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

Lady Beaujolois Bury, the prayerful artist of Charleville Castle, Tullamore. By Michael Byrne

Charleville from the east by Fergal MacCabe, architect. From essays in honour of Maurice Craig.

The prayer book of Lady Beaujolois Bury of Charleville Castle, Tullamore was donated to the Offaly History Centre by the late Jane Williams some years ago. Like some family bibles it contains on two of the blank pages scraps of the family lineage of her ladyship and her siblings, the third and fifth earls of Charleville. The information recorded agrees with what is provided in Burke’s Irish Family Records (1976 edition), but like every family there is more to it than the bland recital of names and dates. Lady Beaujolois Bury (1824–1903) was the talented daughter of the second countess of Charleville (1803–48) and granddaughter of Lady Charlotte Susan Maria Campbell. Her Bury in-laws, the first earl and countess, were the builders of the great castle, known as Charleville Forest, and which was commenced in 1800 and completed in 1812. According to Mark Girouard it is ‘perhaps the finest Gothic Revival Castle in Ireland’.

The first earl of Charleville as a young man when he was more assured of himself in the world.

Charles William Bury (1764-1835) was a landowner of considerable wealth, derived partly from the Bury estates in Co. Limerick (where the family had settled in 1666) and partly from property in King’s County, inherited through his father’s mother, the only sister and heiress of Charles Moore (1712-64), earl of Charleville and Baron Moore of Tullamore.

Lord Tullamore (or Tullamoore as he preferred), the only son of Charles William Bury (1764–1835), first earl of Charleville (second creation) was born in 1801 and married handsomely but not financially well while on the Grand Tour of the cultural capitals of Europe in 1821. He was almost 20 and his wife just 18 years old. As the entries from their daughter’s prayer book tell us Lord Tullamore married on 26 February 1821 at Florence. His wife was Harriet Charlotte Beaujolois, the third daughter of Col. John Campbell of Shawfield in Scotland and her mother was Lady Charlotte Susan Maria Campbell. The latter was the daughter of Elizabeth Gunning and John, the fifth duke of Argyll, and was born in London in 1775, and died in 1861. Harriet was born in 1803 of Lady Charlotte’s first marriage. Lady Charlotte, despite her famed good looks, made a modest marriage with Colonel John Campbell and by whom she had nine children. He died in 1808 and she married again in 1818 (despite the reservations of friends including Sir Walter Scott) her son’s tutor, the Revd John Bury (no connection with Tullamore), by whom she had two daughters. John Bury, later rector of Lichfield, died in 1832 and Lady Charlotte in 1861. She is best remembered now for her Diary Illustrative of the life and times of George IV (1838). Earlier money-making efforts included Flirtation (1827) and The History of a Flirt (1840). Such titles might be expected to make more money today than they did for their impecunious, if titled, author. Curiously, Beaujolois’s mother-in-law, Lady Catherine Maria Charleville, had herself caused some scandal with the publication in 1796 of a translation of Voltaire’s La Pucelle which was attributed to her by some, although published anonymously. Others have suggested that it was written by her soon-to-be husband C.W. Bury, or that the co-author was a bishop!

The young blue stocking who was a widow when she married the first earl and lived for another sixteen years after her second husband. She was rushed to Dublin by canal boat for the delivery of her only son by Charles William Bury when she was 39.

At the age of fourteen (and four years before her marriage) Harriet Charlotte Beaujolois Campbell completed a manuscript account of her trip to Florence which was published as A journey to Florence in 1817 (edited by G.R. de Beer, London, 1951). An illustration of Lady Tullamore, who became the second countess of Charleville in 1835, is provided as a frontispiece to the printed 1817 Journal. It is hardly surprising that the young Lord Tullamore was captivated by this blue-stocking beauty. Some pictures survive of him too from the 1830s, when money was still flowing and prospects were good.

The insecure second earl of Charleville, His stepbrother outshone him and money added to his problems. He had hoped to do much after his father’s death in 1835 but could not temper ambition to his straitened circumstances. He died in 1851.
The second countess of Charleville. She married while on the Grand Tour and died in Naples in 1848. She had talent and good looks.

The first child of this romantic marriage, Charles William Bury, was born at Geneva on 8 March 1822 and succeeded as third earl of Charleville in 1851.The marriage did not initially go well with Lord Tullamore’s father, the first earl of Charleville, because the young bride brought charm and good looks but no money. Yet he was soon reconciled ‘as I like the young lady, who appears to me both amiable and sensible’. The first Lord Charleville was conservative and may have been a bit hen-pecked by his talented and ambitious wife. In 1798 he married, within six months of her husband’s death, Catherine Maria Tisdall. He and Catherine Tisdall were the co-executors of her late husband’s estate and she had two smart young children John T.T. Tisdall and Catherine Louisa Tisdall. Joining them, from 1801 was the only child of their marriage and heir to the Charleville estates, known in his young days as Lumpy Tullamoore. He must have been an insecure child with two elder stepchildren and seems to have been constantly trying to prove himself, but at considerable expense to the property and his family. His birth was a fraught time for his mother (b. 1762 and now aged 39) with Charleville having to hire one of the new boats on the canal in early 1801 to take the expectant mother to Dublin in haste.

The building of the wonderful Charleville Castle cost the first earl a very considerable amount of money. His son’s extravagances led to the second earl bankrupting himself in 1844. His lovely wife died in 1848 in Naples and the second earl died in 1851. It was a difficult time for the family and for Tullamore. So much promise unfulfilled and so much need in Tullamore town and on the 20,000-acre estate in the 1840s during the Famine years. Were it not for the wise management of their agent, Francis Berry, things would have been worse.

The music room at Charleville . It was enlarged in the 1880s by the removal of the wall behind the bookcase. The Strawberry Hill chair is on the left. The drawing is by the young Beaujolois Bury who worked so hard to keep the family together in the difficult 1840s. She died in 1903.

Coming back to Beaujolois’s crisp clean prayer book the entries for her siblings (see illustration) were:


1  Charles William George, born at Geneva on 8 March 1822, succeeded as third earl in 1851 and died in 1859. His young wife predeceased him by two years leaving four children of the marriage. Their deaths caused great sadness in Tullamore. They had married only in 1850, had three or four children who found themselves in 1859 in the care of Uncle Alfred and his wife. Alfred was only 30 years old and childless. Two years later one of the children in his care was killed in an accident on the stairs at Charleville. The so-called ghost of the castle, young Harriet Bury, now needs some rest from ghost tourism. Her little coffin is still preserved with that of her young parents in the crypt in St Catherine’s, Tullamore.

2   Henry, the next child, was born in 1823 and died in 1829. He can be recalled today in the name Henry Street (now O’Carroll Street) Tullamore.

2  John James was born in 1827, married in 1852 and  died in  1864.

3  Alfred,  was born in 1829, married in 1854 and died on 28 June 1875. On the death of the young fourth earl in 1874 Alfred succeeded as fifth earl, but died the following year. Alfred got a lot done from 1860 including the building of houses for staff and the railway station at Charleville Road. Burke (1976) states that the property passed to his sister Lady Emily, but she was a daughter of the third earl not the second and was reared by Alfred and his wife after the death of her parents in 1857 and 1859. Her sister, Katherine, married Edmund Bacon Hutton, in 1873 within a few weeks of her brother coming of age. It was a time of celebration and was well reported. Their wedding provides what is thought to be the earliest surviving wedding photograph in Offaly. Military officers passing through Tullamore, as in Jane Austen’s novels, were a singular opportunity and both Katherine and her sister Emily both married handsome young officers.

 Beaujolois Elenora Catherine, the owner of our prayer book, was born on 4 December 1824 and survived almost as long as her later cousin, Col.  Howard Bury (died 1963). In case anyone would think that the name Beaujolois is in recollection of some Bacchanalian festive evening we should know that the unusual name was (as De Beer writes) due to her having as her godfather, Louis Charles d’Orleans, Comte de Beaujolais, brother of Louis Phillipe. There is much about this connection in the Charleville Papers in Nottingham University. Beaujolois married Captain Hastings Dent in 1853 and died in 1903. Dent died in 1864. Lady Beaujolais had been married for only eleven years and was a widow for almost forty. Beaujolois Bury is remembered today as the accomplished artist who sketched at least four views of Charleville in 1843, and subsequently printed as lithographs and reproduced in the late Knight of Glin’s collection of topographical drawings, Painting Ireland. The interior views are especially interesting to see the salon, music room, dining room and the great stairwell. One of the chairs from the Walpole home at Strawberry Hill was acquired by the second earl in the 1842 sale of Walpole’s creation and can be seen in Beaujolois’s drawing of the music room at Charleville. The room is now larger by the removal of a wall in the 1880s. The chairs were sold at Charleville in 1948 and, if you were about, of course you would have bought them for only £20 and now worth €100,000.

In 1843-4 the Charleville family departed their lovely castle to live cheaply in Berlin and the house was shut up until 1851. Of the two surviving girls of the third earl it was Emily who inherited in 1875 and lived on, mostly abroad, from her widowhood ten years later until her death in 1931. She had closed the house in 1912 and her son Lt. Colonel C. K. Howard Bury auctioned the contents in 1948. The castle was leased in 1971 to one Michael McMullen and his occupancy is well documented in the local press. His coming to Tullamore was fascinating too in that he first saw the castle in an advert made in Tullamore for one of the big English banks. The lately deceased Ann Williams of Dew Park and Cloghan provided the black horses to take the funeral coach from the castle to St Catherine’s at Hop Hill.

The finest gothic house in Ireland, 1800-1812 .

The siblings of the second and third earls were visited by the miasma that troubled almost all of the Bury family down to the extinction of the earldom in 1875 and the death of Lady Emily Bury’s husband, Captain Howard, in 1885 and their daughter Marjorie in 1907. Only Col. Charles Kenneth Howard Bury was destined for a long and hardy life. Of Everest climbing fame he was born in 1883 and died in 1963 at Belvedere, Mullingar, the home he inherited in 1912 from his kinsman, Charles Brinsley Marlay. Marlay’s grandmother was Catherine Maria, first countess of Charleville by her first marriage. His mother, Louisa Tisdall, married a Lt. Col. Marlay in 1828 and, yes, she was a widow after just two years and lived on until 1882. She was a kind and astute lady. Her son Charles Brinley was immensely rich, died a bachelor, and left estate valued at over £500,000 in 1912.  Lt Col. Bury was also a bachelor and was aged 80 and had a long and colourful life between his travels and his war service. Today the golfers in Tullamore and Mullingar can pay tribute to Colonel Bury for the finest club grounds in the country that he made available out of the Belvedere and Charleville estates.

The early death of Lady Emily’s husband, Captain Howard, only a few years after their marriage brought closure on what otherwise might have been a long and happy stay for his family. The old church at Lynally, now a private residence, was erected in 1887 to his memory. Lady Emily contented herself with living abroad for the most part.

In should be mentioned that the Gothic-style castle, known as Charleville Forest, was written up by Mark Girouard for Country Life in 1962. Just over fifty-three years later another article has appeared (October 2016) in the same prestigious publication and this time by Dr Judith Hill, awarded a doctorate for her work on the Gothic in Ireland.

The great salon is on the first floor and looks to the new lake on the Birr road. The Moors were derived from Charles Moore, the first earl of the the first creation who died in 1764. A very sure-footed man but he had no progeny.

Much thanks is due to the Hutton Bury family and to Bonnie Vance and her family for keeping safe and intact a tremendous heritage potential for Ireland and the midlands. People take these things for granted but it should not be so.

Charleville Demesne is part of the great oak forests of Offaly and there has been a mansion house on the lands since 1641. The formal grant of the lands goes back to 1622 when Tullamore was just a castle and perhaps ten cottages. Much has happened and, as we know since 2001, the trajectory is not always ‘onwards and upwards’. The Whig Interpretation of history is dead. Perhaps Lord Charleville felt the same having laid out so much money on his great house of Charleville. The demesne and the castle are the great monument to him today.


The new road ran to the south of the enlarged demesne after 1800. A nice piece of planning in the early years of the first earl when he had so much enthusiasm for building and demesne design.

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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The Egans of Moate and Tullamore. By Maurice Egan

Who were the Egans and where did they come from? What national and international impact did they have on nineteenth century Irish political reform? How did they become successful lawyers and businesspeople? For many years, my cousin David and I would pose and tease out these and many other unanswered questions. Too often the anecdotal and evidential answers were vague at best and often hearsay or random recollections from family members. We both eventually concluded that there was enough intrigue to pique our interest into doing proper research on the period of social history of the 1800s and early 1900s. We discovered a treasure trove of fascinating stories which we felt warranted publishing.

Why write this book now, one may ask? The surviving older Egan generation have fond memories of the days past and several of them learned the business of business and held their first jobs in the family firm. Many local people also retain fond memories of the firm and the employment offered to themselves and their antecedents. Continue reading

3 Sources for Offaly History and Society: the Methodist community in Offaly and the Birr Methodists 200th, 1820-2020

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A 1906 review of some leading Birr Methodists from the Chronicle

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the Birr Methodist church in Emmet Street (formerly Cumberland Street) in Birr. However the communities in Birr and Tullamore are much older and date back to the 1760s In this short piece we can only look at some of the sources. It is important because Methodists like the Quakers made a distinct economic and social contribution to the well-being of the towns and villages where their churches were associated. One has only to reflect on families in Birr and Tullamore such as Fayle, Haslam, Morrison, Lumley, Bradley, Burgess and more.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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Banagher’s tribute to the old IRA

Fergal MacCabe

July 2020

 

The Bustle of High Street, Tullamore in the old days. Cosney Molloy

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Motor Works and Drea’s house to the left

I once more visited by friends in Tullamore, Killoughy and Banagher after an unexpected gap of almost six months. Young Covid intervened and I did not get down from my perch in D4 until ten days ago.

Upper East Side Tullamore

It was great to see my old town looking so well and all the works in the square and from High Street to Kilbeggan Bridge almost finished. Walking from the railway station down to the square brought me back to the 1950s and 1960s when I lived in the town and the High Street was a busy spot. The footpaths are wide now but there were few walking and even on Saturday the street was quiet. I see no space to park for my mother (if she were alive God rest her) to pull up in the old Prefect that she had. Sure that is progress. Maybe the plan for High Street got mixed up with O’Connell Street or Grand Parade! Anyway, today I am writing about the east side of High Street, what I will call ‘Upper East Side’, and I will talk about the west side of the street on another visit – if the pause button is not changed to stop!

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AN TOSTAL  Art and Archaeology in Tullamore in the 1950s. Fergal MacCabe

 

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A Golden Age

Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.

The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.

Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.

This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.

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AN ENLIGHTENED ELITE, Art and Architecture in Offaly in the 1940s – the Architect, the Priest and the Businessman. Fergal MacCabe

 

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Michael Scott’s Williams shop in Patrick Street from 1942 and lost with the move of Five Star to what was later Quinnsworth and  Tesco .

The contemporary arts scene in Ireland from the 1940s to the 1970s and to a certain degree in Offaly also, was dominated by the friendship between the architect Michael Scott and the Jesuit priest Fr. Donal O’Sullivan. Both Scott and O’Sullivan were close friends of Desmond Williams, the managing director of Irish Mist and a director of Williams’s whose commercial interests extended beyond the famous whiskey brand to a chain of grocery shops and pubs in Offaly and Westmeath. Williams and his wife Brenda, whose father Oliver St John Gogarty had been an early supporter of the painter Jack B. Yeats, owned many superb works by the artist.

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