This week’s Decade of Centenaries blogpost is by Margaret Hogan, retired teacher of St Brendan’s Community School, Birr, and local historian.
Catherine Mahon is represented in most of the strands of the Decade of Centenaries: the labour movement, the women’s movement, the nationalist movement and even the implications of World War One for women teachers and agriculture. She became principal teacher at Carrig Mixed National School in Birr parish in 1892, and many of her friends and ex-pupils remembered the building of the nucleus of the present school by direct labour in 1911 and spoke about her activities during the Decade of Centenaries.
She was co-opted to the executive of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) in 1907 after she protested that the executive was all male in a majority female profession. Her ability was recognised, and she became first woman president of the INTO in 1912 for two years. Female teachers then had to work longer hours than male teachers, training girls in laundry, needlework and cookery, and often buying products at their own expense, even though their salaries were much lower than those of male teachers. Then a pregnant woman teacher was obliged to take three months’ leave and employ a substitute at her own expense, and this enraged ‘Miss Mahon’, as she came to be known. It was alleged that inspectors at the time operated ‘a reign of terror’, humiliating, fining, demoting and having teachers dismissed in an arbitrary way. The UK government set up the Dill Commission to investigate teachers’ conditions of work and it is agreed that Miss Mahon starred when she gave evidence at the inquiry, with able responses to stiff challenges.
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.
The role of religious orders in Irish society is a subject which frequently arouses passionate debate and, like many other debates, often generates more heat than light as extreme positions are taken, with members of orders seen as either saints or demons. The sisters of the Tullamore Mercy Convent are held in high esteem for their educational and charitable work and have always been willing to learn and to adapt with changing times.
The Sisters of Mercy have had a presence in Tullamore since 1836, when the original sisters came on the flyboat from Portobello down the Grand Canal, from the mother house in Dublin’s Baggot Street, founded by Catherine McAuley.
St Joseph’s Convent was the first foundation outside Dublin by an order which was to become the largest order of women religious in the English-speaking world.
Brought to Tullamore at the request of the then parish priest, Father O’Rafferty, it went on to play a major role in local history, as well as to found convents in other locations.
In writing about the order, I am conscious of my own dealings with it as a young boy, having attended the old St Joseph’s NS (where St Philomena’s is now located) from 1965-68. In those days, the norm was that boys attended there for the first three years of schooling, until First Communion, when they departed either for Scoil Bhríde or, as in my own case, to the primary school then run by the Christian Brothers in Coláiste Choilm.
The girls then continued for another year or two until moving to St Philomena’s, which was then based in Harbour Street, in what is now St Mary’s Youth and Community Centre.
I have good memories of the four nuns who taught me in St Joseph’s – the late Sister Bernadette Nevin was my first teacher in Junior Infants, and she was followed by Sister Scholastica (now Sister Kathleen), Sister Regina (who later moved to teach in the USA) and Sister Columba (now Sister Nuala).
I cannot presume to speak on behalf of my female counterparts regarding their memories at more senior primary and secondary classes, that is something they would have to outline themselves. During my schooldays and for many years thereafter, the Sisters of Mercy ran three primary schools in Tullamore – in addition to St Joseph’s and St Philomena’s, they ran Scoil Mhuire on the other side of the town – in addition to the Sacred Heart School, the only all-female secondary school in Offaly.
In addition to such a major role in education, I am conscious of their involvement as nurses in the local hospital, where a separate convent, the Sacred Heart convent, long existed, as well as their work in Riada House and its predecessor, the old County Home.
One also thinks of the order’s legacy in terms of setting up the Day Care Centre at Whitehall, the old launderette on Convent Road and of course involvement in the development of youth services and work with Travellers.
By the late 1980s, the effect of declining vocations was already beginning to be felt – the appointment towards the end of that decade of Ann Cooney as the first lay head at St Philomena’s was followed by that of Geraldine Byrne at St Joseph’s in 1992 and Máire McRedmond at Scoil Mhuire in 1999. At secondary level, Sheila McManamly became first lay principal at the Sacred Heart School in 1991, when Sister Ann O’Neill kept her promise to do no more than six years as head following the retirement of the late Sister Dolores Walsh.
St Joseph’s Convent has been linked to a number of foundations away from Tullamore – in addition to the Kilcormac convent, which has closed in recent years (with the remaining sisters moved to Tullamore), it is worth noting the role in founding convents in Derry and in Costa Mesa in Orange County, California.
Sisters from Tullamore have also served in Zambia and Kenya as well as Iceland.
With the remaining sisters predominantly elderly, the time will come when few will be aware of their work, but the legacy remains in schools and youth services. Those of us of a certain generation are well aware of the great work done by Sisters Ann and Genny, among others, in the youth services, and the order’s generosity in donating the old St Philomena’s to become the Youth Centre in 1980.
We also remember the work of Sister Veronica Gilsenan in helping bereaved families, as well as her work with Travellers and others in need – at a personal level, I recall her going to see my father when he was dying in Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin in 1990.
In assessing their work, we have to remember that they often reflected the mores of their time and as sisters aged, they often re-evaluated positions they previously took for granted.
From conversations I had with sisters down the years, I could see they were quite pragmatic in coming to terms with the changing position of women and the adjustments in social mores.
Schooling in Ireland: a clustered history 1695-1912. by John Stocks Powell. Published by Offaly History (2020) , 364 pp in softback and limited run of 50 only for sale in hard covers €28. Offaly History Centre, Whelehans in Portarlington and Midland Books, Tullamore.
The cluster is Portarlington, and now appears in book form, published by Esker Press for Offaly History in Tullamore. It should be remembered that Portarlington is as much in Co. Offaly as in Co. Laois; and in this history of schools the exact locations revealed more on the Offaly side than the Laois.
The early schools of Portarlington have so often been seen as a follow-on to the Huguenots, and more or less left at that. This book shows the school history to have surpassed the Huguenots both it time span, and in importance: so many eighteenth and nineteenth century printed sources wrote of the schools as significant, and not the French. Indeed the 1803 Post Chaise Companion for Ireland ignore the French and cite ‘several schools in great repute’.
It was generally in late May of each year that school tours and school sports were held and provide happy memories of times past. Besides the serious stuff there were lots of fun events such as the sack race, the egg and spoon, wheelbarrow and much more. Charleville Demesne, Tullamore had sports days back in the 1830s for its tenantry with events such as climbing a greasy pole and other fun and frolics fit to be described by Carleton or Hardy. These early efforts have been much studied and collated in early tomes such as Blaine’s Rural Sports and W.H. Maxwell’s Wild sports of the West. Durrow, Tullamore man, Paul Rouse, has surveyed the traditional sporting pattern and the onward commercialising and politicisation of sports by the late nineteenth century in his acclaimed history published as Sport and Ireland (2015).
Offaly Archives received a very interesting donation of manuscripts in recent times. Michael MacNamara, a native of Colehill and long-time resident of County Limerick, donated archives relating to his great grand-father, Peter Cavanagh, who was born in Cappincur in 1824 and ended up as a solider in the US army during the American Civil War. Before all those adventures, Peter undertook high level tuition from a Mr Patrick Glowry in a hedge-school arrangement through the famine years of 1844-1848. His copybook survived and is among the items donated to Offaly Archives. Michael MacNamara has spent many years researching Peter Cavanagh and summarised his unusual life and times for an interview in the Midland Tribune in 2005: Continue reading →
Arthur & Charlotte: A Victorian Romance Remembered is the title for a dramatic evening to be presented by Offaly History in Hugh Lynch’s Pub, Tullamore on Thursday 5th December at 8 p.m. The event will chronicle the story of Arthur Bell Nicholls of Banagher and his romance with and marriage to the famous Victorian novelist, Charlotte Brontë of Haworth in Yorkshire. Using contemporary source material the presentation will narrate this intriguing love story in written word and song. Readings will recall Arthur’s early years when he lived in Cuba House with his uncle the Reverend Alan Bell, Master of the Royal School of Banagher, his subsequent ordination and appointment as curate to the Reverend Patrick Brontë in Haworth.
Extracts from Charlotte’s letters will describe her marriage to Arthur and her honeymoon in Ireland. The production will close with an account of Arthur’s life following Charlotte’s death in 1855 and his return from Haworth to Banagher in 1861, up to his death in 1906.The event will be performed by the Martello Tower Players from Banagher, All proceeds from the evening will go towards the new Offaly Archives recently completed in the Axis Business Park, Clara Road Tullamore. Tickets are €12 each and can be obtained from Offaly History Centre. Telephone: 05793 21421 or email: email@example.com and James Scully, Banagher
Mary Ward takes her place alongside the Rosses, Jolys and Stoneys in the King’s County/Offaly people of science gallery. Born Mary King, at Ballylin, Ferbane on 27 April 1827 she died in a shocking accident at Birr on 31 August 1869 (see our blog of 24 August 2019). On Saturday 31 August 2019 we mark the 150th anniversary of her death and say something of her achievements. So join us on Saturday from 3.30 pm at Oxmantown Mall, Birr. All are welcome. The book launch is at 5 pm in the Courtyard Café, Birr Demesne. The book will be general sale from 1 September at Birr Demesne, Offaly History Centre and Midland Book, Tullamore.
Banagher’s Cuba Court (now demolished) is said to date from the 1730s and may have been constructed by one George Frazer, a former Governor of Cuba and perhaps to a design of Sir Edward Lovett Pearce. The house was unroofed in 1946 because, like so many Irish houses, it was ruined by the policy on rates at the time. If the abolition of rates in 1977 was disastrous for the National Debt and local government at least, it may have contributed to the saving of many Irish houses.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century Cuba was the home of Denis Bowes Daly. Bowes Daly was a prominent member of the local ascendancy. Prior to his death in 1821 he had leased Cuba Court to the Army Medical Board as of 1804 on a 61-year lease. The building was but little used as a hospital and the Medical Board was quite happy to give it up to the Commissioners of Education for the purpose of the Royal School. In 1819 the school had some forty pupils. The then headmaster, Thomas Morris, was succeeded by Revd Alan Bell in 1822. Bell purchased the headmastership from Morris for £1,000.
Alan Bell was at the time master of a classical school in Downpatrick and was the son of a County Antrim farmer. He graduated from T.C.D. in 1814. One of his assistant teachers in the late 1830s was Arthur Nicholls, a nephew and a past pupil of Banagher school. Alan Bell died in 1839 and was succeeded by Revd James Hamilton. After a succession of school masters James Adamson Bell, son of Revd Alan Bell, was appointed in 1848 – at the age of 21. The later agreed, at an inquiry at Tullamore in 1855, that he had not the experience at the time to run the establishment. He graduated from T.C.D. with a B. A. in 1847 and in 1852 became a clergyman. The school improved under his management and had 36 pupils in 1852.
Arthur Bell Nicholls
Arthur Bell Nicholls was born of Scottish parents in County Antrim in 1818. He was orphaned early and subsequently brought up by his headmaster uncle in Banagher. He graduated from T.C.D. in 1844 and became curate of Haworth in 1845. It was at Haworth in the West Riding of Yorkshire that he met Charlotte Bronte, daughter of Patrick Bronte, a clergyman at Haworth. Charlotte was born in 1816 and at 31 published an extremely successful novel, Jane Eyre. Her sister, Emily, had earlier published Wuthering Heights. Bell was two years younger than Charlotte and was said to be very serious, almost grave, reserved religious young man of strong convictions – highly conscientious in the performance of his parish duties and narrow in his ideas. Phyllis Bently in her book The Brontes and their World described the marriage proposal and acceptance as follows:
‘For some time Charlotte had been uneasily aware of constraint and awkwardness in Nicholl’s behaviour in her presence, and when one evening in December 1852, just after the disappointing reception of Villette by George Smith, Nicholls on leaving Mr. Bronte’s study tapped on the parlour door, she guessed in a flash what was coming. But she had not realized how strong his feelings for her were. Pale, shaking from head to foot, speaking with difficulty in a low but vehement tone, Nicholls made her understand what this declaration meant to him. She asked if he had spoken to Mr. Bronte; he said, he dared not. She half led, half pushed him from the room, promising him an answer on the morrow, then went immediately to her father with news of the proposal. Mr. Bronte was furious. Charlotte’s own accounts of this courtship and eventual engagement, given in her letters to Ellen Nussey as it went along, could not be bettered in the finest novel in the world. Mr. Bronte’s jealous fury, expressing itself as snobbish resentment – a curate with £100 a year marry his famous daughter! Mr. Nicholl’s stubborn passion, which almost unseated his reason – he would not eat or drink; stayed shut up in his lodgings at the Browns’ (though he still took poor old Flossy out for walks); broke down in the Communion Service, while the village women sobbed around; was rude to a visiting Bishop; resigned his Haworth curacy and agreed to remain till Mr. Bronte found another curate; volunteered as a missionary to Australia but finally took a curacy at Kirk Smeaton, in the West Riding itself. Charlotte, exasperated by Nicholl’s lack of the qualities she desired in a husband, infuriated by her father’s ignoble objections to the match, conscious of the absence of alternatives. The villagers, torn between opposing parties – some say they would like to shoot Mr. Nicholls, but they gave him a gold watch as a parting present. What a tragic drama – or a roaring comedy, depending on its result. Love, coupled with Charlotte’s loneliness and Mr. Bronte’s dissatisfaction with his new curate, Mr. De Renzi, triumphed.
The only-known surviving portrait of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte was painted by their brother Branwell in 1834 and then bought by the National Portrait Gallery in 1914 after it was rediscovered in Banagher. The painting is creased because it was discovered folded up on top of a cupboard in 1914 by the second wife of Charlotte’s husband.
The marriage took place at Haworth on 29 June, 1854, just 165 years ago. The honeymoon was in Ireland and if Bell was a poor unknown curate in England – in Banagher he was a member of a respectable family. In a letter quoted by Mrs. Gaskell in her book The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte wrote:
“My dear husband, too, appears in a new light in his own country. More than once I have had deep pleasure in hearing his praises on all sides. Some of the old servants and followers of the family tell me I am a most fortunate person; for that I have got one of the best gentlemen in the country . . . . I trust I feel thankful to God for having enabled me to make what seems a right choice; and I pray to be enabled to repay as I ought the affectionate devotion of a truthful, honourable man. “
She noted of the school in Cuba House where she stayed while in Banagher: “It is very large and looks externally like a gentleman’s country seat – within most of the rooms are lofty and spacious, and some – the drawing room, dining room &c handsomely and commodiously furnished. The passages look desolate and bare – our bedroom, a great room of the ground floor, would have looked gloomy when we were shown into it but for the turf fire that was burning in the wide old chimney. “Mrs. Bentley felt in her biography that it was difficult to judge whether Charlotte was happy in her marriage. “We’ve been so happy,’ she murmured to her husband, and she spoke warmly of his care and affectionate company when she was ill. But to Ellen she wrote: ‘It is a solemn and strange and perilous thing for a woman to become a wife.’ At least she was no longer lonely, but alway occupied, always needed; she had a parish and two men to care for – ‘my time is not my own now’ – and knew the reality of sex.
In January 1855 Charlotte discovered she was pregnant. It was accompanied by severe illness and she died on 31 March 1855 probably killed by the same illness – consumption – that had killed her two sisters and her brother. The marriage was of short duration – no more than nine months. As to Mr. Nicholls he “remained faithfully with Mr. Bronte in Haworth for the six long years which remained of the old man’s life. He was a somewhat stern guardian of the bedridden invalid that Mr. Bronte rapidly became, and allowed himself a strong dislike to references to his wife’s fame, refusing, for example to baptize infants with the names of any of the Bronte family. Mr. Bronte, learning this, once baptized an infant in his bedroom from a water jug – a sufficient indication of the terms on which the two men stood. When Mr. Bronte died in 1861 Mr. Nicholls returned to Banagher, taking with him his wife’s portrait, her wedding dress (of which a copy has been made), some of Charlotte’s letters and other mementoes, including Mr. Bronte’s dog Plato and Martha Brown. He made a happy second marriage with his cousin, but did not forget Charlotte. Forty years later, when the critic Clement Shorter prepared to write Charlotte Bronte and Her Circle, he found at Banagher among other cherished relics two diary notes of Emily and Anne, in a tin box, and some of the minute childhood writings wrapped in newspaper at the bottom of a drawer.
The following report of the pictures he brought from Haworth appeared in 1914 in a local newspaper:
Banagher and Valuable Pictures
The Trustees of the National Portrait Gallery have purchased and placed in Room XXXVII a group and a single portrait of considerable personal value. The group represents the portraits of Charlotte Bronte and her two sisters Emily and “dear”, gentle Anne”; the single image is believed to be a long lost portrait of Emily, both pictures from the brush of the brother, Branwell, who was born a year later than Charlotte. The importance of the discovery is indicated also by the reference of the London daily papers. The Morning Post, from which the above extract is taken, says further:- “There seems to have been another group of the three sisters by Branwell. Mr. A. B. Nicholls took the picture with him to Ireland, and not caring much for the portraits of his wife, Charlotte, and Ann he cut them out of the canvas and destroyed them. He retained the portrait of Emily, however, and gave it Martha Brown, the Brontes servant, on one of her visits to Ireland. Martha took it back with her to Haworth, and from that date the fragment disappeared until recently rediscovered in the possession of the widow of Mr. Nicholls, and from her acquired for the National Portrait Gallery.
In order to ascertain particulars the editor of the King’s Co. Chronicle communicated with the Revd. J. J. Sherrard, B. D. , Banagher, wrote to the Chronicle on 7th March –
“The Rev. A. B. Nicholls, left an orphan at six, was practically adopted by Rev. A. Bell, Headmaster of Cuba School, which Mr. N. who was a relative, attended as a boy. He returned to Banagher after the death of Rev. P. Bronte, to whom he was curate in Yorkshire, and married Miss Bell, daughter of Rev. A. Bell. The pictures, two in number – one of the three sisters and one of Emily, were found wrapped in brown paper in a wardrobe a few weeks ago in the Hill House, Banagher, by Mrs. Nicholls, who sent them to Mr. Smith, of Smith and Elder, Publishers of Charlotte Bronte’s books, and were sold through him to the National Gallery. The enclosed cutting (from the Morning Post) is wrong in stating the picture given to Martha Brown was among these. It was not and is believed to be lost.
Subsequent to the publication of the above there appeared in the Morning Post a letter from James J. Sherrard of Banagher a letter dated March 8, 1914. ” Sir, I have received a copy of the “Morning Post” containing an article animadverting on some information I had recently forwarded to the King’s County Chronicle with reference to the above. I may state that your account of the discovery, &c. , of the pictures – though not quite correct- was nearer the truth than any of the accounts I read in other newspapers. The facts are as follows: The pictures sent by Mrs. Nicholls to the National Gallery have been at The Hill House, Banagher, ever since they were brought there by the late Rev. A. B. Nicholls. The single one of Emily – cut out of a large portrait containing three sisters – was preserved by Mr. Nicholls. The rest of picture, with the portraits of his wife Charlotte and Anne, was handed to Martha Brown – who lived at The Hill House for upwards of eight years – not for preservation, but to be destroyed, and it is believed it was destroyed by her. I need not go into all the reasons for this action on the part of Mr. Nicholls. You see, therefore, that I was correct in saying that the picture of Emily forwarded to the National Gallery was never in Martha Brown’s possession, though I was mistaken in implying that Mr. Nicholls had ever given any portrait to Martha Brown. I have the above facts on the best living authority. Yours &c. “ James J. Sherrard.
Banagher before the First World War
Charlotte Bronte and the Bell Family
Charlotte died in 1855 and her husband at Banagher in 1906. He had married his cousin and spent the last 45 years of his life there. Their writings place the three Bronte sisters on the highest eminence. Today their novels are read with the same avidity as marked their first publication, and promise to be perpetual. Charlotte’s, Jane Eyre, a romantic love story, met the public eye in 1847, and immediately had an immense circulation, which greatly relieved the straightened circumstances of the family, besides winning lasting fame for its author. Her two other principal works of fiction are known by the names Shirley and Villette, the former a tragedy appearing two years after the first, and at which time her brother and two sisters were dead. In both stories nearly all the people appear as living pictures of relatives and neighbours, and both secured a circulation surpassing expectation. Emily’s undying fame is due to her novel, Wuthering Heights, which saw the light in 1847, but she was not destined to reap the reward of her success as she expired in the course of another brief year, aged 30. The sister Anne’s novel, Agnes Grey, afforded another evidence of the almost evenly divided genius of the three immortal sisters.
Cuba School, Banagher, was one of the Royal educational institutions in Ireland, and ceased as such about 40 years ago, its last master under the endowment having been Mr. Joyce, who afterwards became a medical doctor. The school turned out not a few who rose to distinction in after life, one of these having been the late Sir William, father of Oscar Wilde.
Hill House, where Nicholls spent so many years, was sold to Major Bell in 1919. He died in 1944 and his wife inherited the property. Florence Bell died in 1959. It is now once again open to visitors who can enjoy its restored appearance and sense the history of a place connected in a curious way with the Bronte family.
It is good to see an initiative on the part of Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore (1912- in progress) and, in particular, Ray O’Donovan and his team of students building a special collection of books in the school library written by former students of the school. It will throw up surprises not just for the current cohort, but indeed for old boys as well. The collection was unveiled in the school on Friday evening 17 May by Conor Brady who was a pupil in the school until the untimely death of his father in 1962 and his subsequent departure for the Cistercian College, Roscrea. Conor has always been a great champion of Tullamore.
The first school history was published in 1962 but has not been updated. It will be a difficult task to do other than list all the students and teachers. Giving a flavour of the school as distinct from a recital of classes over the years can be contentious. The formation of this library is a step in the right direction. Collecting the memories of those who were in the school in the 1950s and 1960s would be good.
Reunion of the boys of the 1969 and 1970 classes
It was Pat Hennessy formerly of Patrick Street, Tullamore (retired from Foreign Affairs and ambassador to several countries including Israel, Italy and UAE), who recently suggested that a get together of the boys of the 1969 and 1970 Leaving Certificate classes be held by way of a 50th anniversary. A date has now been fixed for the Tullamore Court Hotel on Friday 7 June at 7 p.m.