On the 29th March 1919, 20 IRA Volunteers escaped from Mountjoy jail in broad day light. This escape was planned by Michael Collins on the outside and Piaras Béaslaí on the inside. A prison strike had been taking place in the jail in support of four prisoners who were not being afforded political status. In the lead up to the escape this strike was halted because the escape plan had a better chance of success with a quieter atmosphere in the prison.
The plan was to get Piaras Béaslaí and JJ Murphy both MPs and Padraig Fleming a volunteer from the Swan, Co. Laois out, followed by the four prisoners not being afforded political status. A list of men with long sentences was created and it was decided that men serving short sentences or who had sentences close to completion would not escape. Padraig Fleming had conducted an extraordinary fight for treatment as a political prisoner in Maryborough (Portlaoise) jail, enduring hunger strike, torture and physical mistreatment for months. In Mountjoy he was the Officer Commanding the political prisoners.
The escape was planned for 3 p.m. on Saturday March 29th. On the previous Monday the four prisoners being denied political status broke away from the warders in charge of them and led them on a big chase around the field before being recaptured. As a result, they were kept in a metal cage for exercise and guarded by no less than eleven warders. If these precautions were continued their chances of escape were slight, while the presence of so many warders also presented a serious obstacle to the escape plan. On Fleming’s orders the four prisoners caused no more problems for the warders and the prison authorities were lulled into a false sense of security.
Reports vary as to how much destruction of the Offaly County Council’s papers took place. A report of 22 July 1922 was upbeat as to how much material was saved. This optimism appeared to be ill-founded:
It is feared that valuable books and papers have been burned. Later, it appears one of the staff of the Co Council was knocked up at his lodgings a short time before the burning of the courthouse, and when he visited the place saw it filled with armed men and the smell of petrol everywhere. They gave him a few minutes to remove some books, documents, etc, to a place of safety. Most of the books, including the rate books, and documents were found undamaged in the strong rooms after the fire. A good deal of documents, including correspondence, was, of course, burned, but at the time of writing it is impossible to make any accurate estimate of missing property. It is stated that the records of the Clerk of the Crown and Peace Office escaped burning in the strong room. . . Thursday Evening, Mr Costello, Co Surveyor’s clerk, Mr Barney Coughlan, Co Council staff, were called before the fire started and with the help of the courthouse caretaker’s daughters (Misses Mooney) and some others, removed before the fire started, large numbers of books and papers. The work had to be done speedily as very little time was allowed for it, but as a result of the efforts made, and the fact that the strong rooms saved most other documents, very little is missing belonging to the Co Council. Cart loads of stuff are being taken to the Urban Council and Technical building, [offices in what is now Banon’s yard in O’Moore Street]
where it is intended to re-establish the Co. Council offices. The Co. Council staff are returning to the same offices as they occupied while the British military were in possession of the Courthouse [Jan. 1921–Jan. 1922] Large crowds spent the day viewing the burning remains of the buildings and visiting the interior of the prison. Very few heard anything unusual last night and it was only about 6 or 7 a.m. this Thursday morning the destructive ravages of the fire became generally known.
Things must have been appallingly chaotic for the council staff trying to sort the mess and later having to move back to very confined office, not being much more than ‘a stuffy little office in High Street’. The council staff was now headed by John Mahon who had been the county accountant and was now also acting county secretary following the dismissal/forced retirement in January 1921 of Charles P. Kingston by the new Sinn Féin dominated council on the alleged grounds of neglect of duty. Kingston had been the council’s chief administrative officer since 1900 and would have worked with the old parliamentary party councillors who dominated the scene until the local elections in June 1920. When the results were coming in that June Kingston commented that the ‘election was remarkable and even more revolutionary than the elections of 1898 when only three members of the old grand jury were returned’. Probably Kingston had anticipated the change, did not like it, and was preparing for his departure. He had clashed with the Sinn Féin county organiser and ideologue, T. M. Russell, who had been on the council since early in 1917 and was much too clever for Kingston’s liking. Kingston was enterprising and had erected ‘two fine blocks of double villas’ at Clonminch Road, Tullamore in 1909. He had sold his own house in this development to John Williams (son of D. E. Williams) in late 1918 and perhaps moved to Dublin at this time as he was involved in the Kingston Drapery business from the 1920s. In any case the Kingston removal put considerable pressure on the remaining officials in the councils. All this emerged with the investigation into the council’s affairs and its dissolution in 1924.
The council’s own Finance Committee minute book recorded on 3 August 1922 that:
A meeting of the finance Committee was held in the Urban Council Hall, Tullamore, on the 3rd day of August 1922.
Mr John O’Meara presiding.
The other Members present were: – Messrs Luke Scally and James O’Connor
Payments to the amount of £1,377. 11s.3d. on foot of Works in charge of the County Surveyor, salaries, & c. were made.
The secretary reported, for the purpose of the record on the Minutes, that the County Courthouse and all the contents of same were burned and totally destroyed on the 19th July, and that the Safe, which was in the County Council Office, and which contained Ledgers and Abstracts, Vouchers, Paying Orders, Cheques, Bonds, Bank Pass Books, &c., had fallen to the bottom of the Courthouse, and when it was opened, all the contents were found to have been totally destroyed, being burned into ashes. Certain other books, such as the Minute Books, Rate Collectors’ Books, &c., were stored in the Strong Room in the Crown and Peace Office, by the courtesy of the Assistant Clerk of the Peace, [Mr Holohan] and were found to be safe.
The Secretary also reported that Messrs Healy, Coghlan and Costello had saved all the Rate Books, Expenditure Books, some documents, &c., and County Surveyor’s Books that they possibly could from the fire, and that they had worked hard at great personal risk, and he (Secretary) recommended them to the consideration of the Committee. The County Surveyor also supported this recommendation, and the Committee granted the three persons concerned a sum of £7 each, subject to the approval of the Local Government Department.
Thomas Holohan is obliged to sue the council for the balance of £2 due
In October 1922 the council agreed to pay Mrs Mooney, the former caretaker of the courthouse a sum of £7 for her work in saving a considerable amount of furniture from the fire in the courthouse. The council was less liberal with Thomas Holohan, the deputy clerk of the peace working in what would later be the county registrar’s office. He had requested the council to pay him the balance of £2 due to him of the total sum of £5 he had paid to a carter to assist in moving the court documents and some ratepayer material from the brick-lined safe. This included some 5,000 items relating to land registration. It took three days to remove the material at the expense of £5 paid by Mr Holohan, who also had had the assistance of his own family in the removal for which he had not charged anything. The council had let the matter go to quarter sessions rather than refund Holohan the balance of €2 of his out-of-pocket expenses for the transport of the documents. Judge Fleming awarded the amount claimed. Ironically, some of the documents saved may well have been included in the planned destruction about 2010 of old land folios in all the county registrars’ offices across the country showing previous transactions on the title. This was done as part of the moving online of the land registry folios but at the loss of much useful historical material.
The county council was dissolved on 4 September 1924 and a commissioner appointed. This followed on from a report in May 1924 by the Ministry of Local Government’s chief engineering inspector on the state of the county’s roads and that the results of expenditure on road maintenance were about as bad as could obtain. The situation was aggravated by the difficulty in collecting rates since June of 1920 and the repudiation of the Local Government Board. Furthermore, the accounts books had been seized by both the IRA and the RIC from June 1920. The council staff had been evicted from their courthouse offices in January 1921 and only allowed return in March 1922. Their stay only lasted four months. These reasons and the lack of a trained accountant following on from the promotion of John Mahon to county secretaryship were advanced by Mahon as the reasons for the shortcomings in the council’s management of local affairs. Mahon resigned from the county secretaryship in April 1925 due to chronic illness.
The records of the council’s predecessor – the King’s County Grand Jury
In the several references in the press to the surviving records of the council and the clerk of the crown and peace nothing at all was said as to the fate of the grand jury records (see previous blogs). These would have included the presentment books and perhaps an old county map of the 1750s or perhaps that of 1809. John Wright had drawn on what appears to be a surviving series of presentment books from 1817 for his guide to Offaly published in 1890. These were probably printed in Birr by Thomas Legge who was the only printer in Birr from that time until his death in 1826. Wright did have access to what may have been a list of the sheriffs from 1787 and a summary of the judicial business, but not until 1817 the presentments or ‘Jobs’ books. He was able to list the full list of grand jurors from 1803 and presentment business (as was of interest to him) from 1820. The fact that so much was destroyed in 1922 makes Wright’s book valuable today. The Offaly Archives catalogue provides listings of what survived. In the case of the council from 1912 and for the grand jury generally from 1830. But there may be more out there from 1817 because a collection was sold at Purcell’s for the very high price of £4,000. The rumour was that the National Library bought them but that may not be the case. A buyer from Offaly History went to £1500 but dropped out at that point to great disappointment.
Midland Tribune, 22 July 1922; Offaly Chronicle, 27 July 1922.
 Ibid., 29 July 1922; Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 4 Sept. 1915.
 This saga can be followed in Michael Murphy, Anne Coughlan and Grainne Doran, Grainne, Grand jury rooms to Aras an Chontae: local government in Offaly (Tullamore, 2003) pp 143–5.
 Holohan (1860-1949) was a member of the rising middle classes of Tullamore. He became Assistant Clerk of the Peace in 1892 and retired as Senior Clerk in the Circuit Court Office in 1942. In 1909 he moved his family from their rented house in Store Street into ‘Innisfree’ (now ‘Loughmore Lodge’) one of the four substantial semi-detached villas on Clonminch Road built as a speculative development by the County Secretary, Charlie Kingston. A noted figure on the Offaly legal scene, to the end of his days, Holohan still dressed in the senior civil servant’s uniform of sponge bag trousers, winged collar, a short ‘Parliamentary’ jacket and a bowler hat. He was dismayed by the actions in the Civil War of the Anti-Treaty forces, whom he always referred to in later life as ‘The Irregulars’. Information from Fergal MacCabe.
 Offaly Archives: minute book of Offaly County Council.
 Murphy, Michael, Coughlan, Anne and Doran, Grainne, Grand jury rooms to Aras an Chontae: local government in Offaly (Tullamore, 2003), pp 145-6.
 [John Wright (ed.).] The King’s County directory, 1890, including a short history together with coloured map, almanac and calendar. Parsonstown: King’s County Chronicle, 1890. Reprinted as Offaly one Hundred years ago with a new introduction by Michael Byrne (Naas, 1989).
 Michael Byrne, Printing and bookselling in Offaly in the nineteenth century (Tullamore, 2020), pp 52–3.
 John Wright (ed.). The King’s County directory, 1890, pp 253–62.
We are pleased to advise of this singular opportunity to come and work as a qualified archivist in Tullamore, County Offaly. Applications are now invited for the position of Archivist at Offaly Archives. The position will be for a Fixed Term Contract of three years, subject to a probationary period of six months (extendable to twelve months). The archivist will be based at the Offaly Archive building, located at Axis Business Park, Tullamore, County Offaly. @offalyheritage, @offalycountycouncil, #offalylibraries, #exploreyourarchive.#archives, #archivesandrecords association #irisharchives @HeritageHubIRE
Offaly Archives was designed with an archivist on the team to make sure it will function as efficiently as possible. This role is an exciting and satisfying position carrying on the work of developing the archive into the next phase. We have pleasure in acknowledging the expertise of Amanda Pedlow, Lisa Shortall, Niall Sweeney, our architect, builder and the team in Offaly History. Not least the support of the Heritage Council, so many in County Offaly including the county council, the library service, Tullamore Lions Club, those who donated or lent money to fund the €750,000 project in 2019, and Offaly Local Development Company. The person appointed can look forward to a warm welcome in the community and the ongoing support of Offaly History and the Library and Heritage Services. Thanks to all who wrote for our blog articles since 2016. In 2022 we posted 104 articles and had over 100,000 views. To keep this exciting opportunity in front of you we intend to publish a series of archives stories over the next four weeks.
First established under the 1881 Land Act, the Irish Land Commission began as a regulator of fair rents, but soon evolved into the great facilitator of land transfer. However, over emphasis on these aspects of its work can sometimes camouflage its equal significance as the main instigator and architect of rural reform. There is no doubt that for most of its existence from 1881 to 1992 the Land Commission was the most important state body operating out of rural Ireland where its long tentacles spread into every nook and cranny. [Come to Professor Dooley’s lecture on Monday in Tullamore – see details below.
Huge Crowd Gather in Bracknagh Community Hall for viewing of Film
Bracknagh Community Hall was full to capacity on Thursday last for the viewing of a film on the Ballynowlart Martyrs and the Turf Co Operative 101. The event was organised and hosted by the newly formed Bracknagh Heritage Group (A sub group of the Bracknagh Community Association). The guest speaker was Larry Fullam, local historian and researcher from Rathangan. Tony Donnelly extended a warm welcome to the large gathering. Mary Delaney, on behalf of the heritage group introduced and welcomed both Larry Fullam and Amanda Pedlow (Offaly Heritage Officer). Amanda addressed the audience on the supports provided by the Heritage Council for viable local projects.
Larry spoke on how in 1917 a local priest Fr Kennedy with the help of Fr O’ Leary from Portarlington had the remains of the victims of a fire at Ballynowlart church in 1643 exhumed and reburied in the grounds of the St. Broughan’s church. The story of Ballynowlart attributes the setting alight of the church on Christmas Day in 1643 to Cromwell’s forces. A congregation of 108 people, who were attending Christmas Mass all died, with the exception of two, who were said to have escaped. The film produced by Pathe showed Fr Kennedy handling the exhumed skulls of the victims and preparing them for reinternment in Bracknagh in 1917. The second part of the film centered on how in 1921 (one hundred and one years ago), as part of the Government’s selling of bonds and fundraising, the Bracknagh Turf Co Operative exported sacks of turf to New York to raise money to fund the then, newly formed, Dail Eireann. Larry donated a number of photographs of the stills from the film to the Bracknagh Heritage Group.
The last time a film on Ballynowlart was shown was in 1964 in the cinema in Portarlington. This event was organised by the late Harry Milner of Walsh Island and was attended by a huge crowd from the Bracknagh area, many of whom are still part of the community of Bracknagh today. The Bracknagh Heritage group are very grateful to Larry for his in-depth research and knowledge and for providing us with a great insight into Bracknagh’s past.
The members also expressed their appreciation to all those who attended Thursday evening’s event and are delighted to see the interest and enthusiasm for local history in the area.
The group intend to pursue the following projects in the near future. The real story of the Ballynowlart Martyrs. The monastic site of Saint Broughan at Clonsast. The Impact of Bord na Mona in the area. The Story of John Joly and the extended Joly family.
Lord Ashtown and his role in evicting tenants from the Bracknagh area in the mid 19th century, and how some Bracknagh emigrants were banished to places like Oneido in New York.. The RIC Barracks in Ballynowlart and The Mill at Millgrove. It was highlighted at the conclusion of the meeting how the Catholic Church, built at the peak of the Irish Famine celebrates 175 years this year. The group extend;’/ thanks to Lisa Quinn, Chairperson of the BCA for facilitating the event.
(on behalf of the Bracknagh Heritage Group, which include. Francis Cunningham, Mary Crotty, Mary Briody, Barry Cunningham, Tony Donnelly & Aidan Briody).
Collecting books on your favourite topics is an ever present challenge that can give great satisfaction and broaden as well deepen one’s knowledge of a subject. On 8 October 2022 Offaly History Centre is hosting a book fair, such as not seen in the town for three or four years. Many dealers are coming so why not call and talk books from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but don’t get caught in the callows! Bring money and enthusiasm.
A contribution to marking the Decade of Centenaries in Offaly and recalling the past generations and the towns and villages on the eve of the War of Independence
In marking the years from 1912 to 1923 we may think that the years around 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War were times of unmitigated strife. Not so. Normal life continued, if punctuated by violent acts, such as the shooting of policemen in Kinnitty, Kilbeggan or Tullamore. The finding of bodies of spies, ‘the disappeared’, in Mountbolus or Puttaghaun. The holding of brief gunbattles in Ballycommon or Charleville Road. Worst of all the organised state violence condoned by Churchill and Lloyd George in the form of the Black and Tans racing through towns and villages in the dead of night and taking shots at anything that moved. Yet normal life continued and no better illustrated than by the issue, almost every week, (Offaly Independent excepted as the printing works was destroyed by British forces ) of the three or four local papers in Offaly and from time to time trade supplements or special publications such as trade directories that very much illustrate local business in most of the Offaly towns. Recently Offaly History acquired the 1919 MacDonald’s Trade Directory for Ireland to add to its collection at Bury Quay, Tullamore.
To conclude our Heritage Week series of talks online we want to tell you the illustrated talk New light on Irish county map-making in the early 19th century – tracings from William Larkin’s map of King’s County/ Offaly, c. 1808 has now been uploaded. You get a 30-minute introduction from the leading expert on the early maps of Offaly. This is followed by minute comparisons of the Larkin tracings for west Offaly with the published Larkin atlas of 1809. Dr Arnold Horner has prepared an in-depth lecture on map-making in King’s County in the early nineteenth century where he analyses the significance of the new map tracings attributed to William Larkin which were donated to Offaly Archives last year, and conserved by Liz D’arcy through Heritage Council funding. He particularly looks at features in the landscape around Birr, Banagher, and Ferbane.
With thanks to Offaly Archives last Tueday’s lecture (16 Aug. 2022) by Dr Arnold Horner is now online as are the maps which are recently conserved.
The above words appear in the poem Mucker written by the poet Patrick Kavanagh and reflects the legacy of William Steuart Trench and his two sons Thomas Weldon, and John Townsend Trench and how they managed landed estates in counties Monaghan, Offaly and Kerry in mid -Victorian Ireland.
As we reach the 150th anniversary of the death of William Steuart Trench, we must ask whether this is a true assessment of the character of the man and of the realities experienced on the estates he managed.
Trench and his two sons came from a professional type of land agent. Their roles included that of magistrate, accountant, architect, agriculturalist, engineer and innovator. Trench was also a landowner himself, as well as an author. His most famous piece of work was Realities of Irish Life which was published in London in 1868. Were his realities the same realities experienced by the people of Geashill, Monaghan and Kenmare?
James Godkin, a contemporary of Trench described Realities of Irish Life as one of the most misleading books on Ireland published for many years, claiming it had made false impressions on the public minds in England. He went on to say “The mischief would not be so great if the author did not take so much pains to represent his stories as realities, essentially characteristic of the country.”
Trench was employed as agent on the Digby estate in Offaly (King’s County) from 1857 to 1871. Prior to and parallel to this appointment, William Steuart Trench had been employed in Co. Monaghan. He was appointed by Lord Shirley in 1843 and by Lord Bath in 1849. He also acted as agent on the Lansdowne Estate in Co. Kerry. There are most definitely common trends in all three counties and similar memories as to how Trench is remembered on the estates he managed.
There is no doubt that he transformed and enhanced the physical landscape in all three counties. Throughout the 1860s Trench, on behalf of Lord Edward St Vincent Digby embarked upon a major project of house improvement and land drainage in the barony of Geashill. While a great number of new houses were constructed between 1857 and 1872, for example, new treble cottages were built in the village of Geashill in 1861, Trench thought it more profitable and less expensive to improve existing dwellings.
In fact, much of the present form of what is now Geashill village and its surrounding areas, owes its origin to the work carried out in the 1860s. A new school was built in 1862. New roads were constructed including one linking Geashill to Tullamore. Improvements were made to the Village Inn and to other buildings in the village and barony.
The success of such schemes of house building and repairs not only enhanced the appearance of the barony and improved the living conditions of the tenants, but it also earned Lord Digby recognition both at home and abroad. His schemes proved so successful that the Digby estate won the gold medal offered by the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland for the best labourers’ cottages in the province of Leinster. The estate also boasted of holding the Duke of Leinster Challenge Cup for the best labourers’ cottages in Ireland for three successive years.
Cottage at Geashill before and after renovation
Lord Digby was thus awarded the gold medal for the province of Leinster for six well-finished cottages which were deemed the more comfortable. He was also successful at an international level when at the Paris Exhibition of 1857 he was awarded a bronze medal for cottages constructed in Geashill.
While working for Lord Bath, Trench also had a number of farmhouses improved and a number of new schools built, all of which had carved over the door the letter “B” and the year of construction. These display similar designs to some found in Geashill.
The town of Kenmare and the Lansdowne Estate were also improved which has been well documented by Gerard Lyne. He noted how Trench even had a clock erected in the main square to ensure the workers always turned up on time.
Present Day Kenmare with town clock, erected by Trench
William Steuart Trench is also credited with land reclamation projects on the estates he managed and could be considered to be a man ahead of his time. In order to restore the land to full productivity, the land at Geashill was levelled and planted with good quality grass seed to allow it to regain it nutrients. Trench had Peruvian Guano applied to improve its fertility. This proved successful, resulting in large scale production of turnips, potatoes, wheat, oats and later, rape seed. In fact, rape seed continues to be produced on this section of land up to the present day. Although costly at the time, it seems that these schemes paid for themselves in the long run. Land which was previously let at a rent of four shillings per acre, now earned between twenty-five and thirty shillings per acre.
Trench was thrifty and perhaps well ahead of his time in maintaining workers to ensure all improvements were carried out. It was suggested at the Paris Exhibition that he construct a moveable ‘Russian Village’ to house his workers. Twelve timber cottages were constructed with timber countersunk at the corners and laid one on top of the other, thus forming walls. In this way, Trench secured a permanent well-trained workforce, who along with their cottages could be transported at a “trifling cost to any district in which they may be required”. The Russian Village, a modern day portacabin, enabled Trench to carry out work all year round with a steady supply of men.
William Steuart Trench and his management of the Digby Estate, King’s County 1857-1871
While Trench and his sons have been credited for such improvements by many authors over the last 150 years, one must wonder to what extent the landlords were involved. In the case of Geashill, the then Lord Digby, Edward St. Vincent Digby, was the grandson of Thomas Coke of Norfolk, who was noted for his contribution to the agricultural revolution in Britain in the eighteenth century. Like his grandfather, he was interested in renovating the appearance and improving the quality of the estate at Geashill.
When examining the demographic patterns in Offaly, Monaghan and Kerry during the Trench era, there was a dramatic decrease in the population of all three counties. Trench and his two sons considered the poorer classes, especially those who lived in mud huts or those tenants in arrears or tenants who demanded a reduction in rents to be a burden to the estates he managed. He also saw them as a barrier to the improvements he wished to carry out.
Trench was noted for the implementation of assisted emigration schemes, regarding such schemes as an economical and efficient way to improve the estate.
According to him, “this clearing process would stabilise rates, consolidate holdings, and improve the life changes of the people themselves”.
Did such a scheme benefit those who were forced to leave Ireland or were they merely to facilitate Trench’s plans at improving the estates he managed? In some cases, people were lucky. Others were less fortunate.
While acting as an agent for Lord Lansdowne in Kenmare, Trench embarked upon a policy of what he called ‘voluntary’ emigration. He cleared Kenmare workhouse by offering the occupants their full passage to America. In fact, by 1869 there was a ward in a New York hospital called the Lansdowne ward because so many impoverished people from Kenmare died in it. According to the Geographer, Dr. Paddy Duffy they had arrived there half-starved, disease-ridden and penniless. Trench introduced similar plans on the Bath and Shirley estates. He admitted in his book Realities that it was cheaper for him to pay for their emigration than to support them at home in Monaghan. Trench maintained that depending on how much the tenant could afford they were given their full passage or a contribution towards their passage and money towards food and clothes. Duffy also points out that many of the tenants who left Monaghan for America or Australia had to go through the port of Liverpool. The agent there commented on the appearance and condition of the tenants who arrived from Monaghan. In fact, it seems they were such an embarrassment to the estate in 1849 that Trench was reprimanded by the Carrickmacross clerk who hoped that such ‘a ragged pack may never appear here again’. Trench, of course, claimed that the tenants’ chief device was to hide their good clothes which had been furnished to them and to appear in their worst rags.
It seems that in Monaghan the tenants were not leaving as quickly as Trench would have wished, so by the late 1840s he began to speed up the process by forced evictions, where mud huts and cabins were knocked and tenants were left without food or shelter. In some cases, people were threatened and bribed to knock down their own dwellings or that of their neighbours.
Did the agency of William Steuart Trench alter the population trends on the Digby Estate? An examination of the census of both 1851 and 1871 suggests that the population totals and distribution altered significantly during the two decades. In fact, the total population declined from 6,221, in 1851 to 3,712 in 1871 resulting in a percentage decline of 40.3 per cent for the period. Many of those who left emigrated to Australia and some to America. They may not have secured their fare from Trench as he claimed. In fact, in the 1864 annual report to Lord Digby, he admitted that sons and daughters of small farmers and labourers had emigrated to America having had their passage paid by friends and relatives who had gone before them. Other emigrants from the barony were aided by a scheme introduced by a Fr. Paddy Dunne, a native of Daingean parish, who liaised with the Queensland Emigration authorities. Dr. Jennifer Harrison in her work titled From King’s County to Queensland, explains how Fr. Dunne became aware that “the able-bodied poor with their families were being evicted from the estate at Geashill and were crowding into the streets of Tullamore for shelter”. They were homeless, penniless and near starvation. The parish and community were powerless to help them in their plight. Fr. Dunne addressed meetings and ascended pulpits whenever he was allowed, as sometimes there was strong opposition from the clergy. He arranged the funding and the safe passage of many tenants from the Geashill area by chartering ships such as Erin go Breagh, which brought many emigrants from Geashill and its surrounding hinterland to the new world.
Dr. Harrison attributes easy access to the Midland and Great Western Railways, as well as access to the Northern Railway as a major factor in facilitating movement to Queenstown (Cobh) from where many emigrant ships set sail. The Midland and Great Western Railway passed through Geashill and a railway station was opened just outside the village in 1854 which operated for passenger travel until 1963.
Population Decrease in Geashill during the Trench Era.
Trench believed that many of the social problems at Geashill could be attributed to the peasants, whom he saw as ‘lazy and thriftless’ and who acted as a barrier to his plans for improvement. As a result, he adopted a hardline authoritarian style of estate management.
Some of the following strategies employed by both William and Thomas Trench seem to back up this theory. Their first task was aimed at eliminating the numerous squatters, who under previous regimes had been allowed to establish themselves on the estate and who had not paid rent for more than twenty years. Their names, in fact, had never appeared on a rent book. These people had usually squatted along the side of the roads and lived in mud hovels with no windows and a hole in the roof, out of which stuck a piece of wickerwork, which made a chimney. These vulnerable people put up little or no resistance and according to Trench were less difficult to remove than he had anticipated. He claimed, he enticed them to leave by offering them money. He suggested that they were quite happy with this arrangement. However, certain sources suggest that the Trenches adopted ruthless tactics to clear the estate of small tenants and beggars, in order to create larger holdings with better drainage and more advanced farming methods.
Thomas Weldon Trench’s treatment of a woman in Geashill village on Christmas Eve, 1861 illustrates this fact. While he was working on his estate in the village and acting in his capacity as local magistrate, he had an elderly woman, Jane Egan, aged seventy- two, arrested for begging for a halfpenny. It seemed that Trench constantly kept watch for vagrants and even carried a Bible in his pocket in order to put under oath anyone whom he might wish to interrogate on suspicion of begging. The case of Alice Dillon (Delin), well documented by Michael Byrne, illustrates just how ruthless Trench was. On the same day as Jane Egan was arrested, he noticed another elderly woman entering a local premises. On questioning the householder, he learned that the woman had asked for a cup of sugar. He immediately had the woman, Alice Dillon, who was seventy-nine years old, arrested and incarcerated in Tullamore gaol, where she died a few days later while serving her sentence. An inquest into her death followed. The inquest was held in Tullamore gaol on 3 January 1862.
It is worth noting that all members of the jury were tenants at will (yearly tenants) on the Digby Estate and perhaps a more objective jury would have found Trench guilty of misdemeanour in this matter. Mary Pilkington quotes how the Dublin Morning News called on parliament to intervene in order to secure Trench’s dismissal as a magistrate. She suggests that his strong links with Dublin Castle ensured that he remained a Justice of the Peace. Interestingly, Trench failed to mention the Dillon case in any correspondence to Lord Digby nor did he refer to it in Realities of Irish Life.
Forced emigration was the main method Trench used on the Bath, Shirley, Lansdowne and Digby Estates for those he deemed a threat to his management. However, in Monaghan he also ordered public hangings. In fact, in his book, he refers to how a man named Traynor on the Bath Estate had narrowly escaped hanging for not paying his rent and refusing to give up his land. It seems the man escaped from the local gaol before Trench had time to execute him.
The other common methodology of Trench’s style of management was his use of spy networking. He specialised in spying on the Ribbonmen in Geashill and the Molly Maguires in Monaghan. He had similar spies operate in Kenmare. It seemed that the actions of the Trenches swiftly led the tenants at Geashill and in Carrickmacross to turn to societies such as the “Ribbonmen”. This was a Catholic association set up in 1808. It was particularly active in the middle of the nineteenth century. The main aims of this society were firstly, to prevent any landlord, under any circumstance whatever, from depriving any tenant of his land and secondly, to deter, “on pain of almost certain death” any tenant from taking land from which any other tenant was evicted. Their actions were carried out with great severity and aimed at wealthy landlords and humble cottiers alike. The local Ribbonmen in Geashill began to devise a method of getting rid of Trench. In his annual reports to Lord Digby, he writes that “Conspiracies for various subscriptions were set on foot to pay for the murder of myself and my son”. William Trench and his son were to be made aware of this fact by informers or as he put it himself “secret friends”.
Godkin attributes many of Trench’s victories over his tenants on the Geashill estate to the spy network he had created. Ribbon activity had increased and seemed rife in the district in 1860.
Trench also feared for his life in Monaghan and as in Geashill became aware through his spy network of a plot to murder him. This became more worrying after an event in Magheracloone.
In 1843, the tenants on the Shirley Estate, of which Magheracloone was a part, refused to pay their rent until their complaints had been addressed by the landlord. Attempts by the bailiffs to seize cattle or goods from the tenants, who would not pay, were stopped by the activities of local Ribbonmen known as ‘The Molly Maguires’.
Trench, along with the bailiff on the Shirley Estate and escorted by local police, marched towards the church in Magheracloone. The intention was to post a notice of eviction to several tenants on the door of the church. They were met by a large crowd who tried to block their path. As the troops tried to advance they were met by a shower of stones. The troops began to shoot at the crowd which resulted in the death of a young servant boy. This episode resulted in a Coroner’s inquiry. Unsurprisingly, the enquiry could not establish who shot the boy nor could it prove that the police were in danger at the time of the shooting.
After this, it seems the “Molly Maguires” upped their activity by staging surprise attacks on the “grippers, keepers and drivers”. The grippers were the people who were directed by Trench to arrest tenants, the keepers were employed to watch the crops for fear the tenants would remove them, and drivers were those who drove the livestock to the pounds until the tenants paid up their rent. As in Geashill, Trench was made aware by informers of a plot to murder him. Large subscriptions were being collected to pay the murderer who would consent to shoot him. Two men were appointed, Hodgens from Castleblaney and an individual called Thornton, who was described as a good for nothing who lived between Carrickmacross and Inniskeen. If fact, the Ribbonmen went as far as putting up a notice in a local church which read “Trench considered a doomed man”. After this episode, Trench never left the house unless accompanied by two men, one of whom was his son. All three were well armed and ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Both Hodgens and Thornton along with a third man called Breen were later arrested for attempting to murder the bailiff, Paddy MacArdle. Trench had both Hodgens and Breen executed by public hangings in Carrickmacross, while Thornton who had informed on his friends walked free.
So how do Trench and his sons deserve to be remembered over the last one hundred and fifty years?
The folktales of Co. Monaghan paint a dark picture of Trench. For example, they tell how when Trench died, the rats devoured his corpse before it could be buried.
They are remembered in much the same way by the people of Geashill. A local man, Thomas Davis, remembers a rhyme told by his grandmother.
There’s grace on the pulpit
There’s wit on the bench
But there’s nothing but dirt,
Can be found on Trench.
From such stories, it is fair to say that the Trenches exercised huge control over the lives of their tenants, not only economically but also socially. It is claimed that in both Monaghan and Kerry no tenant could marry without the consent of Trench. This is reflected in a ballad about the Shirley Estate:
Oh Girls of Farney it is true
That each true hearted wench
Before she weds, must get consent
From Pious Father Trench.
Both Trench and his son Thomas Weldon died within a few days of each other in 1872 and were buried in Dunamoyne cemetery in Co. Monaghan.
Their legacy is reflected in the fact that their headstone has been vandalised and defaced.
The Defaced Headstone of William Steuart Trench, Dunamoyne Cemetery, Co. Monaghan
William Steuart Trench’s physical legacy in Offaly, Monaghan and Kerry is that of an agent who created a golden age of prosperity in the barony. Down through the years this physical legacy has been greatly overshadowed by the REALITIES of an agent who systematically broke leases, demolished people’s homes and banished the poor from the countryside. It is clear that his management style was ruthless in the extreme. The legacy of William Steuart Trench, his two sons and many other land agents of the time, including Trench’s nephew George Adair are aptly epitomised by Patrick Kavanagh as
We have added this blog to our Decade of Centenaries because of the profound influence the legacy of Trench had IRA leader and county councillor Tommy Dunne. See also some further reading. Some copies of Mary Delaney’s book and that of Rachel McKenna are available from Offaly History and Midland Books. The Photographic record is out of print and hard to get.
A PowerPoint presentation narrated by Michael Byrne explores the identities of Castle Street in Birr as part of a project to know and appreciate our distinctive town centres. This Streetscape project is in partnership with Offaly County Council and part funded by the Heritage Council.
An initiative promoted by the Heritage Council as part of its Streetscapes Project
The focus of this study is Castle Street in the town of Birr. The street comprises a mix of about thirty commercial and residential properties close to the Camcor river to the south, Main Street and the old parish church to the north, and to the west Birr Castle. On the east at the Market Place or Market Square it opened into Main Street, Bridge Street and from the 1880s into the new Brendan Street.
The market house stood from the 1620s where the memorial to the Manchester Martyrs was placed in 1894. Surprisingly, when the market house was taken down in the late 1700s it was not replaced with a new building. Castle Street varied greatly in character from the strong residential houses of two and three-storeys to the robust commercial warehouses close to the boundary of the castle, attracted by the availability of water-power and facilitating in the 1800s the development of distilling, brewing and malting houses. Castle Street was also the principal marketplace in Birr with markets held each week and large fairs three or four times per year. There was a strong base in agri-business in the street and this in turn created businesses such as draperies and boots and shoemaking to cater for the farming clients from the prosperous hinterland. That Castle Street was intimately bound up with the rural economy is clear from the surviving early photographs of the 1900s and one of 1856–7. The early photograph is by Mary Rosse and is of a market day in Castle Street. This would make it the earliest surviving photograph of a busy street in Offaly, as most others are not before 1890 or 1900.
 David Davison, Impressions of an Irish Countess: the photographs of Mary countess of Rosse, 1813-1888 (Birr, 1989).
Click on the blue Offaly History Blog to open the video from an email
Exploring Castle Street, Birr: the buildings, business and people.