An Englishman’s walk through Birr, Kilcormac and Tullamore in mid-1921, as the War of Independence intensified. By Michael Byrne

An Englishman, Wilfrid Ewart (1892-1922), walked from Cork through the Irish midlands to Belfast during the War of Independence in April-May 1921. His book A Journey in Ireland 1921 (London, April 1922) was his account of that dangerous journey through the Irish heartland. Ewart commenced his journey on 18 April 1921 and finished it on 10 May.  How did he escape abduction or shooting as an English spy? He might have come close to meeting death near the Blue Ball. Ewart was born in 1892 and died in 1922 – the year of the publication of his book, killed by a stray bullet in Mexico city on New Year’s Eve 1922. So Ewart lived dangerously as is clear from his passage through County Offaly the year before his death. His account is one of the best we have of feelings in Birr during the height of the War of Independence and on the eve of the killings at Kinnitty and Coolacrease, not to mention so called spys.

The jacket of the first edition of 1922

Ewart was possibly near death at the Blue Ball and surprisingly escaped that fate. He must have had great connections and credentials from both sides in the War of Independence to escape a violent death. He was surprised at how normal life was in Birr and contrasted the scene with the situation in Tullamore, where curfew had lately been imposed. Shots had been fired at the RIC and Black and Tans in the town of Tullamore in early April and one volunteer killed.  In making the trip Ewart was out to discover for himself just what justification there was (if any) for British actions in Ireland.

In Birr Ewart met Archdeacon John Ryan who succeeded in 1917 on the death of Dean Scanlan in December 1916 and was parish priest there for 31 years until his death at the age of 96 in 1948. Ewart in his 1921 interview with Ryan described him as:

One of the most picturesque personalities I came across in this part of Ireland was Archdeacon Ryan, of Birr. Indeed, there was not a little in common between this fragile-looking, shy-mannered and unworldly priest and the steel-fibred leaders of Sinn Fein whom I had talked with in Cork.  There was the same – how shall one say? – delicate adjustment of mind, softness of voice and manner, strain of poetry, faint perfume of idealism which mollifies, or appears to, the rigid nationalism.

Ewart went on to note that Archdeacon Ryan considered the IRA to be motivated by pure patriotism. Ewart in his interview with John Dooly did focus on the immediate cause of Dooly’s removal from the chair of the King’s County Council in June 1918, but perhaps ought to have got a lot more. The change in public mood in the county did not affect Dooly’s standing in Birr and he continued to be elected as chair of the Birr Urban District Council up to his death in 1924, a record of twenty-four years. Ewart met three other people perhaps including the agent to the Rosse estate. What was emphasised was how law abiding the town was. The county was at that time outside of the martial law area and the markets were functioning. In neither Birr (nor Tullamore, though described as hotter that Birr politically) did Sinn Féin have an outright victory in the urban elections. 

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Marking the opening of the first public library in Tullamore: May 1921. By Michael Byrne

For many the habit of reading started with the local library and has never left us. Recollections of the several libraries we have had in Tullamore remind us that so far as reading and comfort goes we have never had it so good. This is the time to recall the first public library in Tullamore started in May 1921, just 100 years ago. For that we have to thank an unsung hero E. J. Delahunty, a native of Clonmel, who was in charge of technical education in the county from 1904 to 1930 and died in 1931. He organized the first ‘students’ union’ in Tullamore and a superb lecture series on the great issues of the day in the 1916–21 period, and with mostly well-known speakers with a national reputation. The Midland Tribune gave the opening of the library an editorial and regretted that the lecture series had to be abandoned that year. Delahunty was shrewd and had the Tribune editor, Seamus Pike, on side. Another unsung hero of the revolutionary decade was Revd John Humphreys, a Tullamore-based Presbyterian minister, and great advocate for technical education. These are three people who need to be included in the Offaly Dictionary of Biography.

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Teresa Wyer (1868–1959): the first woman chairperson of a public board in County Offaly and prominent in Sinn Féin in the revolutionary years. By Owen Wyer and Michael Byrne

Teresa Wyer was born in Ballykeenaghan, Rahan, Tullamore, County Offaly on 29 November 1868. She was the third youngest of eleven children of Michael and Anne Mary Wyer. Teresa Wyer went to Rahan National School and thereafter to Killina Secondary School. She joined the Convent of Mercy Athy, County Kildare on 22 February 1890 where she was called Sr Mary Baptist. She left the convent in 1900 and ran a shop and public house at No 6 Church Street bought by the first author’s grandfather, Owen Wyer, brother of Teresa Wyer, from Abraham Colton, the Tullamore auctioneer and hotelier in early 1901. Owen Wyer was also a Sinn Féin activist and chaired a great Sinn Féin meeting in Rahan in September 1917.

Drama in Tullamore from the Gaelic League, c. 1906 with a backdrop of a painted view of William/Columcille Street. Owen Wyer is second from the right in the back row.

Church Street was a busy commercial street at that time with at least five public houses, a hotel and a number of private residences. Wyer’s neighbours included the long-established Warren family drapery stores with two shops. In 1901 Teresa Wyer (then describing herself as 30) was living with her brother over the public house and they had a shop assistant and servant living with them. Owen Wyer was a maltster with the Egans of Tullamore and she a publican. By 1911 she described herself as a grocer and aged only 36, single and with four assistants living over the shop. Teresa Wyer married James Wyer from Ard, Geashill on 24 February 1914.

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Remembering Lieut. Matthew Kane, Tullamore, died 1 April 1921 in the service of his country. By Michael Byrne

‘Early April 1921.  There was an ambush outside our house, in which a Black and Tan was shot dead.  The Black and Tans forced their way into our house, searched every inch and left a huge mess.  They also left my terrified mother, father and five brothers and sisters.  Three weeks later, I was born & my mother often recounted the fact that after my birth I was a very jumpy baby.’  Nuala Holland (née Mahon, Charleville Road, Tullamore). 

Nuala Mahon was referring to the attacks on the RIC in Tullamore in April 1921 that are matter-of-factly referred to by Sean McGuinness of Kilbeggan in his witness statement, now in the Military Archives (online, p. 29 in the pdf), in what he called ‘onslaughts on Tullamore RI.C. patrols at Charleville Road, New Road, Hayes Cross and Barrack Street, all on 1 April 1921 in which policemen and I.R.A. men were wounded and killed’.

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Keeping your head down – Protestant identity in 20th century Ireland. By Sylvia Turner

Ethel Kerin was born on 11 January 1922 in Clara, County Offaly. Her mantra in life was to ‘keep your head down’ learned from her parents who worked as servants on the estates of affluent Protestants. Ethel kept her head down in terms of her parents’ employers as she depended on them for food and shelter. When she came to live in England in the 1940s, she kept her head down as she was Irish.

Ethel Kerin was my mother. She was born into a family of Protestants who worked in service. Little I have read or seen in Ireland relates to the type of life she and her family led. It was a hand to mouth existence, of feeling inferior and beholden to her father’s employers who were Protestant business families or landed gentry. In the post Partition decades of the 1920s and 30s, the lives of the family were frequently interrupted by termination of service and relocation. Apart from the Quaker families they worked for, their employers treated them with little regard, deciding to close down their houses and leave Ireland at short notice, returning to properties they held in England. My grandmother kept in touch by letter with the many friends she made, both Catholic and Protestant, across the Midlands and east of the country till the end of her life. The correspondence gives a sense of sadness of having to move and set up home again as well as the vagaries of their employers. However, simple pleasures of going out for picnics and evenings with neighbours that involved laughter and fiddle playing were clearly high points in their lives. Overall, there is a sense of making the best of things under difficult circumstances. Despite church and school attendance at the Church of Ireland, the family’s lives were more related to their neighbours, regardless of religion, than they were to that of their Protestant employers.

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T.M. Russell (1868–1932): a huge loss to Offaly in the early years of Independence. By Michael Byrne

The now permanent release online with free access of some 11,000 lives in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) will be a huge bonus to historical research. And yet there will be many people at county level who will not feature but deserve to have their work recorded in dictionaries of county biography. Offaly History began this process in its publication Offaly Heritage 9 (2016) but more so in the recent issue of Offaly Heritage 11 (2020) where the following ‘Brief Lives’ were recorded by way of:

Short biographies of revolutionary figures in Offaly, 1912–23

P.J. Bermingham (1872–1975), 2–3.

Eamonn Bulfin of Derrinlough, 26–7

Father Thomas Burbage (1879–1966), 42–5

Revd Philip Callary (1849–1925), 73–4

Cumann na mBan in Offaly, 80–81

Thomas Dunne (1884–1968), 90–91

James Perry Goodbody (1853–1923), 134–5

Catherine Mahon (1869–1948), 157–8

Patrick McCartan (1878–1963), 179–80

Seán McGuinness (1899–1978), 189–90

T. M. Russell (1868–1932), 205–6

These short essays of less than 1,000 words each were contributed by independent scholars – Brian Pey, Michael Byrne, Margaret White, Ciara Molloy and Lisa Shortall.

Offaly Heritage 11 – a bumper issue of 450 pages with the brief lives

It is to the final life in that recent collection we focus on here. It was that of T.M. Russell, a man with huge potential, which remained unrealised when the opportunity came for a revolutionary change in local government in June 1920. This was following on from the election of the first Sinn Féin controlled county council and the implementation of self-reliance and breaking with the Dublin Castle based Local Government Board.

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The golden era of housing in Tullamore from the 1930s to the 1950s: Clontarf Road, Pearse Park and Marian Place, but Dr Moran, P.P. has reservations. By Fergal MacCabe

An Architect Revealed

On Monday 16 February 1953, a Banquet was held in Hayes Hotel Tullamore to celebrate two very significant achievements; the completion of the 74-house Pearse Park and the cutting of the sod for a further 106 houses later to be named Marian Place. These two estates, whose very names evoke the atmosphere of the period, would be joined in 1965 by Kearney Park dedicated to the well-known local politician Joe Kearney.The three schemes together represent a high point in local authority housing not just in Offaly, but in Ireland.

The large attendance that day included the Minister for Local Government Paddy Smith, the cream of Tullamore society; the clergy, politicians, administrators, police and solicitors, as well as those involved in the delivery of the estates. Buried at the bottom of the extensive list which appears in an entertaining frontpage account of the event in the Offaly Independent of the following Monday, but unidentified as such, was the designer of the schemes, the architect Donald Arthur ‘Bob’ Tyndall M.R.I.A.I. (d.1975). Tyndall who had spent his early career in Shanghai was also engaged to deliver the Tullamore County Clinic and is credited with several housing schemes in the Offaly area. In 1971 his practice became Tyndall Hogan Hurley and went on to become one of the most successful in Dublin, specialising in office and residential developments.

Tyndall was the latest in the line of designers used by Tullamore Urban District Council to implement an admirable housing programme over the previous fifty years.

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The regulation of public morality in Offaly during the war years, 1914–18: a story from Birr. By Michael Byrne

There is so little of the undercurrent and gossip of a town in a local newspaper and yet we rely on them so much to tell us ‘what really happened’. Will we ever know from the reportage? We are grateful to have the lately published witness statements in the Depositions of 1642–53, or those in the pension records of the 1916–23 conflict. Yet we are advised to be cautious in using such records. What we do know of what ‘right-thinking people’ were saying about sexual morality in Birr, during the years of the First World War, we have from a sermon preached in Birr Catholic church in November 1917. It was one of the Birr curates who was the most outspoken while the then recently appointed 65-year old parish priest of Birr, Canon Ryan, had little to say. Or if he had it was not recorded. ‘Delicate’ subjects then as now, were seldom spoken of from the pulpit or the newsroom except in generalisations. In the case of the Laois-Offaly depositions it has taken over 300 years for the sworn affidavits to reach the public arena. For the witness statements provided by War of Independence veterans near enough sixty years. Is it any wonder that court cases with their mostly contemporary renditions are so popular?  It is the same with sermons that touch on local sexual life – the subject being almost taboo except in the abstract. Seldom spoken of in the church and hardly ever recorded in the local news media before 1970. The press reports of court case evidence can be more satisfying as contemporary first-hand accounts, but for the public and no less for the judges, it can often be hard to know what the real story is.  The reports of public morality debates or pulpit declamations in the years before and after 1922 are hugely important in helping to understand the concern (and who was raising it) over unmarried mothers and their children that would feed away, as if an unspoken of cancer in society, over the years from 1922 to the early 1970s.

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Sources: Researching the War of Independence at Offaly Archives

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

The Pearson executions, Offaly – June 1921. By Robert McEvoy

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