Have an ‘Offaly History’ Christmas with over a dozen new books this year

It has been a good year for new publications contributing to the history of County Offaly and helping us to get to know ourselves and our place better. When the annual report of the Tullamore Credit Union is dropped in the door you know Christmas is close. Seeing the cover and that the credit union is now sixty years old set us thinking of phases in our history. The year 1923 marked the end of the civil war. After a period of growth from 1891 to 1918 things got difficult. You could write off 1923–63 in terms of the economic engine. It was mostly switched off with exceptions in Tullamore Yarns, the Bacon Factory, Tullamore and the Williams and Egan businesses serving the midlands. The emerging Bord na Mona and ESB were providing jobs in west Offaly from the 1950s and east Offaly later, but it was the 1960s before a general ‘all boats’ lift up occurred. Equally you could say that since September 2001 (and the mobile phone) we have been living with anxiety which seems to grow every year especially since Brexit 2016 and now the war and climate change. Not to mention all the things we have to do online to comply with the requirements of banks and government. These books are all available from Offaly History, Bury Quay (and online http://www.offalyhistory) and our friends in Midland Books, Tullamore.

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How did the word `Shinroneism` enter the lexicon? A story of police corruption in Shinrone in the 1840s and a poem from Birr poet John de Jean Frazer. By Pádraig Turley

While reading the poems of the Birr poet John de Jean Frazer recently  I came across this satirical poem `The Gallant Police of Shinrone` which raised my curiosity levels a bit. You can read more about the Birr-born poet in a article issued on OffalyHistoryblog on 23 March to mark the 170th anniversary of the death of Frazer.

The following is the text of the poem:

THE GALLANT POLICE OF SHINRONE

Air- `The Widow Malone.`

Oh! The gallant police of Shinrone!

`Tis they have a knack of their own,

        To find beyond doubt,

         The Ribbonmen out!

Oh! They are the props of the throne,

                                                   Alone,

The gallant police of Shinrone`!

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Centenarian philosopher: Tullamore Man’s Recipe for Happiness “Take Life as it comes” – 80 years married and never quarrelled’ – Michael and Mary Coughlin of Rapp Road, Puttaghan, Tullamore. By Cosney Molloy

Take the good and bad in life as it comes; be satisfied with your fate; if you find yourself in an argument, get out of it as quickly as possible. This was the philosophy of Mr Michael Coughlin (or Coughlan), of Rapp, Tullamore, who celebrated his 107th birthday in November 1929. I am told by Offaly History that he was the oldest man to die in Tullamore in the history of record keeping. He and his wife ‘who is nearing her century, have based 80 years of married life on this happiness recipe and he guarantees that if this advice is followed it will bring contentment to thousands of married couples.’ News of their recipe for ’80 years of marriage and never having quarreled’ went around the world and is said to have featured in Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Michael Coughlin was a native of Eglish and had worked for Malachy Scally as a gardener at Moore Hall, Tullamore in his later years. Rapp is the road to Tyrrellspass from the canal at Whitehall and was the main road from Tullamore to Westmeath until the canal was completed in 1798. Housing there was decimated in the Famine years.

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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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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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John O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters of King’s County, 1837 – 1838: Banagher, Clonmacnoise, Fercall, and Durrow. By John Dolan

Ordnance Survey of Ireland 1824 – 1842

John O’Donovan stayed in Banagher from 10-21 January 1834 where he was accompanied by Thomas O’Connor. As mentioned in a previous blog he used his time there to look at two historic sites in particular, in addition to his normal work. He first concentrated on Clonmacnoise, writing his first substantial and detailed letters on 15 January 1838. This followed on from his request that documents be sent from Dublin ahead of his arrival. He had visited Clonmacnoise and had collected a considerable amount of information about the church site and general area.

He first concentrated on the individual monuments on the site as detailed in earlier manuscripts and associated the monument to the relevant family names. His local contact was a man named Patrick Molloy but O’Donovan was sceptical about the accuracy of the information provided by him. In addition, he dealt with the map produced by Sir James Ware dated 1705; on this map Ware had identified 10 churches at Clonmacnoise, see below. For each monument O’Donovan checked the age of each as indicated in the Annals, checked the background of each one and compared that to a report in Petrie’s possession. Continue reading

The Rag Trees of County Offaly. By John Dolan

During the early Christian period the midlands region was covered with great oak forests and vast expanses of bogland left over from the last ice age.  Transport was only possible on glacial ridges or eskers and important monasteries had been built along these trackways.  The most famous of these roadways was the Eiscir Riada which runs westward across the northern edge of Co Offaly on its way between Tara and Clonmacnoise which was always a significant Shannon crossing point into Connacht.  A second great roadway connected Tara to north Munster; this was referred to as the Slighe Dhála and runs through the southern part of Co Offaly.  There was a connecting link between both of these main roadways by a North South running corridor on which a number of additional monasteries were built. Continue reading

Offaly and the River Shannon. By Paul Clements

For his new travel book on Ireland, Paul Clements has been on a meandering journey along the River Shannon, following in the footsteps of the writer and singer Richard Hayward. His book looks back at Ireland in the 1930s but also considers the present-day Shannon which he believes is now undergoing a renaissance. [ 

The Ireland of the 1930s was an austere place in which barefoot children played in the street in a young country where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. Electrification of farms and rural houses was still some way off and some areas suffered badly from tuberculosis as well as mass emigration. Life was shaped by the rhythms of the agricultural year and farming was the mainstay of the economy.  Despite the poverty, there was another more carefree side to life which respected the arts and cultural history. People gathered at the crossroads for ceilidhs and made the most of what they had. This was the Ireland that fascinated the writer, singer and actor Richard Hayward (1892-1964), who, although born in Lancashire, grew up on the Antrim coast and became a lover of Ireland.

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The Story of Bog Butter. By John Dolan

Bog butters are large white or yellow waxy deposits regularly discovered within the peat bogs of Ireland and Scotland. They represent an extraordinary survival of prehistoric and later agricultural products, comprising the largest deposits of fat found anywhere in nature. Often found in wooden containers or wrapped in animal bladders, they are considered to have been buried intentionally by past farming communities. While previous analysis has determined that Irish bog butters derive from dairy fat, their precise characterisation could not be achieved due to chemical compositional alterations during burial in subsequent years. They generally produce a distinctive, pungent and offensive smell.

The largest Irish example weighed 23kg (50lbs) from a find in the Galtee Mountains in 1826.  Bog Butter is primarily held in the National Museum with some held by local museums.

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THE FAITHFUL DEPARTED. By James Scully

NOTEABLE FUNERARY MONUMENTS IN COUNTY OFFALY

PART 1.  OCCUPATIONAL SYMBOLS

Over the past few months I have been finalizing a book on the memorials in Saint Rynagh’s Graveyard in Banagher. For some time now the recording of the transcriptions has been complete but the decision to add a description of each memorial has absorbed more time than intended. It has however been a most rewarding task because now when I visit other graveyards I look at memorials with a more trained eye and with greater awareness of the skills and talents of the stonecutters. This has fostered a greater appreciation of the decorative carvings and lettering styles which are abundant throughout County Offaly. It has also prompted greater recognition of unusual features such as ligatures, mirrored letters, ampersands and other hallmarks of a vernacular style. Above all it has stimulated a resolve to publicize those monuments which are unique whether it be for the occupational or funerary symbols portrayed on them or that they are fine examples of a particular stonecutter. Tombstones which have a dedication of literary merit or those which carry symbols of the Passion of Our Lord will also be a focus of attention.

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