Turning on the electric light in Tullamore and Birr: 100 years ago – September 1921. By Michael Byrne

Tullamore made the switch from gas lighting to public lamps powered by electricity on 27  September 1921 and Birr about a week earlier. The change in Tullamore was coming for over twenty years and Charleville Castle and D. E. Williams both had electric light from about 1900 and earlier. Lord Rosse had it in Birr Castle in the 1880s. Birr was earlier to have public lighting by gas lighting than Tullamore and had a town supply and town commissioners in 1852.

Tullamore elected its town commissioners and adopted gas lighting in 1860. Before that public lighting was non-existent in Tullamore with just one candle lamp in Charleville/O’Connor Square in 1854.  By the beginning of the First World War the number of gas lamps in Tullamore was almost 80 and the lighting system had been greatly improved with ‘the illuminating power of the lamps having been greatly increased by the adoption of inverted incandescent burners’ (1915). The gas was supplied by a private company comprised of local merchants who were the owners and directors. Change was flagged in 1913 but little progress could be made during the war. In 1918 Birr registered a company to take charge of the local public lighting undertaking and Tullamore did likewise in 1920-21. Birr business contributed £9,000 and Tullamore £13,000 to the new undertakings. The lighting was switched on in Birr in 1920 but only for short time and was not finally in place until a week before Tullamore in mid September 1921. Roscrea had electricity at least a year earlier via a tender from Roscrea Bacon Factory.   The Tullamore investors included D.E. Williams £5,000, P.J. Egan €1,000, P & H Egan Ltd £1,000, Fr Callary £500, Sisters of Mercy £200 and others. What is striking about the list of promoters of public lighting is that where Quaker and Methodists businessmen led the way in 1860 (Goodbody and Lumley), in 1921 it was Catholic merchants and Catholic institutions (Egan, Williams, the parish priest and the Mercy nuns). The 1921 directors were all Catholics save the Methodist W.C. Graham.

Tullamore’s High Street with Sergeant Ahern talking in what is now the Dew Inn (former Bus Bar), about 1910. Courtesy of NLI.

A Tullamore school boy records the date in his diary

Patrick Wrafter, better known in later life as P. A. Wrafter, kept a short diary relating to national and Tullamore events during the War of Independence and the Civil War. For its simplicity and directness, it is attractive and provides an insight into how crucial events in Ireland’s history impacted on the mind of a thirteen-year-old boy. Most of the diary entries were about the War of Independence and the Civil War. The move to electricity began during the War of Independence and was completed during the Truce period, i.e. when negotiations had started but before the delegation went to London. Wrafter wrote:

Started to build the Electric Light Shed over in the square on the 3rd January 1921. The same day as we went back to school.  [This was the shed used to house the electricity generating equipment in the Market Square. The ESB acquired the Tullamore Electric Light Company in 1930 and the shed was demolished in 1999.]

Alo Brennan, Church St., Tullamore, was arrested on the 18 January 1921.  [Later of Cormac Street, he was prominent in the Volunteers.]

Masked and armed men entered the Post-Office in Tullamore on the 20th January 1921 and took away the mails for the R.I.C.

Peace Conference started on July the 3rd 1921, in the Mansion House, Dublin.

Mr D. E. Williams, Tullamore died on the 3rd July 1921 aged 72 years.  R.I.P.

Truce declared in Ireland in July 1921.  [9th July.]

At least 80 prisoners escaped from the Rath Camp, Curragh by a subterranean tunnel 50 ft. long dug by themselves with pieces of iron etc.  Sept. 1921 [LE, 17 Sept. 1921.]

Electric light was lit in the streets and houses on September the 27, 1921.

The electricity generating shed in Market Square, Tullamore, 1921-1999. It was to the rear of the old gas company buildings

Young Patrick Wrafter might have added that the poles to carry the electric cable were in course of erection in the streets of the town from July 1920. These were not the first of many poles to ‘grace’ the streets as those for telephones had been provided from about 1908–11. Of the 80 or so gas lamp standards in Tullamore only one survives at Moore Hall, O’Moore Street. The Truce of 11 July 1921 was holding with a Truce dance in the Foresters new hall over the co-operative bakery in September and a big meeting in Tullamore on 2 October to welcome Dr McCartain. In the same month a young girl of 20 was tied to the railings of Tullamore church with the word ‘Immorality’ written on a card attached to her. Two more girls were chained to the new electric poles near the church with the card attached ‘Beware of I. . . There are others too’. Presumably these were girls who had been overfriendly with the occupying forces, or it may have been the highly moral new republican police acting on possible sentencing in the Dáil courts.

The provision of public utilities in a town is a measure of its civility. Here we are talking of lighting, water, sewerage, roads, footpaths, a market house, and nowadays a public library (see OH blog of May 2021), and a swimming pool. Arts centres, public archives and museums would be down the list, but even here we are well on the way with only the county museum missing from the galaxy of facilities. Hospitals, courthouses and jails were early on the list of institutional facilities with a county hospital of sorts in Tullamore from 1767.

In a blog on 20 October 2020, we wrote that the start-up of the Tullamore Gas Company was in 1859 and the company survived until September 1921. Gas lighting for Tullamore had been mooted as early as 1845 but it took sustained pressure from the local press and the business acumen of the Goodbody brothers of the Tullamore tobacco factory to get it done. Others who helped were Alfred Bury of Charleville (later fifth earl) and the young Tullamore-born barrister Constantine Molloy. Initial opposition had come from the parish priest Fr O’Rafferty (died 1857), and later from the ratepayers led by the Acres family – the principal tenement property owners in Tullamore. Birr had street lighting from 1852 and Mullingar and Newbridge by 1859. The completion of the new railway connection to Tullamore in September 1859 was another boost to forward thinking about the status of Tullamore and its potential. The opening of the streets for lamps meant the adoption of a small measure of local government and the provision of town commissioners – the first town council in Tullamore from 1860. It did not mean that buildings were to be lighted and places such as Tullamore courthouse were still without gas lighting in 1868, as was much of the workhouse in 1897. The latter was using 36 lbs of candles per week in the late 1890s. Gas was later provided but as late as of 1910 the infirmary section of the workhouse was still lit by oil lamps.

The question of lighting Tullamore by electricity surfaced as early as early as 1897. Daniel E. Williams, who was the first to have a motor car in Offaly, introduced electrical generation in his own business in the 1890s. In 1909 the Tullamore town clerk, E.J. Graham, estimated that it would cost £4,000 to bring electricity to Tullamore. At the time the town was serviced by 69 lamps at £2 each per year. This would increase to 78 lamps by 1916. By this time the council had spent large sums on waterworks and housing but less so on sewerage. Economy was a watchword and, as noted, the gas lamps were not activated on moonlit nights. The Tullamore rector, R.S. Craig wrote to the press in early 1914 in the aftermath of the rejection of electric light for Tullamore in 1913 on the grounds of the need for a town sewerage system needed to have a prior call on local expenditure.

The public lighting of Tullamore is not in the hands of the Urban Council as it should be. It is farmed out to the local Gas Company, and one of the conditions – economic conditions – is that there is no occasion to light the lamps on moonlight nights. This is a condition , as the Rev Mr. Craig very aptly says, has nothing to commend it, but ancient precedent. The same bad precedent in the matter of this arrangement is followed in Athlone, and many of the other provincial towns. On the nights when we should have moonlight, but very often have not, there is no public lighting, and pedestrians and visitors or strangers doing business within our gates move about to the imminent danger of breaking their necks. There was the recent case in Tullamore when on the occasion of the great National Demonstration many thousands of people were gathered in the town. Before they could get out of it nightfall overtook them. The business houses were, of course, closed, and there was no assistance to be had from friendly shop windows. The moon was expected that night to give light to the wayfarer, but was in no particular hurry in coming to our help. The Gas Company economised according to their arrangement with the Urban Council and did not light the gas lamps. The inconvenience of the situation need not be emphasised.

Rector Craig’s letter was an expression of his frustration at the council not being able to proceed with the change over to electricity in 1913. The big shops already had electric power and were in no rush to suffer a possible rates increase from the council to provide the funds for the new scheme. It was only in 1917 that Griffith of the new Turf Works in Pollagh agreed to give his expertise to assisting in getting electricity going in Tullamore.

The provision of electric lighting in the smaller towns and villages was slow in coming. A Banagher writer in late 1921 noted that the town was in the dark: ‘The only bit of light we have had for the past three or four years was that provided on the night of Dr McCartan’s arrival’. McCartan was the last MP elected for King’s County/Offaly and the first for the Sinn Féin Party (April and December 1918). Electricity for Banagher lighting had been mooted as early as 1911 by the local improvement association. The visit of Dr McCartain to Tullamore on 2 October 1921 may have been the incentive to get the electric light installation completed in time for the big welcome.

From the Midland Tribune, 1 October 1921

No less than six Offaly based private companies were taken over by the ESB over the period 1928 to 1956. The Tullamore company with 240 customers in 1930 (about one-third to one quarter of the number of houses) was taken over by ESB in that year. In 1929 Birr had 342 customers, rising to 596 in 1947 when transferred to ESB. The Edenderry business was transferred in June 1928, but the number of customers is not now known. Banagher obtained the ESB Shannon supply in 1930 and Clara in the same year.

The offer for subscribers for shares in the new Tullamore company. It was alongside the obituary for Terence MacSwiney. Sgt Cronin of Tullamore was shot a few days later in reprisal. Ordinary life and the War of Independence coexisted side by side in a strange way.

Disputes with staff working for the Tullamore Electric Light Company started within months of the light being switched on and a strike was called off in November 1921 when the three men employed by the company agreed to accept £3 7s. 6d. per week for a 56-hour week, in lieu of the £3 10s. demanded. The town council was the main customer and was paying up to £300 per year for 75 lamps. No great change in public provision from the days of gas. We do not know at this point what was the take up of power from the private and domestic sector. In the home it would have been for lighting only and that sparingly in many houses up to the 1960s. At the time of the move to ESB in 1930 and the takeover of the local provider it was reported that ESB men were preparing posts to replace existing standards where necessary. Also that ‘Mechanics are affixing electric fittings in several houses’. The firm of Siemens Schuckert was finishing the installation of electric light in the Catholic church and that Oppenheimer was finishing mosaic work to sanctuary. Dreamy altar boys will recall these mosaics with St Brendan navigating the billowing sea and which were destroyed in the fire of 1983.

A 1901 advert for a supplier featuring Charleville Castle. By 1912 the castle had been largely vacated by its owner Lady Bury. Courtesy of Irish Times

 It is hard to believe now that before the 1850s there was no public lighting in any of the Offaly towns. Neither was there any on moonlit evenings up to 1921, or after 12 midnight up to the early 1960s. Visitors to the Aran Islands will recall walking on its pitch-black roads, and, nearer home, those living in the countryside experience it every evening if making a short journey on foot. Rural electrification did not follow the towns until the late 1940s in many areas in Offaly and this has been documented in lectures at Bury Quay and the records of interviews now in Offaly Archives. See also a useful piece on the arrival of ESB provided electricity on http://www.esbarchives). Surprisingly there is nothing surviving of the minutes of the local gas companies in Offaly or the private electricity companies that were taken over by ESB in c. 1930. The company’s dealings with the urban council can be followed in the local press and in the minute books of the council (now in Offaly Archives). The Tribune was the only Tullamore newspaper in 1921 as the printing works of the Offaly Independent had been destroyed by the British military in November 1920. It reported the switch-on while the Birr Chronicle did likewise a week earlier.

Sales of electrical goods took off only in the 1960s. Here the well-known Tom Gilson’s shop, Tullamore

Next blog is on Saturday 18 on Charleville by Dr Judith Hill. Email info@offalyhistory.com for the link to the Monday lecture.

On 25 Sept. Dr Mary Jane Fox on Columcille and copyright disputes

The story of John de Jean Frazer, a somewhat forgotten poet from Birr. By Pádraig Turley.

When the well-known musical historian Terry Moylan drew my attention to the Offaly poet John de Jean Frazer, I was forced to confess I had never heard of him, much to my shame. I made enquiries about him and surprisingly few had knowledge of him. Shannonbridge native, James Killeen, currently resident in Illinois, was able to tell me that Master John Lane, who taught in  Shannonbridge National School, was aware of him and mentioned him. He always referred to him as Frazer, finding the de Jean a bit much. James also told that Francis Reddy, the son of Michael Reddy M.P. used to enthuse about the Nationalistic poetry of Frazer.  

The object of this Blog is to rescue from the mists of time the name and career of this significant Birr poet.  Writing in the first half of the 19th century John de Jean Frazer, has left a considerable body of work. His work is hard to source outside the major libraries and college archives.

This is a shame, as his poetry has not been published in a sole collection for a long time. It would be wonderful if this Blog were to give an impetus to someone to undertake such a project, as I feel his writings should be more readily available.

The questions I shall try to answer are, who was he, where did he hail from, what are his most notable works, what were his politics, his religion and his family details.

He is said to have been born and reared in Parsonstown, now Birr, King`s County, however like a lot of things about him there is a degree of uncertainty. On the 100th anniversary of his passing in 1952 The Westmeath Independent did a piece where it said tradition claimed he was from Moystown, near Clonony Castle. There is also a suggesting that he may have been from near Ferbane, guess his poem `Brosna`s Bank` lend a bit of credit to all these claims.

There is some conjecture as to the exact year he was born. We know his date of death was 23rd March 1852, at which time he is recorded as being 48 years old, suggesting he was born in 1804. The current Birr Tourism Brochure gives his year of birth as 1804. However ` A Compendium of Irish Biography 1878` by Alfred Webb gives his date of birth as 1809. Webb also gives his year of death as 1849 which we know is incorrect, so it seems Webb may have needed a better editor. I am inclined to accept the 1804 figure, especially as I discovered his wife was born in 1800.

He is believed to come from a Presbyterian family, but unfortunately records of Presbyterian births/baptisms for Birr only commence in 1854. His family were said to be from Huguenot stock. I have been unable to unearth details of his parents.

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Crannógs in County Offaly. By John Dolan

While Offaly has a huge range of Early Christian church and monastic sites it would not have been noted for crannogs, unlike its neighbour in Co. Westmeath.  Surprisingly, Offaly has 13 crannog sites recorded in the National Monuments database, however they are in many ways different from the usual picture of the small, man-made island in a lake. Many of these crannogs are located close to natural esker and drumlin routeways and survive as wetland settlements in or close to bogs.  One third of Offaly is covered by peatland.

Crannogs in Ireland.

The name crannog is obviously the Irish names of ‘crann’ for tree and ‘óg’ in this case referring to small and not young.  But we will see that ‘small tree’ does not account for the size and scale of wood used in the construction of these lake dwellings which are generally in open bodies of water.

There is no agreed figure for the number of crannogs in Ireland.  Some have suggested 1,200 over the whole country while others take the number over 2,000!  Crannogs were constructed in the sixth and seventh centuries and occupied and used up to the end of the seventeenth century.  As a monument in the landscape that has changed considerably with the reduction in water, lake and river levels, along with the drying out of the bogs since the Middle Ages, it is only by accident that a new crannog is discovered. Continue reading

Clara at the time of General Vallancey’s Report (1771) on the proposed Grand Canal to Tullamore and the Shannon. By Michael Byrne

Clara’s engagement with the textile industry may go back 100 years before the Goodbody jute factory. As one of the smaller towns and villages in the county places such as Clara, Ferbane, Kilcormac and Shinrone are less clearly associated with the early plantations by contrast with Daingean, Tullamore and Birr. Clara was prosperous in the 1770s and from the weakening of textiles in the 1820s must have suffered a good deal until the hand loom business progressed after the mid-1850s and the jute factory from the mid-1860s.The Goodbody firm continued as a prosperous concern for another hundred years. Clara was the only town in Offaly to see expansion of its population in the second half of the nineteenth century. And so in the economic cycle it may be that the post 1820s to the 1860s were lean years as has been the period since the 1970s. These are generalisations and will need to be revised in the context of detailed research on Clara businesses, employment, housing and infrastructure.

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The Tullamore Grand Canal Hotel, 1801–1974. By Michael Byrne

The first hotel constructed in Tullamore in 1786 cost £200. The second in 1801 about £4,5,00. Even by multiplying by 200 for the cost of living today, this expenditure was light in the context of the three new hotels in Tullamore in 1997- 2008 which may possibly represent a total expenditure of €25 million for 270 beds. And yet the canal hotel of 1801 was a major investment and may have never made a return to the Grand Canal Company. The need for it disappeared within five years of its construction. By contrast the deprecated Bury Arms (Hayes/Phoenix Arms) in the centre of town was in business for over 200 years.

The Bury Arms (later Hayes Hotel) erected in 1786, demolished 2000. From the Hanly Collection Offaly History. This view in the late 1950s.

The first hotel (that we know of) to be constructed in Tullamore was the Bury Arms Hotel (later the Phoenix Arms, demolished 2000, now Boots Pharmacy), erected in 1786 as an inn for Tullamore at a cost to the landlord, Charles William Bury, of £200. We know that in 1798 it had 13 beds for letting. The hotel was first leased to John Tydd at a yearly rent of £20. John Tydd and his son Benjamin were both dead by 1798 at which point the innkeeper was one Mr Doherty. Captain William Evans, who had been a director of the Grand Canal Company until c.1796, but remained with the Company providing engineering advice until 1805, was critical of the Bury Hotel on his visit there in 1798. His departure from the company in 1805, possibly following soon after the completion of the works to Shannon Harbour in 1804. Notwithstanding Evans’ criticism of the Bury Arms hotel Sir Richard Colt Hore who stayed at the hotel in 1806 wrote: ‘At Tullamore I found a good inn and accommodation at Doherty’s (the Bury, later Charleville Arms) near the Bridge’ (Tour, p. 32). The hotel had changed its name in line with that of the ennobling of the town’s landlord who became Lord Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and earl of Charleville in 1806. It should be mentioned that there was at least one earlier inn in Tullamore, that of Hugh Clough in the 1760s and other smaller hotels post 1800.

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The Vikings in Offaly. By John Dolan

Our traditional view of the Vikings in Ireland was established by our early primary and secondary schooling. We were aware that the Vikings commenced raiding in 795 AD by their raid on Rathlin Island. Eventually they settled in a few areas around our coastline. However, most of the country was within reach of Viking raiding parties. One of the primary bases from which Viking raids emerged was from the city of Limerick. Limerick provided a springboard for raids up the Shannon, affecting areas on either side of the river.

These raids were on church monasteries resulted in the slaughter of monks and workers in the monasteries. It also appears that the Vikings knew exactly where these monasteries were located and regularly their arrival coincided when particular religious events were underway.  From other evidence they were after people, cattle and very occasionally the gold and silver in the monasteries.  People were regularly taken to be sold at slaves. The largest such raid was carried out at Howth in the year 821 AD where over 600 females were taken away by ship for slavery. In later times Dublin became the largest Viking slave centre in Western Europe; Kiev in Ukraine was their largest slave centre in the East.

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

Les pirates normands au IXe siècle by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894), Musée Anne de Beaujeu, Moulin

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Offaly and the River Shannon. By Paul Clements

For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey along the River Shannon, following in the footsteps of the writer and singer Richard Hayward. His book looks back at Ireland in the 1930s but also considers the present-day Shannon which he believes is now undergoing a renaissance. [ 

The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the street in a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off and some areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration. Life was shaped by the rhythms of the agricultural year and farming was the mainstay of the economy.  Despite the poverty, there was another more carefree side to life which respected the arts and cultural history. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had. This was the Ireland that fascinated the writer, singer and actor Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland.

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