2023 will be remembered as the year in which Tullamore tried to reinvent itself: the Dream Team. By Fergal MacCabe

Last year Offaly County Council and Waterways Ireland appointed advisors to prepare regeneration plans for the town centre and for the Grand Canal Harbour at the heart of it. The consultants brief required ideas for the redevelopment of the key underused sites, proposals for linking them all within a coherent, livable, safe and attractive town centre whose crowning glory would be an accessible Harbour containing dramatic new buildings full of vibrant day and night-time attractions. A date in mid to late 2023 was set for the delivery of their proposals.

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A rare item for Offaly Archives: Hibernian Magazine for the year 1785

Offaly History have a vacancy for a qualified archivist at Offaly Archives (see our blog of 6 Jan. 2023 in regard to the post). Arriving for interview by air balloon would strike a chord. Speaking of which the balloon fire of 10 May 1785 is perhaps the best-known event in the history of Tullamore and yet there are few surviving accounts.

First there were almost no local newspapers serving the midlands at the time. Neither have diaries or letters survived of any of the townspeople of that period save one letter of 12 May 1785 published by way of reportage in the Hibernian Magazine of the fire that occurred on the fair day. This would have been on Tuesday 10 May 1785. The letter from the Tullamore correspondent is clearly the most useful and more informed than similar reports in Finn’s Leinster Journal and Faulkner’s Dublin Journal. Some of these reports put the loss at 130 houses and not 100 as advised to us by the letter writer. One other short note was penned by Molly Burgess (née Pennington) of the Methodist Community who lost their church (dated to 1760) in Swaddling Lane off Barrack/Patrick Street. This lane was also known as Ruddock’s Lane and post 1905 as Bride’s Lane. After the fire the Methodists build a new chapel or preaching house on the site of the present-day church. The current church was build 101 years after the first

on that site.

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The execution of three young Tullamore men at Birr during the Civil War, 26 January 1923. By an eyewitness, Fr Colm Gaynor, a Birr curate (d. 1949). A contribution from Offaly History to the Decade of Centenaries

Fr Colm Gaynor was a Catholic curate in Birr in the years 1922–37. Originally from Tyone, Nenagh his valuable memoir was published in 2003 and included with that of Sean Gaynor and Eamonn Gaynor. The book was published by Geography Publications as Memoirs of a Tipperary family: the Gaynors of Tyone, 1887–2000. It is available from Offaly History Centre to buy or to read at Bury Quay, Tullamore.

The three young Tullamore men were William Conroy (20), Patrick Cunningham (22) and Colm Kelly (18) and they were executed by the Free State military in the grounds of Birr Castle on 26 January 1923. They were from poor families in the town and had no one of influence to speak for them. It is said that a fourth young man was allowed to go free.

Writing later to the Military Service Pensions Board about the execution of three men, Sean McGuinness, brigade O/C and on the Republican side said :

The three had been expelled from their IRA active service unit for some minor misdemeanours. McGuinness wrote that the men returned to Tullamore, where they “remained unemployed and I presume penniless and without a smoke”. He claimed they were executed by the Free State for a “few minor robberies”, though the court records show they were summarily executed for armed robbery. McGuinness suggested that “their crime was nothing compared with that of the great betrayal of the Republic by the authority responsible for the killing of these three youths”.

Such was the legacy of bitterness understandably arising from the Civil War.[1]

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Clara and Ballycumber men among twenty that went over the wall at Mountjoy in 1919. By Pat McLoughlin

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.

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Cormac Street, Tullamore: a significant achievement for the planning process, 1786–2020. A contribution to Tullamore 400th and the Historic Towns Initiative to support town regeneration. By Michael Byrne

Cormac Street is somewhat unique in the story of Tullamore street development with its forty houses, two major institutional buildings and a town park. Rarely is a street preserved without blemish with so many elements over a two-hundred-year period. Cormac Street was also the home of the town’s major property developer and rentier Thomas Acres (d. 1836) who built his Acres Hall in 1786 (now the home of Tullamore Municipal Council). To the earl of Charleville and Thomas Acres is due most of the credit for the transformation of a green field site with Kilcruttin Hill and cemetery to the west and the Windmill Hill to the east. Acres could thank the war with France, 1793–1815, for the boost to the local economy that provided him with tenants for the terrace of houses on the east side. The expansion of Tullamore after 1798 due to the Grand Canal connection with Dublin and the Shannon provided the impetus to secure a new county jail (1826–30), county town status in 1832 and to take effect in 1835 with the completion of the county courthouse. War, politics and pride of place all contributed to the mix. The Bury contribution was rounded off when Alfred (later the fifth earl) secured a new railway station at Kilcruttin in place of that at Clonminch in about 1865.

Cormac Street has had the benefit of careful planning in its first hundred years and has managed to survive the excesses of the post 1960 and post 1997 periods of rapid development. The saving of Acres Hall in the 1980s was a significant achievement. What are these elements that contribute to the street and how did it all come about? Here are set out twenty points and probably more could be added.

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The partial destruction of Offaly’s county records in the courthouse fire of 20 July 1922. A contribution from Offaly History to the Decade of Centenaries. Lost Archives stories no 4

@offalyarchives @offalyheritage @courthouses @offalycountycouncil. See our blog of 6 January in regard to a vacancy at Offaly Archives for an archivist.

Vacancy for an Archivist, Offaly Archives: a singular opportunity https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2023/01/06/vacancy-for-an-archivist-offaly-archives-a-singular-opportunity/

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]

part of the Tullamore jail in the mid-1930s. After the burning there was general plunder of the fittings

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.[1]

The original Tullamore courthouse of 1835 was destroyed by the Republican IRA on 19-20 July 1922 with the barracks and the jail. It was rebuilt in 1927 for £10,000, and again in 2007 for €10 million.

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’.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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 Tullamore jail was partially destroyed on 19-20 July 1922. ‘This is where I have been staying lately.’

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.

Thomas 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.

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.[8] 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.[9]

Republican IRA marking the destruction of the jail during the building works for Salts factory in 1937. Included in the picture are Messrs Digan, Clarke and Brennan.

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.[10] These were probably printed in Birr by Thomas Legge who was the only printer in Birr from that time until his death in 1826.[11] 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.[12] 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.

The good news is that our county records are now housed in Offaly Archives.

[1] Midland Tribune, 22 July 1922; Offaly Chronicle, 27 July 1922.

[2] Ibid., 29 July 1922; Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 4 Sept. 1915.

[3] 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.

[4] King’s County Chronicle 19 Aug. 1909.

[5] Offaly Archives: The minutes of Finance Committee meetings 3 Aug. 1922 to 5 Oct. 1923 are bound in with the later council minute book for 1941–45.

[6] Finance committee minute of 19 Oct. 1922.

[7] 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.

[8] Offaly Archives: minute book of Offaly County Council.

[9] Murphy, Michael, Coughlan, Anne and Doran, Grainne, Grand jury rooms to Aras an Chontae: local government in Offaly (Tullamore, 2003), pp 145-6.

[10] [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).

[11] Michael Byrne, Printing and bookselling in Offaly in the nineteenth century (Tullamore, 2020), pp 52–3.

[12] John Wright (ed.).  The King’s County directory, 1890, pp 253–62.

The District Court in Offaly is 100 years old, January 2023. A contribution from Offaly History to the Decade of Centenaries.

The commencement of the new District Court in Offaly in January 1923 was an inauspicious time to start. The county was caught up in the civil war that it seemed neither side could win. The Free State (National Army) had taken all the cities by August 1922, but the fight was still going on in the hills, especially in the south. Neither Tullamore nor Birr was free of anxiety with shots fired on New Year’s Eve to remind people that the Republicans had not gone away. How could they forget? In January 1923 two men from Kilkenny were executed for possession of arms and robbery. Soon after five National soldiers captured with a body of anti-Government forces were executed –  a courtmartial having found them guilty of treachery. Five from County Offaly were executed in January and early February. In the same month there had been an attack at Raheen in north Offaly  – an ambush while soldiers were going to mass with at least one dead. Some of the neutral IRA were talking about ending the conflict and the press reported that Peadar Bracken ex Brigade officer, Thomas Ua Quinn ex Vice Commdt, and Martin Fleming, ex Brigade staff officer, had called a meeting of pre-truce ex officers of nos 1 and 2 Offaly Brigades IRA at the old Sinn Féin hall regarding the peace movement. Peadar Bracken would know the place well as he was involved in the ‘affray’ in 1916 where ‘the first shot was fired’ in that very hall in William/Columcille street, Tullamore.

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Vacancy for an Archivist, Offaly Archives: a singular opportunity

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.

Closing Date: 3/02/2023

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Sanders and Christie: two gentlemen of Birr in 1900: a disputed county surveyor’s will worth £30,000. By Michael Byrne

When Richard B. Sanders, the county surveyor (today a county engineer) for King’s County,  died in Cumberland Square, Birr in 1900 he left an estate of the value of £30,000. This would have been enough to build 300 council ‘cottages’ in those days when smaller houses such as those of in Cappaneale, Birr and Davitt Street, Tullamore could be built for £100 each. Sanders was an Antrim man and was born in 1845. He had involved another Birr resident, also from Antrim, the solicitor Archibald Christie, in the making of his will. Albeit in the worst possible way by asking him to be a witness but without having given him any instructions. Both were neighbours in Cumberland Square (as it then was, now Emmet Square). Both of them would have been under the watchful eye of John Wright, the editor of the King’s County Chronicle and resident of Cumberland House. Nearby was the Ormond Club of which we can assume both Christie and Sanders were members and perhaps also of the Birr Masons, then going strong.

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Bro Pat Guidera S.J. recalls his time in Tullabeg, Rahan from 1948 to 1990 – no 1. Contributed by Offaly History

Brother Pat Guidera S.J. (born 1900, died 1992) was a familiar figure in Tullamore over a period of forty-two years from his transfer to Tullabeg College in 1948 up to its closure in 1990. Today the old college is falling to ruin. Many will recall its very good order up to the 1990s and thereafter it was used in part as a nursing home. Brother Guidera wrote a short ‘Story of my life’ in 1991 and this is an extract from that now very scarce memoir – of which there is a copy in Offaly Archives (courtesy of the Irish Jesuit Archives). The college was opened in 1818 and several volumes have been published on its history but few as intimate as that of Bro. Guidera. His memoir is interesting also for the marked distinctions in the religious orders between those fully ordained and those who were effectively providing support services in the college or convent. Brother Guidera was a carpenter cum painter and many will remember him carrying the usual large carton of cigarettes in the town for his colleagues in the college. His recollections of life in the Rahan area show the value of personal histories so why not give it a go.

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