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.
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.
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.
We welcome this week Dr Diarmuid Wheeler on an important subject for Ireland and for the midlands, being the colonial experiment known as the Leix-Offaly Plantation. For those interested in the Decade of the Centenaries, the resurgence of interest in the Irish language, 1916 and the War of Independence, knowing the roots of the conflict is essential. The fort of Philipstown would soon be adopted as the county town for the new King’s County of the 1550s. The courts of assize to display the might and power of English law continued to be held in King’s County until 1921 while the name of the county was changed only in 1920 to Offaly. The Civil War of 1922–3 would witness the burning of houses such as Ballyburly, owned by the Wakely family, who had come to Ireland as soldier settlers in the time of Elizabeth.
Dr Wheeler will give his lecture on the Leix-Offaly Plantation to Offaly History from his home in the United States on Monday night 22 March at 7.30 p.m. Email us at email@example.com with the subject heading ‘Zoom Wheeler’ for the access code [Ed.]
The beginnings of the midlands colonial project can be traced back to the early sixteenth century when the Tudor government, who firmly believed that Ireland rightfully belonged to the English crown and that the country’s keeping was essential to England’s overall safety, sought to restore the island to its twelfth century “conquered” state from which the crown hoped to profit. Brendan Bradshaw argues that the Tudors and the Old English of Ireland were heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism that encouraged them to bring reform to Ireland. But the administration lacked significant knowledge and experience of the country, particularly during Henry VIII’s reign and quickly realised that reforming the island would take significantly more military and financial resources than they had anticipated. By the final years of the 1530s, it was apparent that a certain degree of coercion and military force would be necessary to bring about wide scale reform. Yet the Tudors were also aware that they could not employ outright force to achieve their objectives, lacking the necessary resources to do so. Instead, the Tudor administration recognised that they would need to accommodate the natives of Ireland, at least somewhat, in order to make their aspiration a reality.
Now that we are all locked down in our various counties I miss my occasional trips to Offaly to visit old friends. I keep an eye on local news on line and love the Tullamore Tribune and the Offaly Express. I was dismayed the other day to see a report on the Express that Offaly ranked lowest in Ireland on a Liveability Index! What in the name of Heaven is a Liveability Index!! I decided to look into it all a little further. Seemingly a father and son (with obviously too much time on their hands!) decided to rate every county in Ireland on four (4!!) parameters. One criterion was natural amenity which they assessed by developing ‘a unique method of ranking the natural amenity of a particular area using the percentage of each area covered by water and mountains and attributed as urban’ (Leinster Express 16 Jan 2021 Lynda Kiernan). Having spent so many happy years in Offaly I would certainly disagree with the findings and would challenge that duo to explain them fully! The very fact that Offaly is not covered with water and mountain makes it one of the most attractive counties in Ireland. Offaly’s unique landscape is one of peace and tranquility. The wide open stretches of bog covered with the most wonderful heathers and gorse throughout the year make it a joy to behold in any season. A mid 19th century saying that when gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season is certainly true of midland scenery!
Originally known as Acres Hall after the eighteenth century building developer Thomas Acres, this fine house with its Georgian features is now home to Tullamore’s town council chambers. In 1986 the house was acquired by Tullamore Urban District Council who undertook a refurbishment programme and extensions to the north and south wings, and at the rear of the house, to accommodate new civic offices. While much of the house was subject to a major reconfiguration, the development attempted to be sympathetic and sought to retain the house’s external architectural simplicity. Acres built the house in 1786 and positioned it in a commanding elevated position at the confluence of High street, Cormac street and O’Moore street. The location of the house may be on the hill from which the town takes it name, Tulach Mhór (great hill). Acres Hall is listed as a protected structure in the Tullamore town development plan.
The 12 June 2020 marks the 98thanniversary of the disbandment of the historic Southern Irish infantry regiments of the British Army at Windsor Castle. Disbandment was brought on by economic cuts to the British Army and in part due to the Anglo-Irish agreement. The Royal Irish Regiment, Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (and South Irish Horse) all surrendered their colours to King George V for safe keeping. The ceremony took place at 11:30am in St. George’s Hall in Windsor Castle. During the ceremony the King made a promise to safe guard these highly prized colours. The ceremony finished with a royal salute and God Save the King played.
The colour party detachments for each regiment consisted of the regiment’s commanding officer, then three officers and three non-commissioned officers (NCO) for the 1stand 2ndbattalion respectively. One of the NCOs on whom this honour fell was John Thomas Cannon of the Leinster Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. This is John’s story.
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.
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.
We welcome a new contributor to the blog this week with this article by John Stocks Powell. Enjoy and remember we have almost 190 articles to read at http://www.offalyhistoryblog. Like to get it each week and share to your friends.
There is a hierarchy of sources for the historian, local historians and those with the wider landscapes. The principal material is the written word; evidences from the time, written archives, and later written published assessments such as county histories, church memoirs, Ph.D. studies gone to print. On-line developments have made for more in quantity, and more exciting revelations, from the checking of dates on Wikipedia, or the digitised sources such as Irish and British newspapers online, and directories. Yet we know the old cliché that history is written by the winners, and that is especially true when trying to write about the history of the losers, the poor, and the illiterate. Every source has its importance.
In August 1939 the Irish travel writer Richard Hayward set out on a road trip to explore the Shannon just two weeks before the Second World War broke out. His evocative account of that trip, Where the River Shannon Flows, became a bestseller. The book, still sought after by lovers of the river, captures an Ireland of small shops and barefoot street urchins that has long since disappeared.
Eighty years on, inspired by his work, Paul Clements retraces Hayward’s journey along the river, following – if not strictly in his footsteps – then within the spirit of his trip. From the Shannon Pot in Cavan, 344 kilometres south to the Shannon estuary, his meandering odyssey takes him by car, on foot, and by bike and boat, discovering how the riverscape has changed but is still powerful in symbolism. Paul Clements will be giving an illustrated lecture on Monday 17 Feb. at 8.00 p.m. at the Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore ‘The spirit of the Shannon: a journey along the River Shannon in Richard Hayward’s footsteps’ Admission is €5 and includes tea and biscuits. So why not come along to hear and see this wonderfully illustrated talk.