Christmas Reading from Offaly History – twelve new titles of Offaly interest, one for every day of the Festive Season. Another bumper year for local studies.

All the books here can be purchased from Offaly History (Bury Quay, Tullamore and online) and at Midland Books, Tullamore. You can also view/ borrow at Offaly Libraries and consult at Offaly History Centre.

Rathrobin and the two Irelands: the photographs of Middleton Biddulph, 1900-1920. Michael Byrne (Offaly History, Tullamore, 2021), 330 pages, 280×240, hardcover, €24.99.

Rathrobin is a book that keeps on giving. Its 250 Biddulph photographs from the 1870s to 1920s, all carefully captioned, depict the two Irelands – unionist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant, landed and cabbage garden. What is interesting about the pictures of Colonel Biddulph (1849-1926) of Rathrobin near Mountbolus are the nuances. He was of the lesser gentry, was a tenant of the Petty Lansdownes, and was well aware of the Plantations of the 16th and 17th centuries. He appreciated the needs of the farm labourers and was decent to his own tenants, staff and farm workers. His entire estate was not much more than a 1,000 acres. Biddulph’s circle was also the lesser gentry and those who served it such as land agents, bankers and clergy. The Catholic Protestant divide was strong but landed Catholic families did mix in Bidduph’s set, but not merchants or traders (even if very rich). Biddulph had an empathy with his farm workers and their families and sought their advancement. Many local families were photographed, together with the farming activities of his own employees.

Biddulph’s story, and that of his associates and friends, is illustrated by a selection of over 300 pictures in all, of which 250 are from the Biddulph Collection in Offaly Archives, and fifty more to illustrate the introductory essay and provide the all-important context. The essay and the photographs provide a more nuanced understanding of Ireland in the revolutionary period of 1900–23. Biddulph’s wonderful house at Rathrobin that he had so carefully ‘restored’, and all his farm improvements, were lost in the Civil War in 1923. Many other big houses from Ashford, to Ballyfin, Durrow, Brookfield, Screggan Manor and Charleville are also recorded in this volume. Some such as Brockley Park in Laois are now gone thereby making this an important work of record. The photographs by Middleton Biddulph were taken at a crucial moment in Ireland’s history. Their publication now could not come at a better time. Rathrobin is the portrait of one small estate and Killoughy parish in Offaly from the 1650s to the 1920s, but the story is of national interest. T.E. Lawrence spoke of the Arab Revolt, perhaps in Ireland we can talk of the Irish Revolt and not the full circle Revolution. You decide.

Rathrobin was supported by the Decade of Commemorations Unit in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media

Continue reading

Opening of Offaly Archives by Minister Malcolm Noonan, 18 Nov. 2021.

Offaly History is pleased to announce the opening of Offaly Archives at unit 1F, Cluster Two, Axis Business Park, on Thursday 18 November 2021, by minister of state at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Malcolm Noonan.

Offaly History completed the building of its second premises in 2019 to coincide with its 50th anniversary. The new repository is a state-of-the-art archives building managed by a professional archivist, Lisa Shortall, and houses the collections of Offaly History and Offaly County Library. The mix of the voluntary and the public sectors, under professional management, provides a unique blend of enthusiasm, specialist knowledge and continuity that can only enhance Offaly Archives over time.

Continue reading

‘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.

Continue reading

ROBERT BALL, ASTRONOMER AND TEACHER AT BIRR 1865-1867, DESCRIBES HIS TIME AT BIRR CASTLE. Presented by Michael Byrne

Birr telescope c 1845
The Great Telescope about 1845 with the castle in the background

Surviving diaries and accounts of activities in Offaly (King’s County) in the nineteenth century are uncommon and because of this all need to be catalogued and evaluated. Diaries of travel writers, correspondence and memoirs can all throw light on activities of that time. One such source recently acquired by the Offaly Historical and Archaeological Society for its library is Reminiscences and Letters of Sir Robert Ball edited by his son W. Valentine Ball and published in 1915. It sets the scene for the intellectual milieu in which the children of the third earl of Rosse grew up and provides further information on the construction of the great telescope. Recently, a history of the building of the telescope was reprinted by Cambridge University as a cheap paperback while the Royal Society hosted a lecture on the ‘Leviathan of Parsonstown’ now available as a podcast.

Continue reading

Marking the Wonderful World and Tragic Death of Mary Ward on the 150th anniversary of Ireland’s first recorded road fatality in Birr in 1869.

IMG_6732

How many people have died in road fatalities since the first to occur in Ireland at Birr in county Offaly (then known as King’s County) on 31 August 1869, just 150 years ago next week? Few of us have not been touched by some sad incident involving collision with a motor vehicle. That in Birr involved a steam-powered carriage possibly constructed by the fourth earl of Rosse, a brother of Charles Parsons, later famous for his steam turbine. Perhaps the making of the engine was the work of the two brothers. The fatal accident occured at the corner of Oxmantown Mall and the junction with Cumberland/Emmet Street near the church and close close to where the theatre is today. It was here that the young Mary Ward, then aged 42, a woman of talent and a mother of a large family (11 pregnancies), was killed on the last day of August 150 years ago.

Continue reading

John’s Place, Birr and Foley’s Memorial to the 3rd Earl of Rosse, by Michael Byrne

Birr has been referred to as Umbilicus Hiberniae, the navel or centre of Ireland. For many years it was also known as Parsonstown taking that name from its then proprietors, the Parsons family, earls of Rosse. That it is the centre of Ireland is often disputed but few will deny the accuracy of yet another appellation that of the ‘model town’. The late and much loved Jim Dooly, who was chairman of the town council in the mid-1960s, appeared on a Frank Hall programme in 1971 to defend Birr’s claim. He was no lover of television as can be seen in his performance, now viewable on the Frank Hall Archive of RTE on Youtube (‘Dead Centre of Ireland’). Continue reading