The 1821 census and the town of Birr: exciting opportunities for exploration of town, family and social history 200 years ago. By Michael Byrne

Birr sometimes called Parsonstown

In the Pigot directory of 1824 Birr was described ‘as far the most considerable of any of the towns in the King’s County. It is situated on the river Birr [Camcor], and adorned with a fine castle, built by the family of the Parsons, the residence of the second earl of Rosse, the proprietor of the town. This town it was said has since been rebuilt by the present earl’. Birr was the leading town in the county from the 1620s until the 1840s but began to loose out because of the lack of an easy and direct link with Dublin, and it being that bit more distant from the capital and less central for local administration. The decline would accelerate after 1900 with the loss of political and administrative influence. By the 1820s Birr had new Protestant and Catholic churches (the latter nearing completion at the time of the census and the publishing of the Pigot directory), two Methodist chapels and a Quakers’ meeting house. The charitable institutions of Birr, were a fever hospital and dispensary, supported by county grants and annual subscriptions; a Sunday school for children of all denominations; a free school for boys, and another for girls. Birr had a gaol and a courthouse (from c. 1803), where the sessions were held four times a year. The prisoners were sent to Philipstown, which was the county town until 1835 for trial for serious crimes. From 1830 when the new gaol was built in Tullamore Birr prison was more a holding centre only. The ruins of the old church near the castle wall are still visible. One mile from the town were the barracks, ‘a large and elegant building, capable of holding three regiments of soldiers’. Birr has two large distilleries and two breweries, which, it was said, gave employment to the poor of the town.

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Babies, Beggars and Belligerents: A Case Study of Unidentified Death Records in Co. Donegal, 1870-1950. By Megan McAuley, the Offaly History/P. and H. Egan scholarship winner for 2021-2023 at Maynooth University

William Dudley Wordsworth accurately noted in his 1876 study of the Dublin Foundling Hospital that: ‘dead children, like drowned sailors, tell no tales’. The same can be said in the context of this analysis of Civil Death Records in County Donegal where unidentified (those registered as deceased without a known forename or surname) infant deaths occurred in their hundreds. This study was inspired by an article in Irish Historical Studies called ‘Registered ‘Unknown’ Infant Fatalities in Ireland, 1916-32: Gender and Power’ by O’Halpin and Breathnach, where the evidence suggests that many unidentified infant fatalities were homicides that occurred as a result of deliberate action, or inaction, i.e., infanticide. This is also true in the case of Donegal from 1870-1950, as the vast majority of unidentified death records belonged to infants, many of whom unfortunately died in suspicious circumstances. Wordsworth’s ‘drowned sailors’ too make an appearance in this set of records and can illuminate local communities’ experiences of Irish neutrality during the Emergency. Unidentified death records also shed light on another marginal group of society: mendicants. This cohort would have been familiar faces to many on the streets of Donegal, but utterly nameless to most, especially when they died. Similar studies could, and should, be undertaken in other counties, such as County Offaly, to further illuminate the ‘unknown’, marginalised or the forgotten in Irish society.

In January 1864 it became obligatory to register all births, marriages, and deaths with the local authorities. Not all deaths, natural and unnatural, however, came to official notice, as popular understanding of the law pertaining to Civil Registration was poor. It can be assumed that the deaths of many people of all ages remained unregistered, particularly in rural areas, for some time after the law was passed. Registrations were collated according to Superintendent Registrar’s Districts. 350 unidentified deaths were recorded in total in the districts of Ballyshannon, Donegal, Dunfanaghy, Glenties, Inishowen, Letterkenny, Londonderry, Milford, Strabane, Stranorlar and Castlederg. Of the death records, 196 were infants and 104 were adults. The remaining 84 death records could not be identified by age. Of the 196 infants, 162 were regarded as suspicious, such that an inquest was held by the local Coroner.

The illegitimate status of a child was a common motivation for infanticide in nineteenth and twentieth Ireland, due to the societal stigma associated with pregnancy and childbirth out of wedlock (for further reading, see Rattigan and Farrell). Pursual of this crime through the courts could only occur, however, if the infant was identified and a suspect detained through police enquiry. This leads the historian to probe a number of questions regarding the Donegal case: How many infant bodies were never recovered, particularly due to quick decomposition, from the rural landscape? Of those that were, how many new-borns were never identified and thus the perpetrator escaped a court trial? It is important, however, not to lay all of the blame on women who committed infant murder. They too were victims of a patriarchal society which valued familial landholding over the life of an apparently illegitimate child.

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Mercy Nuns, Tullamore: pragmatic women in a time of change. By Declan McSweeney

The role of religious orders in Irish society is a subject which frequently arouses passionate debate and, like many other debates, often generates more heat than light as extreme positions are taken, with members of orders seen as either saints or demons. The sisters of the Tullamore Mercy Convent are held in high esteem for their educational and charitable work and have always been willing to learn and to adapt with changing times.

The Sisters of Mercy have had a presence in Tullamore since 1836, when the original sisters came on the flyboat from Portobello down the Grand Canal, from the mother house in Dublin’s Baggot Street, founded by Catherine McAuley.

A favourite in the month of May during the rosary processions in Tullamore convent

St Joseph’s Convent was the first foundation outside Dublin by an order which was to become the largest order of women religious in the English-speaking world.

Brought to Tullamore at the request of the then parish priest, Father O’Rafferty, it went on to play a major role in local history, as well as to found convents in other locations.

In writing about the order, I am conscious of my own dealings with it as a young boy, having attended the old St Joseph’s NS (where St Philomena’s is now located) from 1965-68. In those days, the norm was that boys attended there for the first three years of schooling, until First Communion, when they departed either for Scoil Bhríde or, as in my own case, to the primary school then run by the Christian Brothers in Coláiste Choilm.

The girls then continued for another year or two until moving to St Philomena’s, which was then based in Harbour Street, in what is now St Mary’s Youth and Community Centre.

I have good memories of the four nuns who taught me in St Joseph’s – the late Sister Bernadette Nevin was my first teacher in Junior Infants, and she was followed by Sister Scholastica (now Sister Kathleen), Sister Regina (who later moved to teach in the USA) and Sister Columba (now Sister Nuala).

Sr Bernadette, teacher to so many in her early years

I cannot presume to speak on behalf of my female counterparts regarding their memories at more senior primary and secondary classes, that is something they would have to outline themselves. During my schooldays and for many years thereafter, the Sisters of Mercy ran three primary schools in Tullamore – in addition to St Joseph’s and St Philomena’s, they ran Scoil Mhuire on the other side of the town – in addition to the Sacred Heart School, the only all-female secondary school in Offaly.

In addition to such a major role in education, I am conscious of their involvement as nurses in the local hospital, where a separate convent, the Sacred Heart convent, long existed, as well as their work in Riada House and its predecessor, the old County Home.

One also thinks of the order’s legacy in terms of setting up the Day Care Centre at Whitehall, the old launderette on Convent Road and of course involvement in the development of youth services and work with Travellers.

The convent (1836-41) and the first girls’ secondary school of 1911 at Convent Road

By the late 1980s, the effect of declining vocations was already beginning to be felt – the appointment towards the end of that decade of Ann Cooney as the first lay head at St Philomena’s was followed by that of Geraldine Byrne at St Joseph’s in 1992 and Máire McRedmond at Scoil Mhuire in 1999. At secondary level, Sheila McManamly became first lay principal at the Sacred Heart School in 1991, when Sister Ann O’Neill kept her promise to do no more than six years as head following the retirement of the late Sister Dolores Walsh.

Second level girls at Tullamore convent in 1914

St Joseph’s Convent has been linked to a number of foundations away from Tullamore – in addition to the Kilcormac convent, which has closed in recent years (with the remaining sisters moved to Tullamore), it is worth noting the role in founding convents in Derry and in Costa Mesa in Orange County, California.

Sisters from Tullamore have also served in Zambia and Kenya as well as Iceland.

With the remaining sisters predominantly elderly, the time will come when few will be aware of their work, but the legacy remains in schools and youth services. Those of us of a certain generation are well aware of the great work done by Sisters Ann and Genny, among others, in the youth services, and the order’s generosity in donating the old St Philomena’s to become the Youth Centre in 1980.

We also remember the work of Sister Veronica Gilsenan in helping bereaved families, as well as her work with Travellers and others in need – at a personal level, I recall her going to see my father when he was dying in Our Lady’s Hospice in Dublin in 1990.

Sister Veronica and friends about 1990

In assessing their work, we have to remember that they often reflected the mores of their time and as sisters aged, they often re-evaluated positions they previously took for granted.

From conversations I had with sisters down the years, I could see they were quite pragmatic in coming to terms with the changing position of women and the adjustments in social mores.

James Lyle Stirling Mineral and Medicinal Water Manufacturing, Importer of Wines and Brandies, Athy and Tullamore. By Noel Guerin

James Lyle Stirling was born 16 May 1858 to Thomas Lyle and Anne Stirling of Tullamore. He was a business man who ran several businesses in Tullamore, between the years of 1880 and 1898, and is best remembered for his mineral water manufacturing company.

His father, Thomas Lyle Stirling, was a brewer and merchant in King’s County, who ran most of his business in Church St., Tullamore. He was also an active Tullamore town Commissioner and sometime acted as an agent for Mary Anne Locke of Locke’s Distillery Kilbeggan. Thomas Lyle Stirling married Anne Jane, daughter of William and Catherine Commins of Cappincur, Tullamore, they had six children, all born in Tullamore except the youngest, Thomas who was born in Dublin. The children were Margaret (born 1857), James Lyle (1858), William (1860), Catherine (1862), Isabella Elizabeth (1863) and Thomas (1866).

James Lyle Sterling and family

Anne Jane, James’s mother died shortly after Thomas was born in 1866 and his father Thomas remarried later the same year to Helena Reamsbottom, widow of Thomas Reamsbottom Esq. of Bellair Lodge, after she had lost a child and her husband early that year. Thomas Lyle and Helena Stirling, now married, lived in Bellair Lodge, Ferbane, and they went on to have two more children: Elizabeth Helena (born c.1869) and Thomas Francis Lyle (1872). In 1876 Thomas Lyle died, leaving a young James as his heir. As James was too young to take charge of his businesses, his estate was run by his executors, John Tarleton and Constantine Quirke. It would be another four years in 1880 before Stirling was old enough to take over his father’s business.

James Lyle Stirling married in Dublin to Gertrude Bridget Murphy (born c.1864), a daughter of Patrick Murphy a trader from Athy, Co. Kildare. They had six children at Church Road, Tullamore: Genevieve, Mary Margaret (born 1888), Eithel Mary (1889), Blanche Loretto Lyle (1891), Ida Mary Gertrude (1892), Joseph Allen (1893), and Raymond Gordon (1896). The family later moved out to Cloonagh House, just outside Tullamore.

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Remembering Lieut. Matthew Kane, Tullamore, died 1 April 1921 in the service of his country. By Michael Byrne

‘Early April 1921.  There was an ambush outside our house, in which a Black and Tan was shot dead.  The Black and Tans forced their way into our house, searched every inch and left a huge mess.  They also left my terrified mother, father and five brothers and sisters.  Three weeks later, I was born & my mother often recounted the fact that after my birth I was a very jumpy baby.’  Nuala Holland (née Mahon, Charleville Road, Tullamore). 

Nuala Mahon was referring to the attacks on the RIC in Tullamore in April 1921 that are matter-of-factly referred to by Sean McGuinness of Kilbeggan in his witness statement, now in the Military Archives (online, p. 29 in the pdf), in what he called ‘onslaughts on Tullamore RI.C. patrols at Charleville Road, New Road, Hayes Cross and Barrack Street, all on 1 April 1921 in which policemen and I.R.A. men were wounded and killed’.

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It was a `shame` about my granduncle Kieran Claffey of Bloomhill County Offaly: explorations in family history and a sad legacy. By Padráig Turley

With the recent publication of the Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, the notion and concept of shame is very much in the news. Shame is a negative influence that is so powerful that it can destroy and ruin lives. It can have appalling consequences. It can be public or private.

Shame guilt and apologies. The county council apology this week for things past Offaly Independent 20 3 2021. The council’s record on tuberculosis prevention was good with a central dispensary opened at the back of the county infirmary in June 1916. Dr O’Regan had been appointed to the prevention campaign in 1912 and four years earlier Lady Aberdeen had visited the town in support of her personal campaign.

Public shame is easier to deal with, for example the Government`s handling of such and such a problem was shameful. This is easy to handle as the Government is a distant entity, and their nonfeasance or apparent nonfeasance can be punished at the next election.

However personal shame is much more traumatic and can have devastating consequences. We have seen over the last forty or so years a series of scandals all of which had catastrophic effects on very innocent victims. When we look at these `scandals` from today`s vantage point it is hard to understand how the particular activity involved could have caused the outrage they did. It is difficult to understand that what is today accepted as quite normal could stigmatize an individual to such an extent that their lives were ruined and indeed that such ignominy could attach itself to an entire family.

However, the story I wish to relate is a simple enough tale, where a totally innocent condition had to be hidden. The person I wish to talk about is my grand uncle Kieran Claffey. He was one of twelve children born to Patrick Claffey and Anne Flannery, who were married in Shannonbridge in 2nd January 1853. They were farming folk who lived in Bloomhill near Ballinahown.

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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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Mother and Child Report: a personal reflection – knowing, not acknowledging. By Sylvia Turner

The Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes (2021) catalogues the institutional abuse and cruelty meted out to pregnant, vulnerable women and their children between 1922 and 1998. The Mother and Baby homes are commonly associated with The Magdalene Asylums and Laundries which were run by Catholic orders. What is less well-known is that the original Magdalene Asylum had a Protestant foundation. The philanthropist, Lady Arabella Denny (1707–1792) worked closely with the Dublin Foundling Hospital to improve practice. As it became clear that unmarried mothers had little option but to place their children there, she decided to establish an institution to care for the mothers and it became known as the Dublin Magdalen Asylum. It was originally opened in 1765 in Lower Leeson Street and closed in Eglinton Road in 1994.

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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 Tullamore Grand Canal Hotel, 1801–1974. By Michael Byrne

The first hotel constructed in Tullamore in 1786 cost £200. The second in 1801 about £4,5,00. Even by multiplying by 200 for the cost of living today, this expenditure was light in the context of the three new hotels in Tullamore in 1997- 2008 which may possibly represent a total expenditure of €25 million for 270 beds. And yet the canal hotel of 1801 was a major investment and may have never made a return to the Grand Canal Company. The need for it disappeared within five years of its construction. By contrast the deprecated Bury Arms (Hayes/Phoenix Arms) in the centre of town was in business for over 200 years.

The Bury Arms (later Hayes Hotel) erected in 1786, demolished 2000. From the Hanly Collection Offaly History. This view in the late 1950s.

The first hotel (that we know of) to be constructed in Tullamore was the Bury Arms Hotel (later the Phoenix Arms, demolished 2000, now Boots Pharmacy), erected in 1786 as an inn for Tullamore at a cost to the landlord, Charles William Bury, of £200. We know that in 1798 it had 13 beds for letting. The hotel was first leased to John Tydd at a yearly rent of £20. John Tydd and his son Benjamin were both dead by 1798 at which point the innkeeper was one Mr Doherty. Captain William Evans, who had been a director of the Grand Canal Company until c.1796, but remained with the Company providing engineering advice until 1805, was critical of the Bury Hotel on his visit there in 1798. His departure from the company in 1805, possibly following soon after the completion of the works to Shannon Harbour in 1804. Notwithstanding Evans’ criticism of the Bury Arms hotel Sir Richard Colt Hore who stayed at the hotel in 1806 wrote: ‘At Tullamore I found a good inn and accommodation at Doherty’s (the Bury, now Charleville Arms) near the Bridge’ (Tour, p. 32). The hotel had changed its name in line with that of the ennobling of the town’s landlord who became Lord Tullamore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and earl of Charleville in 1806. It should be mentioned that there was at least one earlier inn in Tullamore, that of Hugh Clough in the 1760s and other smaller hotels post 1800.

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