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.
On the road to Birr, and not far from Kilcormac, are the classical gate piers of Temora – all that is left now of the home of the family of Magawly family. This Catholic family owned much of Kilcormac and, after a long legal battle, had the benefit of the articles of the Treaty of Limerick and were able to retain some of their lands. Temora may have been built in the 1750s or 1760s and the naming of the house possibly had an eye to the poem, Temora, of 1763 by James Macpherson. The illustrious history of the Magawly family can be recalled in the memorial inscription in the Catholic church in Kilcormac, placed there a few years after the completion of that church in 1867. The family had been obliged to sell the last of their landholding in 1852, but the pressure was on from the mid-1840s when the process servers were sniffing about. Money problems may have gone back at least 100 years earlier to the 1740s and 1750s when much of the Magawly landholdings were sold by way of long leases. The house itself was occupied by the Free State army in the early 1920s and destroyed by arson about 1930.
We were sorry to hear of the death of that great newspaperman Geoff Oakley who died on 21 September in his 93rd year. Geoff and his late wife Dorothy, who died in March 2020, had no immediate family but that is only in the narrow sense. Their children were the people of Offaly and both, in their respective occupations, provided care and nourishment on a 24 7 basis to all, but especially those who needed care and a kind word. Dorothy and Geoff married in 1972. They had met after a service in their local Church of Ireland and it was a case of love at first sight and lifelong companionship.
Geoff started in the local press about 1945 with the old Offaly Chronicle and when it was purchased by James I. Fanning in 1948 moved to the MidlandTribune. As such he was the last link with this newspaper that was started in Birr in 1845 and was owned by the Wright family from the 1870s. In 1978 Geoff became the editor of the new Tullamore Tribune and remained at the helm until Ger Scully took over in 1994. Geoff made a singular contribution to the saving of the hospital in Tullamore in the mid-1970s with the help of the Offaly Committee to save the Hospital. Week after week the articles poured out and the pressure that was piled on secured the hospital and paved the way for the new hospital from the late 1990s.
Geoff saw in groups such as Junior Chamber all that was good about civic life and reported its doings and that of so many other voluntary bodies. A lover of music he was a strong member of the Tullamore Gramophone Society and often gave the recital. He and Dorothy were keen travellers across the globe as backpackers. They were both pivotal members of OSPCA and many animals found good homes as a result of their work. This writer had the pleasure of meeting him in August in Shinrone. How well he was. Asking how everything was in Tullamore and about Birr Vintage Week which was then in progress.
He was greatly missed from the time of his retirement but up to recent years was a regular visitor with Dorothy to the Saturday market in Tullamore and to his beloved Offaly Historical Society and the Tullamore Gramophone Society How important it will be for us to get back from November to meetings and lectures offline so that we can again meet our members who have supported our causes over many years.
Geoff’s work as a newspaper man will stand to him well into the future. All the more so in this digital age when his articles can be so easily accessed. Those in the Tullamore Musical Society have reason to thank him for his fine published history and all his reviews of their annual show. Now Offaly History can get to do a short review of GVO, but it can only be paltry beside that of the quiet sincere man who made such a great impact in County Offaly and all of it was for good. Geoff was also a national figure in amateur musical circles as an adjudicator for AIMS and editor of the AIMS newsletter. His reviews of local plays were awaited with terror one expects. While never harsh he did not confuse journalism with parochialism.
Seamus Dooley has provided an appreciation which will also be published in Offaly Heritage 12 next year.
Geoff Oakley: An appreciation. By Seamus Dooley
Geoff Oakley was something of an enigma. In a distinguished career he was passionate about news: cultured, wise and opinionated his integrity and sense of honour defined Geoff in his public role as Editor of the Tullamore Tribune. Yet Geoff was in many ways a shy man who shunned the limelight, seldom speaking in public or giving interviews to the national media on issues of local interest. For many years Geoff was the Tullamore Tribune and his vision and commitment were key ingredients in the success of the paper. J. I. Fanning, proprietor and editor of the Midland Tribune was nominally editor when the sister newspaper was founded in 1978 but from the beginning Geoff was the guiding spirit – his formal appointment as editor merely confirmed his status. From a dark pokey two desk newsroom. in Church Street Geoff churned out reams of copy on a noisy, battered manual typewriter which, like the office itself, had seen better days. David Pate had never been in Tullamore before Fanning offered him the job of reporter on the fledgling title. A young Scot reared in Dublin and educated at TCD Dave was an unlikely recruit but Pate, who took early retirement as as a senior producer with CBC Nova Scotia last year, and Oakley made a formidable team. Mary T Bracken made up the office triumvirate for much of his rein. When David moved to pursue a successful career in the national media I succeeded him in the Tribune having worked during breaks from college. Geoff was a mentor to me and to many young journalists, insisting on the highest standards of accuracy. He had flawless shorthand and placed a premium on attention to detail. His report on the inquest into the death of Fr Niall Molloy is an outstanding example of his reporting while his profile of Thomas MacDonagh in the Midland Tribune’s supplement to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, “A noble life and a proud death” serves as a reminder of his elegant writing style. A young journalism student on placement in Tullamore was once severely chided for failing to ask the name of a family dog who featured in a Richard May photograph which accompanied a well , written human interest story. “Are you joking” he declared as Geoff instructed him to ring the family, “that’s just crazy”. Geoff firmly but patiently explained that the dog was a family member and must be named. Years later I met the now matured journalist in a Dublin pub. Then working in London he said the dog episode had taught him a valuable life lesson! Social historians have reason to appreciate Geoff’s obsession with fully captioned pictures, something which sometimes challenged the patience of Richard May, Joe O’Sullivan and Mary Dunne but he always appreciated their professionalism. As an editor Geoff showed leadership in challenging the consensus. He was a champion of constitutional politics and abhorred violence, often courageously challenging the IRA. While supportive of the campaign to save the then Tullamore General hospital he incurred the wrath of some activists by his refusal to oppose every proposal for redevelopment of specialist facilities at regional level, preferring a more nuanced and strategic analysis.
His editorial stance on social issues, such as the divorce and 8th amendment referendums, was equally courageous while his absolute commitment to fairness meant that all sides were accorded coverage. All who knew him, including his readers, knew of his love for and devotion to Dorothy. Despite his natural reserve their holidays were the subject of endless quirky features, always written with style and humour.
Geoff and Dorothy made a wonderful couple and enriched the lives of so many, humans and animals through the OSPCA. As an editor Geoff Oakley ‘s greatest contribution was to develop a paper which, despite limited resources, reflected the diversity of life in the community. For him, local news mattered. It still does! —
‘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.
While perusing some late 19th century newspapers a reference to The National Indemnity Fund 1888 caught my eye. The object of this fund was to provide an indemnity for Parnell against an Order for costs in the event of him loosing a defamation action against the Times.
This fund received contributions from virtually every parish in Ireland, and also from outside Ireland. I found records of fundraising events in England, Scotland, U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere.
However, I was more interested in the small contributions made by the ordinary people of Ireland, the vast majority of whom would not have been in any way well off. They would have been tenant farmers who lived a very precarious life due to their lack of security of tenure and volatile rents. Reflecting their means some the contributions are very small reminding us of the story of the widow`s mite in the gospel of St. Mark.
I was very pleased to find contributions from my own neck of the wood in west Offaly. I found a fascinating letter from Michael Reddy of Shannonbridge in the Freeman’s Journal of 26th October 1888.
The Midland Tribune and King’s County Vindicator was first published at Birr on 15th September, 1881. The aim of its promoters, three Birr Catholic priests of the Killaloe diocese, was to provide a ‘thoroughly independent organ of popular opinion in a district hitherto without the semblance of national journalism’. In politics it declared itself as a supporter of Home Rule. Its tone would be Catholic while at the same time endeavouring to promote ‘the union of Irishmen of every class and creed.’ On the land question the Tribune adopted the programme of the Land League and on education the views of the Catholic hierarchy
The Tribunewas founded in what is generally considered the most exciting decade of the nineteenth century. The 1880s saw the development of the most powerful democratic movement in Irish history, based at first on the struggle of tenant farmers to wrest the land they tilled from the landlords and later the right of Ireland to manage her own affairs. These twin aims, Home Rule and a solution to the land question were welded together into a popular mass movement led by Parnell, Davitt, and O’Brien. But, in the 1880s the masses came on the political stage as leading players rather than as extras.
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.
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.
Offaly History welcomes this contribution from Pat Nolan and is delighted to be able to include it in our Fifty Blogs for the Decade of Centenaries. This story, and much more, will soon be uploaded to our new Decade of Centenaries platform on www.offalyhistory.com. The portrait is from chapter one of Pat Nolan’s ‘The Furlongs – The Story of a Remarkable Family’, published by Ballpoint Press in 2014. Our thanks to Pat and his publisher.
At around midday on a Thursday afternoon in July 1921, up to 20 IRA members parked their bicycles not far from New Ross post office. A number of them surrounded the building on all sides while others filed inside, dressed in their civilian clothes and without any form of disguise. The staff had just finished sorting the morning mail and the town was relatively quiet. At first they didn’t pay any heed to the men, presuming they were linesmen – post office officials who had charge of the telegraph system. However, when they drew out their revolvers and yelled “hands up” the innocence of the staff’s initial impression was laid bare.
The administration of law in Ireland in 1914–19 was pervasive with petty sessions’ courts across the county in the smallest villages and towns. These were attended to by paid resident magistrates and on a voluntary basis by local gentry and merchants, both Protestant and Catholic, who had been deemed suitable by Dublin Castle for the conferring of a commission of justice of the peace. After 1916 it was becoming a doubtful honour and many nationalists, including P.J. Egan of Tullamore (chairman of the town council 1916-24 and managing director of a large business), resigned the commission when the War of Independence in 1919-21 intensified. The country had been subject to the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) since 1914 but it was not much invoked in Offaly before 1916 and the civil courts of petty sessions, quarter sessions and assizes (usually held in Tullamore, but often held in Birr from mid-1916 to 1921) continued in the county. The Sinn Féin courts will be the subject of a later blog.