Clara at the time of Partition – the lives of David Beers Quinn, historian (1909 – 2002) and Vivian Mercier, literary historian (1919-1989). By Sylvia Turner

There are many people of note from Clara, but two particularly can be seen as associated with the period of  Partition; David Beers Quinn and Vivian Mercier. Despite the ongoing War of Independence, the British government passed the Government of Ireland Act in December 1920, providing for the setting up of two parliaments in Ireland. The 3rd May 1921 marked the formation  of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so partitioning the island of Ireland. Vivian Mercier and David Beers Quinn had just reached their 2nd and  12th birthdays respectively. Although born a decade apart, in terms of Protestant identity, they represent different socio-economic backgrounds, illuminating what it was to be Protestant and Irish in the South of Ireland.

Inchmore where David Quinn worked as a gardener.

David Beers Quinn’s father, also named David, was a member of the Church of Ireland from Tyrone, He was employed as a gardener at the Goodbody house, Inchmore. His mother, Albertina Devine was also a member of the Church of Ireland from Cork with English parentage. Mercier’s father was from a Methodist family of Huguenot origin and his mother from a Church of Ireland clerical background from Monaghan. They lived in Cork Hill, Clara. The Mercier family, like the Goodbody family, were millers. Mercier’s father was born in Durrow, near Abbeyleix, Laois and was employed as a commercial clerk in jute manufacture at the Goodbody mills.

Vivian Mercier

The partition of Ireland affected the education of Quinn and later Mercier. Quinn and Mercier attended Protestant National Schools, Quinn attending Clara No 2 Protestant school and Mercier, Abbeyleix South National School. Why Mercier attended school in Abbeyleix is unknown as the Clara National School was still under the tutelage of Miss Bannon who taught Quinn. However, it is known that Mercier corresponded regularly with Mrs Thompson, a later teacher at the school in Clara. Possibly the Mercier family had moved out of Clara due to unrest to the comparative safety of his father’s family home in Abbeyleix, approximately 60km south.

David Beers Quinn taking a look at one of his editions of Drake’s Voyages for the Hakluyt Society.

Quinn’s parents came to realise that their son was gifted.  Finding good Protestant Irish education for a child from a working-class family was almost impossible if they stayed in rural Southern Ireland. The family moved to Belfast in 1922 where his father gained employment and in 1923 Quinn was able to attend the prestigious Royal Belfast Academical Institution. He continued his studies as an undergraduate at Queen’s University, Belfast between 1927 and 1931.  

Mercier similarly left the South for Northern Ireland for his secondary education, attending  the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen,  one of the Public Schools founded by Royal Charter in 1608 by James I. Samuel Beckett (1906 –1989) was a former pupil.  Critique of Beckett’s writing, particularly ‘Waiting for Godot’ was to shape much of Mercier’s career. Mercier and Beckett shared an affluent background and Huguenot descent in common.

Quinn attended Queen’s College, Belfast (QCB) from 1927 to 1931 and then went to London University for his Masters’ Degree which he was awarded in 1934. There followed an academic career starting at Southampton (1934–9) and QUB (1939–44). After wartime secondment to the BBC European Service in 1943, Quinn moved to University College, Swansea the following year where he remained until 1957 when he moved to Liverpool university until 1976. Between 1976-1978 and 1980-1982 he was Senior Visiting Professor at St Mary’s College of Maryland. Alongside his academic teaching career, he wrote extensively on the voyages of discovery and colonisation of America. Many of his publications appeared as volumes of the Hakluyt Society. However, he continued to engage with Irish history writing The Elizabethans and the Irish (1966). Quinn also contributed substantially to both the second and third volumes of the New History of Ireland series (1987, 1976). However,  his enduring influence on Irish history has been to link England’s involvement in Ireland with concurrent adventures in the Atlantic. Quinn married Alison Robertson whom he met whilst at Southampton in 1937. They were both politically active in radical politics. Alison worked with him particularly after their children grew up. She moved beyond indexing his work to becoming co-author and co-editor of several of his later publications.

One of Quinn’s first books. Still well thought of and now rare.

Mercier attended Trinity College, Dublin between 1936 and 1939. In 1940 he married American, Lucy Glazebrook. Whilst studying for his PhD, he worked as a journalist for the Church of Ireland Gazette and contributed to the Bell, a magazine of literature and taught at Rosse College. Mercier pursued  an academic career at Bennington College, Vermont City (1947–8) before moving to City College, New York, where he taught English 1948–65. He married Gina di Fonzi in 1950. He became known as an academic who enjoyed teaching. He co-edited, the anthology A thousand years of Irish prose (1952), which became a standard teaching resource. He also compiled Great Irish short stories (1964). During regular visits to Dublin in the 1950s, Mercier studied Irish with Trinity and UCD academics. These studies gave rise to The Irish comic tradition (1962), dedicated to Gina, which broke new ground by combining Irish-language and Anglo-Irish material in support of its central thesis that comedy preceded tragedy in Irish literature and that it was possible to trace a degree of continuity between work in both languages, paying particular attention to Swift and Beckett. Although initially receiving a hostile response, the book is now generally regarded as a key text in the development of Irish studies. In 1965, due to Gina’s declining health, Mercier moved to the University of Colorado as professor of English and comparative literature. Gina died in 1971. In 1972 Mercier was visiting lecturer at the commemoration by the American University of Beirut of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses. Mercier married the Irish author, Eilis Dillon in 1974 and took up his last academic position as professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During these years Mercier and Dillon moved between California, Italy, and Dublin.  Mercier retired in 1987 and he and Dillon moved permanently to Ireland. Here he reviewed books, contributed to literary journals and was a popular speaker at summer schools. He was writing a summative two-volume study of Modern Irish Literature when he died and his wife edited it and had it published in 1994.

Vivian Mercier

Quinn’s obituary in the Irish Times at the time of his death in April 2002 suggests his initial interest in the history of colonisation may have derived from his childhood years. He came from a Church of Ireland ‘colony’ within a ‘colony’ of the Quaker Goodbody family set inside a predominantly Catholic town. In 1998 Quinn wrote an affectionate account of his childhood years growing up there, explaining the relationships between different sectors of the community.

Mercier similarly was influenced by growing up in Clara, believing his experience of going to school ‘under the curious gaze of Catholic contemporaries whose world differed so widely from his own’ as separating him from the Protestant populations around Dublin who were confident in their own identity.

David Quinn at School through the Fields, Clara 1920 with Miss Bannon (teacher) and a former OH member May Wiggins. The roll books are now in Offaly Archives.

David Quinn died 19 March 2002, predeceased by his wife Alison who died in 1993. He was survived by his three children. Mercier died whilst on a visit to London on 3 November 1989. He was buried with his parents in Clara after an ecumenical funeral service at St Patrick’s cathedral, Dublin. He was survived by his wife and three children.  Quinn and Mercier had diverse careers but it would seem that growing up as Protestants in Clara at a time of when religious communities were divided, influenced the work of them both. Their legacy to Irish scholarship is significant.

Sylvia Turner, May 2021 with thanks to James Gibbons for additional material

Bibliography

N. Canny and K. O. Kupperman, ‘The scholarship and legacy of David Beers Quinn, 1909–2002’, The William and Mary Quarterly, lx (2003), 843–60; ODNB

Irish Times ‘ Irish historian who investigated exploits of British explorers’available @ https://www.irishtimes.com/news/irish-historian-who-investigated-exploits-of-british-explorers-1.1085040

D. Kiberd, introduction to Vivian Mercier, Modern Irish literature: sources and founders (1994)

D. B. Quinn, ‘Clara: a midland industrial town, 1900–1923’, Offaly: history and society, ed. Timothy P. O’Neill and William Nolan (1998)

A. Roche, ‘Vivian Mercier 1919–1989’, Irish Literary Supplement, spring 1990, p. 3

The Guardian David Quinn: Historian who defined our role in the discovery of America available @ https://www.theguardian.com/news/2002/apr/06/guardianobituaries.highereducation

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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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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The origins of the Leix-Offaly Plantation. By Dr Diarmuid Wheeler.

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 info@offalyhistory.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.

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Robert Goodbody, amateur doctor in Clara and Tullamore during the Famine. By Michael Goodbody.

This is our first blog of 2021 and we are pleased to have a growing number of contributors as the interest in local studies continues to expand in Offaly and in Ireland. Last year our blog posts (82) reached over 103,000 and amounted to 144,000 words. Michael Goodbody has two important articles on Clara houses, Drayton Villa and Inchmore, in Offaly Heritage 11 (published in December 2020). The latter house now in a very different state to 2007 and the former lately bought by Offaly County Council. Robert Goodbody was the founder of the Clara dynasty of Quaker merchants and was born at Mountmellick in 1781 and died at Drayton Villa, Clara (later the Parochial House) in 1860. In 1825 he moved to Clara to set up his sons in business at the Brosna mills. He built Inchmore, Clara in 1843 and for a time lived at Tullagh House, Tullamore. During the Famine years he practised as an amateur doctor. He had six sons of whom five survived to make a huge contribution to industry in Clara and Tullamore. If you have an article on Offaly history for the blog, email us at info@offalyhistory.com.

It was not unusual for amateur doctors to practice their skills and theories among the poor in Ireland during the nineteenth century. One such was Robert Goodbody of Clara, who earned the gratitude of the Earl of Charleville for his activities around Tullamore during the Great Famine of 1846–49.

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Thomas Armstrong (1797–1875): benefactor in Banagher and businessman in Argentina. Sources for the Irish in Argentina. By Eduardo García Saenz

This week we have a blog provided by Eduardo García Saenz (member of Champagnat Rugby Club, Economist, Journalist and Sports’ Historian, especially in rugby, soccer and horse Polo. In this article he is presenting about THOMAS St. George ARMSTRONG (1797-1875); born in Garrycastle, near Banagher and who made a fortune in Argentina. His son bought Garrycastle House, Banagher in 1890 and is in Burke’s Landed Gentry 1912 edition with lands in Garrycastle and a residence in Paris. This is our last blog of this year and so far we have achieved 103,000 views for our blogs since 1 Jan. 2020. Thanks contributors and readers for all your help and wishing you all the best in 2021. Like our blog to ensure you get it every week per an email advice. All our blogs can be found at Offalyhistoryblog and our web platform http://www.offalyhistory.com. We post them every week to Facebook and Twitter (Offaly History).

Eduardo García Saenz

Eduardo is the the great-great-grand child (Chozno Grandson) of Thomas Armstrong who died in Buenos Aires in 1875. Eduardo has visited Dublin and Malahide, but has not yet had the opportunity to visit Banagher, Birr  and Tullamore. He is aware of our ‘delicious Irish whiskey and also the malt’. In rugby he knows that there are two good rugby clubs in Co, Offaly: Tullamore RFC and Birr RFC. 

Eduardo writes that the Armstrong family gave the land in Banagher to build St. Rynagh’s Church in 1826 and donated the bells for the church. Thomas Armstrong was also a donor to the Catholic church in Banagher in 1873 (King’s County Chronicle, 20 Mar. 1873). In 1847 he donated £50 to support famine relief in Banagher and Lusmagh, and later to the Crimean War Fund.

We would welcome blogs from overseas on the contribution of people from the midlands of Ireland in their adopted country (to info@offalyhistory.com). We draw attention to the Dictionary of Argentina Biography and the like for Australia. These are now online. The Irish DIB goes on line free in 2021.

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Hunstanton Norfolk to Hunston Offaly and the L’Estrange family. By Sylvia Turner

Hunston is the name of a townland in the west of Offaly, close to where the Brosna and Shannon rivers meet. It is unlike many place names in Ireland which relate to an anglicised geographical description. It originates from a planter family who came to Ireland from England in the 16th century during the first plantation of Ireland.

Following Henry VIII claimed of kingship over all of Ireland in 1541, the English wished to extend their control further than the area called the Pale around Dublin to the whole of Ireland. One way was to drive the Irish landowners off their land and replace them with English or Scottish settlers, called ‘planters’. The first plantation took place in the region now known as Offaly and Laois in 1556. It was from this area that the O’Connor and O’Moore clans had invaded the Pale. The Government divided the land into Counties. Present day Laois was named Queen’s County, after Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and present-day Offaly was named King’s County after Mary’s husband King Philip of Spain. Forts were built at Maryborough (Portlaoise) and Philipstown (Daingean).

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The Maynooth Local Studies Series, recent issues, the Offaly volumes and the entire series listed here. Sources for Offaly History and Society, number 10.

The current issue of Irish Historical Studies (no. 165, May 2020) has a featured review of five issues from the Maynooth Local Studies series published in 2019. That brought the number issued to 144. We attach the list to 144 for your convenience and we bring to your attention the latest batch of four. Raymond Gillespie is the quiet man behind the series and who has acted as general editor since its inception in 1995. The reviewer in IHS, Maura Cronin, reminds of his characterising local history as being ‘primarily about people in places over time’. Place is described as the bedrock of local history, but it must be seen in the context of the actions of people and the pivotal role of historical research  is looking for the forces of disruption and of cohesion. What brought people together and what drove them apart.

The four new issues of 2020

Four new volumes have been published in the Maynooth Studies in Local History series (general editor Professor Raymond Gillespie). The volumes by Denis Casey, Emma Lyons, Brendan Scott and Jonathan Wright and can be ordered via Offaly History Centre.

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Lady Beaujolois Bury, the prayerful artist of Charleville Castle, Tullamore. By Michael Byrne

Charleville from the east by Fergal MacCabe, architect. From essays in honour of Maurice Craig.

The prayer book of Lady Beaujolois Bury of Charleville Castle, Tullamore was donated to the Offaly History Centre by the late Jane Williams some years ago. Like some family bibles it contains on two of the blank pages scraps of the family lineage of her ladyship and her siblings, the third and fifth earls of Charleville. The information recorded agrees with what is provided in Burke’s Irish Family Records (1976 edition), but like every family there is more to it than the bland recital of names and dates. Lady Beaujolois Bury (1824–1903) was the talented daughter of the second countess of Charleville (1803–48) and granddaughter of Lady Charlotte Susan Maria Campbell. Her Bury in-laws, the first earl and countess, were the builders of the great castle, known as Charleville Forest, and which was commenced in 1800 and completed in 1812. According to Mark Girouard it is ‘perhaps the finest Gothic Revival Castle in Ireland’.

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