A new chapter in Westmeath historiography: the recent publication of Westmeath History and Society, an address by Dr Harman Murtagh at the launch in Athlone.’ Without doubt, this is the greatest book ever published on Westmeath. It’s a monument to our county’s culture, history, society and creativity – and an expression of Westmeath’s very distinctive identity.’

The Mullingar and Athlone launches of Westmeath History and Society have provided two interesting and original addresses on the status of local history in Westmeath, our neighbouring county. The Offaly History and Society volume was published in 1998 and is long out of print. A few copies were secured by Offaly History some years ago and are offered for sales as scarce titles. We thank our friend Dr Harman Murtagh for a copy of his address on 31 3 2022 and we have added some pictures for our readers. Enjoy the address in Athlone and you can get the book at Offaly History Centre and online at www.offalyhistory.com, over 900 pages, hardback, €60.

My friends,

This is the south Westmeath launch of this magnificent volume, Westmeath history and society.

A week ago it was launched in north Westmeath by the archbishop of Dublin, the very Reverend Dr Farrell; south Westmeath must make do with the most irreverent Dr Murtagh.

The book is 900 pages long. As the archbishop observed in Mullingar, it’s about the size of a concrete block: in my view, its only fault is that it’s rather heavy to hold in bed.

Westmeath history and society is one of a series of county books – incredibly it’s the twenty-ninth in the series. The series has been appearing at the rate of a volume a year since 1985.

The series founder, general editor and manager from the start is Dr Willie Nolan, aided and abetted by his wife, Theresa. Their contribution to Irish  society and to local studies  is without equal. In France they would undoubtedly be awarded the Legion of Honour; in Britain surely Sir Willie and Dame Theresa? In Ireland, and here in Athlone, we can offer at least our enormous admiration for their magnificent achievement – twenty-nine county volumes of this size down, and only three to go!   Wow!

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Moorock House, Ballycumber: the first Big House burned in Offaly in the 1919–23 period. By Eamon Larkin

Thomas Armstrong, son of Andrew Armstrong and Lucy Charnock, was born on 22nd August 1702 and when he retired from his position as First Director of his Majesty’s Engineers, Chief Engineer of Minorca and Senior Engineer in the service, purchased the estate of Moorock and built a house there. He died in 1747, unmarried and the estate passed to his brother Warneford Armstrong.

On the 9th October 1793, Warneford Armstrong (1699- 1780) made a lease agreement for three lives and thirty one years of the House, Gardens and Land of Moorock to Richard Holmes, a gentleman of an old King’s County family based in nearby Prospect House. The 390 acres had been leased to James and John Reamsbottom. In 1795 Warnesford Armstrong demised the whole estate of Moorock to Richard Holmes of Prospect House for “lives renewable forever”. 

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First Remembrance Day in Offaly for deceased members of the IRA, January 1922.First issue of the revived Offaly Independent. Evacuation of the British military in Offaly begins in February 1922 – Daingean, Clara, Birr and Shannonbridge. Specially contributed

We had a blog last April on the 100th anniversary of the death of Matthew Kane. Now we recall the first procession in his memory from Tullamore to his place of burial in Mucklagh in late January 1922. Those early weeks of February 1922 saw the commencement of the removal of the British forces from Offaly in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The barracks at Daingean, Clara, Shannonbridge and the great Birr barracks were handed over to the IRA. In the first week of February the Offaly Independent was again issued after a break of fifteen months due to the burning by the Crown forces in early November 1920 (see an earlier blog).

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The departure of the British Military from Offaly one hundred years ago – Birr Barracks. Stephen Callaghan

In the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty Birr Barracks in Offaly was one of the first to be evacuated by the British military. It was also the largest in the county. Stephen Callaghan takes up the story.

Wednesday, 2 February 2022 marked the centenary anniversary of the departure of the Leinster Regiment from Birr Barracks. A historically significant event which little is known about. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 effectively saw the withdrawal of the British Army from Ireland which would take place over the coming months, with British military barracks around the country being handed over to the newly created National Army. This mass exodus included the Leinster Regiment depot staff based in Birr Barracks, which it had called home for the past 41 years.

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Rathrobin and the Two Irelands: the photographs of Middleton Biddulph, 1900–1920. Michael Byrne

Rathrobin is a book that keeps on giving. Its 250 Biddulph photographs from the 1870s to 1920s, all carefully captioned, depict the two Irelands – unionist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant, landed and cabbage garden. What is interesting about the photographs taken by Colonel Biddulph (1849-1926, of Rathrobin near Mountbolus) are the nuances. He was of the lesser gentry, was a tenant of the Petty Lansdownes, and was keenly aware of the plantations of the 1550s to the 1650s. He appreciated the needs of the farm labourers and was decent to his own tenants, indoor staff and farm workers. His entire estate was not much more than 1,000 acres. Biddulph’s circle was also the lesser gentry and those who served it such as land agents, bankers and clergy. The Catholic Protestant divide was strong but landed Catholic families did mix in Biddulph’s set, but not merchants or traders (even if very rich). Biddulph had an empathy with his farm workers and their families and sought their advancement. Many local families were photographed, together with the farming activities of his own employees.

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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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