‘The town of Birr or Parsonstown, is the prettiest inland town in Ireland.’ – The Illustrated London News of 1843.

A two-page feature on Birr and its new telescope (s) was featured in the Illustrated London News of 9 September 1843. It was the first such international treatment for Birr and was combined with valuable illustrations of the town. It was also the first treatment by a national or international publisher promoting ‘Offaly Tourism’. It was the third earl of Rosse who organised the publicity for Birr and was now on the UK stage himself with his presidency of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The window on Birr would be the first of many arising from the completion of the larger telescope in 1845. Birr town was the principal settlement in Offaly since the 1650s and was the premier shopping town, as is clear from the Pigot directory of 1824. Cooke would go on to write of the town’s significant history in his 1826 book – a first in the midlands and just six years after Hardiman’s Galway. What is interesting about the article of 1843 was the active role given to Mary Rosse in her work in the demesne and the town of Birr.

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Grand Juries in Ireland: the politics of power in the counties. By Michael Byrne

The county grand jury system will be the subject of much focus from mid-2022 with the uploading of links to the county archives records throughout Ireland by way of the Beyond 2022:Virtual Record Treasury Project. The first thing to say is that a useful and well-illustrated booklet People, Place and Power: the grand jury system in Ireland (Brian Gurrin with David Brown, Peter Crooks and Ciarán Wallace, online 2021) can now be downloaded from the Beyond 2022 website as well as useful material from the county archives in Offaly, Wicklow and Donegal. Furthermore, Brian Gurrin has published online an interim listing of the records held in each county. The scope of the records is well illustrated and draws on more detailed catalogues for counties such as Offaly and Donegal where listings are available on the online catalogues from the county archives. For more on Offaly material see the blog and presentation by Lisa Shortall now on YouTube and as a video on the Offaly History Decade of Centenaries platform on http://www.offalyhistory.com.

In summary the access position to these records will be revolutionised within the year and will greatly facilitate family historians, those interested in the workings of local government and how local elites interacted. What elite families provided the power brokers and controlled local patronage? All were men, most were landowners, representative of the county families, and, of course, most were Protestant from the early 1700s and the enactment of the Penal Laws. It was not until the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 that Catholics were admitted, and being a select club were scarce until the 1830s.

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Profitless Bog- The impact of energy generation on the landscape of the Midlands. By Fergal MacCabe

‘….The lean road flung over profitless bog,

Where only a snipe could nest…

…..The soft and dreary midlands, with their tame canals,

Wallow between sea and sea, remote from adventure….’

‘Dublin Made Me’      Donagh MacDonagh

Lumcloon

Once a month, my uncle Billy Holohan who was the Assistant County Engineer for West Offaly, would come to Tullamore to report to his superior, the County Engineer Tom Duggan, in the courthouse. 

After the meeting he would sometimes pick me up from my mother’s house in Clonminch and bring me to stay with himself and his wife Nell in Gallen Lodge in Ferbane. The highlight of the journey, for both of us, was an inspection of the progress on the construction of the two cooling towers of Lumcloon Power Station.

We watched as immense rings of slim, angled columns emerged and were tied together by large circular bands to form the base from which the structures would rise. Over the next few years we marvelled at the gradual ascent of the elegantly modulated shapes, first curving inwards and then subtly outwards to form a lip. Billy tried to explain to me the structural engineering concepts behind the design, but as a small boy I could only marvel at the height and sheer scale of the undertaking.

An impression of the proposed mills at Leamanaghan. Very high and very prolific. Our thanks to Kenneth Smyth for this picture.

Leamanaghan Castle

Unusually for an engineer, Billy had a deep interest in history. He brought me along on his site inspections and introduced me to Clonmacnoise and Sier Kieran. His favourite stop on our return journey to Tullamore was Leamanaghan where we roamed amongst the remains of the Monastery. He delighted in showing me the hoof mark inside the gate of the school which marked the passage of St Manchan’s stolen cow and  then brought me over the fields to St Mella’s Kell which I still believe is one of the most romantic spots in Ireland.

Lemanaghan Castle, top left. This was where the Annals of Clonmacnoise was completed. The castle was demolished in the 1950s as was Kilcolgan nearby to provide filler. Courtesy of Offaly Archives

Then in 1959, in an act which was deeply symbolic of Ireland in that peculiar time between economic stagnation and rapid growth, Leamanaghan Castle was bulldozed to provide hardcore for works at Lumcloon Power Station. The Castle, which was derelict but still substantial, had been the ancestral home of the Mac Coghlans. Cardinal Rinuccini had stayed there (or more likely nearby Kilcolgan, also demolished) during his time as Papal Nuncio to the Confederation of Kilkenny and the Annals of Clonmacnoise were translated into English in the house. I was dumbfounded but hadn’t the courage to ask Billy whether it was the ESB or the County Council who were responsible.

Cooling towers of the old economy, so succesful for Offaly from the 1950s to the 2000s in regard to employment.

The Cooling Towers

The cooling towers were completed and over the years, became part of the public perception of the Midland landscape.

Driving westwards you knew you were approaching Kildare and Offaly when the Allenwood towers became visible, then Portarlington and Rhode emerged with Lumcloon in the far distance. Their harmonic shapes complemented Croghan, Endrim and Bellair hills and provided  points of vertical interest in an otherwise soft and dreary plain. The bogs, which had been perceived for centuries as profitless and impassable were now a proud testimony to national energy self-sufficiency and local technological advance.  

However, with the passage of time, what was originally considered a solution, became a problem and peat extraction began to be wound down with grievous personal and economic consequences which are still being felt. The Power Stations were closed, their towers and buildings demolished and their sites converted to other uses. 

Portarlington was the second last to go. At 10.30 on the morning of the 4th of April 1997, the cooling tower that had taken three years to build and stood for forty seven years, vanished in three seconds at the hands of an English demolition expert who already had many redundant cooling towers on his c.v..

Futile last minute efforts to save it were led by the Heritage Council and a local preservation group organised by Progressive Democrat Senator, Cathy Honan.  Architect Gerard Carty of Clonbullogue, now a director of the world famous Grafton Architects, wrote in protest that the Power Station was  ‘A monument to those visionaries who grafted a semi-industrial outlook onto the principally agricultural psyche of the Midlands’.  Their protests crumbled in the face of the ESB’s assertion that  ’ It was built for power generation and that function is over’.

The crowds watching the spectacle of the demolition were serenaded by local accordionist Louis Melia who played his composition ’The Tower I Loved So Well’  during the countdown to the explosion. 

An era had ended and the advent of wind power was at hand.

Wind Turbines

Because of the absence of nearby dwellings but with existing connections to the national grid, the Midland bogs were identified very early on as first choice locations for large scale wind energy generation. But, whatever about their ecological impacts, the visual impacts of turbines can be a lot more substantial than those of cooling towers.

Unlike one or two isolated towers, turbines spread haphazardly over large areas of the landscape. Though man-made, their scale and large array results in their being read as part of the natural landscape itself- which can be visually disturbing. As the blades rotate in different cycles, they can often cause visual irritation, even from very far away. The scale of the turbines can be incongruous and though they are generally no higher than the former cooling towers, there are a lot more of them. All in all, their visual impacts are significant and often unassimilable. But then, maybe the cooling towers were also, but in the 1950s any development was welcome, while today’s affluence allows us to make choices.

But whether it is cooling towers or turbines, the greatest sensitivity should always be shown when their development impinges on historic sites. Leamonaghan paid a price for the construction of Lumcloon and shouldn’t be put in the firing line a second time.

The old world that was partly destroyed in the 1950s.But the shrine at Lemanaghan survived in its original locus. A remarkable survival in its locale. Ballycumber castle was used for filler as was Kilcolgan. So much for heritage in 1920s to 1960s Ireland. Heritage was in a linguistic form only and divorced from real life. So much empty platitudes.

A Flashpoint

With the imminent lodgement by Bord na Mona of its proposal for a 17-turbine wind farm with blade heights of up to 220 m, the bogland island of Leamanaghan with its ancient monastery and graveyard will be in the forefront of the conflict between architectural heritage and power generation. Preliminary images show turbines dominating its surrounding landscape on its northern side.

However, just as in the 1950s, the likelihood is that national energy needs will trump all other considerations- particularly in the light of the recent correspondence from the Office of the Planning Regulator directing the Council to dramatically increase Offaly’s megawatt production.

This should not mean that the vulnerable character of Leamanaghan be disregarded, but that the most careful consideration needs to be given to the interface between it and the future wind farm. As one of the most sensitive locations in Offaly (and also to make restitution for the shameful razing of the Castle) the balance of the argument should favour the protection of its history and beauty.

The windmills of the past or a message of hope. Lemanaghan 120 years ago before the data centres and when most things were in the head of the local person and not in the Cloud. Courtesy of Offaly Archives

A Return to Profitless Bog?

As wind replaces peat extraction, it is not unthinkable that it may in turn be replaced by a less visually obtrusive or ecologically harmful form of energy production.Turbines last for about twenty years before they need replacement and a point may come when this is no longer economical.

In March of this year the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe declared that ‘Nuclear energy can be a critical component of a decarbonised energy system for those member states that choose to consider it as a part of their sustainable development and climate change strategy’. It will be interesting to see how other European countries respond to the technological advances which are now delivering safer nuclear energy.

I wonder if in seventy- or eighty-years’ time, as the last of the turbines come down and the land gently recedes back into its ancient role of profitless bog abounding in nesting snipe, will a small and nostalgic group emerge to campaign for the preservation of the remaining few of these iconic structures?

With thanks to Fergal MacCabe

Fergal MacCabe 

September 2021

Text: Fergal MacCabe

Pics and captions: Offaly History

Catherine Maria Bury and the design of Charleville Castle. By Judith Hill

Charleville Demesne and district c,. 1900

‘Catherine Maria Bury and the design of Charleville Castle’ is the title of an online lecture via Zoom provided by Offaly History for Mondy 20 September at 7. 30 p.m. Our speaker is Dr Judith Hill. She has kindly provided this note for Offalyhistoryblog readers on her forthcoming lecture.

When I started researching my PhD on Gothic revival architecture in Ireland after the Union I had no idea that Charleville Castle, one of the first and most impressive of the castles of this period, owed its inspiration to a woman. I wanted to compare the castles at Birr and Charleville, and was very much aware that their (male) owners had voted on different sides for the Union and that they came from different political traditions. Would this play any part in the designs for the castles that they built, or in the case of Sir Laurence Parsons, remodelled in the very first years of the nineteenth century?

Women at that time played no direct role in politics. They are also relatively (though not entirely) invisible in the historical record. It is only when you can look at family papers that you might find some evidence of what a woman might have done. Catherine Maria Bury’s letters have survived; some of these were published in 1937. They tell us about Catherine (later Lady Charleville) as a person, her friends, her interest in literature. They are tell us that she was close Charles William Bury, and that when he (for it was he) went to see how the building of the castle was progressing he would send detailed descriptions to her. Although he does not ask her directly for her advice, it is clear that when they were together they discussed the project.

Catherine Maria Bury and Charles William Bury
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Homan Potterton sale features three painters with Offaly connections. By Michael Byrne

The Homan Potterton sale on 7 September 2021 at Adam’s, Dublin features three painters with Offaly connections. But first a word about Potterton. After secondary education at Kilkenny College and Mountjoy School he began studying to be a solicitor, but (great for him ) he switched to art history at Trinity with the formidable Anne Crookshank. He was the youngest director of the National Gallery of Ireland ever appointed (1979) but stayed for only eight years. He retired in 1988 out of frustration with the bureaucracy, the bullying Charlie Haughey, and his being unable to secure much needed funds for the gallery. That was back in the difficult 1980s. Had Potterton remained he would have been able to oversee the wonderful gallery there is today. All the great institutions saw money flow in from the 1990s with the support of EC funds and the lift in the economy from 1993. While he took over the editorship of the Irish Arts Review in the 1990s (then an exciting annual event) he later moved to France and we heard no more of him save for several family histories, a memoir and a novel.

The jacket of Potterton’s memoir of 2017 with the arresting painting in the great classical style by Festing.
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Founding families: the Legacy of the Moores and the Burys. By Fergal MacCabe

‘Tullamoore’

Over the years, Tullamore has been known as ’Towllaghmore’,‘Tullaghmore’ or ‘Tullymore’ -all  anglicizations of ‘Tulach Mhór’ and most likely deriving from the high land to the south of the river. By the middle of the 19th c. the name of the now extensive town had morphed into ‘Tullamoore’- reflecting the influence of the Moore and later the Bury families and their ownership of all the lands around.

As urban developers, these skilled entrepreneurs with cultural pretensions reached their highest point during the overlordship between 1785 and 1835 of Charles William Bury, the first Earl of Charleville. Whether motivated by commercial considerations, a desire for social prestige and the admiration of his peers or by pure aesthetic sensibility, the development of Tullamore as promoted by Charles William, resulted in a coherent urban form which survived without much amendment into the middle of the 20th c., largely still exists today and will influence any future reconfiguration of the town centre. 

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Let’s Talk Tullamore: Tullamore Harbour plans and the local economy. By Reg McCabe

There’s no shortage of very ordinary towns in Ireland but Tullamore certainly isn’t one of them. How could it be? After all it has its proud legacy as one of the original trading and transport hubs on the Grand canal from its arrival in the town in 1798. That early advantage over competing centres like Birr and Daingean was reinforced with the coming of the railway in 1854, allowing Tullamore to build on its status as an important transport hub and retail, administrative and merchant centre. On this basis, the town maintained at least the appearance of prosperity up to the present era. This early pre-eminence is reflected in the town’s exceptionally fine architectural legacy including an assemblage of late Georgian town houses, the civic space at O’Connor Square and individual gems such as the Tullamore Dew Whiskey Heritage Centre along with J.B. Keane’s Neo-Classical Courthouse.

Late Georgian Terrace at Bury Quay/Convent Road, Tullamore. Mid1970s

So, while future prospects are certainly influenced by the legacy of the past, for urban centres like Tullamore factors such as economic performance and civic leadership will figure as the more immediate drivers.

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The D.E. Williams branch shops in the midlands, 1884–1921: A revolution in retailing. By Michael Byrne

There are only a few studies available on the development of retailing in Ireland, either of a general nature or in connection with particular firms. It is well known that in the first half of the nineteenth century and up to the Famine years retail outlets were not widely available and many in the smaller towns were no better than huxter shops. There were exceptions and that is clear from the photographs of c. 1900 of shops such as Williams. Egan, Goodbody and Lumley (in Tullamore); O’Brien in Edenderry and O’Meara and Fayles in Birr. In looking at the revolutionary period from 1912 to 1921 to mark the decade of centenaries it is also worth looking at revolutions in other areas such as transport, energy and shopping. Like the political revolution retailing exhibited signs of stress after 1921 and did not recover until the coming of the supermarkets to the provincial towns in the 1960s.

The Williams head office with the Barrack Patrick Street shop to the right before more intensive motorised transport from 1915. Branch house managers were appointed of which the last under the old system (before the switch to supermarkets) was T.V. Costello.

The trade directories, and from the 1840s the valuation records, will facilitate investigation of retail outlets. By the 1860s living standards had improved and this is reflected in the increasing number of shops; per capita tobacco consumption rose to English standards about 1870 and per capita consumption of tea was not far off the English level by the end of the 1870s. The considerable economic progress of the early 1870s, began to slow down by the end of that decade. The 1880s is looked on as a period of industrial crisis with industries closing down in all the principal towns, or destroyed by fire as with the Goodbody tobacco factory in Tullamore and the Birr distillery in 1889.The railways and the canals (especially in the midlands) facilitated the easy removal of heavy goods and livestock from towns all over Ireland, but it also left it easier to import foods easily and cheaply. As a result, the Irish industrial base (such as it was, especially in southern Ireland) receded while the retail and services sector began to grow albeit slowly.

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The 1821 census and the town of Birr: exciting opportunities for exploration of town, family and social history 200 years ago. By Michael Byrne

Birr sometimes called Parsonstown

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.

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