There are only a few studies available on the development of retailing in Ireland, either of a general nature or in connection with particular firms. It is well known that in the first half of the nineteenth century and up to the Famine years retail outlets were not widely available and many in the smaller towns were no better than huxter shops. There were exceptions and that is clear from the photographs of c. 1900 of shops such as Williams. Egan, Goodbody and Lumley (in Tullamore); O’Brien in Edenderry and O’Meara and Fayles in Birr. In looking at the revolutionary period from 1912 to 1921 to mark the decade of centenaries it is also worth looking at revolutions in other areas such as transport, energy and shopping. Like the political revolution retailing exhibited signs of stress after 1921 and did not recover until the coming of the supermarkets to the provincial towns in the 1960s.
The trade directories, and from the 1840s the valuation records, will facilitate investigation of retail outlets. By the 1860s living standards had improved and this is reflected in the increasing number of shops; per capita tobacco consumption rose to English standards about 1870 and per capita consumption of tea was not far off the English level by the end of the 1870s. The considerable economic progress of the early 1870s, began to slow down by the end of that decade. The 1880s is looked on as a period of industrial crisis with industries closing down in all the principal towns, or destroyed by fire as with the Goodbody tobacco factory in Tullamore and the Birr distillery in 1889.The railways and the canals (especially in the midlands) facilitated the easy removal of heavy goods and livestock from towns all over Ireland, but it also left it easier to import foods easily and cheaply. As a result, the Irish industrial base (such as it was, especially in southern Ireland) receded while the retail and services sector began to grow albeit slowly.
Teresa Wyer was born in Ballykeenaghan, Rahan, Tullamore, County Offaly on 29 November 1868. She was the third youngest of eleven children of Michael and Anne Mary Wyer. Teresa Wyer went to Rahan National School and thereafter to Killina Secondary School. She joined the Convent of Mercy Athy, County Kildare on 22 February 1890 where she was called Sr Mary Baptist. She left the convent in 1900 and ran a shop and public house at No 6 Church Street bought by the first author’s grandfather, Owen Wyer, brother of Teresa Wyer, from Abraham Colton, the Tullamore auctioneer and hotelier in early 1901. Owen Wyer was also a Sinn Féin activist and chaired a great Sinn Féin meeting in Rahan in September 1917.
Church Street was a busy commercial street at that time with at least five public houses, a hotel and a number of private residences. Wyer’s neighbours included the long-established Warren family drapery stores with two shops. In 1901 Teresa Wyer (then describing herself as 30) was living with her brother over the public house and they had a shop assistant and servant living with them. Owen Wyer was a maltster with the Egans of Tullamore and she a publican. By 1911 she described herself as a grocer and aged only 36, single and with four assistants living over the shop. Teresa Wyer married James Wyer from Ard, Geashill on 24 February 1914.
On a walk recently, listening to the crows squawking, I was reminded of a visit to Geashill parish church, dedicated to St Mary, in the diocese of Kildare and county of Offaly just over a year ago and hearing the same sound from the trees by the path to the church.
I have become very attached to the church as it is where my great–grandparents and grandparents were married and where many of my great–aunts and great–uncles were baptised and buried, sadly in unmarked graves. As the world comes to terms with the Covid–19 pandemic, I think of my grandmother, Elizabeth Kerin née Evans (1881–1967) who was born in Geashill. She lived through the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century that killed her father and ten of her twelve siblings, the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic and the War of Independence (1919–1921), a particularly dangerous time for Protestants such as her remaining family in Geashill and her growing family living nearby in Clara.
My grandmother’s early life up to the 1920s was little known to her children and it is only in comparatively recent years that the tragedy she encountered in Geashill has been fully realised. Her only known relatives were her parents, two sisters and two brothers. Access to further information came to me 16 years ago when I contacted the incumbent of Geashill and Killeigh parish at the time, the Revd J. Leslie Crampton. He transcribed all the births and deaths he had for the family. The information concerning the true number of siblings she had and how many had died of tuberculosis, many as young adults, was truly shocking to my grandmother’s daughters and grandchildren. However, it has enabled us to appreciate all the more that the loving and caring person we knew who was sustained by her family and her faith. We realise now she also held the qualities of strength and resilience.
‘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’.
The now permanent release online with free access of some 11,000 lives in the Dictionary of Irish Biography (DIB) will be a huge bonus to historical research. And yet there will be many people at county level who will not feature but deserve to have their work recorded in dictionaries of county biography. Offaly History began this process in its publication Offaly Heritage 9 (2016) but more so in the recent issue of Offaly Heritage 11 (2020) where the following ‘Brief Lives’ were recorded by way of:
Short biographies of revolutionary figures in Offaly, 1912–23
P.J. Bermingham (1872–1975), 2–3.
Eamonn Bulfin of Derrinlough, 26–7
Father Thomas Burbage (1879–1966), 42–5
Revd Philip Callary (1849–1925), 73–4
Cumann na mBan in Offaly, 80–81
Thomas Dunne (1884–1968), 90–91
James Perry Goodbody (1853–1923), 134–5
Catherine Mahon (1869–1948), 157–8
Patrick McCartan (1878–1963), 179–80
Seán McGuinness (1899–1978), 189–90
T. M. Russell (1868–1932), 205–6
These short essays of less than 1,000 words each were contributed by independent scholars – Brian Pey, Michael Byrne, Margaret White, Ciara Molloy and Lisa Shortall.
It is to the final life in that recent collection we focus on here. It was that of T.M. Russell, a man with huge potential, which remained unrealised when the opportunity came for a revolutionary change in local government in June 1920. This was following on from the election of the first Sinn Féin controlled county council and the implementation of self-reliance and breaking with the Dublin Castle based Local Government Board.
There is an increasing appreciation of the records of the local press: the Midland Tribune, Leinster Express, Tullamore and King’s County Independent and King’s County Chronicle, without which our knowledge of the county of Offaly since 1831 would be so much the poorer. The press was the only source of news for the public in the pre-‘wireless’ days up to the 1920s and 1930s. This week we mark the burning of the Athlone Printing Works and with it the machinery of the Offaly Independent and Westmeath Independent in early November 1920 and look at the evolution of its editorial viewpoint from pro-war to pro- Sinn Féin and the Irish Republic.
Everywhere in the world today, the role and validity of public art, particularly statues of historical figures, is under scrutiny. At the same time it is the policy of our new Government to place an increased emphasis on urban quality-which presumes the installation of even more public art. This could be a recipe for conflict but much can be learnt from an examination of the history and experience of the provision of sculpture in County Offaly, and its errors and successes.
The Three Tests
I suggest that three criteria, all of which are of course totally subjective, apply to any reconsideration of the role of public art. The first is the continuing historical acceptability of the person or event which is commemorated. In Offaly, it is beyond doubt that the Manchester Martyrs Memorial in Birr or the War of Independence Memorial at the Courthouse in Tullamore would pass that test. The second is the intrinsic artistic quality of the work and ‘Saints and Scholars’ by Maurice Harron on the Tullamore bypass is generally agreed to be both striking and imaginative. Finally, there is the work’s contribution to a planned urban ensemble and in this respect both the Downshire Memorial in Edenderry and the Barnes-McCormack Memorial in Banagher which close vistas or reflect their settings, would qualify. It gets a lot trickier however when a work satisfies some of the criteria but not all.
For example, in our capital city the statue of Daniel O’Connell, the ‘Liberator’, marks the entrance to the fine boulevard which bears his name and having been designed and executed by the greatest Irish sculptor of his day John Henry Foley, it clearly fulfils all three criteria of artistic worth, civic design contribution and an historically enhanced reputation.
However, further along the same street the statue of Horatio Nelson failed the public acceptability test and along with its beautiful and blameless Doric pillar, was blown up in 1967.
Interestingly, Birr provides a precisely similar scenario. The image of the third Earl of Rosse in John’s Mall is also a fine example of Foley’s skill, and the reputation of ‘The Astronomer Earl’ has grown over the years. The statue, by virtue of its scale and location, is an integral part of a well-designed public space. Thus all three criteria are fulfilled.
In nearby Emmet Square stands the finest urban ensemble in Offaly and the only extant example in Ireland of the use of a central column as a focus for a public plaza. Whatever about the artistic merit of his statue which stood atop its elegant Doric pillar, the brutal reputation of the Duke of Cumberland was anathema to many and the discovery of a crack gave a valid excuse for its removal by Birr Town Council in 1915. Had Dublin Corporation adopted the same approach, the column upon which Nelson stood and which contributed to the scale and architectural character of O’Connell Street, might still be with us but as in Birr, we would probably still be debating a suitable replacement to cap it.
The issue of whether existing public art is still relevant and making a contribution to its locality can sometimes be contentious, but the location and nature of new public art is always pure dynamite, as the persistent vandalism of the Luke Kelly statues in Dublin (whether for aesthetic reasons or not) demonstrates.
Ideally public art requires public consensus and the smaller communities of Offaly who have got together to commission and install works of high artistic quality to celebrate their own local heroes or legends have shown the way in this regard and their approach deserves study and emulation.
Killeigh commemorates its famous local greyhound ‘Mick the Miller’ with a beautiful bronze piece by Elizabeth O’Kane. Cadamstown remembers local boxer Dick McRedmond in a lovely stone bust by Dermot Scully. In Ballycumber the wonderful little ‘Pilgrim’ trudges wearily to Clonmacnoise along the Erry Way in a delightful work by local artists Gerry Dooley and Lorie Quinn.
It is acknowledged by everyone that in Offaly both semi-State and local authorities have been to the forefront in providing good public art. The ambitious installations provided by Bord na Mona in the Lough Boora Discovery Park make it one of the best sculpture parks in Europe and it is the calling card of Offaly Tourism. Through its operation of the Percent for Art scheme, Offaly County Council has provided many imaginative and successful works in every part of the county, most recently Holger Lonze’s ‘Cruinne’ in Geashill and the ‘Marker Stone’ on top of Croghan Hill by Ciaran Byrne.
The elephant in the room however, is that almost all of these are in rural, village or remote locations and therefore their theme and siting is relatively uncontentious. A proposal to install a major piece of sculpture in the centre of any of the principal towns of the county on the other hand would immediately raise the questions of where, who, why, by whom and at what cost and inevitably cause a row. Nonetheless, busy central public spaces, both existing and planned, should now be the first choice locations for new artwork and these issues must be faced and a reasonable public consensus sought.
The county capital, Tullamore town centre has only three significant sculptural works, the two long established War Memorials and the 1999 ‘Pot Stills’ in Market Square by Eileen McDonagh. The recent Street Enhancement Scheme which might have provided the opportunity for the installation of a significant new work, instead inexplicably and without giving public notice, required the removal of the Memorial to the Dead of the Great War from O’Connor Square, despite its designation as a Protected Structure. Following an outcry and Ministerial intervention, it was saved but its generous planted setting vanished and it now stands looking a little lost and unhappily compromised by car parking. A more considered and consultative approach to our urban heritage is urgently required
A Phoenix arises?
The installation of a fine new piece of sculpture to adorn the historic centre of Tullamore is long overdue and the imminence of a new town plan presents the opportunity for its delivery. Hopefully, unlike its predecessor, the new plan will include a coherent vision for the preservation and enhancement of the town’s architectural heritage.
It might also follow the lead of other local authorities and outline the role that urban art would play in making the centre more attractive and even suggest where new sculpture or installations might be placed. The Offaly County Council Public Art Working Group could then initiate a debate as to appropriate subjects. One relatively uncontentious idea that has been around for years and which would certainly stimulate the imagination of a talented artist, would be that of the Phoenix- the symbol of the town.
This is now the time to start the debate on how Tullamore can celebrate its history, remember those who made a contribution to it and furnish its historic centre with new and exciting public art.
Consumed by political and economic turmoil, the first half of the 20th century was a fallow period for the visual arts and archaeological scholarship in Ireland and certainly Offaly was no different. The post-war period dominated by scarcity and emigration, was particularly stifling.
The first glimmerings of change came with the national festival of An Tóstal in 1953. Emulating the very successful Festival of Britain two years earlier, its primary intention was to boost tourism in the Easter off peak period – or as the poet Patrick Kavanagh called it ‘The Monsoon Season’.
Whether or not the festival brought any tourists to Ireland or not is debatable but it certainly had a dynamic cultural impact, particularly outside of Dublin. Local societies emerged to organise exhibitions of arts, crafts and heritage. An awareness of the need for civic improvements led to the Tidy Towns movement. Most importantly, a spirit of optimism and openness was created.
This sense of a new beginning was particularly evident in Tullamore where a small local elite led by individuals with connections to the Dublin art and theatrical world were beginning to promote a more open and less traditional approach.
The 12 June 2020 marks the 98thanniversary of the disbandment of the historic Southern Irish infantry regiments of the British Army at Windsor Castle. Disbandment was brought on by economic cuts to the British Army and in part due to the Anglo-Irish agreement. The Royal Irish Regiment, Connaught Rangers, Leinster Regiment, Royal Munster Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (and South Irish Horse) all surrendered their colours to King George V for safe keeping. The ceremony took place at 11:30am in St. George’s Hall in Windsor Castle. During the ceremony the King made a promise to safe guard these highly prized colours. The ceremony finished with a royal salute and God Save the King played.
The colour party detachments for each regiment consisted of the regiment’s commanding officer, then three officers and three non-commissioned officers (NCO) for the 1stand 2ndbattalion respectively. One of the NCOs on whom this honour fell was John Thomas Cannon of the Leinster Regiment’s 2nd Battalion. This is John’s story.
Last week’s article on the cholera outbreak in Offaly in 1832 attracted a huge readership. This week Dr O’Neill (a Mucklagh, Tullamore native) contributes this piece on Pandemics in Ireland. The Offaly History research team has added some local material on the effects of the Spanish Flu (1918–19) in the county and some pictures by way of further reading. Enjoy and stay positive. Read our 179 articles posted to offalyhistoryblog and catch up on Camus.