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, now 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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