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.

1. Richard Hayward, star of Irish films of the 1930s, and author of the  bestselling Where the River Shannon Flows (1940).

Noted for his travel books on the country, he explored the River Shannon in August 1939, just two weeks before the outbreak of World War II. He set off on his journey from the Shannon Pot in Co. Cavan in a 12 horsepower Austin car and drove the back roads trailing a caravan. He travelled with a photographer and cameraman and made a 25-minute black-and-white film of his river journey shown at cinemas across Ireland. The Shannon is largely the same river that Hayward admired in his book Where the River Shannon Flows, published in 1940. As a chronicler of the river, he was one of the first in the twentieth century to write about it in detail. His book was reviewed by Maurice Walsh in The Irish Times that summer and was top of the paper’s non-fiction section, ‘What Dublin is Reading.’

2. Cover of Hayward’s book Where the River Shannon Flows, jointly published in 1940 by Dundalgan Press and Harrap, with a foreword by Maurice Walsh. The book was reprinted in 1950, and in 1989 for the fiftieth anniversary of Hayward’s 1939 journey.

Since then, the river has nourished artistic souls and influenced many writers. Numerous epithets have been applied to it by travellers, poets, musicians and other chroniclers. The Kerry novelist, Maurice Walsh, who wrote the foreword to Hayward’s book, called the river ‘immense’. He said it once separated the Pale from Hell – ‘though there was a small dispute as to which side Hell lay’. The elegist of the midlands, John Broderick, was less flattering, referring in The Waking of Willie Ryan to the river’s ‘silent, menacing presence’. Writing in his autobiography Nostos, the Kerry-born poet, mystic and philosopher, John Moriarty, described the estuary from Tarmons Hill, near Tarbert, as ‘A grandeur of water … the Shannon flowing through it with a landscape that had in it a remembrance of Paradise’. In the final passage of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’, he writes of the ‘dark mutinous Shannon waves’.

One literary connection to the Shannon that is not so well known is the fact that Flann O’Brien’s novel, At  Swim Two Birds, takes its title from an island on the river between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge. Although born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, O’Brien’s family moved to the midlands when he was nine and his childhood was spent near Tullamore.

3. The title of the Flann O’Brien novel At-Swim-Two-Birds was inspired by an island in the River Shannon, north of Shannonbridge. O’Brien’s other book, The Third Policeman also influenced Paul Clements to go off in search of Shannon-related information on O’Brien who lived in Tullamore in his youth.  

 As part of my quest, and as a dedicated ‘Flannorack’, I set off, naturally enough by bicycle, to try to pin down information about two small islands which I had come across on an old map: Curley’s Island, and just south of it, Devenish Island, or Snámh-dá-Ean (literally ‘Swim-Two-Birds’). In the Anglo-Norman era, Curley’s Island was guarded by the castle of Clonburren on the west side of the river. Some accounts also state that St Patrick crossed the river into Connacht at this point.

The road from Shannonbridge followed hedges overflowing with cow parsley and bright yellow gorse. When I reached the riverside callows, I came across a fellow cyclist and dog-walker, who introduced himself by the name of Flan – a serendipitous encounter, which the author himself would have enjoyed, even though he spelt his name only with one ‘n’. We talked about the title of the O’Brien book with which Flan was familiar and walked across the callows to get as close as we could to the edge of both islands. The meadows were filled with a sea of buttercups, pignut, plantain, gleaming cowslip, the bobbing heads of bog cotton and cuckoo flower all starring the grass. The river here is low-lying here but it was clear that the two islands appeared to be made up mostly of grass and stone. Curley’s Island, a thin six-acre strip of grass and sand, lies to the north of Devenish Island which is larger. There was an architectural grandeur to the lofty tottering reed beds rising with a towering palisade of stems up to six metres. When we reached the river we made out the division with one part falling down like a finger to Devenish. Cattle were relaxing on the island, in no hurry to move anywhere.

‘Curley is a common name, more so in south Roscommon,’ Flan explained,  ‘where in the old graveyards a lot of those names are buried. There was a ford here which meant that the water was so shallow you could literally walk across it. You’d be walking through water up to your ankles and Devenish Island was likely dug out or drained to make it navigable. Once they dug it, then there was an island in the middle. The small ford that would have been used by people to cross the river and salmon would have loved it too.’

4. A cabin cruiser makes its way between Curley’s Island  and Devenish Island, which translates as ‘Swim-Two-Birds’  (Snámh-dá-Ean), and which provided the inspiration for Flann O’Brien’s famous novel At- Swim-Two- Birds.

It was intriguing to discover that At Swim-Two-Birds exists as a real place. I recalled a quotation from another of O’Brien’s books, The Third Policeman celebrating the romance and mysticism of cycling: ‘How can I convey the perfection of my comfort on the bicycle, the completeness of my union with her, the sweet responses she gave me at every particle of her frame? I felt that I had known her for many years and that she had known me and that we understood each other utterly.’

My travels around Offaly involved spending time at Clonmacniose, attending events such as the Banagher horse fair and the annual vintage barge rally on the Grand Canal at Shannon Harbour. The rally, organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, is where the owners of many carefully tended classic old boats and barges – some dating back to 1846 – congregate to celebrate their colourful heritage.

5. Shannon Harbour barge rally, an annual event which attracts many classic boats and barges and is organised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland.   

Another summer highlight of the Shannon Harbour weekend is the annual opening of the Canal Bar beside the handsome single-arch Griffith humpbacked road bridge. It is an example of what a welcoming midlands bar should be: a half-door with a stone floor, low ceiling and dim lighting, cushioned benches beside a turf fire, red wainscoting with black trim, and a few jigs and reels coming from a corner. For years, many towns turned their backs on the river but are now embracing it. Today farmers, fishermen and recreational users all have a different relationship with it compared to the days when Hayward travelled along it, but the twenty-first century Shannon and its hinterland has been neglected by various agencies. However, Fáilte Ireland have launched a new regional tourism branding scheme, ‘Hidden Heartlands,’ a route running from Sligo to Limerick, taking in both banks of the Shannon. Along with a new marketing plan from Waterways Ireland, and the Atlantic Edge campaign in Limerick, the Shannon is clearly having a moment.

Developments in Offaly are taking place too, such as work on the defensive Shannon Napoleonic fortifications brooding over strategic river crossing points. This summer, Fort Eliza in Banagher, a five-sided, four-gun battery, built around 1812 and looking out over the river, was awarded a grant of €35,000 from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (match-funded by Waterways Ireland as part of its Conservation Management Plan) for important renovation work. But many feel that more still needs to be done, especially in relation to small towns such as Banagher where the crumbling Royal Shannon Hotel has been boarded up since its closure in 2005. The striking disused Georgian building with bow-fronted windows, was where the novelist Anthony Trollope lived when he worked for the post office in the 1840s. Now tumbleweeds sprouts from its roof, the garden is choked with dead plants, paint peels from its walls, while broken slates and smashed windows add to its pitiful condition.

6. Paul Clements at the ‘Snake in the Lake’ cycling and walking boardwalk, Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim.

This year life has slowed down for many people who have reconnected with their surroundings and discovered places on their doorstep. It has also redefined our relationship with the natural world and led to a river revival. The callows, bogland parks such as Lough Boora or Clara Bog, the new blueways and cycleways around Lough Derg, as well as those in Athlone and Drumshanbo are attractive places in which to spend time holidaying at home, experiencing the gentle comfort of sitting by the riverbank.

7. Cover of Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time

Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time by Paul Clements is published by The Lilliput Press at €15.and is available from Offaly History.

Funeral Practices in West Offaly and the funeral of Ned Doorley. By Pádraig Turley

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Louis Darcy, former Offaly county hurler, another altar boy rostered for Ned Doorley’s funeral

 

WE are glad to bring you the second part of Pádraig Turley’s piece this August 1 2020.  We have reached 55,000 views for our stories this year so far. The same as the entire of last year.  You can see all 212 stories on http://www.offalyhistoryblog and there is a shortcut to them at http://www.offalyhistory.com  You do not need to be on Facebook to view. Why not contribute  and send to info@offalyhistory.com.

FUNERAL OF NED DOORLEY:

The story of the funeral of Ned is one worth relating. This is a story I was always aware of, but was inclined to take it with a grain of salt. However, recently I received a communication from Shannonbridge native James Killeen, currently residing in Illinois, which virtually tallied with the version I had. Ned was the last survivor of the Doorley family when he died in Tullamore Hospital. My uncle Joseph Claffey and the undertaker Kieran Flannery volunteered to go to Tullamore, to pick up the corpse. James tells me that he and Louis Darcy (former Offaly county hurler)and Leslie Price were the altar boys rostered to be on duty to assist the Parish Priest Fr. Frank Donoghue, who having served in Brooklyn, NY, liked things to be done pronto.

The funeral was expected in Shannonbridge at 8.00 p.m. Everything was ready and in order, candles blazing. It did not arrive at 8.00 p.m. or indeed 9.00 p.m. or 10.00 p.m. Needless to say Fr. Donoghue was getting very edgy. There was no sound or sight of the funeral. James tells me that post war traffic in the area was about one motorized vehicle every forty minutes. So in the silence one could hear a car approaching from as far as Moystown, a distance of 9 km. Sometime after midnight James says, one could hear the grinding of the old 14.9 hp Ford engine somewhere around Blackwater, about 2 km away.  On arrival Kieran Flannery, the undertaker announced they had a breakdown in Ferbane, and as it was a Sunday night, they had difficulty sourcing the part.

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The Bustle of High Street, Tullamore in the old days. Cosney Molloy

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Motor Works and Drea’s house to the left

I once more visited by friends in Tullamore, Killoughy and Banagher after an unexpected gap of almost six months. Young Covid intervened and I did not get down from my perch in D4 until ten days ago.

Upper East Side Tullamore

It was great to see my old town looking so well and all the works in the square and from High Street to Kilbeggan Bridge almost finished. Walking from the railway station down to the square brought me back to the 1950s and 1960s when I lived in the town and the High Street was a busy spot. The footpaths are wide now but there were few walking and even on Saturday the street was quiet. I see no space to park for my mother (if she were alive God rest her) to pull up in the old Prefect that she had. Sure that is progress. Maybe the plan for High Street got mixed up with O’Connell Street or Grand Parade! Anyway, today I am writing about the east side of High Street, what I will call ‘Upper East Side’, and I will talk about the west side of the street on another visit – if the pause button is not changed to stop!

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My childhood memory of the rituals associated with death in the Clonmacnoise area, and the story of the last keener, (perhaps) from the area? Pádraig Turley

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`Arising from the Covid-19 virus due to government advice regarding public gatherings a private funeral will take place, but may be viewed on the Church website.`

This notice is now a regular feature of obituary notices in current newspapers and website dealing with death notices.

The story I wish to relate deals with an earlier time, from the early 50s, and I hope to recreate an image of the funeral process back then in west Offaly. It was a time when the medical condition of a sick person or indeed a visit by a doctor to such a person was not the only omen that death was imminent. A much more reliable harbinger of such an event was when a report came in, that the `banshee` had been heard. My grandfather, Michael Claffey originally from Bloomhill, near Ballinahown, totally believed in the banshee. He was a well-read literate man, yet if someone was ill in the parish, he would not show much concern until it was reported that the cry of the banshee had been heard. Once that occurred, it was good night Vienna, as far as he was concerned. He would then just wait for the inevitable, which from my memory always seemed to happen.

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BALLOONATICS AND THE GREAT FIRE OF TULLAMORE ON 10 MAY 1785. Michael Byrne

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The balloon fire of 10 May 1785 (235 years ago tomorrow) is perhaps the best known event in the history of Tullamore. Today we are reminded of it every time we see the town crest and in the past with the annual celebration – the Tullamore Phoenix Festival. The first premium whiskey from the new Tullamore DEW (Phoenix, 2013) was in honour of that tradition. It is hardly surprising that it should be so. The event caught the imagination at the time and was widely reported in the national newspapers and by visitors in their publications thereafter. Unfortunately, many turned to the Wikipedia of those days – the previous fellow’s account – and did not seek to get all the facts and record them. What we are left with then are the few contemporary accounts from national newspapers, the comments of a succession of visitors who seemed to rely on the diary entry of John Wesley in 1787, and the notes of Charles Coote in his published survey of King’s County (Offaly) in 1801. Wesley, the great preacher and founder of Methodism, unlike Coote, would have known the town well as he visited the place some twenty times from the late 1740s to the 1780s. Why are there so few accounts?

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The spirit of the Shannon: a journey along the River Shannon in Richard Hayward’s footsteps. Offaly History Centre, Monday 17 Feb. 2020

Shannon Quest Pic 02 'Where the River Shannon flows' is the story of Richard Hayward's 1939 road trip along the river, and was published in 1940

In August 1939 the Irish travel writer Richard Hayward set out on a road trip to explore the Shannon just two weeks before the Second World War broke out. His evocative account of that trip, Where the River Shannon Flows, became a bestseller. The book, still sought after by lovers of the river, captures an Ireland of small shops and barefoot street urchins that has long since disappeared.
Eighty years on, inspired by his work, Paul Clements retraces Hayward’s journey along the river, following – if not strictly in his footsteps – then within the spirit of his trip. From the Shannon Pot in Cavan, 344 kilometres south to the Shannon estuary, his meandering odyssey takes him by car, on foot, and by bike and boat, discovering how the riverscape has changed but is still powerful in symbolism. Paul Clements will be giving an illustrated lecture on Monday 17 Feb. at 8.00 p.m. at the Offaly History Centre, Bury Quay, Tullamore ‘The spirit of the Shannon: a journey along the River Shannon in Richard Hayward’s footsteps’ Admission is €5 and includes tea and biscuits. So why not come along to hear and see this wonderfully illustrated talk.

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Dancing with the Stars and the Tyrrellspass connection. By Bríd Ryan

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I was delighted to see Fr Ray Kelly doing so well on Dancing with the Stars for the past few weeks. He may not be a great dancer but he is a lovely singer and he was a grand young lad in Tyrrellspass years ago when I went on holidays there to my aunt. My aunt and uncle lived in The Buildings, Tyrrellspass on the Mullingar Rd and very near Ray Kelly’s home. The houses there were a part of an orphanage years before and some of the older people remembered the children walking to the Protestant school on the Green in their little white smock uniforms.

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The Orphanage children on the Mullingar Road near The Buildings

I remember a lovely quaint house with a stairs going downwards inside the front door. A woman called Mrs Craven lived in the largest house in The Buildings. She was involved in the ICA but I didn’t know her. I remember the Kelly children playing in the garden. They were a little younger than me but they were always friendly and I know there was always music in their house. His Dad drove a lorry and dealt in sheep and cattle. He had a word for everyone and was very popular. Nurse Kelly was known far and wide as a midwife and was very highly regarded for same. It was interesting, in the book, to see her work from the children’s point of view. I don’t suppose anyone wondered who would mind her four children when she was with an expectant mother and their Dad was working away from home. His Aunt Kitty got great love and well deserved praise from Ray. I just remember her as a quiet woman who loved to go to Bingo and was a regular on the Bingo bus with my own aunt!

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Walking the stream at Ballinagar and district by John Malone

 

Ballinagar village is in the townland of Ballinagar. A small stream borders Ballinagar from its neighbouring townlands. For this article I walk along this stream to see what it can tell us about the past.

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The stream as it flows through the scrub.

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At Ballymooney bridge the stream enters the Tullamore river. The road here is called the Killeigh road. Over the years various road improvements and land reclamation works have changed this area completely. Before the late 1700s the stream entered the Tullamore River nearer to Ballycrumlin. A new road was constructed between Killeigh and Daingean and the Ballycue stream as it was known became a road drain. In 1808 local landowner’s Rev John Webb, Daniel Commins, James Digan and Rich Cleary got grants to work on drains between “the new bridge and where the old stream of Ballycue had been turned into a road drain” They also had to build five gullets or channels for water between Ballinagar and Ballina. William Steuart Trench who managed the Digby estate from 1857 to 1871 saw the potential of the land here and undertook a huge drainage scheme and redesigned the field system around Ballymooney House. He remarks after his drainage scheme that “land in Ballinagar that had previously lain in permanent water, where cattle were in constant danger of drowning were now good areas of pasture .”

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Shackleton’s photographs of Tullamore and west Offaly in the 1890s. Michael Byrne

064928 Shackleton Collection (1)

Jane W. Shackleton’s Ireland compiled by Christiaan Corlett (Cork, 2012) is an attractive large format publication from the growing stable of books issued by Collins Press and consists of 180 well produced photographs by Jane Shackleton. Jane Shackleton (nee Edmundson) was born in 1843 and in 1866 married Joseph Fisher Shackleton of the famous Ballitore, County Kildare family of Quakers. Thirteen Shackletons are included in Richard S. Harrison’s, Dictionary of Irish Quakers (second edition, Dublin, 2008) including Jane’s husband, Joseph Fisher Shackleton. Like his father he was a miller and in 1860 took over the Anna Liffey Mills in Lucan.

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Tullamore, a magical place for Cafés and Coffee by Cosney Molloy

High St 1960s cafe
High St in the 1960s with St Anne’s on right (now Midland Books)

I was down from Dublin last week to visit some of my Molloy nieces in the Tullamore/Killoughey and Banagher areas and I am beginning to think there are as many coffee shops in Tullamore as there are in D 4 where I have lived (mostly in flats) since the 1970s. I counted five new coffee shops open in Tullamore, or on the verge of grinding the beans and not a one by a Molloy as far as I know. Besides my old haunt of Chocolate Brown there are the new King Oak out in Cloncollig, the Foxy Bean (nearly ready in Bridge Street in Egan’s old seed and manure store), Olive and Fig (in the not so old Caffé Delicious and close to where Chip Kelly used to be), the Blue Monkey at No. 1 Bridge Street (where Foxy used to be), Mark Smith’s Little Coffee Hut (out of town) and a new one in O’Connor Square that I could not get near to handy with all the road works in the old square. It’s in the old Hibernian office where I worked for a while and was a place called Bake for a short time (near the lovely new library). In High Street there is a place called Conway & Co where I used to buy cigarettes (one or two) when I was going to the Brothers’ school when there was no free education. It was a shop called Daly’s and had a Mills and Boon lending library. It was beside Dermot Kilroy’s. Reading a piece in the Irish Times about three weeks ago about Tullamore being a magical place in the 1950s got me interested in all the new cafés and goings-on. Sure when all this ‘enhancement work’ is finished the streets will be full of coffee tables and umbrellas.

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