In December 1968 Thomas [Tommy] Dunne received the tribute of a soldier’s burial from surviving I.R.A comrades in Offaly and the army in Annaharvey graveyard, near Tullamore.
Thomas Dunne grew up in Ballinagar (between Daingean and Tullamore) along with his siblings Mary, Richard, Margaret and James in the late 1800s. Their father was Tommy and their mother was Anne Brien from nearby Clonmore. Tommy was in his time a leading member of the local Fenian movement and came to Ballinagar from Rathfeston during the time Trench was the land agent for Lord Digby. The family tradition was that Tommy was about 27 at the time and by all accounts was a fine strapping young man. A family of Dunne’s owned the farm at the time, they were relatives of Tommy’s, but because they were all females and because of the impossible situation of that time, they were about to throw up the farm. Trench had someone in mind for the farm but Tommy took it over. One day Trench arrived on the farm and spent a while staring and trying to unsettle the young Dunne. Then Trench spoke “I see you have come Dunne.” “Yes” was the firm reply. Trench then said “On account your family has been here for so long I will let you stay, but instead of the rent being 7 shillings and sixpence an acre it will now be 30 shillings an acre.” This left it nearly impossible to farm but he managed. This incident took place shortly after the infamous evictions on the Geashill estate, where it was reported that the evicted tenants of Geashill filled the streets of Tullamore. A lot of these tenants went on a ship called Erin go bragh to Australia which was charted by a Fr Dunne from Daingean who raised funds for this purpose. He was possibly a relation of the Ballinagar Dunnes.
Everywhere in the world today, the role and validity of public art, particularly statues of historical figures, is under scrutiny. At the same time it is the policy of our new Government to place an increased emphasis on urban quality-which presumes the installation of even more public art. This could be a recipe for conflict but much can be learnt from an examination of the history and experience of the provision of sculpture in County Offaly, and its errors and successes.
The Three Tests
I suggest that three criteria, all of which are of course totally subjective, apply to any reconsideration of the role of public art. The first is the continuing historical acceptability of the person or event which is commemorated. In Offaly, it is beyond doubt that the Manchester Martyrs Memorial in Birr or the War of Independence Memorial at the Courthouse in Tullamore would pass that test. The second is the intrinsic artistic quality of the work and ‘Saints and Scholars’ by Maurice Harron on the Tullamore bypass is generally agreed to be both striking and imaginative. Finally, there is the work’s contribution to a planned urban ensemble and in this respect both the Downshire Memorial in Edenderry and the Barnes-McCormack Memorial in Banagher which close vistas or reflect their settings, would qualify. It gets a lot trickier however when a work satisfies some of the criteria but not all.
For example, in our capital city the statue of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, marks the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears his name and having been designed and executed by the greatest Irish sculptor of his day John Henry Foley, it clearly fulfils all three criteria of artistic worth, civic design contribution and an historically enhanced reputation.
However, further along the same street the statue of Horatio Nelson failed the public acceptability test and along with its beautiful and blameless Doric pillar, was blown up in 1967.
Interestingly, Birr provides a precisely similar scenario. The image of the third Earl of Rosse in John’s Mall is also a fine example of Foley’s skill, and the reputation of ‘The Astronomer Earl’ has grown over the years. The statue, by virtue of its scale and location, is an integral part of a well-designed public space. Thus all three criteria are fulfilled.
In nearby Emmet Square stands the finest urban ensemble in Offaly and the only extant example in Ireland of the use of a central column as a focus for a public plaza. Whatever about the artistic merit of his statue which stood atop its elegant Doric pillar, the brutal reputation of the Duke of Cumberland was anathema to many and the discovery of a crack gave a valid excuse for its removal by Birr Town Council in 1915. Had Dublin Corporation adopted the same approach, the column upon which Nelson stood and which contributed to the scale and architectural character of O’Connell Street, might still be with us but as in Birr, we would probably still be debating a suitable replacement to cap it.
The issue of whether existing public art is still relevant and making a contribution to its locality can sometimes be contentious, but the location and nature of new public art is always pure dynamite, as the persistent vandalism of the Luke Kelly statues in Dublin (whether for aesthetic reasons or not) demonstrates.
Ideally public art requires public consensus and the smaller communities of Offaly who have got together to commission and install works of high artistic quality to celebrate their own local heroes or legends have shown the way in this regard and their approach deserves study and emulation.
Killeigh commemorates its famous local greyhound ‘Mick the Miller’ with a beautiful bronze piece by Elizabeth O’Kane. Cadamstown remembers local boxer Dick McRedmond in a lovely stone bust by Dermot Scully. In Ballycumber the wonderful little ‘Pilgrim’ trudges wearily to Clonmacnoise along the Erry Way in a delightful work by local artists Gerry Dooley and Lorie Quinn.
It is acknowledged by everyone that in Offaly both semi-State and local authorities have been to the forefront in providing good public art. The ambitious installations provided by Bord na Mona in the Lough Boora Discovery Park make it one of the best sculpture parks in Europe and it is the calling card of Offaly Tourism. Through its operation of the Percent for Art scheme, Offaly County Council has provided many imaginative and successful works in every part of the county, most recently Holger Lonze’s ‘Cruinne’ in Geashill and the ‘Marker Stone’ on top of Croghan Hill by Ciaran Byrne.
The elephant in the room however, is that almost all of these are in rural, village or remote locations and therefore their theme and siting is relatively uncontentious. A proposal to install a major piece of sculpture in the centre of any of the principal towns of the county on the other hand would immediately raise the questions of where, who, why, by whom and at what cost and inevitably cause a row. Nonetheless, busy central public spaces, both existing and planned, should now be the first choice locations for new artwork and these issues must be faced and a reasonable public consensus sought.
The county capital, Tullamore town centre has only three significant sculptural works, the two long established War Memorials and the 1999 ‘Pot Stills’ in Market Square by Eileen McDonagh. The recent Street Enhancement Scheme which might have provided the opportunity for the installation of a significant new work, instead inexplicably and without giving public notice, required the removal of the Memorial to the Dead of the Great War from O’Connor Square, despite its designation as a Protected Structure. Following an outcry and Ministerial intervention, it was saved but its generous planted setting vanished and it now stands looking a little lost and unhappily compromised by car parking. A more considered and consultative approach to our urban heritage is urgently required
A Phoenix arises?
The installation of a fine new piece of sculpture to adorn the historic centre of Tullamore is long overdue and the imminence of a new town plan presents the opportunity for its delivery. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, the new plan will include a coherent vision for the preservation and enhancement of the town’s architectural heritage.
It might also follow the lead of other local authorities and outline the role that urban art would play in making the centre more attractive and even suggest where new sculpture or installations might be placed. The Offaly County Council Public Art Working Group could then initiate a debate as to appropriate subjects. One relatively uncontentious idea that has been around for years and which would certainly stimulate the imagination of a talented artist, would be that of the Phoenix- the symbol of the town.
This is now the time to start the debate on how Tullamore can celebrate its history, remember those who made a contribution to it and furnish its historic centre with new and exciting public art.
Cork University Press has published a major new reference work on some of Ireland’s most well-known public buildings, entitled Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison: a Political History, 1750-1850. The author is Richard Butler, a native of west Cork who lectures in Irish history at the University of Leicester. This lavishly illustrated book traces the history of how and why these celebrated architectural treasures were built in Irish cities and towns in years marked by the Great Rebellion of 1798, the Act of Union of 1800, and the Great Famine of 1845-52. It is the fruits of the author’s doctoral dissertation at the universities of Cambridge and Wisconsin-Madison in the United States. For the first time, it offers a national survey of the largest and most impressive of these buildings, where judges, juries, landed aristocrats, and government officials met to administer law and order in Irish counties.
The 12 June 2020 marks the 98thanniversary of the disbandment of the historic Southern Irish infantry regiments of the British Army at Windsor Castle. Disbandment was brought on by economic cuts to the British Army and in part due to the Anglo-Irish agreement. The Royal Irish Regiment, Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (and South Irish Horse) all surrendered their colours to King George V for safe keeping. The ceremony took place at 11:30am in St. George’s Hall in Windsor Castle. During the ceremony the King made a promise to safe guard these highly prized colours. The ceremony finished with a royal salute and God Save the King played.
The colour party detachments for each regiment consisted of the regiment’s commanding officer, then three officers and three non-commissioned officers (NCO) for the 1stand 2ndbattalion respectively. One of the NCOs on whom this honour fell was John Thomas Cannon of the Leinster Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. This is John’s story.
The verdict of county secretary James P. Kingston on the county council elections of 2 June 1920 was that the election was not just remarkable and memorable but revolutionary. Kingston believed it was even more revolutionary than the 1899 elections that saw only three members of the old grand jury transfer to the new county council. In that election James Perry Goodbody was elected for Clara unopposed and William Adams defeated distiller and grand jury member Bernard Daly to secure the Tullamore seat. Goodbody was a leading Quaker businessman and Adams a large farmer and publican. Adams retired from the council in 1912 and was succeeded at the council by his son P.F. Adams who was married to Rosaleen Egan, a daughter of Henry Egan, chairman of the county council from 1899 to 1910. Goodbody served on the council as chair of the Finance and Proposals Committee from 1900 and was vice-chairman of the council from 1912. Both P.F. Adams and James P. Goodbody sought election to the new council of 1920 in the first post-war elections and both were defeated. Sinn Féin secured 19 of the 21 seats and acceptable Labour men two seats. For Secretary Kingston the election was also a turning point as he was forced out of office within a year, just as his predecessor Thomas Mitchell had been in 1899.
‘While some counties have done much in the matter of publicizing their part in the fight for freedom, very little has been heard of the part played by Offaly in that great struggle, and yet it was within the borders of this historic county that some of the bravest and most daring deeds were done. It is not right, he said, that these should be allowed to pass into complete oblivion, and it is hoped the writing of this story of the Clara R.I.C. barrack attack will encourage others into penning the complete story of Offaly’s fight during that critical period of Irish history.’ These were the words of P. O’M. in 1960, basing his account on that published in the local press on 5 June 1920. (P O’M was brought to our attention as Paddy O’Meara who wrote a number of good articles on Clara history and was a local news correspondent.) The witness statement of Séan O’Neill, a manager in P.J. White’s Clara shop (Bureau of Military History) supports the press reports of the time. So to do the recollections of Harold Goodbody (forthcoming). IRA man and county councillor Sean Robbins of Clara was critical as was Fergus O’Bracken, writing to vindicate the role of his father, overall IRA commandant Peadar Bracken, in the episode.
The first week of June 1920 was a momentous week in Offaly with the major raid on Clara Barracks in the early morning of 2 June with upwards of 200 men. The outcome was a defeat in the short term with four men seriously injured, one of whom died in 1921. In the same week the first county council elections since the changed political landscape after 1916 were held and now with proportional representation. Clara’s Sean Robbins topped the poll. It was a victory and a defeat in the same week. The bomb and the ballot in different times. The Brigade Activity Reports reports, now published online from the Military Archives (forming part of the Military Service, 1916-23 Pensions Collection), provide a useful summary of activities in Offaly in the War of Independence, 1919–21. The reports from Offaly Brigade 1 were submitted by officers, Peadar Bracken of Tullamore and Seán Kelly (Gorteen Coy) of Mucklagh in 1940 to the Military Service Pensions Board. Particulars for the 4th Batt, Offaly No 1 Brigade were submitted by James Earle of J.K.L. St., Edenderry.
Offaly History is delighted to welcome a new contributor this week who has generously shared her mother’s memoirs of life in Clara in the 1930s.
My mother, Ethel Clarke neé Kerin, wrote memoirs in later life of the time before she moved to England after World War II. Clara figured a great deal in the stories that she told me about her childhood and she clearly held very fond memories of the town.
Her mother, Elizabeth Evans, came from nearby Geashill and was employed as a servant in the household of Joshua Clibborn Goodbody at Beechmount, Clara. Her sister, Mary Anne Evans, known as Poll also worked in Clara, employed as a housemaid/domestic servant at Charlestown. It was here where Poll met her future husband, Robert Stewart, who was employed as a coachman. Continue reading →
It was lately announced that Drayton Villa, Clara and some lands adjoining are to be acquired by Offaly County Council for public purposes. Offaly History asked Michael Goodbody to contribute this piece on the story of this important house. He is currently working on ‘One Hundred years of Clara History’ to be published later this year and from a preview we can say that it will represent an important contribution to the story of Clara from the 1840s to the 1940s. Thanks to Michael Goodbody for the article and the pictures. We have added the subheadings.
Drayton Villa, built by Lewis Frederick Goodbody in the mid-nineteenth century, is largely untouched by more recent additions and alterations, so that many of its original features are intact. The main block of three bays, with a basement underneath, dates from 1849. There can be no disputing this date for it is recorded by Lydia Goodbody – future sister-in-law of Lewis – in her diary entries for that year.
Last week’s article on the cholera outbreak in Offaly in 1832 attracted a huge readership. This week Dr O’Neill (a Mucklagh, Tullamore native) contributes this piece on Pandemics in Ireland. The Offaly History research team has added some local material on the effects of the Spanish Flu (1918–19) in the county and some pictures by way of further reading. Enjoy and stay positive. Read our 179 articles posted to offalyhistoryblog and catch up on Camus.