Offaly and the River Shannon. By Paul Clements

For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey along the River Shannon, following in the footsteps of the writer and singer Richard Hayward. His book looks back at Ireland in the 1930s but also considers the present-day Shannon which he believes is now undergoing a renaissance. [ 

The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the street in a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off and some areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration. Life was shaped by the rhythms of the agricultural year and farming was the mainstay of the economy.  Despite the poverty, there was another more carefree side to life which respected the arts and cultural history. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had. This was the Ireland that fascinated the writer, singer and actor Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland.

1. Richard Hayward, star of Irish films of the 1930s, and author of the  bestselling Where the River Shannon Flows (1940).

Noted for his travel books on the country, he explored the River Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of World War II. He set off on his journey from the Shannon Pot in Co. Cavan in a 12 horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan. He travelled with a photographer and cameraman and made a 25-minute black-and-white film of his river journey shown at cinemas across Ireland. The Shannon is largely the same river that Hayward admired in his book Where the River Shannon Flows, published in 1940. As a chronicler of the river, he was one of the first in the twentieth century to write about it in detail. His book was reviewed by Maurice Walsh in The Irish Times that summer and was top of the paper’s non-fiction section, ‘What Dublin is Reading.’

2. Cover of Hayward’s book Where the River Shannon Flows, jointly published in 1940 by Dundalgan Press and Harrap, with a foreword by Maurice Walsh. The book was reprinted in 1950, and in 1989 for the fiftieth anniversary of Hayward’s 1939 journey.

Since then, the river has nourished artistic souls and influenced many writers. Numerous epithets have been applied to it by travellers, poets, musicians and other chroniclers. The Kerry novelist, Maurice Walsh, who wrote the foreword to Hayward’s book, called the river ‘immense’. He said it once separated the Pale from Hell – ‘though there was a small dispute as to which side Hell lay’. The elegist of the midlands, John Broderick, was less flattering, referring in The Waking of Willie Ryan to the river’s ‘silent, menacing presence’. Writing in his autobiography Nostos, the Kerry-born poet, mystic and philosopher, John Moriarty, described the estuary from Tarmons Hill, near Tarbert, as ‘A grandeur of water … the Shannon flowing through it with a landscape that had in it a remembrance of Paradise’. In the final passage of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, he writes of the ‘dark mutinous Shannon waves’.

One literary connection to the Shannon that is not so well known is the fact that Flann O’Brien’s novel, At  Swim Two Birds, takes its title from an island on the river between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge. Although born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, O’Brien’s family moved to the midlands when he was nine and his childhood was spent near Tullamore.

3. The title of the Flann O’Brien novel At-Swim-Two-Birds was inspired by an island in the River Shannon, north of Shannonbridge. O’Brien’s other book, The Third Policeman also influenced Paul Clements to go off in search of Shannon-related information on O’Brien who lived in Tullamore in his youth.  

 As part of my quest, and as a dedicated ‘Flannorack’, I set off, naturally enough by bicycle, to try to pin down information about two small islands which I had come across on an old map: Curley’s Island, and just south of it, Devenish Island, or Snámh-dá-Ean (literally ‘Swim-Two-Birds’). In the Anglo-Norman era, Curley’s Island was guarded by the castle of Clonburren on the west side of the river. Some accounts also state that St Patrick crossed the river into Connacht at this point.

The road from Shannonbridge followed hedges overflowing with cow parsley and bright yellow gorse. When I reached the riverside callows, I came across a fellow cyclist and dog-walker, who introduced himself by the name of Flan – a serendipitous encounter, which the author himself would have enjoyed, even though he spelt his name only with one ‘n’. We talked about the title of the O’Brien book with which Flan was familiar and walked across the callows to get as close as we could to the edge of both islands. The meadows were filled with a sea of buttercups, pignut, plantain, gleaming cowslip, the bobbing heads of bog cotton and cuckoo flower all starring the grass. The river here is low-lying here but it was clear that the two islands appeared to be made up mostly of grass and stone. Curley’s Island, a thin six-acre strip of grass and sand, lies to the north of Devenish Island which is larger. There was an architectural grandeur to the lofty tottering reed beds rising with a towering palisade of stems up to six metres. When we reached the river we made out the division with one part falling down like a finger to Devenish. Cattle were relaxing on the island, in no hurry to move anywhere.

‘Curley is a common name, more so in south Roscommon,’ Flan explained,  ‘where in the old graveyards a lot of those names are buried. There was a ford here which meant that the water was so shallow you could literally walk across it. You’d be walking through water up to your ankles and Devenish Island was likely dug out or drained to make it navigable. Once they dug it, then there was an island in the middle. The small ford that would have been used by people to cross the river and salmon would have loved it too.’

4. A cabin cruiser makes its way between Curley’s Island  and Devenish Island, which translates as ‘Swim-Two-Birds’  (Snámh-dá-Ean), and which provided the inspiration for Flann O’Brien’s famous novel At- Swim-Two- Birds.

It was intriguing to discover that At Swim-Two-Birds exists as a real place. I recalled a quotation from another of O’Brien’s books, The Third Policeman celebrating the romance and mysticism of cycling: ‘How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle, the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame? I felt that I had known her for many years and that she had known me and that we understood each other utterly.’

My travels around Offaly involved spending time at Clonmacniose, attending events such as the Banagher horse fair and the annual vintage barge rally on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour. The rally, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, is where the owners of many carefully tended classic old boats and barges – some dating back to 1846 – congregate to celebrate their colourful heritage.

5. Shannon Harbour barge rally, an annual event which attracts many classic boats and barges and is organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland.   

Another summer highlight of the Shannon Harbour weekend is the annual opening of the Canal Bar beside the handsome single-arch Griffith humpbacked road bridge. It is an example of what a welcoming midlands bar should be: a half-door with a stone floor, low ceiling and dim lighting, cushioned benches beside a turf fire, red wainscoting with black trim, and a few jigs and reels coming from a corner. For years, many towns turned their backs on the river but are now embracing it. Today farmers, fishermen and recreational users all have a different relationship with it compared to the days when Hayward travelled along it, but the twenty-first century Shannon and its hinterland has been neglected by various agencies. However, Fáilte Ireland have launched a new regional tourism branding scheme, ‘Hidden Heartlands,’ a route running from Sligo to Limerick, taking in both banks of the Shannon. Along with a new marketing plan from Waterways Ireland, and the Atlantic Edge campaign in Limerick, the Shannon is clearly having a moment.

Developments in Offaly are taking place too, such as work on the defensive Shannon Napoleonic fortifications brooding over strategic river crossing points. This summer, Fort Eliza in Banagher, a five-sided, four-gun battery, built around 1812 and looking out over the river, was awarded a grant of €35,000 from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (match-funded by Waterways Ireland as part of its Conservation Management Plan) for important renovation work. But many feel that more still needs to be done, especially in relation to small towns such as Banagher where the crumbling Royal Shannon Hotel has been boarded up since its closure in 2005. The striking disused Georgian building with bow-fronted windows, was where the novelist Anthony Trollope lived when he worked for the post office in the 1840s. Now tumbleweeds sprouts from its roof, the garden is choked with dead plants, paint peels from its walls, while broken slates and smashed windows add to its pitiful condition.

6. Paul Clements at the ‘Snake in the Lake’ cycling and walking boardwalk, Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.

This year life has slowed down for many people who have reconnected with their surroundings and discovered places on their doorstep. It has also redefined our relationship with the natural world and led to a river revival. The callows, bogland parks such as Lough Boora or Clara Bog, the new blueways and cycleways around Lough Derg, as well as those in Athlone and Drumshanbo are attractive places in which to spend time holidaying at home, experiencing the gentle comfort of sitting by the riverbank.

7. Cover of Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time

Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time by Paul Clements is published by The Lilliput Press at €15.and is available from Offaly History.

Researching Offaly History and using the DIB – No 8 in the Sources for Offaly History and Society Series. By Terry Clavin

The Dictionary of Irish Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography at Offaly History Centre

This article was written by Terry Clavin in 2014 for the Lions Tullamore Annual and we thank him for permission to use it. The Dictionary of Irish Biography has proved invaluable since it was first issued in nine hard cover volumes in 2009. Now it runs to eleven volumes and much more online. It is at present free to consult and we hope will remain free to consult when Covid ends. From this wicked pestilence some good may come! Since Terry’s article we have a recent book on the Egans of Moate and Tullamore, the third earl of Rosse and last week the second volume of Jeff Kildea’s biography of Hugh Mahon. So keep in touch by consulting the online version of the DIB, our weekly blog and our website. See also our online library catalogue to keep in touch. We add new history books every week to our library at Bury Quay, Tullamore. We congratulate Tullamore man Terry Clavin on his research work for the dictionary and the entries he has written up and also edited.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) is the most comprehensive and authoritative biographical dictionary yet published in Ireland. It contains over 9,000 biographical articles ranging in length from 200 words to 15,000 words, which describe and assess the careers of subjects in all fields of endeavour. The subjects eligible for inclusion are those who were born in Ireland with careers inside or outside Ireland and those born outside Ireland with careers in Ireland.

The time span covered by the DIB ranges from the earliest times to the early 21st century. All subjects included in the print edition must have died before the end of 2002. The online version (dib.cambridge.org; subscription only) includes all the entries in the 2009 edition as well as twice-yearly batches of new entries for subjects who have died since 2002. A forthcoming update will include a biography of Tullamore businessman Daniel Edmund Williams (1928–2007) [since published online]. Apart from the more recently dead, every two years we publish a batch of entries of ‘missing persons’ who were overlooked in the 2009 edition. In that respect we are keen to be advised on significant figures not originally included.

As far as possible each article includes details of birth, death, family education, the chronological sequence of career and details of significant awards, distinctions, or promotions. As well as basic biographical information, personal relationships and characteristics are commented on. A bibliography of the sources consulted is provided at the end of each life. As a result the DIB serves both as a work of reference and as a starting point for more detailed research.

The DIB features various Tullamore natives and also figures whose lives related to the town. Charles William Bury (1764–1835), first earl of Charleville, provides a good starting point as by granting new leases to his Tullamore tenants after the great fire of 1785, he created the town’s modern layout and enabled it to recover and thrive. He hired the renowned architect Francis Johnston for the Market House and St Catherine’s Church, and then for the construction of a Gothic castle just outside the town in Charleville Forest. The DIB notes ‘Begun by November 1800, [the castle] was completed in 1808, to which a terrace, lawns, artificial lake, grotto and 1,500 acres of woodland were added.’

C.K. Howard Bury

Bury’s descendent Charles Kenneth Howard–Bury (1883–1963) was raised in Charleville Castle before pursuing a career as an explorer, mountaineer and soldier. In 1921, he was part of a group of distinguished climbers who were the first Europeans to explore and map Mount Everest. During his travels he acquired a Russian bear and regularly wrestled with it, keeping the bear in the arboretum of his Mullingar residence. His life partner Rex Beaumont is described as an ‘inseparable’ friend.

One of the most notorious incidents outlined in the DIB involving Tullamore concerned the ill treatment in the town’s jail of the National League activist John Mandeville (1849–88). After being convicted for inciting tenants to defend their homes from evicting landlords, he was imprisoned in Tullamore in October 1887 where at the behest of Arthur Balfour, the chief secretary for Ireland and future British prime minister, he ‘became the target of bullying punishment designed to break his insistence on political status … Repeated periods of solitary confinement on coarse bread and cold water in foetid draughty cells brought about painful rheumatism, chronic sore throat, and continual diarrhoea. Stripped of his clothes by warders, he remained semi-naked for a day in extreme cold. The prison doctor, James Ridley, callously certified him fit for punishment whatever his state … By late December, Mandeville had shed over three stones in weight, trembled constantly, and had lost vision.’

Mandeville’s plight became public knowledge and provoked uproar. He was released after three months but his health was broken and he died in July 1888. The coroner’s inquest unequivocally linked his death to the brutal prison regime.

The DIB includes a number of Irish emigrants, and the most notable Tullamore exile is Hugh Mahon (1857–1931) who was born the thirteenth child of a local farmer and attended the town’s CBS. A journalist, he became involved in political radicalism and was briefly imprisoned for Land League agitation. Threatened with further imprisonment he fled to Australia in March 1882 under an alias. There he continued as a journalist, both editing and owning various newspapers, while organising fund raising tours for John Redmond. He was regularly embroiled in public controversy as he sought to rebut anti-Irish prejudice in the Australian media. Elected for the Labor party to the Australian parliament he ‘quickly established a reputation as a bruising political operator, cold and ruthless, and won some admirers but few friends; the Westralian Worker judged him “a democrat whose snobbish coldness of demeanour would make a snake shudder”.’

Mahon held various ministerial positions in the Australian government, causing a series of cabinet rows along the way. ‘Always committed to Irish affairs, he was at the centre of national controversy in November 1920, when he made a speech in Melbourne bitterly condemning the British government for the death of Terence MacSwiney … The reaction was immediate and hostile, and his many enemies used the speech as a pretext to get rid of him. On 11 November, the prime minister, W. M. Hughes, made an extremely personal and vitriolic attack on Mahon … Mahon was expelled from the house in a unique procedural case’. Driven from politics, he worked thereafter as managing director for the Catholic Church Property Insurance Company.

William O’Connor Morris

In contrast the judge and local landowner William O’Connor Morris (1824–1904) was a pillar of the Protestant Ascendancy. ‘His uncompromising position on land reform and his hostility to tenants earned him much criticism and he became very unpopular.’ He published a number of books on military history but according to the DIB entry they were ‘polemical, poorly researched and inconsequential’.

Other significant locals include the catholic bishop of Meath John Cantwell (1792–1866) and pioneering peat industrialist David Sherlock (1850–1940) who set up the Rahan Peat Works, which successfully carried out fuel and peat moss production for fifty years. The surgeon Robert Henry Woods (1865–1938) was the son of a Tullamore shopkeeper and after studying ear, nose and throat surgery in Vienna practised as a laryngologist in Dublin, gaining European-wide renown. ‘His work was characterised by skill and thoroughness, and he was famous for his operations to remove an entire larynx, affected by malignant disease as well as for his aftercare, treating patients to produce intelligible voice.’

Pat Egan

Businessman Patrick Joseph Egan (1876–1960) was born into a prosperous Tullamore merchant family. ‘Operating one of the first department stores in the midlands, he conducted a considerable retail and wholesale trade and expanded strongly throughout the midlands.’ The DIB entry describes him as one of the foremost business personalities in Ireland but he is particularly noteworthy for his support of the IRA in the War of Independence.

‘During the 1919–21 troubles he drew close to Sinn Féin, contributing generously to the Dáil Éireann loan, and serving as chairman of the dáil-appointed trustees who from summer 1920 managed the secret account of the Sinn Féin-controlled King’s County Council. He placed his company’s lorries and motorcars at the disposal of republican forces, and maintained on full salaries some eighteen employees interned or on the run.’ Later he was elected Cumann na nGaedheal TD for Laois–Offaly.

Finally, the most recent Tullamore born subject to be treated is Sister Genevieve O’Farrell (1923–2001). The daughter of a local farm manager ‘her decision to enter the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul surprised people since she was not notably pious.’ She taught children on the Falls Road, Belfast, from 1956, becoming principal of St Louise’s secondary school in 1963.

‘A former student, Mary Costello, fictionalised her in a novel as Sr Bonaventure: “stern, courageous, intelligent; and for a nun, unconventional, an odd-bod. She was also the only nun with sex appeal I’d ever met” … Another description was as “Margaret Thatcher with a spiritual dimension”.’

Following the outbreak of the Troubles, she ‘took on the British army, refusing to allow them to search the school and, on one occasion, demanding that a soldier who snatched a girl’s beret make a public apology. However, she stated publicly that the most dangerous aspect of life in the Troubles was the paramilitaries’ grip on communities … Her stance against paramilitaries earned her the title of ‘best man on the Falls Road’ and did her little harm within the community, but her cooperation with British authorities roused criticism. Her acceptance of an OBE in 1978 and her invitation in 1983 to Jane Prior, wife of the secretary of state, to visit the school brought angry denunciations … However, she insisted that enhancing the image of the school benefited the students, and in general her achievements were enough to silence criticism.’

If you have any queries regarding the DIB, please contact us through our website at http://dib.cambridge.org/home.do

The rediscovery of Bloomville, County Offaly. Christopher Fettes

Bloomville, Cloneygowan, County Offaly

On June 15th 1991, I climbed a locked gate marked Bloomville, just as the rain stopped and the sun came out.  There were some lovely beeches, but no sign of a house. I then spotted two ancient chestnuts, and it was only then that I could see the house in the distance.

It was a case of love at first sight, with everything sparkling in the sunshine, and I wondered why the agent’s advertisement had not included a photograph.  Only when I approached the house could I understand the reason.  The traditional roses (still flourishing 29 years later) looked pretty, but, close up, the house looked very neglected.

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Thomas Dunne of Ballinagar, Offaly: ‘A Sterling Irishman’. By John Malone

 

47 Ballinagar Village, Co. Offaly - 1950's maybe!!
Ballinagar village early 1960s

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.

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My childhood memory of the rituals associated with death in the Clonmacnoise area, and the story of the last keener, (perhaps) from the area? Pádraig Turley

image7

`Arising from the Covid-19 virus due to government advice regarding public gatherings a private funeral will take place, but may be viewed on the Church website.`

This notice is now a regular feature of obituary notices in current newspapers and website dealing with death notices.

The story I wish to relate deals with an earlier time, from the early 50s, and I hope to recreate an image of the funeral process back then in west Offaly. It was a time when the medical condition of a sick person or indeed a visit by a doctor to such a person was not the only omen that death was imminent. A much more reliable harbinger of such an event was when a report came in, that the `banshee` had been heard. My grandfather, Michael Claffey originally from Bloomhill, near Ballinahown, totally believed in the banshee. He was a well-read literate man, yet if someone was ill in the parish, he would not show much concern until it was reported that the cry of the banshee had been heard. Once that occurred, it was good night Vienna, as far as he was concerned. He would then just wait for the inevitable, which from my memory always seemed to happen.

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Some Offaly Wills of the Dames and Longworth families of Tullamore, Greenhills (Rhode) and Glynwood, and that of Sir William Petty with lands in Ballyboy barony. Tim O’Neill

032178 Lynally Ruins
The old cemetery at Lynally where Dames and Rector Coffey are buried. No stone has been found for Dames.

 

The Longworth family and George Dames of Tullamore
Reading in the National Archives some time ago I came upon a small envelope of papers that Athlone-born Revd George Stokes had put together on the Longworth family. He was constructing a family tree and it was that family’s connections with Athlone that appealed to him. The envelope included two Wills. One was that of George Dames of Tullamore, dated 1662, who died in June, 1666. In it, Dames is described as a yeoman. The Dames and the Longworth families intermarried in successive generations and it is no surprise that this Will was filed with some of the Wills of the Longworth family. They were both Cromwellian families that settled in the midlands.

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Mrs King, John Plunkett Joly, William Davis and…You! Diary-writing in Offaly in the 19th century and a 21st century call for historians of the pandemic.

Diaries offer a fascinating glimpse into history through the personal accounts of people who lived through war, famine, disease, revolution and other events of huge social disruption. Along with contemporary correspondence, personal diaries help to flesh out the bare facts of history with human experience, where otherwise official records are the only historical source. Find out how you can help us to record the history of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic in Offaly and join a long line of Offaly diarists who have shaped our understanding of the past. Continue reading

Memories of the Kerin family of Clara in the first half of the 20th century. By Sylvia Turner

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

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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‘Killing the pig in 1950s West Offaly’. By Pádraig Turley

E10 - Clara Fair 1900
Selling a pig at Clara Market about 1900. Courtesy of Michael Goodbody

The killing of the pig was an event, which occurred twice a year on our farm in Clerhane, two miles north of the village of Shannonbridge, during my childhood. The particular event I am going to relate happened in the early 1950s, certainly no later than 1953. I remember this because reports of the Korean War, were perpetually on the wireless. My grandfather Michael Claffey took a keen interest in that war, which was very remote to the folk in Clerhane.
So I was about eight or nine years of age when this happened. We are very much talking about the pre iPhone/iPad era. Back then it was not possible to take instant photos, which one could post to some social media platform. One can only imagine in today`s world how the image of the killing of a pig would horrify the viewer, and would no doubt release a stampede of trolls. The outrage would be immense.

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