The D.E. Williams branch shops in the midlands, 1884–1921: A revolution in retailing. By Michael Byrne

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 Williams head office with the Barrack Patrick Street shop to the right before more intensive motorised transport from 1915. Branch house managers were appointed of which the last under the old system (before the switch to supermarkets) was T.V. Costello.

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.

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The Truce in Offaly: ‘The developments give ground for confidence and hope. The first and most important step has been taken, and by it Ireland is placed in a position which since the olden days she has not enjoyed.’ By Offaly History

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 info@offalyhistory.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.

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Tullamore on the verge of the War and Home Rule: the image of stability. By Michael Byrne

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.

A very fine book from Kieran Hickey and Allen Lane (1973)
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Dancing in Ireland since the 1920s: Your recollections needed. Maria Luddy

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’.

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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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John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters of Kings County, 1837 – 1838: Scientific Survey, Clan Maliere and Placenames. By John Dolan

Ordnance Survey of Ireland 1824 – 1842

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

A new source for the hisory of education in Ireland: Offaly History Sources Series, 12. Schooling in Ireland: a clustered history 1695-1912.

Schooling in Ireland: a clustered history 1695-1912. by John Stocks Powell. Published by Offaly History (2020) , 364 pp in softback and limited run of 50 only for sale in hard covers €28. Offaly History Centre, Whelehans in Portarlington and Midland Books, Tullamore.

The cluster is Portarlington, and now appears in book form, published by Esker Press for Offaly History in Tullamore. It should be remembered that Portarlington is as much in Co. Offaly as in Co. Laois; and in this history of schools the exact locations revealed more on the Offaly side than the Laois.

The early schools of Portarlington have so often been seen as a follow-on to the Huguenots, and more or less left at that.  This book shows the school history to have surpassed the Huguenots both it time span, and in importance: so many eighteenth and nineteenth century printed sources wrote of the schools as significant, and not the French.  Indeed the 1803 Post Chaise Companion for Ireland ignore the French and cite ‘several schools in great repute’.

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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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Pandemics in Ireland and Spanish Flu cases in Offaly, 1918-19. Dr Tim O’Neill and Offaly History

Last week’s article on the cholera outbreak in Offaly in 1832 attracted a huge readership. This week Dr O’Neill (a Mucklagh, Tullamore native) contributes this piece on Pandemics in Ireland. The Offaly History research team has added some local material on the effects of the Spanish Flu (1918–19) in the county and some pictures by way of further reading. Enjoy and stay positive. Read our  179 articles posted to offalyhistoryblog and catch up on Camus.

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How did we cope with Cholera in Offaly in the 1830s? Edited from an article by Dr Tim O’Neill in Offaly Heritage (2003).

005a Library
The Offaly County Hospital, Church Street, Tullamore, had 50 beds while the population in 1841 was twice what is is now.

Cholera was the epidemic disease most feared around the world in the nineteenth century.A letter from Tullamore of 1832 describes the devestating disease of cholera. ‘We had 165 deaths. All bridges to the town are cut and broken. Every house is shut up and there is no such thing as business. Men who would eat their breakfact in perfect health would be buried before dinner.’

In the eighteenth century neighbouring countries began to suffer from the disease and in the nineteenth century it attacked Europe. Cholera spread around the world in great epidemics from its traditional base in the Indian sub-continent and carried with it high mortality rates, severe suffering and terrifying symptoms. These began in 1817 but the first wave did not reach Europe and was halted temporarily at the shores of the Caspian Sea. From there in 1829 it spread rapidly through Europe. It arrived in Ireland around St Patrick’s Day 1832. This was the most serious cholera outbreak in Ireland in the nineteenth century and it has been estimated that 25,378 people died during that epidemic. The Irish death rate was high when compared to other countries for the same period.

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