The Birr Whiskey Distilleries. Specially contributed.

Does anyone have a bottle of Birr whiskey now? The destruction of Birr’s last distillery in March 1889 was seen as a death blow to the town. The population of Birr in 1841 on the eve of the Famine was 6,336 persons with another 554 in Crinkill. However, the next eighty years saw a period of decline such that over the period 1861 to 1926 the population fell by 44.6 per cent or from 6,146 to 3,402.  The decline was exacerbated by the closure of the distillery in 1889 and the military barracks in 1922. In 1921 the workhouse (erected c. 1840) was brutally closed and amalgamated with Tullamore.

Birr had strong associations with whiskey distilling from at least the 1800s. Probably the large military barracks at Crinkill acted as a stimulus to production. In 1818 only two distilleries were in operation in County Offaly and both were located in Birr. In competition with Birr was the Birch distillery at Roscrea.  One of the Birr distilleries was that of Robert Robinson and was located at Castle Street and formed part of what was until the 1980s the Williams Waller Ltd grain handling depot (formerly Birr Maltings Ltd.), and now partly demolished with the remainder incorporated in The Maltings guest house. The second distillery, established in 1805 by the Hackett family, was located at Elmgrove on the eastern side of the town.  A third distillery, described as the ‘old distillery’ in 1838 was located near what is now the Mill Island Park and part of which is incorporated in the Birr Technology Centre. Thus ample remains of all three distilleries still survive.

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Tullamore in 1838: from Patrick Street to Harbour Street, Church Street and Henry/O’Carroll Street. No. 3 in the series to mark the 400th anniversary of township in Tullamore. By Michael Byrne

Barracks built in 1716 and destroyed in 1922

The barracks of 1716 was at the western end of Patrick Street and Hayes Hotel, dating to 1786, at the eastern end on the corner with Church Street and Bridge Street (now Boots Pharmacy). The barracks was destroyed in July 192 2on the retreat of the Republican soldiers from the town during the Civil War. Within fifteen years the site was fully taken up with urban council housing and a garda station built here in 1937 and rebuilt in 2002. The military barrack of 1716 brought about 100 soldiers to the town and is thought to have been a major factor in the town’s growth because of the increased demand for goods and services that followed its construction. After the 1870s, soldiers were stationed at Tullamore only at infrequent intervals.

Barrack/Patrick Street, Tullamore about 1910. The barracks dated to 1716 and destroyed in 1922.

The police moved into the old barracks about the year 1899. The building was occupied by the old I.R.A. in March 1922 when the British army quit the town as part of the Treaty settlement and was destroyed some four months later as the Republican soldiers left town in the course of the Civil War and before the arrival of the Free State army. Parts of the old walls survive and one can see the star-shaped fort pattern in the part of the wall opposite DNG Auctioneers.

Part of the old star-shaped fort style for the new barracks of 1716 erected in Tullamore
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Tullamore town in 1838: based on the six-inch Ordnance map. Number 2 in a series marking the 400th anniversary of township in Tullamore. By Michael Byrne

The first article in this recent series to mark the 400th anniversary of the grant to Sir John Moore of Croghan and Tullamore of a licence to hold fairs and markets and establish manorial government was about Tullamore in 1804–7 and was based on two surviving Grand Canal maps. The earliest surviving comprehensive map of Tullamore is that of 1838 and can conveniently be found at osi.ie and its Geohive platform. The purpose of this article is to review the street plan and buildings of the town of Tullamore as shown on part of the Ordnance Survey six-inch sheet no. 17 of which the first edition was published in 1838. It will take three or four blogs to view the 1838 map of Tullamore and in OS fashion and matching the design of Tullamore town from the 1790s we can proceed in gridiron format from the north west of the town to the south east. 

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The D.E. Williams branch shops in the midlands, 1884–1921: A revolution in retailing. By Michael Byrne

There are only a few studies available on the development of retailing in Ireland, either of a general nature or in connection with particular firms. It is well known that in the first half of the nineteenth century and up to the Famine years retail outlets were not widely available and many in the smaller towns were no better than huxter shops. There were exceptions and that is clear from the photographs of c. 1900 of shops such as Williams. Egan, Goodbody and Lumley (in Tullamore); O’Brien in Edenderry and O’Meara and Fayles in Birr. In looking at the revolutionary period from 1912 to 1921 to mark the decade of centenaries it is also worth looking at revolutions in other areas such as transport, energy and shopping. Like the political revolution retailing exhibited signs of stress after 1921 and did not recover until the coming of the supermarkets to the provincial towns in the 1960s.

The Williams head office with the Barrack Patrick Street shop to the right before more intensive motorised transport from 1915. Branch house managers were appointed of which the last under the old system (before the switch to supermarkets) was T.V. Costello.

The trade directories, and from the 1840s the valuation records, will facilitate investigation of retail outlets. By the 1860s living standards had improved and this is reflected in the increasing number of shops; per capita tobacco consumption rose to English standards about 1870 and per capita consumption of tea was not far off the English level by the end of the 1870s. The considerable economic progress of the early 1870s, began to slow down by the end of that decade. The 1880s is looked on as a period of industrial crisis with industries closing down in all the principal towns, or destroyed by fire as with the Goodbody tobacco factory in Tullamore and the Birr distillery in 1889.The railways and the canals (especially in the midlands) facilitated the easy removal of heavy goods and livestock from towns all over Ireland, but it also left it easier to import foods easily and cheaply. As a result, the Irish industrial base (such as it was, especially in southern Ireland) receded while the retail and services sector began to grow albeit slowly.

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What If? 1919-1923: Columb Kelly, executed at Birr during the Civil War. By Maurice G. Egan with thanks to Hollie M. Eilbeck and dedicated to the memory of Rose Kelly

Introduction

The Summer of 1921was heralded as having some of the best Irish weather days in ten years.1 Many people used the opportunity to cycle their bicycles along the countryside roads and lanes, whilst keenly observing the fields of green and gold ripening barley. The slight breeze gently blowing the ears of grain with the browny blue hues of the Slieve Bloom mountains to the southwest as background. The farmers were looking forward to a decent crop that year, and to attract good prices when selling to the local malt houses, brewers, and distillers. They would be able to take on additional seasonal labour to get the harvest in on time. After yet another long Winter, much needed outdoor activity and laughter was a recipe for relief from the underlying and not too far off reality of political turmoil, criminality, and civil strife. ‘The Truce that came into effect on 11 July 1921 officially ended what is now most often referred to as the War of Independence and came as the culmination of the most violent six months of the war.’2 ‘Relieved civilians celebrated the arrival of peace and Volunteers returned home to bask in newfound freedom, safety, and adulation.’3 But sadly, it was to be a summer that would be remembered not for the good weather alone.

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New history in old Tullamore bottles – Egan’s, Tullamore DEW, Stirling and more besides. By Noel Guerin

I started collecting bottles a little over a year ago, interested in their origins and local history. I’ve picked a small collection of the type of breweriana bottles that were used in the day to day lives of the people of Tullamore and surrounding towns in the late 19th and early 20th century. I’ve provided a brief description of the types of bottles I’ve mentioned. Most of the dates provided are approximate and offered with the best knowledge I have at this moment. As I get more accurate information, the dates will be reviewed. I started off with some basic background information on bottles.

Carbonised mineral bottle   It is widely known amongst bottle collectors that Joseph Priestly discovered how to make carbonised mineral water in 1772. It was prepared by dissolving carbon dioxide in water. By 1860, it had become easier to manufacture and was being flavoured with fruit syrups, lemons and limes. It was retailed by grocers, wine and spirit merchants, as well as chemists. At first the new drink was stored in earthenware bottles, but the gas escaped through the skin and so the drink became flat. Manufacturers switched to glass bottles. However, corks were still used to seal the carbonised mineral water drinks, and if they were allowed to dry out, they tended to loosen which allowed the gas to escape. If the bottles were stored on their side, this was less likely to happen.

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A new Heritage Tourism role for the Old Bonded Warehouse, Tullamore. By Michael Byrne

It’s six months now since William Grant announced the closing of the old Bonded Warehouse Visitor Centre at Bury Quay, Tullamore. The company that makes the world-famous and second largest selling Irish whiskey, Tullamore DEW is going to concentrate its energies on a new visitor centre at the 2014-17 purpose-built Tullamore DEW distillery at Clonminch and understandably so.

D E Williams’ 1897 warehouse

The idea of a visitor centre at Bury Quay was conceived in the early1990s as a way of attracting visitors to Tullamore town. Tullamore had been designated an industrial heritage town in 1990 and EC tourism funds were available. The idea that a new distillery would open in Tullamore was not on the radar. Thanks to the work of Irish Mist (Bill Jaffray), Cantrell & Cochrane (owners of the DEW brand from 1993 to 2010), Tullamore Town Council and Offaly History the idea came to fruition in the year 2000 and the visitor centre was opened. C & C had put in about £500,000 plus the building (the late Frank McGovern and Tony O’Brien being the captains here), Bord Failte £300,000 and the council the balance with the total costs at £1.2m. This included a liquor licence for £90,000. Two County Managers and a Town Clerk played great developmental roles to ensure it was successfully completed as did the staff and franchisees subsequently.

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How did we cope with Cholera in Offaly in the 1830s? Edited from an article by Dr Tim O’Neill in Offaly Heritage (2003).

005a Library
The Offaly County Hospital, Church Street, Tullamore, had 50 beds while the population in 1841 was twice what is is now.

Cholera was the epidemic disease most feared around the world in the nineteenth century.A letter from Tullamore of 1832 describes the devestating disease of cholera. ‘We had 165 deaths. All bridges to the town are cut and broken. Every house is shut up and there is no such thing as business. Men who would eat their breakfact in perfect health would be buried before dinner.’

In the eighteenth century neighbouring countries began to suffer from the disease and in the nineteenth century it attacked Europe. Cholera spread around the world in great epidemics from its traditional base in the Indian sub-continent and carried with it high mortality rates, severe suffering and terrifying symptoms. These began in 1817 but the first wave did not reach Europe and was halted temporarily at the shores of the Caspian Sea. From there in 1829 it spread rapidly through Europe. It arrived in Ireland around St Patrick’s Day 1832. This was the most serious cholera outbreak in Ireland in the nineteenth century and it has been estimated that 25,378 people died during that epidemic. The Irish death rate was high when compared to other countries for the same period.

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A D. E. Williams Limited Tullamore maltster for fifty years tells his story. By the late Michael Power of Marian Place, Tullamore

057262 Williams Traditional floor malting
The old floor malting process for hundreds of years ceased in Tullamore in 1969. Cover pic is of Water Lane now entrance to Main Street, Tullamore. Courtesy of Fergal MacCabe.

The Williams company of Tullamore (1884–1996) was in the malting business from 1892. Other Tullamore firms included Egan, Tarleton and B. Daly, the Tullamore distillery. In this article Michael Power tells his story. This piece was first published in Jip-cat, pig’s head, petticoats and combinations: our lives, our times in Tullamore and surrounding districts; editor Feargal Kenny. Tullamore: Tullamore Active Retirement Association, 2002 (available from Offaly History Centre).

064723 Williams brochure picture
Modernisation of agriculture in the 1970s

As a seasonal worker in the Maltings, you started in September when the harvest came in and wound up in May when the malting was over. I became a permanent worker [at Williams/B Daly/Tullamore Distillery [in 1932 and remained there for fifty years. The work was hard, labouring work, carrying sacks, working in the malthouse, screening malt and barley and carrying sacks of grain.

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Flann O’Brien and the Tullamore Connection. Offaly Literary Associations, no 5. Michael Byrne.

The flat countryside around Tullamore left a deep impression on the future writer’s mind. And when, 20 years later, he wrote an existentialist murder mystery called The Third Policemen, set mainly in a nether afterworld, he used Offaly as his model.

Best of Myles OHFlann O’Brien (1911-66) was the well-known Irish novelist and political commentator. He was born in County Tyrone as Brian O’Nolan and raised mostly in Dublin. The writer spent about four years in Tullamore where his father, Michael V. Nolan, worked with the Revenue keeping an eye to the duty or taxes to be collected on Tullamore whiskey when it was removed from the bonded warehouse. From 1940 until his death, Flann wrote a political column called ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ for The Irish Times under the pseudonym of Myles na Gopaleen; his biting, satiric commentaries made him the conscience of the nation. As Flann O’Brien, he published three novels, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), The Dalkey Archive (1964), and The Third Policeman (1967). He also published a play, Faustus Kelly (1943). The Third Policeman is now considered his best and it was possibly in Tullamore he got his poky and spooky ideas for this quirky book which after a struggle in the late 1930s was published in 1967 after his death. Continue reading