Babies, Beggars and Belligerents: A Case Study of Unidentified Death Records in Co. Donegal, 1870-1950. By Megan McAuley, the Offaly History/P. and H. Egan scholarship winner for 2021-2023 at Maynooth University

William Dudley Wordsworth accurately noted in his 1876 study of the Dublin Foundling Hospital that: ‘dead children, like drowned sailors, tell no tales’. The same can be said in the context of this analysis of Civil Death Records in County Donegal where unidentified (those registered as deceased without a known forename or surname) infant deaths occurred in their hundreds. This study was inspired by an article in Irish Historical Studies called ‘Registered ‘Unknown’ Infant Fatalities in Ireland, 1916-32: Gender and Power’ by O’Halpin and Breathnach, where the evidence suggests that many unidentified infant fatalities were homicides that occurred as a result of deliberate action, or inaction, i.e., infanticide. This is also true in the case of Donegal from 1870-1950, as the vast majority of unidentified death records belonged to infants, many of whom unfortunately died in suspicious circumstances. Wordsworth’s ‘drowned sailors’ too make an appearance in this set of records and can illuminate local communities’ experiences of Irish neutrality during the Emergency. Unidentified death records also shed light on another marginal group of society: mendicants. This cohort would have been familiar faces to many on the streets of Donegal, but utterly nameless to most, especially when they died. Similar studies could, and should, be undertaken in other counties, such as County Offaly, to further illuminate the ‘unknown’, marginalised or the forgotten in Irish society.

In January 1864 it became obligatory to register all births, marriages, and deaths with the local authorities. Not all deaths, natural and unnatural, however, came to official notice, as popular understanding of the law pertaining to Civil Registration was poor. It can be assumed that the deaths of many people of all ages remained unregistered, particularly in rural areas, for some time after the law was passed. Registrations were collated according to Superintendent Registrar’s Districts. 350 unidentified deaths were recorded in total in the districts of Ballyshannon, Donegal, Dunfanaghy, Glenties, Inishowen, Letterkenny, Londonderry, Milford, Strabane, Stranorlar and Castlederg. Of the death records, 196 were infants and 104 were adults. The remaining 84 death records could not be identified by age. Of the 196 infants, 162 were regarded as suspicious, such that an inquest was held by the local Coroner.

The illegitimate status of a child was a common motivation for infanticide in nineteenth and twentieth Ireland, due to the societal stigma associated with pregnancy and childbirth out of wedlock (for further reading, see Rattigan and Farrell). Pursual of this crime through the courts could only occur, however, if the infant was identified and a suspect detained through police enquiry. This leads the historian to probe a number of questions regarding the Donegal case: How many infant bodies were never recovered, particularly due to quick decomposition, from the rural landscape? Of those that were, how many new-borns were never identified and thus the perpetrator escaped a court trial? It is important, however, not to lay all of the blame on women who committed infant murder. They too were victims of a patriarchal society which valued familial landholding over the life of an apparently illegitimate child.

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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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The Mother and Baby Report – ‘P.F.I.’ and the view from Britain. By Declan McSweeney

The report of the Commission of Investigation into the mother-and-baby homes has received huge coverage in the British media, reflecting, no doubt, the number of survivors of the homes who settled in Britain. This is the third and final blog looking at this important report for Irish social history in the 20th century. Here Declan McSweeney looks at the reception of the Report in Britain

It is a reminder of the days when so many Irishwomen were referred to as ‘PFI’ (Pregnant From Ireland). One of the most shocking aspects of the report was the reference to women who had moved to cities like London or Liverpool and were effectively kidnapped by their families and forced back to hellish institutions, as outlined here: Mother and Baby Homes: State paid for 2,400 pregnant women to be repatriated from England

Mother and Baby Homes: State paid for 2,400 pregnant women to be repatri… Aoife Moore and Elaine Loughlin Many pregnant single women that travelled to Britain found it was less welcoming than they had hoped

It is also a salutary reminder of the fact that Britain, for all its faults, has long been a haven for Irish people from ill-treatment of one kind or another.

The recent announcement by the Irish Government of its Diaspora Strategy has featured a recognition that many were effectively forced out of Ireland down the years.

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Chapel Lane, Tullamore, County Offaly. By Maurice G. Egan

Chapel Lane, Tullamore, County Offaly. A distinguishing 1800s feature of urban living in the provincial towns throughout Ireland were the lanes. The houses along these lanes were generally of poor quality, all of them thatched with mud and daub walls. They faced the narrow lane in terraces and in many instances housing upwards of 140 people along a length no greater than three hundred feet. The midlands town of Tullamore was no different, there was: Tea Lane, Water Lane, Chapel Lane, Meath Lane, Distillery Lane, Gas House Lane, Ballalley Lane, Market Lane, Brides Lane and so on.1

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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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The Great Famine in Shinrone & South Offaly.   Ciarán Reilly 

0.3 prelims A map of King's County and its baronies in 1837 - Copy

A document in the National Library of Ireland sheds important light on the fate of the inhabitants of a part of county Offaly during the years of the Great Famine. Here the names and circumstances of almost 500 people in the village of Shinrone and its hinterland are included on a register for relief, which was provided during the summer and autumn of 1846. Among the names may well be an ancestor of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States of America. While Obama’s Irish heritage has been well documented in the past, not least during his visit to Ireland in 2011, few descriptions survive of how the Great Famine directly impacted the Kearney families and their community. It is hoped that this document will be transcribed and made available in Offaly Heritage in the near future.

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Poems and ballads of Edward (the Poet) Egan: a window on the social and political history of Tullamore in the 1890s

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A view of the Egan Cottage, Meelaghans, Tullamore, County Offaly, birthplace of Edward Egan. This view of c. 1905–15 is reproduced from William M. Egan (ed.), Pioneering the West, 1846 to 1878. Major Howard Egan’s diary etc. Utah, 1917. Reprinted c.1995. The home of Howard Egan, now famous in American Mormon history 

A new book comprising a selection of fifty of the poems and ballads of Edward Egan of the Meelaghans, Tullamore has just been published by Offaly History. The book was edited by Michael Byrne, Anne O’Rourke and Tim O’Rourke and is a fitting tribute to a man who died 80 years ago and in his time was revered throughout the midlands for his timely poetic commentaries on the social and political scene in his native county and his appreciation of all that was beautiful within a day’s walk of his home place.

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Fr Michael Kelly of Tullamore and Zambia is honoured on a new stamp. His reflections this Easter 2020. Inspired by Shelley’s lines -“O wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

image Fr Kelly stamp
Fr Michael Kelly features on the stamp alongside two other Irish emigrants: the accomplished author and Tuamgraney, County Clare-born Edna O’Brien and Mary Elmes (1908-2002) from Cork, the humanitarian worker particularly renowned for saving the lives of 200 Jewish children in France during the Holocaust.

We are bringing you a special Easter Sunday blog to celebrate the work of Fr Michael Kelly, the Tullamore man who appears on a new Irish stamp marking the work of emigrants and providing his personal reflection at this time. Fr Kelly has been in the Jesuit ministry for 65 years working in Zambia. His family lived in O’Connor Square and his father was a director of P. & H. Egan, Tullamore. Two of his brothers were also with the Jesuits. Fr Michael writes of the current virus difficulties and reflects on his time growing up in Tullamore. Continue reading