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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The rediscovery of Bloomville, County Offaly. Christopher Fettes

Bloomville, Cloneygowan, County Offaly

On June 15th 1991, I climbed a locked gate marked Bloomville, just as the rain stopped and the sun came out.  There were some lovely beeches, but no sign of a house. I then spotted two ancient chestnuts, and it was only then that I could see the house in the distance.

It was a case of love at first sight, with everything sparkling in the sunshine, and I wondered why the agent’s advertisement had not included a photograph.  Only when I approached the house could I understand the reason.  The traditional roses (still flourishing 29 years later) looked pretty, but, close up, the house looked very neglected.

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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

4 Egan-Cottage-pic-to-add
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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The Queen, Princess Margaret and Dooly’s Hotel, Birr by Cosney Molloy

Princess Margaret Jones Birr

I was in Birr over the Christmas and chatting in Dooly’s I recalled that it will be 59 years this weekend since the first visit of a Royal princess to Ireland – Princess Margaret and Anthony Armstrong Jones- and that was the first royal visit to Ireland in over thirty years. The son of Anne, Countess of Rosse (by her first husband), Anthony Armstrong Jones, married the Queen’s only sister in May 1960. It was a grand affair and the Countess of Rosse, always one for beauty and glamour, was the finest dressed of the three mothers-in-law present at the royal wedding. The happy couple visited Birr six months later on New Year’s Eve 1960. The town of Birr witnessed an influx of pressmen never seen before in the midlands and perhaps not till that EC meeting in Tullamore ten or fifteen years ago.

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The famous suit of ‘ Tullamore Tweed’: a story from the Land War of the 1880s by Maurice Egan

Tullamore gaol and a cartoon from St Stephen’s of November 1887

The remarkable story of Land Leaguer, Henry Egan and his inspired visits to Tullamore Gaol. (November 1887-May 1888)
The brothers Henry and Patrick Egan were well known in the Midlands as proprietors of the acclaimed merchant firm P. & H. Egan’s Tullamore. Both brothers were active Irish nationalists. Henry was a founding member and secretary of the Tullamore branch of the Land League. On Monday 17 October 1881 he was arrested under the Coercion Act of 1881 and imprisoned at Naas gaol. He was accused of being one of the organisers of a monster meeting held at Clara, protesting the imprisonment of Charles Stuart Parnell, the Land League President, four days earlier. Henry was released after 5 weeks.

In 1887, when the Land League leaders William O’Brien, M.P. (Mallow) and tenant farmer John Mandeville were imprisoned at Tullamore gaol, Henry Egan became a regular visitor of his fellow members. In fact, he and his brother-in-law, Dr. George A. Moorhead, visited the gaol upwards of thirteen times per day. They were not alone as hundreds of townsfolk joined them in their quest to put pressure on the authorities to release the two ‘political prisoners’. Mandeville and O’Brien refused to wear official prison garments, protesting their non-criminal status and declaring themselves ‘political prisoners’. The wardens, on instruction from the Tullamore gaol governor and the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Arthur Balfour, responded with beating them, stripping them of their clothes and putting them on a diet of coarse bread and water. Both were released on Christmas Eve 1887. Mandeville died seven months later, and an inquest found his death was because of the severe treatment received at the hands of the wardens in gaol.

In nationalist circles the two became known as ‘The Heroes of Tullamore’.

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Wright and the other Volunteers: Birr, the Boer War and the Lindley connection. By Rosemary Raughter

This week’s blog is by Rosemary Raughter, an independent scholar, who has published widely on women’s and on local history. Her discovery of a collection of love letters, written 1898-1901, from her grandmother, Sarah Whelan, originally of Roscrea, to her grandfather, Thomas Eades of Birr, led her to research aspects of life in Birr at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the autumn of 1899 my twenty-one year old grandmother, Sis Whelan, was living in Newtownbarry (now Bunclody), Co Wexford. Far from home and friends, she kept up a regular correspondence with the young man whom she had met while working in Birr, and whom she would eventually marry.[1]  Like Sis, Tom Eades was a shop assistant: reared in Fortal, since his early teens he had been employed in Fayle’s hardware shop on the Main Street. Sis’s life was a narrow one, confined for the most part to the drapery shop in which she worked, to her lodgings above it, to the Methodist chapel across the square where she worshipped, and to the riverside paths and woods just outside the town where she walked on occasional free afternoons. Current national and international events impinged hardly at all on her consciousness, which was not surprising: as she told Tom, ‘we never see a paper here’.[2] Continue reading

Birr Courthouse, 1803-2013, part 2.

This is the second part of the article on Birr courthhouse. It was held over from last week to allow for an article on the 100th anniversary of de Valera’s visit to the county. 

We welcome blogs. An article can reach from  a few hundred to 10,000 people.  Please email us at info@offalyhistory.com should you want to contribute to this  series. We publish every Saturday at 12 noon. To  receive notification by email of issue  of the blog subscribe to our free newsletter at http://www.offalyhistory.com. Better still join the society and make life-long friends. Continue reading

Hugh Mahon

Book  launch on 27 April 2017 at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore at 8pm on Hugh Mahon, Killurin, Killeigh parish native who made a name for himself in Australia

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Hugh Mahon, a native of County Offaly, who, after a difficult start in Ireland, found fame and fortune in Australia, where he rose to high political office, serving as a Labour member of the Australian parliament for two decades and as a government minister four times.

A new book, Hugh Mahon: Patriot, Pressman, Politician tells the fascinating life-story of this son of the county, whose relations still live in and around Tullamore. The book will be launched at Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore on Thursday 27 April 2017 at a lecture to be given by the book’s author Australian historian Jeff Kildea. Continue reading