What If? 1919-1923: Columb Kelly, executed at Birr during the Civil War. By Maurice G. Egan with thanks to Hollie M. Eilbeck and dedicated to the memory of Rose Kelly

Introduction

The Summer of 1921was heralded as having some of the best Irish weather days in ten years.1 Many people used the opportunity to cycle their bicycles along the countryside roads and lanes, whilst keenly observing the fields of green and gold ripening barley. The slight breeze gently blowing the ears of grain with the browny blue hues of the Slieve Bloom mountains to the southwest as background. The farmers were looking forward to a decent crop that year, and to attract good prices when selling to the local malt houses, brewers, and distillers. They would be able to take on additional seasonal labour to get the harvest in on time. After yet another long Winter, much needed outdoor activity and laughter was a recipe for relief from the underlying and not too far off reality of political turmoil, criminality, and civil strife. ‘The Truce that came into effect on 11 July 1921 officially ended what is now most often referred to as the War of Independence and came as the culmination of the most violent six months of the war.’2 ‘Relieved civilians celebrated the arrival of peace and Volunteers returned home to bask in newfound freedom, safety, and adulation.’3 But sadly, it was to be a summer that would be remembered not for the good weather alone.

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The origins of the Leix-Offaly Plantation. By Dr Diarmuid Wheeler.

We welcome this week Dr Diarmuid Wheeler on an important subject for Ireland and for the midlands, being the colonial experiment known as the Leix-Offaly Plantation. For those interested in the Decade of the Centenaries, the resurgence of interest in the Irish language, 1916 and the War of Independence, knowing the roots of the conflict is essential. The fort of Philipstown would soon be adopted as the county town for the new King’s County of the 1550s. The courts of assize to display the might and power of English law continued to be held in King’s County until 1921 while the name of the county was changed only in 1920 to Offaly. The Civil War of 1922–3 would witness the burning of houses such as Ballyburly, owned by the Wakely family, who had come to Ireland as soldier settlers in the time of Elizabeth.

Dr Wheeler will give his lecture on the Leix-Offaly Plantation to Offaly History from his home in the United States on Monday night 22 March at 7.30 p.m. Email us at info@offalyhistory.com with the subject heading  ‘Zoom Wheeler’ for the access code [Ed.]

The beginnings of the midlands colonial project can be traced back to the early sixteenth century when the Tudor government, who firmly believed that Ireland rightfully belonged to the English crown and that the country’s keeping was essential to England’s overall safety, sought to restore the island to its twelfth century “conquered” state from which the crown hoped to profit. Brendan Bradshaw argues that the Tudors and the Old English of Ireland were heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism that encouraged them to bring reform to Ireland. But the administration lacked significant knowledge and experience of the country, particularly during Henry VIII’s reign and quickly realised that reforming the island would take significantly more military and financial resources than they had anticipated. By the final years of the 1530s, it was apparent that a certain degree of coercion and military force would be necessary to bring about wide scale reform. Yet the Tudors were also aware that they could not employ outright force to achieve their objectives, lacking the necessary resources to do so. Instead, the Tudor administration recognised that they would need to accommodate the natives of Ireland, at least somewhat, in order to make their aspiration a reality.

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Five-k walks in Tullamore and district. A walk in Lloyd Town Park and the legacy of change in Tullamore over 250 years. By Michael Byrne

Offaly History intended to have a walk on 26 December 2020 through the historic Lloyd Town Park, Tullamore, but had to cancel due to the imposition of the third wave of restrictions since March 2020 designed to reduce the impact of the Covid-19 virus. An historic year and one we will be glad to see the back of. After fifty-years of mostly progress since the 1960s we have become accustomed to the shock of change for the worst since the banking crisis and the bail-out. Now it’s the Covid-19 virus and in the background climate change, and in Offaly the end of the bogs – so much a part of growth in Offaly from the 1950s. Today we are visiting the Lloyd town park, Kilcruttin, Tullamore and reflecting on its historical features and change in the landscape of the area and the town of Tullamore since the 1700s.

The park area in 1838 on the six-inch scale with Water Lane, gazebo and the new courthouse and jail. A second Methodist church was located in Crow/Tara Street from the 1820s to 1877. The landscaped gardens of Acres Hall can be seen on Charleville Street, now Cormac Street.
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The Pearson executions, Offaly – June 1921. By Robert McEvoy

Robert McEvoy, Archivist, works on the Military Service (1916-23) Pensions Collection at the Military Archives, which has just released its ninth tranche of digitised images, bringing to two million the number of documents now available online to research this period. The following blog was first published on 11 November 2020 on militarypensions.wordpress.com. Many thanks to Robert McEvoy for permission to reproduce it here. 

A controversial event occurred in June 1921 at Coolacrease, County Offaly. Two men, Richard (24) and Abraham (19) Pearson, were executed by the IRA. The Pearson family home was also burned to the ground. The case came to national prominence in 2007 with the airing of an episode from RTÉ’s Hidden History series entitled ‘Killings at Coolacrease’. The 2020 release from the MSPC reveals the involvement of nine individuals connected in the lead up to, and partaking in, the executions. The application of a further individual, Edward Leahy, has already been released. Continue reading

Birr Barracks and burials: a new military and family history record published. Sources for Offaly History and Society, no. 13. By Stephen Callaghan

A new book detailing the history of Birr Military Cemetery has been published by Offaly County Council. Researched, written and designed by Stephen Callaghan the book gives an authoritative history of the cemetery and all those identified as buried there. While the cemetery only contains 52 inscribed memorials, the book gives biographical details of a further 230 people buried there. The memorials which survive are also examined and described in detail, including information about type, symbols and details about the materials used and the stonecutters who made them. The cemetery is one of the few surviving features of Birr Barracks and is an important link to the past. The people buried there are a mix of soldiers, soldiers’ wives and children, the latter make up most of the burials.  

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Sgt John Thomas Cannon of Birr

The 12 June 2020 marks the 98thanniversary of the disbandment of the historic Southern Irish infantry regiments of the British Army at Windsor Castle. Disbandment was brought on by economic cuts to the British Army and in part due to the Anglo-Irish agreement. The Royal Irish Regiment, Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (and South Irish Horse) all surrendered their colours to King George V for safe keeping. The ceremony took place at 11:30am in St. George’s Hall in Windsor Castle. During the ceremony the King made a promise to safe guard these highly prized colours. The ceremony finished with a royal salute and God Save the King played.

The colour party detachments for each regiment consisted of the regiment’s commanding officer, then three officers and three non-commissioned officers (NCO) for the 1stand 2ndbattalion respectively. One of the NCOs on whom this honour fell was John Thomas Cannon of the Leinster Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. This is John’s story.

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A Birr Letter’s Untold Story: Hugh Leonard of Crinkill. By Stephen Callaghan

Today it is all too easy to take modern technology and communication for granted. When was the last time you remember sitting down to attentively write an important letter with pen and paper? It might be fair to say that letter writing has become a dying art form. For Hugh Leonard 168 years ago this letter was important in the hope of claiming battle and prize money owed to his late son, William, who died in India in 1849. This blog post examines the contents of this letter. Continue reading

From a hedge school in Cappincur to adventures in the American Civil War: the story of Peter Cavanagh. By Michael MacNamara

Offaly Archives received a very interesting donation of manuscripts in recent times. Michael MacNamara, a native of Colehill and long-time resident of County Limerick, donated archives relating to his great grand-father, Peter Cavanagh, who was born in Cappincur in 1824 and ended up as a solider in the US army during the American Civil War.  Before all those adventures, Peter undertook high level tuition from a Mr Patrick Glowry in a hedge-school arrangement through the famine years of 1844-1848.   His copybook survived and is among the items donated to Offaly Archives. Michael MacNamara has spent many years researching Peter Cavanagh and summarised his unusual life and times for an interview in the Midland Tribune in 2005: Continue reading

County Offaly in the Military Service Pensions Collection: an exploration by Cécile Gordon

Cécile Gordon is Senior Archivist and Project Manager of the Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Project in the Military Archives of Ireland. She will give a lecture on Offaly in the Military Service Pensions Collection on Monday 21 October, 8pm in Offaly History Centre, Tullamore. The talk will include an overview of the records available in MSPC for county Offaly and will illustrate how they interconnect. The highlight will be put on the IRA Brigade Activity Reports for Offaly Brigades. A selection of some of the most interesting pension cases will be presented with a focus on newly catalogued records and claims lodged by the women involved in the independence movement in Offaly.

The Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection – General

 The Military Service (1916-1923) Pensions Collection (MSPC) Project is one of the leading projects of the Irish government’s plan for the Decade of Centenaries, led by the Irish Department of Defence and supported by the Defence Forces. With around 250,000 files, it is the largest collection in the Military Archives and the largest collection covering the revolutionary years, anywhere.

In a nutshell, the MSPC records are the pensions applications lodged by over 80,000 people who took part in the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War.  Veterans applied under various legislation from 1923 onwards, enacted to recognise active military service or to award gratuities for wounds or injuries contracted during active service. Dependants of deceased members of certain organisations could also claim in respect of their relatives. Continue reading

Vintage Week before it was Vintage! Military sports and spectacles at Birr Barracks in August 1919. By Stephen Callaghan

For the past 51 years Birr Vintage Week has commenced around the month of August, with only in recent years it taking in the August bank holiday weekend. While the festival is in its 51st year, 100 years ago on 4 August 1919 the army at Birr Barracks had organised a program of military sports and spectacles. An  antecedent of Birr Vintage Week perhaps?!

The events took place on the military training grounds adjacent to the barracks, the ‘Fourteen Acres’. The events kicked off at two o’clock. While the weather was not desirable it held dry until the events had finished up. The program was organised and promoted by Lieutenant Noel Edward Fasken, while Lieutenant Leslie M. Codner was responsible for the ground arrangements. Both officers were members of the Royal North Devon Hussars. The day’s program consisted of 26 events which lasted beyond six o’clock. While the barracks occasionally held large events and concerts, one of this scale was likely not seen before.

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Looking south-east from cemetery road towards Leinster Villas where the military air field was located. (Photo: Stephen Callaghan)

One of the main spectacles was the air display by Captain Brooks. ‘His daring feats in the air were witnessed with interest and admiration, and showed the possibilities of a flying machine in the hand of a capable pilot.’ Captain Brooks was likely piloting an Avro 504k, a two seat trainer biplane. The airfield in Birr had only been constructed in February and consisted of a detachment of six aircraft from 106 Squadron, Royal Air Force. The airfield was dismantled in October of that same year 1919..

Men under the command of Second Lieutenant E. A. Grainger and Sergeant W. A. J. Leonard enacted a battlefield play, entitled ‘The Sacrifice’. The demonstration was reminiscent of a scene from the Great War. It was apparently not without a sense of humour! The centre of the sports ground was chosen for this display, it had been mocked up to look like ‘anywhere on the battlefield’; there were sandbagged trenches, mines, and a ‘shattered’ house. The house had been temporarily erected for the event. It is quite likely that the sandbagged trenches were in fact the practice trenches dug to training men during the Great War. These trenches were excavated during August 2018.

Second Lieutenant Grainger took command of about twelve British soldiers, while Sergeant Leonard played the role of a German officer and took command of twelve ‘enemy’ soldiers. The battle was set as if it had taken place three hours after dawn. The idea was that at dawn that morning a line of trenches had been captured from the enemy.

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Aerial view of the ‘Fourteen Acres’, looking north-west, where the day long events would have taken place

The ‘shattered’ house was occupied by a ‘British’ gun team, they had defended against a ‘German’ attack which had attempted to recapture their old trenches. The attacked opened with the explosion of mines, the ascension of rockets and the crack of rifle and Lewis gun fire.  The outpost was supplied with ammunition by courageous runners.

The lone outpost held out until the very last man gave his life in its defence, thereby giving their comrades time to prepare for a counter attack. The display was well preformed and a stark reminder of the horror of the recent Great War.

Another item of interest was the physical training exhibition by a squad of the Royal North Devon Hussars under Corporal Snwothey.

Humour was provided in the form of Corporal Hatch and Private Ash acting as gentlemen the worse for ware, another soldier acting as a lady. Hatch and Ash both competed for the affection of ‘the lady’.

The day long events were reported in the King’s County Chronicle as a ‘splendid source of entertainment’, with the events being well attended by the people of Birr and the surrounding areas. The events themselves were also well patronised by competitors. Prizes for the sports were presented by Brigadier General James Graham Chaplin.