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.
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.
Bogs are in the news again and were very much so 200 years ago this month because of the phenomenon known as ‘the moving bog at Kilmaleady [Kilmalady big] near Clara’. It was reported in the national press (there was no local press back then) and in 1825 in Brewer’s account of Ireland. It had earlier appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for 21 July 1821. The Freeman’s Journal for 29 June 1821 reported that : On the 26th June great confusion was caused in the district of Clara by the south front of Ballykillion bog (a large and extensive of one of about one and a half square miles, and a depth of about 25 feet) moving with great violence and carrying before it everything in its way. It tore up the meadowlands and carried it along on its surface. Its direction was across an extensive valley. It dislodged a river and ran with extensive violence against an opposite hill, then recoiled and ran down the valley until it met another hill and road that checked its progress, after which it piled up in large broken fragments an immense heap of bog from 20 to 40 feet deep and covered about 150 acres of choice meadow and pasture land. This land was let from £2 to £3 an acre and was the property of the representatives of the late George Clibborn of Moate. ‘Its progress was awful and the noise tremendous. The people were enabled with difficulty to drive off their stock. The water is now confined and the river is stopped up, and the most serious apprehensions are entertained that the water will again put the huge mass in motion. It is estimated that a thousand acres of meadow will be destroyed unless timely prevented by immense labour.[Here the writer advocated the need for drainage of bogs and the want of employment.] . .
When renowned Offaly archaeologist Caimin O’Brien, cited Sir Edmund Spenser’s inclusion of a verse on Croghan Hill in his most famous poem, The Faerie Queene, in Stories from a Sacred Landscape: from Croghan Hill to Clonmacnoise; the curiosity bells began to ring. This was an amazing revelation and posed questions as to how Spenser was familiar with Croghan Hill and its religious history? Had he visited the area? When did he visit? What were the circumstances pertaining to his visit? And latterly, the question arose as to whether it was possible that this visit influenced him in some distinctive way? And furthermore, whether that influence was positive or negative?
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.
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.
In the Pigot directory of 1824 Birr was described ‘as far the most considerable of any of the towns in the King’s County. It is situated on the river Birr [Camcor], and adorned with a fine castle, built by the family of the Parsons, the residence of the second earl of Rosse, the proprietor of the town. This town it was said has since been rebuilt by the present earl’. Birr was the leading town in the county from the 1620s until the 1840s but began to loose out because of the lack of an easy and direct link with Dublin, and it being that bit more distant from the capital and less central for local administration. The decline would accelerate after 1900 with the loss of political and administrative influence. By the 1820s Birr had new Protestant and Catholic churches (the latter nearing completion at the time of the census and the publishing of the Pigot directory), two Methodist chapels and a Quakers’ meeting house. The charitable institutions of Birr, were a fever hospital and dispensary, supported by county grants and annual subscriptions; a Sunday school for children of all denominations; a free school for boys, and another for girls. Birr had a gaol and a courthouse (from c. 1803), where the sessions were held four times a year. The prisoners were sent to Philipstown, which was the county town until 1835 for trial for serious crimes. From 1830 when the new gaol was built in Tullamore Birr prison was more a holding centre only. The ruins of the old church near the castle wall are still visible. One mile from the town were the barracks, ‘a large and elegant building, capable of holding three regiments of soldiers’. Birr has two large distilleries and two breweries, which, it was said, gave employment to the poor of the town.
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.
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.
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.
For many the habit of reading started with the local library and has never left us. Recollections of the several libraries we have had in Tullamore remind us that so far as reading and comfort goes we have never had it so good. This is the time to recall the first public library in Tullamore started in May 1921, just 100 years ago. For that we have to thank an unsung hero E. J. Delahunty, a native of Clonmel, who was in charge of technical education in the county from 1904 to 1930 and died in 1931. He organized the first ‘students’ union’ in Tullamore and a superb lecture series on the great issues of the day in the 1916–21 period, and with mostly well-known speakers with a national reputation. The Midland Tribune gave the opening of the library an editorial and regretted that the lecture series had to be abandoned that year. Delahunty was shrewd and had the Tribune editor, Seamus Pike, on side. Another unsung hero of the revolutionary decade was Revd John Humphreys, a Tullamore-based Presbyterian minister, and great advocate for technical education. These are three people who need to be included in the Offaly Dictionary of Biography.