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 Railway Men: 1st Battalion, Offaly No. 2 Brigade the War of Independence and the attacks on trains in the Ballycumber- Clara area. By Pat McLoughlin

We welcome Pat McLoughlin this week as a new contributor writing about attacks on trains in the Clara-Ballycumber area during the War of Independence. Pat writes: I grew up between Clara and Ballycumber in the townland of Clonshanny.  Thomas Bracken who was Adjunt Officer 1st Battalion, Offaly No. 2 Bde. is my grandfather, Brigid Bracken (née Reilly) Cumann na mBan is my Grandmother.  The Bracken family who at that time lived in Erry, Clara were all involved on the War of Independence.  My neighbours Tommy and Annie Berry (née Morris) and John Minnock were among many veterans in that community.  The War of Independence I grew up with was fought in Clara, Ballycumber, The Barney Bridge, The Island, on the Banagher line, the people who fought it were the people we lived alongside.  The people and stories were part of our lives, then came funerals with Tricolour draped coffins, Military honours for Irish War Heroes and life moved on.  100 years on the Military Archive maintained by the Irish Defence Forces gives me an opportunity to recreate some of the history of the community where I grew up.

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Tom Furlong of Wexford and Tullamore: saved by the Truce from a British noose. Furlong was the father of a great GAA dynasty. By Pat Nolan

Offaly History welcomes this contribution from Pat Nolan and is delighted to be able to include it in our Fifty Blogs for the Decade of Centenaries. This story, and much more, will soon be uploaded to our new Decade of Centenaries platform on www.offalyhistory.com. The portrait is from chapter one of Pat Nolan’s ‘The Furlongs – The Story of a Remarkable Family’, published by Ballpoint Press in 2014. Our thanks to Pat and his publisher.

At around midday on a Thursday afternoon in July 1921, up to 20 IRA members parked their bicycles not far from New Ross post office. A number of them surrounded the building on all sides while others filed inside, dressed in their civilian clothes and without any form of disguise. The staff had just finished sorting the morning mail and the town was relatively quiet. At first they didn’t pay any heed to the men, presuming they were linesmen – post office officials who had charge of the telegraph system. However, when they drew out their revolvers and yelled “hands up” the innocence of the staff’s initial impression was laid bare. 

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The courts of assize in King’s County/Offaly in the years from 1914 and the last assizes of July 1921. By Michael Byrne

The administration of law in Ireland in 1914–19 was pervasive with petty sessions’ courts across the county in the smallest villages and towns. These were attended to by paid resident magistrates and on a voluntary basis by local gentry and merchants, both Protestant and Catholic, who had been deemed suitable by Dublin Castle for the conferring of a commission of justice of the peace. After 1916 it was becoming a doubtful honour and many nationalists, including P.J. Egan of Tullamore (chairman of the town council 1916-24 and managing director of a large business), resigned the commission when the War of Independence in 1919-21 intensified. The country had been subject to the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) since 1914 but it was not much invoked in Offaly before 1916 and the civil courts of petty sessions, quarter sessions and assizes (usually held in Tullamore, but often held in Birr from mid-1916 to 1921) continued in the county. The Sinn Féin courts will be the subject of a later blog.

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What If? 1919-1923: Columb Kelly, executed at Birr during the Civil War. By Maurice G. Egan with thanks to Hollie M. Eilbeck and dedicated to the memory of Rose Kelly

Introduction

The Summer of 1921was heralded as having some of the best Irish weather days in ten years.1 Many people used the opportunity to cycle their bicycles along the countryside roads and lanes, whilst keenly observing the fields of green and gold ripening barley. The slight breeze gently blowing the ears of grain with the browny blue hues of the Slieve Bloom mountains to the southwest as background. The farmers were looking forward to a decent crop that year, and to attract good prices when selling to the local malt houses, brewers, and distillers. They would be able to take on additional seasonal labour to get the harvest in on time. After yet another long Winter, much needed outdoor activity and laughter was a recipe for relief from the underlying and not too far off reality of political turmoil, criminality, and civil strife. ‘The Truce that came into effect on 11 July 1921 officially ended what is now most often referred to as the War of Independence and came as the culmination of the most violent six months of the war.’2 ‘Relieved civilians celebrated the arrival of peace and Volunteers returned home to bask in newfound freedom, safety, and adulation.’3 But sadly, it was to be a summer that would be remembered not for the good weather alone.

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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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Offaly’s Grand Jury records: recovering local archives in a national context. By Lisa Shortall

The grand jury system in Ireland was a precursor to the county council or local authority system we know today, and the records generated by the grand jury and its offices reveal the history of towns, cities and boroughs all over Ireland. Unfortunately this body of records suffered significant losses during the twentieth century. On 25 May 2021, Beyond2022:Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland in association with Local Authority Archivists and Records Managers (LGARM) hosted a research showcase to mark the centenary of the burning of the Custom House during the War of Independence, an event which resulted in the destruction of the archive of the Local Government Board for Ireland.  This event was echoed just over a year later with the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland at the beginning of the Civil War and whose losses in terms of documentary destruction is being valiantly and virtually rebuilt by the Beyond2022 team. The top floor of the PRO was where the grand jury records from all over the country were kept and ultimately perished during that terrible fire. Between the fire in the Custom House and the more well known 1922 PRO(I) fire, vast quantities of records relating to local government were destroyed. 

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Mercy Nuns, Tullamore: pragmatic women in a time of change. By Declan McSweeney

The role of religious orders in Irish society is a subject which frequently arouses passionate debate and, like many other debates, often generates more heat than light as extreme positions are taken, with members of orders seen as either saints or demons. The sisters of the Tullamore Mercy Convent are held in high esteem for their educational and charitable work and have always been willing to learn and to adapt with changing times.

The Sisters of Mercy have had a presence in Tullamore since 1836, when the original sisters came on the flyboat from Portobello down the Grand Canal, from the mother house in Dublin’s Baggot Street, founded by Catherine McAuley.

A favourite in the month of May during the rosary processions in Tullamore convent

St Joseph’s Convent was the first foundation outside Dublin by an order which was to become the largest order of women religious in the English-speaking world.

Brought to Tullamore at the request of the then parish priest, Father O’Rafferty, it went on to play a major role in local history, as well as to found convents in other locations.

In writing about the order, I am conscious of my own dealings with it as a young boy, having attended the old St Joseph’s NS (where St Philomena’s is now located) from 1965-68. In those days, the norm was that boys attended there for the first three years of schooling, until First Communion, when they departed either for Scoil Bhríde or, as in my own case, to the primary school then run by the Christian Brothers in Coláiste Choilm.

The girls then continued for another year or two until moving to St Philomena’s, which was then based in Harbour Street, in what is now St Mary’s Youth and Community Centre.

I have good memories of the four nuns who taught me in St Joseph’s – the late Sister Bernadette Nevin was my first teacher in Junior Infants, and she was followed by Sister Scholastica (now Sister Kathleen), Sister Regina (who later moved to teach in the USA) and Sister Columba (now Sister Nuala).

Sr Bernadette, teacher to so many in her early years

I cannot presume to speak on behalf of my female counterparts regarding their memories at more senior primary and secondary classes, that is something they would have to outline themselves. During my schooldays and for many years thereafter, the Sisters of Mercy ran three primary schools in Tullamore – in addition to St Joseph’s and St Philomena’s, they ran Scoil Mhuire on the other side of the town – in addition to the Sacred Heart School, the only all-female secondary school in Offaly.

In addition to such a major role in education, I am conscious of their involvement as nurses in the local hospital, where a separate convent, the Sacred Heart convent, long existed, as well as their work in Riada House and its predecessor, the old County Home.

One also thinks of the order’s legacy in terms of setting up the Day Care Centre at Whitehall, the old launderette on Convent Road and of course involvement in the development of youth services and work with Travellers.

The convent (1836-41) and the first girls’ secondary school of 1911 at Convent Road

By the late 1980s, the effect of declining vocations was already beginning to be felt – the appointment towards the end of that decade of Ann Cooney as the first lay head at St Philomena’s was followed by that of Geraldine Byrne at St Joseph’s in 1992 and Máire McRedmond at Scoil Mhuire in 1999. At secondary level, Sheila McManamly became first lay principal at the Sacred Heart School in 1991, when Sister Ann O’Neill kept her promise to do no more than six years as head following the retirement of the late Sister Dolores Walsh.

Second level girls at Tullamore convent in 1914

St Joseph’s Convent has been linked to a number of foundations away from Tullamore – in addition to the Kilcormac convent, which has closed in recent years (with the remaining sisters moved to Tullamore), it is worth noting the role in founding convents in Derry and in Costa Mesa in Orange County, California.

Sisters from Tullamore have also served in Zambia and Kenya as well as Iceland.

With the remaining sisters predominantly elderly, the time will come when few will be aware of their work, but the legacy remains in schools and youth services. Those of us of a certain generation are well aware of the great work done by Sisters Ann and Genny, among others, in the youth services, and the order’s generosity in donating the old St Philomena’s to become the Youth Centre in 1980.

We also remember the work of Sister Veronica Gilsenan in helping bereaved families, as well as her work with Travellers and others in need – at a personal level, I recall her going to see my father when he was dying in Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin in 1990.

Sister Veronica and friends about 1990

In assessing their work, we have to remember that they often reflected the mores of their time and as sisters aged, they often re-evaluated positions they previously took for granted.

From conversations I had with sisters down the years, I could see they were quite pragmatic in coming to terms with the changing position of women and the adjustments in social mores.

An Englishman’s walk through Birr, Kilcormac and Tullamore in mid-1921, as the War of Independence intensified. By Michael Byrne

An Englishman, Wilfrid Ewart (1892-1922), walked from Cork through the Irish midlands to Belfast during the War of Independence in April-May 1921. His book A Journey in Ireland 1921 (London, April 1922) was his account of that dangerous journey through the Irish heartland. Ewart commenced his journey on 18 April 1921 and finished it on 10 May.  How did he escape abduction or shooting as an English spy? He might have come close to meeting death near the Blue Ball. Ewart was born in 1892 and died in 1922 – the year of the publication of his book, killed by a stray bullet in Mexico city on New Year’s Eve 1922. So Ewart lived dangerously as is clear from his passage through County Offaly the year before his death. His account is one of the best we have of feelings in Birr during the height of the War of Independence and on the eve of the killings at Kinnitty and Coolacrease, not to mention so called spys.

The jacket of the first edition of 1922

Ewart was possibly near death at the Blue Ball and surprisingly escaped that fate. He must have had great connections and credentials from both sides in the War of Independence to escape a violent death. He was surprised at how normal life was in Birr and contrasted the scene with the situation in Tullamore, where curfew had lately been imposed. Shots had been fired at the RIC and Black and Tans in the town of Tullamore in early April and one volunteer killed.  In making the trip Ewart was out to discover for himself just what justification there was (if any) for British actions in Ireland.

In Birr Ewart met Archdeacon John Ryan who succeeded in 1917 on the death of Dean Scanlan in December 1916 and was parish priest there for 31 years until his death at the age of 96 in 1948. Ewart in his 1921 interview with Ryan described him as:

One of the most picturesque personalities I came across in this part of Ireland was Archdeacon Ryan, of Birr. Indeed, there was not a little in common between this fragile-looking, shy-mannered and unworldly priest and the steel-fibred leaders of Sinn Fein whom I had talked with in Cork.  There was the same – how shall one say? – delicate adjustment of mind, softness of voice and manner, strain of poetry, faint perfume of idealism which mollifies, or appears to, the rigid nationalism.

Ewart went on to note that Archdeacon Ryan considered the IRA to be motivated by pure patriotism. Ewart in his interview with John Dooly did focus on the immediate cause of Dooly’s removal from the chair of the King’s County Council in June 1918, but perhaps ought to have got a lot more. The change in public mood in the county did not affect Dooly’s standing in Birr and he continued to be elected as chair of the Birr Urban District Council up to his death in 1924, a record of twenty-four years. Ewart met three other people perhaps including the agent to the Rosse estate. What was emphasised was how law abiding the town was. The county was at that time outside of the martial law area and the markets were functioning. In neither Birr (nor Tullamore, though described as hotter that Birr politically) did Sinn Féin have an outright victory in the urban elections. 

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