly reliant on the printed newspaper with no radio or social media.
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
…..The soft and dreary midlands, with their tame canals,
Wallow between sea and sea, remote from adventure….’
‘Dublin Made Me’ Donagh MacDonagh
Once a month, my uncle Billy Holohan who was the Assistant County Engineer for West Offaly, would come to Tullamore to report to his superior, the County Engineer Tom Duggan, in the courthouse.
After the meeting he would sometimes pick me up from my mother’s house in Clonminch and bring me to stay with himself and his wife Nell in Gallen Lodge in Ferbane. The highlight of the journey, for both of us, was an inspection of the progress on the construction of the two cooling towers of Lumcloon Power Station.
We watched as immense rings of slim, angled columns emerged and were tied together by large circular bands to form the base from which the structures would rise. Over the next few years we marvelled at the gradual ascent of the elegantly modulated shapes, first curving inwards and then subtly outwards to form a lip. Billy tried to explain to me the structural engineering concepts behind the design, but as a small boy I could only marvel at the height and sheer scale of the undertaking.
Unusually for an engineer, Billy had a deep interest in history. He brought me along on his site inspections and introduced me to Clonmacnoise and Sier Kieran. His favourite stop on our return journey to Tullamore was Leamanaghan where we roamed amongst the remains of the Monastery. He delighted in showing me the hoof mark inside the gate of the school which marked the passage of St Manchan’s stolen cow and then brought me over the fields to St Mella’s Kell which I still believe is one of the most romantic spots in Ireland.
Then in 1959, in an act which was deeply symbolic of Ireland in that peculiar time between economic stagnation and rapid growth, Leamanaghan Castle was bulldozed to provide hardcore for works at Lumcloon Power Station. The Castle, which was derelict but still substantial, had been the ancestral home of the Mac Coghlans. Cardinal Rinuccini had stayed there (or more likely nearby Kilcolgan, also demolished) during his time as Papal Nuncio to the Confederation of Kilkenny and the Annals of Clonmacnoise were translated into English in the house. I was dumbfounded but hadn’t the courage to ask Billy whether it was the ESB or the County Council who were responsible.
The Cooling Towers
The cooling towers were completed and over the years, became part of the public perception of the Midland landscape.
Driving westwards you knew you were approaching Kildare and Offaly when the Allenwood towers became visible, then Portarlington and Rhode emerged with Lumcloon in the far distance. Their harmonic shapes complemented Croghan, Endrim and Bellair hills and provided points of vertical interest in an otherwise soft and dreary plain. The bogs, which had been perceived for centuries as profitless and impassable were now a proud testimony to national energy self-sufficiency and local technological advance.
However, with the passage of time, what was originally considered a solution, became a problem and peat extraction began to be wound down with grievous personal and economic consequences which are still being felt. The Power Stations were closed, their towers and buildings demolished and their sites converted to other uses.
Portarlington was the second last to go. At 10.30 on the morning of the 4th of April 1997, the cooling tower that had taken three years to build and stood for forty seven years, vanished in three seconds at the hands of an English demolition expert who already had many redundant cooling towers on his c.v..
Futile last minute efforts to save it were led by the Heritage Council and a local preservation group organised by Progressive Democrat Senator, Cathy Honan. Architect Gerard Carty of Clonbullogue, now a director of the world famous Grafton Architects, wrote in protest that the Power Station was ‘A monument to those visionaries who grafted a semi-industrial outlook onto the principally agricultural psyche of the Midlands’. Their protests crumbled in the face of the ESB’s assertion that ’ It was built for power generation and that function is over’.
The crowds watching the spectacle of the demolition were serenaded by local accordionist Louis Melia who played his composition ’The Tower I Loved So Well’ during the countdown to the explosion.
An era had ended and the advent of wind power was at hand.
Because of the absence of nearby dwellings but with existing connections to the national grid, the Midland bogs were identified very early on as first choice locations for large scale wind energy generation. But, whatever about their ecological impacts, the visual impacts of turbines can be a lot more substantial than those of cooling towers.
Unlike one or two isolated towers, turbines spread haphazardly over large areas of the landscape. Though man-made, their scale and large array results in their being read as part of the natural landscape itself- which can be visually disturbing. As the blades rotate in different cycles, they can often cause visual irritation, even from very far away. The scale of the turbines can be incongruous and though they are generally no higher than the former cooling towers, there are a lot more of them. All in all, their visual impacts are significant and often unassimilable. But then, maybe the cooling towers were also, but in the 1950s any development was welcome, while today’s affluence allows us to make choices.
But whether it is cooling towers or turbines, the greatest sensitivity should always be shown when their development impinges on historic sites. Leamonaghan paid a price for the construction of Lumcloon and shouldn’t be put in the firing line a second time.
With the imminent lodgement by Bord na Mona of its proposal for a 17-turbine wind farm with blade heights of up to 220 m, the bogland island of Leamanaghan with its ancient monastery and graveyard will be in the forefront of the conflict between architectural heritage and power generation. Preliminary images show turbines dominating its surrounding landscape on its northern side.
However, just as in the 1950s, the likelihood is that national energy needs will trump all other considerations- particularly in the light of the recent correspondence from the Office of the Planning Regulator directing the Council to dramatically increase Offaly’s megawatt production.
This should not mean that the vulnerable character of Leamanaghan be disregarded, but that the most careful consideration needs to be given to the interface between it and the future wind farm. As one of the most sensitive locations in Offaly (and also to make restitution for the shameful razing of the Castle) the balance of the argument should favour the protection of its history and beauty.
A Return to Profitless Bog?
As wind replaces peat extraction, it is not unthinkable that it may in turn be replaced by a less visually obtrusive or ecologically harmful form of energy production.Turbines last for about twenty years before they need replacement and a point may come when this is no longer economical.
In March of this year the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe declared that ‘Nuclear energy can be a critical component of a decarbonised energy system for those member states that choose to consider it as a part of their sustainable development and climate change strategy’. It will be interesting to see how other European countries respond to the technological advances which are now delivering safer nuclear energy.
I wonder if in seventy- or eighty-years’ time, as the last of the turbines come down and the land gently recedes back into its ancient role of profitless bog abounding in nesting snipe, will a small and nostalgic group emerge to campaign for the preservation of the remaining few of these iconic structures?
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.
Welcome to this our 48th blog for the Decade of Centenaries. All of them will soon be posted to the Decade of Centenaries site hosted on www.offalyhistory and with thanks to all our contributors and partners and especially Offaly County Council, Offaly Libraries, the heritage office and Offaly Archives. We have now posted 302 blogs since 2016 and reached 304,000 views. Our contributors grow in number and so does this body of knowledge, free to use and enjoy across the globe. We welcome new contributors via email@example.com.
The coming into force of the Truce in the war with England on 11 July 1921 marked the end of an era in that the struggle with our powerful neighbour was to cease. The editor of the Midland Tribune, James Pike, of Roscore, Tullamore, saw it as grounds for optimism. The Offaly Independent was burned out by the British security forces the previous November. The Chapman family paid a heavy price for their advocacy of Sinn Féin. The Birr King’s County Chronicle, as a staunchly loyalist newspaper, cannot have been much pleased with the outcome but it was accepted.
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.
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’.
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’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.
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 →