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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Sir Edmund Spenser and Croghan Hill -a Damascus moment? By Dr Mary O’Connor

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?

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Tullamore on the verge of the War and Home Rule: the image of stability. By Michael Byrne

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.

A very fine book from Kieran Hickey and Allen Lane (1973)
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Offaly’s Grand Jury records: recovering local archives in a national context. By Lisa Shortall

The grand jury system in Ireland was a precursor to the county council or local authority system we know today, and the records generated by the grand jury and its offices reveal the history of towns, cities and boroughs all over Ireland. Unfortunately this body of records suffered significant losses during the twentieth century. On 25 May 2021, Beyond2022:Virtual Record Treasury of Ireland in association with Local Authority Archivists and Records Managers (LGARM) hosted a research showcase to mark the centenary of the burning of the Custom House during the War of Independence, an event which resulted in the destruction of the archive of the Local Government Board for Ireland.  This event was echoed just over a year later with the destruction of the Public Record Office of Ireland at the beginning of the Civil War and whose losses in terms of documentary destruction is being valiantly and virtually rebuilt by the Beyond2022 team. The top floor of the PRO was where the grand jury records from all over the country were kept and ultimately perished during that terrible fire. Between the fire in the Custom House and the more well known 1922 PRO(I) fire, vast quantities of records relating to local government were destroyed. 

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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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Marking the opening of the first public library in Tullamore: May 1921. By Michael Byrne

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.

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St Mary’s parish church, Geashill: a personal history. By Sylvia Turner

Geashill parish church

On a walk recently, listening to the crows squawking, I was reminded of a visit to Geashill parish church, dedicated to St Mary, in the diocese of Kildare and county of Offaly just over a year ago and hearing the same sound from the trees by the path to the church. 

A view of the grounds of Geashill parish church

I have become very attached to the church as it is where my great–grandparents and grandparents were married and where many of my great–aunts and great–uncles were baptised and buried, sadly in unmarked graves. As the world comes to terms with the Covid–19 pandemic, I think of my grandmother, Elizabeth Kerin née Evans (1881–1967) who was born in Geashill. She lived through the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century that killed her father and ten of her twelve siblings, the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic and the War of Independence (1919–1921), a particularly dangerous time for Protestants such as her remaining family in Geashill and her growing family living nearby in Clara.

My grandmother’s early life up to the 1920s was little known to her children and it is only in comparatively recent years that the tragedy she encountered in Geashill has been fully realised. Her only known relatives were her parents, two sisters and two brothers. Access to further information came to me 16 years ago when I contacted the incumbent of Geashill and Killeigh parish at the time, the Revd J. Leslie Crampton. He transcribed all the births and deaths he had for the family. The information concerning the true number of siblings she had and how many had died of tuberculosis, many as young adults, was truly shocking to my grandmother’s daughters and grandchildren. However, it has enabled us to appreciate all the more that the loving and caring person we knew who was sustained by her family and her faith. We realise now she also held the qualities of strength and resilience.

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T.M. Russell (1868–1932): a huge loss to Offaly in the early years of Independence. By Michael Byrne

The now permanent release online with free access of some 11,000 lives in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) will be a huge bonus to historical research. And yet there will be many people at county level who will not feature but deserve to have their work recorded in dictionaries of county biography. Offaly History began this process in its publication Offaly Heritage 9 (2016) but more so in the recent issue of Offaly Heritage 11 (2020) where the following ‘Brief Lives’ were recorded by way of:

Short biographies of revolutionary figures in Offaly, 1912–23

P.J. Bermingham (1872–1975), 2–3.

Eamonn Bulfin of Derrinlough, 26–7

Father Thomas Burbage (1879–1966), 42–5

Revd Philip Callary (1849–1925), 73–4

Cumann na mBan in Offaly, 80–81

Thomas Dunne (1884–1968), 90–91

James Perry Goodbody (1853–1923), 134–5

Catherine Mahon (1869–1948), 157–8

Patrick McCartan (1878–1963), 179–80

Seán McGuinness (1899–1978), 189–90

T. M. Russell (1868–1932), 205–6

These short essays of less than 1,000 words each were contributed by independent scholars – Brian Pey, Michael Byrne, Margaret White, Ciara Molloy and Lisa Shortall.

Offaly Heritage 11 – a bumper issue of 450 pages with the brief lives

It is to the final life in that recent collection we focus on here. It was that of T.M. Russell, a man with huge potential, which remained unrealised when the opportunity came for a revolutionary change in local government in June 1920. This was following on from the election of the first Sinn Féin controlled county council and the implementation of self-reliance and breaking with the Dublin Castle based Local Government Board.

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The golden era of housing in Tullamore from the 1930s to the 1950s: Clontarf Road, Pearse Park and Marian Place, but Dr Moran, P.P. has reservations. By Fergal MacCabe

An Architect Revealed

On Monday 16 February 1953, a Banquet was held in Hayes Hotel Tullamore to celebrate two very significant achievements; the completion of the 74-house Pearse Park and the cutting of the sod for a further 106 houses later to be named Marian Place. These two estates, whose very names evoke the atmosphere of the period, would be joined in 1965 by Kearney Park dedicated to the well-known local politician Joe Kearney.The three schemes together represent a high point in local authority housing not just in Offaly, but in Ireland.

The large attendance that day included the Minister for Local Government Paddy Smith, the cream of Tullamore society; the clergy, politicians, administrators, police and solicitors, as well as those involved in the delivery of the estates. Buried at the bottom of the extensive list which appears in an entertaining frontpage account of the event in the Offaly Independent of the following Monday, but unidentified as such, was the designer of the schemes, the architect Donald Arthur ‘Bob’ Tyndall M.R.I.A.I. (d.1975). Tyndall who had spent his early career in Shanghai was also engaged to deliver the Tullamore County Clinic and is credited with several housing schemes in the Offaly area. In 1971 his practice became Tyndall Hogan Hurley and went on to become one of the most successful in Dublin, specialising in office and residential developments.

Tyndall was the latest in the line of designers used by Tullamore Urban District Council to implement an admirable housing programme over the previous fifty years.

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