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
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
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.
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.
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.
I first came to Lt Col Francis Clere Hitchcock, OBE, MC via his brother Reginald (Rex). I was writing my biography (Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Hollywood Screen) about the older Hitchcock, and soon realised that one of the defining influences on his life and work was his close relationship with his brother.
The Hitchcock family and Kinnitty
The Hitchcocks were born in Dublin, Rex on 18 January 1893, Frank on 15 March 1896. The family moved to Nenagh in 1898, to Borrisokane in 1901, and to Kinnitty in 1903. Their father, Rev. Hitchcock, was a Church of Ireland rector, whose appointment to Kinnitty was prompted by concerns for the health of his delicate wife. Kathleen. Rev. Hitchcock was a man of firm character; alongside his normal parochial duties he was an aficionado of military affairs. He wrote numerous books, some on predictable ecclesiastical matters, others in the vein of the Cultural Revival celebrating old Irish folktales and a pre-colonial past of magic and superstition. He was also a keen boxer, and rigged up a boxing ring in the stables of the rectory at Kinnitty to toughen up the boys. Kathleen, by contrast, was artistic and dreamy, much loved in the parish for her caring manner. Her early death in 1908, when the boys were barely in their teens, threw a pall over the Hitchcock home that Rex for one never fully recovered from. She left behind a material legacy, too, the wonderful wooden carvings on the panels of the pulpit in the Church of Ireland.
The 11th March 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Sergeant Gordon Brooker of the Leinster Regiment, a soldier who for the best part of the last 96 years was buried in an unmarked grave in Clonoghill Cemetery, Birr. This is his story.
Gordon McNeill Brooker was born around 1886 in the parish of St John’s, Barbados. He was the son of Benjamin and Elizabeth Brooker. They lived on a plantation in the parish of St Philip. Gordon enlisted in Barbados for a short term of military service (3 years with the army and 9 years in the reserves) with the Lancashire Fusiliers on 11 September 1903, aged 18 years. He gave his previous trade as an engine driver at water works. Upon enlistment he was recorded as being 5 feet 6 and a half inches tall and having blues eyes and brown hair. He was tattooed on both forearms and his right breast. Continue reading
In 1910, about six weeks before the first successful powered flight in Ireland by Harry Ferguson in Co Down, the King’s County Chronicle reported as follows, ‘Mr Michael Carroll, cycle mechanic, conducted experiments in aviation in the hills adjoining Birr reservoir. An apparatus constructed from calico and bamboo made one or two fitful attempts to ascend. The incredulous may laugh at his efforts but it should not be forgotten that every great invention has its beginning in failure.’ One week later it was noted that the Engineering and Scientific Association of Ireland [founded in Dublin in 1903] had been discussing aviation, ‘The opinion was expressed that flying through the air was not an accomplished fact, though eventually it would be, that flying was not of any practical use and that men now engaged in a series of experiments in aviation would not die in their beds.’
Offaly had a small but significant part in the early years of military aviation. In September 1913 Offaly was an important base for some of the earliest uses of aircraft in the annual British Army manoeuvres; some of the Royal Flying Corps’ earliest crashes took place in Offaly during those operations. Approximately 85 men who served in the Allied flying services were born or from Offaly, but their impact was far greater than would be expected. Ferbane hosted an operational wartime base at ‘RAF Athlone’, and there was a landing ground at Birr during the 1918-1920 mobilisation period.
At the beginning of the centenary commemorations for the War, at the Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey Theatre in 2014, President Higgins spoke of the commemorative activities in terms of myth-making and ethical remembering. He remarked that ‘for years the First World War has stood as a blank space in memory for many Irish people – an unspoken gap in the official narratives of this state’. He suggested that ‘literary memoirs written during or after the War can be enabling sources for ethical remembering’ and advocated using the commemorative period to create ‘opportunities to recollect the excluded, to include in our narratives the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past’. In the aftermath of the death in the last few years of all the veterans of the War, to find these stories and these voices we must go back to the archives and seek out the diaries, memoirs letters and photographs of those who served. The Library in Trinity has a fascinating collection of this kind of material, gifted and bequeathed over the decades and, to mark the centenary of the War, the Library decided to publish this material online.
Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails is the name given to the online project which allows free access not only to digitised images of over 1500 pages of WW1 letters and diaries from the Library’s special collections, but transcriptions of the texts are also provided. There are nine war-time authors involved – almost all officers – and altogether they produced three sets of letters, four diaries (including a very brief home-front diary by the single female author among them) and three memoirs (two of which are prisoner-of-war accounts). The authors served on both Western and Eastern fronts, and ranged in age from twenty years of age to thirty-three. Two of them won Military Crosses, and one of them received the DSO having been mentioned in despatches seven times. This was Charles Howard-Bury – the oldest of our authors; he was born in Charleville Castle, Co. Offaly in 1881 and was a career military man who went with the British army to India in 1904. He was present at the Battle of the Somme and was eventually taken prisoner in 1918.
As part of the events for the 50th Birr Vintage Week, a set of mock WW1 trenches were excavated in the training grounds of Birr Barracks. The excavation, which was the first of its kind in the Republic of Ireland, helped provide further information about the training structure put in place to train men for life in the trenches. This article gives a brief overview of the barracks itself and its long colourful history. Continue reading
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