As the decade of centenaries draws to a close, one centenary not on the government’s list of official commemorations is the 1922 visit to Ireland of the Hon. Hugh Mahon, a former cabinet minister in the Australian government. Nevertheless, at a local level, the people of County Offaly may find more than a passing interest in this event from one hundred years ago.
Born in 1857 at Killurin, six kilometres south of Tullamore, Mahon was forced to leave his native land in 1882 and emigrate to Australia to avoid being arrested for his activities in the Land League. Forty years later he returned to Ireland for the first time, visiting family and friends in and around Tullamore. The years in between had been eventful for Mahon, leading to one of the most contentious episodes in Australia’s political history. And the return visit to his homeland also was not without controversy.
The recent death in Roscommon of Judge John Neilan, at the age of 76, evoked many memories for me, of years covering his court cases for the now-closed Offaly Express (the print version).
While I joined the staff in 1988, I didn’t start covering courts on a regular basis until after the retirement of the late Eddie Rogers in January 1995. Eddie was legendary for his understanding of the judicial system over many decades.
On average, coverage of courts took up about 40% of the working week, with one day spent in court, and another checking records with the always helpful court staff, and then writing it up. Some weeks it could be even more, with special sittings being held to clear a backlog of cases.
Judge Aidan O’Donnell was the district court judge in my early days reporting, following Judge Connellan if I recall correctly, but Judge Neilan later took over. He covered a large court district, including Mullingar as well as Tullamore.
We were sorry to hear of the death of that great newspaperman Geoff Oakley who died on 21 September in his 93rd year. Geoff and his late wife Dorothy, who died in March 2020, had no immediate family but that is only in the narrow sense. Their children were the people of Offaly and both, in their respective occupations, provided care and nourishment on a 24 7 basis to all, but especially those who needed care and a kind word. Dorothy and Geoff married in 1972. They had met after a service in their local Church of Ireland and it was a case of love at first sight and lifelong companionship.
Geoff started in the local press about 1945 with the old Offaly Chronicle and when it was purchased by James I. Fanning in 1948 moved to the MidlandTribune. As such he was the last link with this newspaper that was started in Birr in 1845 and was owned by the Wright family from the 1870s. In 1978 Geoff became the editor of the new Tullamore Tribune and remained at the helm until Ger Scully took over in 1994. Geoff made a singular contribution to the saving of the hospital in Tullamore in the mid-1970s with the help of the Offaly Committee to save the Hospital. Week after week the articles poured out and the pressure that was piled on secured the hospital and paved the way for the new hospital from the late 1990s.
Geoff saw in groups such as Junior Chamber all that was good about civic life and reported its doings and that of so many other voluntary bodies. A lover of music he was a strong member of the Tullamore Gramophone Society and often gave the recital. He and Dorothy were keen travellers across the globe as backpackers. They were both pivotal members of OSPCA and many animals found good homes as a result of their work. This writer had the pleasure of meeting him in August in Shinrone. How well he was. Asking how everything was in Tullamore and about Birr Vintage Week which was then in progress.
He was greatly missed from the time of his retirement but up to recent years was a regular visitor with Dorothy to the Saturday market in Tullamore and to his beloved Offaly Historical Society and the Tullamore Gramophone Society How important it will be for us to get back from November to meetings and lectures offline so that we can again meet our members who have supported our causes over many years.
Geoff’s work as a newspaper man will stand to him well into the future. All the more so in this digital age when his articles can be so easily accessed. Those in the Tullamore Musical Society have reason to thank him for his fine published history and all his reviews of their annual show. Now Offaly History can get to do a short review of GVO, but it can only be paltry beside that of the quiet sincere man who made such a great impact in County Offaly and all of it was for good. Geoff was also a national figure in amateur musical circles as an adjudicator for AIMS and editor of the AIMS newsletter. His reviews of local plays were awaited with terror one expects. While never harsh he did not confuse journalism with parochialism.
Seamus Dooley has provided an appreciation which will also be published in Offaly Heritage 12 next year.
Geoff Oakley: An appreciation. By Seamus Dooley
Geoff Oakley was something of an enigma. In a distinguished career he was passionate about news: cultured, wise and opinionated his integrity and sense of honour defined Geoff in his public role as Editor of the Tullamore Tribune. Yet Geoff was in many ways a shy man who shunned the limelight, seldom speaking in public or giving interviews to the national media on issues of local interest. For many years Geoff was the Tullamore Tribune and his vision and commitment were key ingredients in the success of the paper. J. I. Fanning, proprietor and editor of the Midland Tribune was nominally editor when the sister newspaper was founded in 1978 but from the beginning Geoff was the guiding spirit – his formal appointment as editor merely confirmed his status. From a dark pokey two desk newsroom. in Church Street Geoff churned out reams of copy on a noisy, battered manual typewriter which, like the office itself, had seen better days. David Pate had never been in Tullamore before Fanning offered him the job of reporter on the fledgling title. A young Scot reared in Dublin and educated at TCD Dave was an unlikely recruit but Pate, who took early retirement as as a senior producer with CBC Nova Scotia last year, and Oakley made a formidable team. Mary T Bracken made up the office triumvirate for much of his rein. When David moved to pursue a successful career in the national media I succeeded him in the Tribune having worked during breaks from college. Geoff was a mentor to me and to many young journalists, insisting on the highest standards of accuracy. He had flawless shorthand and placed a premium on attention to detail. His report on the inquest into the death of Fr Niall Molloy is an outstanding example of his reporting while his profile of Thomas MacDonagh in the Midland Tribune’s supplement to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising, “A noble life and a proud death” serves as a reminder of his elegant writing style. A young journalism student on placement in Tullamore was once severely chided for failing to ask the name of a family dog who featured in a Richard May photograph which accompanied a well , written human interest story. “Are you joking” he declared as Geoff instructed him to ring the family, “that’s just crazy”. Geoff firmly but patiently explained that the dog was a family member and must be named. Years later I met the now matured journalist in a Dublin pub. Then working in London he said the dog episode had taught him a valuable life lesson! Social historians have reason to appreciate Geoff’s obsession with fully captioned pictures, something which sometimes challenged the patience of Richard May, Joe O’Sullivan and Mary Dunne but he always appreciated their professionalism. As an editor Geoff showed leadership in challenging the consensus. He was a champion of constitutional politics and abhorred violence, often courageously challenging the IRA. While supportive of the campaign to save the then Tullamore General hospital he incurred the wrath of some activists by his refusal to oppose every proposal for redevelopment of specialist facilities at regional level, preferring a more nuanced and strategic analysis.
His editorial stance on social issues, such as the divorce and 8th amendment referendums, was equally courageous while his absolute commitment to fairness meant that all sides were accorded coverage. All who knew him, including his readers, knew of his love for and devotion to Dorothy. Despite his natural reserve their holidays were the subject of endless quirky features, always written with style and humour.
Geoff and Dorothy made a wonderful couple and enriched the lives of so many, humans and animals through the OSPCA. As an editor Geoff Oakley ‘s greatest contribution was to develop a paper which, despite limited resources, reflected the diversity of life in the community. For him, local news mattered. It still does! —
The Midland Tribune and King’s County Vindicator was first published at Birr on 15th September, 1881. The aim of its promoters, three Birr Catholic priests of the Killaloe diocese, was to provide a ‘thoroughly independent organ of popular opinion in a district hitherto without the semblance of national journalism’. In politics it declared itself as a supporter of Home Rule. Its tone would be Catholic while at the same time endeavouring to promote ‘the union of Irishmen of every class and creed.’ On the land question the Tribune adopted the programme of the Land League and on education the views of the Catholic hierarchy
The Tribunewas founded in what is generally considered the most exciting decade of the nineteenth century. The 1880s saw the development of the most powerful democratic movement in Irish history, based at first on the struggle of tenant farmers to wrest the land they tilled from the landlords and later the right of Ireland to manage her own affairs. These twin aims, Home Rule and a solution to the land question were welded together into a popular mass movement led by Parnell, Davitt, and O’Brien. But, in the 1880s the masses came on the political stage as leading players rather than as extras.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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. 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’.Continue reading →