The regulation of public morality in Offaly during the war years, 1914–18: a story from Birr. By Michael Byrne

There is so little of the undercurrent and gossip of a town in a local newspaper and yet we rely on them so much to tell us ‘what really happened’. Will we ever know from the reportage? We are grateful to have the lately published witness statements in the Depositions of 1642–53, or those in the pension records of the 1916–23 conflict. Yet we are advised to be cautious in using such records. What we do know of what ‘right-thinking people’ were saying about sexual morality in Birr, during the years of the First World War, we have from a sermon preached in Birr Catholic church in November 1917. It was one of the Birr curates who was the most outspoken while the then recently appointed 65-year old parish priest of Birr, Canon Ryan, had little to say. Or if he had it was not recorded. ‘Delicate’ subjects then as now, were seldom spoken of from the pulpit or the newsroom except in generalisations. In the case of the Laois-Offaly depositions it has taken over 300 years for the sworn affidavits to reach the public arena. For the witness statements provided by War of Independence veterans near enough sixty years. Is it any wonder that court cases with their mostly contemporary renditions are so popular?  It is the same with sermons that touch on local sexual life – the subject being almost taboo except in the abstract. Seldom spoken of in the church and hardly ever recorded in the local news media before 1970. The press reports of court case evidence can be more satisfying as contemporary first-hand accounts, but for the public and no less for the judges, it can often be hard to know what the real story is.  The reports of public morality debates or pulpit declamations in the years before and after 1922 are hugely important in helping to understand the concern (and who was raising it) over unmarried mothers and their children that would feed away, as if an unspoken of cancer in society, over the years from 1922 to the early 1970s.

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Skeletal remains by the roadside in County Offaly. By Stephen Callaghan

Imagine passing construction work on the street or in the countryside, what might you expect to come across or see? Perhaps old masonry, historic detritus or nothing at all?! How about a skeleton? Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century it was not too unusual to come across human remains during construction work or in sand pits owing to the historic nature of an area. This blog post looks at some of the human remains uncovered around Offaly over the past 200 years which were reported in local newspapers.

In August 1860 a party of soldiers found the skeleton of fully grown man while digging earth works in the Fourteen Acres, adjacent to Birr Barracks. The skeleton was found three feet underground. There was no trace of a coffin or clothing. Despite no signs of trauma to the remains it was assumed at the time that the remains belonged to a murdered man. The burial almost certainly pre dates the barracks (1809-1812) and it would not be surprising if it had been there a great deal longer.

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Mother and Child Report: an opportunity to reflect and research our family and social history.

One in every three illegitimate children died within one year of birth in 1924. The mortality rate was said to be five times higher than that for parented children.

The death rate of infant illegitimate children in the institutions was high as they were undernourished.

The high level of infant mortality seemed to cause surprise when research on Tuam workhouse and infant mortality in the 1920s was published in 2014 (Sunday Independent, 15 June 2014). However, as long ago as 1941 in an article by M.P.R.H. on ‘Illegitimate’ in The Bell, vol. 2, no. 3 (June, 1941), pp 78-87 it was stated that in 1924 one in every three illegitimate children died within one year of birth. The mortality rate was said to be five times higher than that for parented children.

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The Maynooth Local Studies Series, recent issues, the Offaly volumes and the entire series listed here. Sources for Offaly History and Society, number 10.

The current issue of Irish Historical Studies (no. 165, May 2020) has a featured review of five issues from the Maynooth Local Studies series published in 2019. That brought the number issued to 144. We attach the list to 144 for your convenience and we bring to your attention the latest batch of four. Raymond Gillespie is the quiet man behind the series and who has acted as general editor since its inception in 1995. The reviewer in IHS, Maura Cronin, reminds of his characterising local history as being ‘primarily about people in places over time’. Place is described as the bedrock of local history, but it must be seen in the context of the actions of people and the pivotal role of historical research  is looking for the forces of disruption and of cohesion. What brought people together and what drove them apart.

The four new issues of 2020

Four new volumes have been published in the Maynooth Studies in Local History series (general editor Professor Raymond Gillespie). The volumes by Denis Casey, Emma Lyons, Brendan Scott and Jonathan Wright and can be ordered via Offaly History Centre.

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How did we cope with Cholera in Offaly in the 1830s? Edited from an article by Dr Tim O’Neill in Offaly Heritage (2003).

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The Offaly County Hospital, Church Street, Tullamore, had 50 beds while the population in 1841 was twice what is is now.

Cholera was the epidemic disease most feared around the world in the nineteenth century.A letter from Tullamore of 1832 describes the devestating disease of cholera. ‘We had 165 deaths. All bridges to the town are cut and broken. Every house is shut up and there is no such thing as business. Men who would eat their breakfact in perfect health would be buried before dinner.’

In the eighteenth century neighbouring countries began to suffer from the disease and in the nineteenth century it attacked Europe. Cholera spread around the world in great epidemics from its traditional base in the Indian sub-continent and carried with it high mortality rates, severe suffering and terrifying symptoms. These began in 1817 but the first wave did not reach Europe and was halted temporarily at the shores of the Caspian Sea. From there in 1829 it spread rapidly through Europe. It arrived in Ireland around St Patrick’s Day 1832. This was the most serious cholera outbreak in Ireland in the nineteenth century and it has been estimated that 25,378 people died during that epidemic. The Irish death rate was high when compared to other countries for the same period.

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Jonathan Binns and the Poor Inquiry in Philipstown (Daingean), King’s County, November 1835 By Ciarán McCabe

 

The decades before the Great Famine witnessed a growing interest, in both Ireland and Britain, in the problem of Ireland’s endemic poverty. The sheer extent of poverty in the country and the very nature of that impoverishment – the relative lack of capital investment; an over-reliance on small agricultural holdings and a single staple crop; the complex and pervasive culture of mendicancy (begging) – were among the most striking characteristics of pre-Famine Irish society highlighted by foreign travellers and social inquirers. As outlined in a previous post on this blog(https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/05/poverty-in-pre-famine-offaly-kings-county-by-ciaran-mccabe), a Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland (aka the Poor Inquiry) sat between 1833 and 1836, and examined in considerable detail, the social condition of the poorer classes throughout the island. The resulting published reports, totalling more than 5,000 pages (much of it seemingly-verbatim testimony taken at public inquiries) illuminates more than any other source the experiences of the lower sections of Irish society on the eve of the Famine; fortunately for us, the Poor Inquiry collected evidence from witnesses in King’s County.

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Poverty in pre-Famine Offaly (King’s County) By Ciarán McCabe

 

In the decades before the Great Famine of the late-1840s numerous parliamentary inquiries were held into the condition of the poorer classes in Ireland. Political and social elites wished to understand the nature of Ireland’s seemingly endemic poverty in the hope of improving the social, economic and moral condition of the peasantry, as well as quelling the country’s tendency for social upheaval and political radicalism. The most significant of these inquiries was the Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland (aka the Poor Inquiry). Chaired by the Church of Ireland archbishop of Dublin Richard Whately (1787-1863), the commission sat between 1833 and 1836, holding extensive public inquiries (akin to court sittings) in parishes throughout the country, supplemented by extensive correspondence with persons of significance across the island, as to the social condition of the poor in their locality. The printed output of the commission – totalling more than 5,000 pages of detailed information, witness testimonies and statistics – constitutes an unparalleled source for the study of poverty in the pre-Famine period. The Poor Inquiry reports tell us much about County Offaly (King’s County) a decade before the Great Famine. Continue reading