Unmoving Statues: Public Sculpture In Offaly. By Fergal MacCabe

 

 

TT086090 memorial to 1913-21
War of Independence Memorial Tullamore, unveiled in 1953

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.

030391 Market Square Birr
Manchester Martyrs Memorial Birr 1894

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.

Maurice Harron
Maurice Harron’s Saints and Scholars Tullamore 2009

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.

Harron Sculpure 1

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.

030502 3rd Earl of Rosse, Birr
Foley’s Third earl unveiled in 1876

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.

030373 Main Street Birr 1910
The Duke is gone but the column has survived – 1747

Pure Dynamite

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.

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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.

IMG_2121
A son of Banagher – Johnny McEvoy

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.

001701 Statue in Edenderry
Edenderry’s progressive landlord – the third marquis of Downshire – 1845

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

010 Distillery Monument, 1999
Pot  Stills in Market Square 1999
2 Unveiling of the War Memorial at O'Connor Square 1926
Unveiling the Great War memorial in Tullamore in 1926  Widows of those killed were seated

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.

060185 Banagher Town 2011 (87)
Banagher’s tribute to the old IRA

Fergal MacCabe

July 2020

 

The Bustle of High Street, Tullamore in the old days. Cosney Molloy

010 Motor Works
Motor Works and Drea’s house to the left

I once more visited by friends in Tullamore, Killoughy and Banagher after an unexpected gap of almost six months. Young Covid intervened and I did not get down from my perch in D4 until ten days ago.

Upper East Side Tullamore

It was great to see my old town looking so well and all the works in the square and from High Street to Kilbeggan Bridge almost finished. Walking from the railway station down to the square brought me back to the 1950s and 1960s when I lived in the town and the High Street was a busy spot. The footpaths are wide now but there were few walking and even on Saturday the street was quiet. I see no space to park for my mother (if she were alive God rest her) to pull up in the old Prefect that she had. Sure that is progress. Maybe the plan for High Street got mixed up with O’Connell Street or Grand Parade! Anyway, today I am writing about the east side of High Street, what I will call ‘Upper East Side’, and I will talk about the west side of the street on another visit – if the pause button is not changed to stop!

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The Great Famine in Shinrone & South Offaly.   Ciarán Reilly 

0.3 prelims A map of King's County and its baronies in 1837 - Copy

A document in the National Library of Ireland sheds important light on the fate of the inhabitants of a part of county Offaly during the years of the Great Famine. Here the names and circumstances of almost 500 people in the village of Shinrone and its hinterland are included on a register for relief, which was provided during the summer and autumn of 1846. Among the names may well be an ancestor of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America. While Obama’s Irish heritage has been well documented in the past, not least during his visit to Ireland in 2011, few descriptions survive of how the Great Famine directly impacted the Kearney families and their community. It is hoped that this document will be transcribed and made available in Offaly Heritage in the near future.

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Building the Irish Courthouse and Prison: a Political History, 1750-1850

 

Courthouse jacket updated3-page-001Cork 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.

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Some datestones in Tullamore: a walking/or cycling tour quiz for young people.

Tullamore datestones 2010 (4)

Now that more young people can get our walking and cylcling we give you this suggested  tour to find the datestones in and about the town of Tullamore. We are giving a free copy of Tullamore a Portrait to the first five entries received with one or more additions to this list. Entries will be drawn from the barrel. So email us at info@offalyhistory.com headed Tullamore Datestone Quiz. Our blog is published every Saturday and we are providing a second issue on Wednesdays during the Covid Period.

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FAITHFUL IMAGES: Offaly through the eyes of artists. Fergal MacCabe

031040 Clonmacnoise book pages, 2003
Clonmacnoise from the Harris’s edition of Ware’s Antiquities (Dublin 1739) showing the work of Blaymires and Dempsy his companion. 

It must be conceded that the unassertive landscapes of County Offaly have never been a great source of inspiration to painters, most of whom just made a quick stop at historic Clonmacnoise before dashing on to record the West of Ireland.
Yet, others took the trouble to look more closely (or were paid to do so) and found inspiration in its lush farmland, bogs and woods, slow rivers, rolling hills and ancient ruins. Happily, their numbers have grown in the recent past.

The Cotton Map
The first, and in my opinion the finest, artistic image of Offaly is the Cotton Map of 1565. Prepared to assist the Elizabethan Plantation, this is an imaginative creation more akin to Harry Potter’s ‘Marauder Map’ or Robert Louis Stevenson’s chart of Treasure Island than a realistic cartographic exercise. One wonders if its unknown compilers ever visited Offaly or were relying on travellers’ tales.

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RSA1 members visit Durrow, Tihilly, Rahan, Lynally and Killeigh in Monastic Offaly in 1896. Michael Byrne

Vol 8. 007 Durrow Abbey
Durrow Abbey in 1914. The First World War had just started. 

Leaving to one side the work  of the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s, the work of Petrie at Clonmacnois, and that of Cooke at Birr in 1826 and 1875, the references to and work done or written up on the historical sites of north Offaly in the nineteenth century are hard to come by. Fr Cogan published historical material on the Offaly parishes in the diocese of Meath in his three-volume work, 1862-1870; Thomas Stanley corresponded with the Royal Society of Antiquaries (RSAI) in 1869 in regard to the nine-hole stone or bullaun at the Meelaghans while Stanley Coote contributed an illustration of Ballycowan Castle for the Memorials of the Dead – a published record from the 1880s to the 1930s of selected tombstone inscriptions in Ireland and in County Offaly.

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DRAYTON VILLA, CLARA: ‘a handsome residence, a good home neatly furnished’. By Michael Goodbody

 

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 1920s (courtesy Stephen Williamson)
Drayton Villa (courtesy Stephen Williamson)

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.

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Is Dolan’s of Tullamore, the oldest pharmacy in Ireland? By Michael Byrne

002 Tullamore Drapery, William St., Tullamore
Columcille Street about 1914 with the new Scally drapery of 1912, next a Scally shoe shop and no, 5 was McMichael’s Medical Hall, now Dolan’s Pharmacy. Thomas Acres was the developer of most of the street and notice the uninformity in roofline save in the most profitable area near Hayes’ Cross.

Is Dolan’s Pharmacy in Pound/William/Columcille Street, Tullamore the oldest family pharmacy in Ireland? It almost certainly is now that so many of the old family pharmacies have been bought up by pharmacy chains. Up to the decade ending 2020 it was the one area of shopping in Tullamore that was still largely locally controlled and in the same family for generations. One thinks of Dolan’s (the Dolan and later the O’Connell family since the 1940s); Quirke’s Medical Hall (Carragher’s from the 1930s until 2019); Fahey’s from 1955; and Adams’s in Bridge Street since the 1940s and still in the family. Up to twenty-five years ago there was not much above seven pharmacies in Tullamore but that changed in 2002 with deregulation as to the number permitted vis a vis the population served. Even by that time pharmacy chains were growing in strength with one company (Unicare) having fifty outlets, but seventy percent of the market outlets were still controlled by independent pharmacists. Today Tullamore has thirteen pharmacies and new locations at Ardan Road (2), Clonminch Road (1), Church Road (2) and Main Street (1). The town centre still has five around the former Hayes’ Cross with three in Bridge Street, Patrick Street (1) and Columcille Street (1).

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Offaly Archives: an overview of the local government archival collections. By Erin Sears

Offaly Archives’ local government collections cover an extensive range of local government organisations – from grand juries, infirmaries, rural district councils, town commissioners, poor law unions, county councils, committees of agriculture and urban district councils. The material from the collections was acquired since the 1950s and covers roughly two hundred years of history.

Recently, the local government collections, as well as a number of donated collections of private origin, have been relocated from Offaly County Library to purpose built archival facilities at Offaly Archives, Unit 1F, Axis Business Park, Clara Road, Tullamore. Offaly Archives is the joint archival repository of Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society (Offaly History) and Offaly County Library, and is administered by Offaly History.

During the summer of 2019, I worked on providing online catalogue descriptions for the local government collections in preparation for their move. Descriptions for the collections were created using Michael Murphy, Anne Coughlan and Gráinne Doran’s 2003 publication Grand Jury to Áras An Chontae, which provides breakdowns of Offaly Archives local government collections, as well as detailed information relating to the formation of Offaly’s local government structures, their various duties, lists of members and historical points of interest.

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