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.

A ’roundy’ birthday tribute to John Flanagan, builder, Tullamore

We seldom write a blog on a living person but we are making an exception for John Flanagan, the modest man from the Meelaghans, Puttaghan and New Road, Tullamore who has invested his whole life (so far) in making Tullamore a better place for people to live, work, bank and even pray in. We in Offaly History occupy offices at Bury Quay rebuilt for us in 1991-2 by the John Flanagan firm and now we also occupy Offaly Archives, another Flanagan development located at Axis Business Park, Tullamore. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the building of Tullamore Court Hotel. Great in that it was against the odds and had been talked about in Tullamore for thirty years but nothing was done.

As long ago as 1977 the Midland Tribune in a review of Tanyard Industrial Estate commented that John Flanagan was a man whose vision and initiative has given the Tanyard its new lease of industrial life. John Flanagan had by then been 24 years a-building so successfully that John Flanagan and Sons Ltd. was one of the best known contracting firms in the Midlands.

He purchased the Tanyard from Messers. P. and H. Egan in the late 1960s, established his own offices there (modest of course with no frills) and almost immediately set about using some of the six-acre site to provide facilities for other local people to set up business and projects of various kinds. Some of the buildings on the property were suitable for conversion to new usage but John Flanagan also embarked on his own programme of factory construction. He subsequently purchased other premises in the same area from Messrs Tarleton. With about eleven firms thriving in the Tanyard already, about 3³/8 acres remain available for further development and Mr. Flanagan will be ready to respond to demand as it arises. The whole area was redeveloped in the 1990s and is now emerging as a retail sector in Tullamore, well adapted to the changing economy.

John Flanagan extreme right and beside him is loyal foreman Jim Larkin – in late 1984 after the fire of 31 10 1983 at Tullamore Church.

While his industrial estate has been steadily expanding, so too had his own business as a contractor. In the 1970s his major undertaking included construction of R.T.E transmitting Station at Ballycommon; Tullamore Vocational School; the Post Office in Portlaoise; Farm Centres in Edenderry and Portlaoise; Housing Carlow (a scheme of 57 houses); factories for Messrs Paul and Vincent; in Tullamore and Irish Cables, Athlone.

The old Tanyard Lane c 1996 with the first block of apartments on the right completed and a new carpark under construction

Jobs in hands in the late 1970s included a scheme of 40 houses in Clara for Offaly County Council; the Bank of Ireland premises at Bridge St. O’Connor Sq., a Welfare Home in Edenderry; reconstruction work at St. Loman’s Hospital, Mullingar.

‘Mr Flanagan – who incidentally is Chairman of Banagher Concrete was actively in recent formation of a Chamber of Commerce in Tullamore and is the inaugural President of a body which is expected to make a very significant impact on the industrial and commercial life of the town and district.’

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Keeping your head down – Protestant identity in 20th century Ireland. By Sylvia Turner

Ethel Kerin was born on 11 January 1922 in Clara, County Offaly. Her mantra in life was to ‘keep your head down’ learned from her parents who worked as servants on the estates of affluent Protestants. Ethel kept her head down in terms of her parents’ employers as she depended on them for food and shelter. When she came to live in England in the 1940s, she kept her head down as she was Irish.

Ethel Kerin was my mother. She was born into a family of Protestants who worked in service. Little I have read or seen in Ireland relates to the type of life she and her family led. It was a hand to mouth existence, of feeling inferior and beholden to her father’s employers who were Protestant business families or landed gentry. In the post Partition decades of the 1920s and 30s, the lives of the family were frequently interrupted by termination of service and relocation. Apart from the Quaker families they worked for, their employers treated them with little regard, deciding to close down their houses and leave Ireland at short notice, returning to properties they held in England. My grandmother kept in touch by letter with the many friends she made, both Catholic and Protestant, across the Midlands and east of the country till the end of her life. The correspondence gives a sense of sadness of having to move and set up home again as well as the vagaries of their employers. However, simple pleasures of going out for picnics and evenings with neighbours that involved laughter and fiddle playing were clearly high points in their lives. Overall, there is a sense of making the best of things under difficult circumstances. Despite church and school attendance at the Church of Ireland, the family’s lives were more related to their neighbours, regardless of religion, than they were to that of their Protestant employers.

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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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The Mother and Baby Report – ‘P.F.I.’ and the view from Britain. By Declan McSweeney

The report of the Commission of Investigation into the mother-and-baby homes has received huge coverage in the British media, reflecting, no doubt, the number of survivors of the homes who settled in Britain. This is the third and final blog looking at this important report for Irish social history in the 20th century. Here Declan McSweeney looks at the reception of the Report in Britain

It is a reminder of the days when so many Irishwomen were referred to as ‘PFI’ (Pregnant From Ireland). One of the most shocking aspects of the report was the reference to women who had moved to cities like London or Liverpool and were effectively kidnapped by their families and forced back to hellish institutions, as outlined here: Mother and Baby Homes: State paid for 2,400 pregnant women to be repatriated from England

Mother and Baby Homes: State paid for 2,400 pregnant women to be repatri… Aoife Moore and Elaine Loughlin Many pregnant single women that travelled to Britain found it was less welcoming than they had hoped

It is also a salutary reminder of the fact that Britain, for all its faults, has long been a haven for Irish people from ill-treatment of one kind or another.

The recent announcement by the Irish Government of its Diaspora Strategy has featured a recognition that many were effectively forced out of Ireland down the years.

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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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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 Rag Trees of County Offaly. By John Dolan

During the early Christian period the midlands region was covered with great oak forests and vast expanses of bogland left over from the last ice age.  Transport was only possible on glacial ridges or eskers and important monasteries had been built along these trackways.  The most famous of these roadways was the Eiscir Riada which runs westward across the northern edge of Co Offaly on its way between Tara and Clonmacnoise which was always a significant Shannon crossing point into Connacht.  A second great roadway connected Tara to north Munster; this was referred to as the Slighe Dhála and runs through the southern part of Co Offaly.  There was a connecting link between both of these main roadways by a North South running corridor on which a number of additional monasteries were built. Continue reading

Funeral Practices in West Offaly and the funeral of Ned Doorley. By Pádraig Turley

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Louis Darcy, former Offaly county hurler, another altar boy rostered for Ned Doorley’s funeral

 

WE are glad to bring you the second part of Pádraig Turley’s piece this August 1 2020.  We have reached 55,000 views for our stories this year so far. The same as the entire of last year.  You can see all 212 stories on http://www.offalyhistoryblog and there is a shortcut to them at http://www.offalyhistory.com  You do not need to be on Facebook to view. Why not contribute  and send to info@offalyhistory.com.

FUNERAL OF NED DOORLEY:

The story of the funeral of Ned is one worth relating. This is a story I was always aware of, but was inclined to take it with a grain of salt. However, recently I received a communication from Shannonbridge native James Killeen, currently residing in Illinois, which virtually tallied with the version I had. Ned was the last survivor of the Doorley family when he died in Tullamore Hospital. My uncle Joseph Claffey and the undertaker Kieran Flannery volunteered to go to Tullamore, to pick up the corpse. James tells me that he and Louis Darcy (former Offaly county hurler)and Leslie Price were the altar boys rostered to be on duty to assist the Parish Priest Fr. Frank Donoghue, who having served in Brooklyn, NY, liked things to be done pronto.

The funeral was expected in Shannonbridge at 8.00 p.m. Everything was ready and in order, candles blazing. It did not arrive at 8.00 p.m. or indeed 9.00 p.m. or 10.00 p.m. Needless to say Fr. Donoghue was getting very edgy. There was no sound or sight of the funeral. James tells me that post war traffic in the area was about one motorized vehicle every forty minutes. So in the silence one could hear a car approaching from as far as Moystown, a distance of 9 km. Sometime after midnight James says, one could hear the grinding of the old 14.9 hp Ford engine somewhere around Blackwater, about 2 km away.  On arrival Kieran Flannery, the undertaker announced they had a breakdown in Ferbane, and as it was a Sunday night, they had difficulty sourcing the part.

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