Archives in Offaly covering the War of Independence period are varied and interesting. This blog will give a short overview of archival material in Offaly Archives in collections of local government records and private papers, drawn from both the collections of Offaly County Library and Offaly History. Links will be provided to online descriptions and digitised resources on the online catalogue offalyarchives.com This will also include links to the catalogue of the Rosse Papers at Birr Castle, another local repository of important source material.
Local government archives, such as the records of the county council and of the urban and rural district councils, record the massive political change following the establishment of Dáil Éireann in January 1919. By the time the local elections of 1920 were held, Sinn Féin had the majority of seats on the County Council. King’s County Council was renamed Offaly County Council in June 1920 and allegiance to the new Dáil was ratified by many of the district councils, e.g. Tullamore Rural District Council recorded the following motion on 2 October 1920: Continue reading →
Robert McEvoy, Archivist, works on the Military Service (1916-23) Pensions Collection at the Military Archives, which has just released its ninth tranche of digitised images, bringing to two million the number of documents now available online to research this period. The following blog was first published on 11 November 2020 on militarypensions.wordpress.com. Many thanks to Robert McEvoy for permission to reproduce it here.
A controversial event occurred in June 1921 at Coolacrease, County Offaly. Two men, Richard (24) and Abraham (19) Pearson, were executed by the IRA. The Pearson family home was also burned to the ground. The case came to national prominence in 2007 with the airing of an episode from RTÉ’s Hidden History series entitled ‘Killings at Coolacrease’. The 2020 release from the MSPC reveals the involvement of nine individuals connected in the lead up to, and partaking in, the executions. The application of a further individual, Edward Leahy, has already been released. Continue reading →
Killings such as that of Sergeant Cronin were rarely spoken of in Tullamore in the years from 1920 to the 1990s. As to who shot Cronin there were so many suggestions – men from out of town, a policeman siding with the I.R.A. and so on. Like the Spanish Civil War there was a pact of forgetfulness (olvidados) for those who were there. When Peadar Bracken made the Offaly I.R.A. Brigade return in 1940 (filed in confidence for over seventy years) in connection with service and pensions for those who had fought in the 1916–21 period he described the Cronin killing outside Cronin’s house in Henry/O’Carroll Street as
‘31st Oct., 1920 – Sergeant Cronin ‘wounded returning to Barracks, at Tullamore. Died subsequently.’
Today we know that the causes, course and consequences of any national struggle are complex and that the results can be not what was anticipated. In Ireland it became a Free State with a Civil War that set back the country for many years. Perhaps until after the emigration of 400,000 in the 1950s.
A new book detailing the history of Birr Military Cemetery has been published by Offaly County Council. Researched, written and designed by Stephen Callaghan the book gives an authoritative history of the cemetery and all those identified as buried there. While the cemetery only contains 52 inscribed memorials, the book gives biographical details of a further 230 people buried there. The memorials which survive are also examined and described in detail, including information about type, symbols and details about the materials used and the stonecutters who made them. The cemetery is one of the few surviving features of Birr Barracks and is an important link to the past. The people buried there are a mix of soldiers, soldiers’ wives and children, the latter make up most of the burials.
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).
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.
Everywhere in the world today, the role and validity of public art, particularly statues of historical figures, is under scrutiny. At the same time it is the policy of our new Government to place an increased emphasis on urban quality-which presumes the installation of even more public art. This could be a recipe for conflict but much can be learnt from an examination of the history and experience of the provision of sculpture in County Offaly, and its errors and successes.
The Three Tests
I suggest that three criteria, all of which are of course totally subjective, apply to any reconsideration of the role of public art. The first is the continuing historical acceptability of the person or event which is commemorated. In Offaly, it is beyond doubt that the Manchester Martyrs Memorial in Birr or the War of Independence Memorial at the Courthouse in Tullamore would pass that test. The second is the intrinsic artistic quality of the work and ‘Saints and Scholars’ by Maurice Harron on the Tullamore bypass is generally agreed to be both striking and imaginative. Finally, there is the work’s contribution to a planned urban ensemble and in this respect both the Downshire Memorial in Edenderry and the Barnes-McCormack Memorial in Banagher which close vistas or reflect their settings, would qualify. It gets a lot trickier however when a work satisfies some of the criteria but not all.
For example, in our capital city the statue of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, marks the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears his name and having been designed and executed by the greatest Irish sculptor of his day John Henry Foley, it clearly fulfils all three criteria of artistic worth, civic design contribution and an historically enhanced reputation.
However, further along the same street the statue of Horatio Nelson failed the public acceptability test and along with its beautiful and blameless Doric pillar, was blown up in 1967.
Interestingly, Birr provides a precisely similar scenario. The image of the third Earl of Rosse in John’s Mall is also a fine example of Foley’s skill, and the reputation of ‘The Astronomer Earl’ has grown over the years. The statue, by virtue of its scale and location, is an integral part of a well-designed public space. Thus all three criteria are fulfilled.
In nearby Emmet Square stands the finest urban ensemble in Offaly and the only extant example in Ireland of the use of a central column as a focus for a public plaza. Whatever about the artistic merit of his statue which stood atop its elegant Doric pillar, the brutal reputation of the Duke of Cumberland was anathema to many and the discovery of a crack gave a valid excuse for its removal by Birr Town Council in 1915. Had Dublin Corporation adopted the same approach, the column upon which Nelson stood and which contributed to the scale and architectural character of O’Connell Street, might still be with us but as in Birr, we would probably still be debating a suitable replacement to cap it.
The issue of whether existing public art is still relevant and making a contribution to its locality can sometimes be contentious, but the location and nature of new public art is always pure dynamite, as the persistent vandalism of the Luke Kelly statues in Dublin (whether for aesthetic reasons or not) demonstrates.
Ideally public art requires public consensus and the smaller communities of Offaly who have got together to commission and install works of high artistic quality to celebrate their own local heroes or legends have shown the way in this regard and their approach deserves study and emulation.
Killeigh commemorates its famous local greyhound ‘Mick the Miller’ with a beautiful bronze piece by Elizabeth O’Kane. Cadamstown remembers local boxer Dick McRedmond in a lovely stone bust by Dermot Scully. In Ballycumber the wonderful little ‘Pilgrim’ trudges wearily to Clonmacnoise along the Erry Way in a delightful work by local artists Gerry Dooley and Lorie Quinn.
It is acknowledged by everyone that in Offaly both semi-State and local authorities have been to the forefront in providing good public art. The ambitious installations provided by Bord na Mona in the Lough Boora Discovery Park make it one of the best sculpture parks in Europe and it is the calling card of Offaly Tourism. Through its operation of the Percent for Art scheme, Offaly County Council has provided many imaginative and successful works in every part of the county, most recently Holger Lonze’s ‘Cruinne’ in Geashill and the ‘Marker Stone’ on top of Croghan Hill by Ciaran Byrne.
The elephant in the room however, is that almost all of these are in rural, village or remote locations and therefore their theme and siting is relatively uncontentious. A proposal to install a major piece of sculpture in the centre of any of the principal towns of the county on the other hand would immediately raise the questions of where, who, why, by whom and at what cost and inevitably cause a row. Nonetheless, busy central public spaces, both existing and planned, should now be the first choice locations for new artwork and these issues must be faced and a reasonable public consensus sought.
The county capital, Tullamore town centre has only three significant sculptural works, the two long established War Memorials and the 1999 ‘Pot Stills’ in Market Square by Eileen McDonagh. The recent Street Enhancement Scheme which might have provided the opportunity for the installation of a significant new work, instead inexplicably and without giving public notice, required the removal of the Memorial to the Dead of the Great War from O’Connor Square, despite its designation as a Protected Structure. Following an outcry and Ministerial intervention, it was saved but its generous planted setting vanished and it now stands looking a little lost and unhappily compromised by car parking. A more considered and consultative approach to our urban heritage is urgently required
A Phoenix arises?
The installation of a fine new piece of sculpture to adorn the historic centre of Tullamore is long overdue and the imminence of a new town plan presents the opportunity for its delivery. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, the new plan will include a coherent vision for the preservation and enhancement of the town’s architectural heritage.
It might also follow the lead of other local authorities and outline the role that urban art would play in making the centre more attractive and even suggest where new sculpture or installations might be placed. The Offaly County Council Public Art Working Group could then initiate a debate as to appropriate subjects. One relatively uncontentious idea that has been around for years and which would certainly stimulate the imagination of a talented artist, would be that of the Phoenix- the symbol of the town.
This is now the time to start the debate on how Tullamore can celebrate its history, remember those who made a contribution to it and furnish its historic centre with new and exciting public art.
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.
The verdict of county secretary James P. Kingston on the county council elections of 2 June 1920 was that the election was not just remarkable and memorable but revolutionary. Kingston believed it was even more revolutionary than the 1899 elections that saw only three members of the old grand jury transfer to the new county council. In that election James Perry Goodbody was elected for Clara unopposed and William Adams defeated distiller and grand jury member Bernard Daly to secure the Tullamore seat. Goodbody was a leading Quaker businessman and Adams a large farmer and publican. Adams retired from the council in 1912 and was succeeded at the council by his son P.F. Adams who was married to Rosaleen Egan, a daughter of Henry Egan, chairman of the county council from 1899 to 1910. Goodbody served on the council as chair of the Finance and Proposals Committee from 1900 and was vice-chairman of the council from 1912. Both P.F. Adams and James P. Goodbody sought election to the new council of 1920 in the first post-war elections and both were defeated. Sinn Féin secured 19 of the 21 seats and acceptable Labour men two seats. For Secretary Kingston the election was also a turning point as he was forced out of office within a year, just as his predecessor Thomas Mitchell had been in 1899.
‘While some counties have done much in the matter of publicizing their part in the fight for freedom, very little has been heard of the part played by Offaly in that great struggle, and yet it was within the borders of this historic county that some of the bravest and most daring deeds were done. It is not right, he said, that these should be allowed to pass into complete oblivion, and it is hoped the writing of this story of the Clara R.I.C. barrack attack will encourage others into penning the complete story of Offaly’s fight during that critical period of Irish history.’ These were the words of P. O’M. in 1960, basing his account on that published in the local press on 5 June 1920. (P O’M was brought to our attention as Paddy O’Meara who wrote a number of good articles on Clara history and was a local news correspondent.) The witness statement of Séan O’Neill, a manager in P.J. White’s Clara shop (Bureau of Military History) supports the press reports of the time. So to do the recollections of Harold Goodbody (forthcoming). IRA man and county councillor Sean Robbins of Clara was critical as was Fergus O’Bracken, writing to vindicate the role of his father, overall IRA commandant Peadar Bracken, in the episode.