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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Agriculture in Offaly on the eve of the Great Famine. By Ciarán Reilly

On the eve of the Great Famine in 1845 the backwardness of Irish agriculture was seen by many as the reason for much of the country’s economic woes. About Irish farmers, it was stated that they knew nothing of the ‘English’ method of farming or indeed welcomed its arrival. However, there was amongst many Irish landlords, and their agents, a growing understanding of the benefits of the ‘science’ of agriculture and many had willingly adopted such methods in the management of their estates. In particular, many land agents were the leading pioneers of better agricultural practice. The employment of agriculturalists; the establishment of agricultural societies and the trips undertaken to observe foreign models of agriculture all highlight the progression of Irish agriculture by the early 1840s.

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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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The IRA attack on Clara Barracks on 2 June 1920: the opening salvo in the War of Independence in Offaly. Michael Byrne

 

 

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 Reporting the outcome of the Clara barracks attack of 2 June 1920

‘While some counties have done much in the matter of publicizing their part in the fight for freedom, very little has been heard of the part played by Offaly in that great struggle, and yet it was within the borders of this historic county that some of the bravest and most daring deeds were done. It is not right, he said, that these should be allowed to pass into complete oblivion, and it is hoped the writing of this story of the Clara R.I.C. barrack attack will encourage others into penning the complete story of Offaly’s fight during that critical period of Irish history.’ These were the words of P. O’M. in 1960, basing his account on that published in the local press on 5 June 1920. (P O’M was brought to our attention as Paddy O’Meara who wrote a number of good articles on Clara history and was a local news correspondent.) The witness statement of Séan O’Neill, a manager in P.J. White’s Clara shop (Bureau of Military History) supports the press reports of the time. So to do the recollections of Harold Goodbody (forthcoming). IRA man and county councillor Sean Robbins of Clara was critical as was Fergus O’Bracken, writing to vindicate the role of his father, overall IRA commandant Peadar Bracken, in the episode.

 

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Dancing with the Stars and the Tyrrellspass connection. By Bríd Ryan

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I was delighted to see Fr Ray Kelly doing so well on Dancing with the Stars for the past few weeks. He may not be a great dancer but he is a lovely singer and he was a grand young lad in Tyrrellspass years ago when I went on holidays there to my aunt. My aunt and uncle lived in The Buildings, Tyrrellspass on the Mullingar Rd and very near Ray Kelly’s home. The houses there were a part of an orphanage years before and some of the older people remembered the children walking to the Protestant school on the Green in their little white smock uniforms.

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The Orphanage children on the Mullingar Road near The Buildings

I remember a lovely quaint house with a stairs going downwards inside the front door. A woman called Mrs Craven lived in the largest house in The Buildings. She was involved in the ICA but I didn’t know her. I remember the Kelly children playing in the garden. They were a little younger than me but they were always friendly and I know there was always music in their house. His Dad drove a lorry and dealt in sheep and cattle. He had a word for everyone and was very popular. Nurse Kelly was known far and wide as a midwife and was very highly regarded for same. It was interesting, in the book, to see her work from the children’s point of view. I don’t suppose anyone wondered who would mind her four children when she was with an expectant mother and their Dad was working away from home. His Aunt Kitty got great love and well deserved praise from Ray. I just remember her as a quiet woman who loved to go to Bingo and was a regular on the Bingo bus with my own aunt!

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