The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
Michael Byrne’s recent blog article ‘The Gill Drapery Store in High Street Tullamore, 1900–22’ reminded me of the significance of drapery stores in the early 20th century and the Clara of my mother’s time. Amongst the correspondence between members of her family, frequent mention is made of the buying of material. The most common form of correspondence would seem to have been the postcard. Below, on the reverse of a postcard that depicted the ruins of Geashill Castle is an example sent on 27th of May? 1924. It was to my grandmother from her sister living in Clara and concerned the buying of material for ‘M’, May, her eldest niece.
It is likely the material was destined for a confirmation dress. My great-aunt, having no children of her own delighted in making clothes for her nieces and was also in the position to buy material. My mother’s family, then living on an estate of a ‘Big House’ outside Rathowen, Co. Westmeath, had no shops nearby.
During the 1920s and 1930s, visits back to Clara, their former home, by my mother and her sisters were frequent, staying with their aunt. Clara was seen as exciting, being a town bustling with people, a railway and buses and most importantly, shops to visit. At that time , Clara had a range of general merchants, butchers, grocers, blacksmiths and a drapery store. The shopping centre was situated around Market Square and roads running on to it, Main Street, River Street and Church Street.
The photograph below is adapted from the Lawrence Collection[i] looking down from Fair Green towards Main Street with Joseph Byrne’s General Grocer, Wine and Spirit Merchant in front and with St Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church to the right.
Although Tullamore, eleven kilometres in distance, was just a bus or train ride away, the town was rarely visited. It would seem that Clara met most of their needs. The town had grown rapidly since the beginning of the 20th century. The main employers were the entrepreneurial Goodbody family who were Quakers from Mountmellick, Co. Laois who had arrived there in 1825. The Irish historian David Beers Quinn grew up in the town and went to the same school as my aunts. In his affectionate portrait of Clara, Clara: a midland industrial town, 1900–1923’,[ii] Quinn highlights descriptions of Clara. The King’ County Directory (1890) stated the following: The town is most thriving and more like a north of Ireland hive of industry rather than a town south of Dublin. The prosperity is greatly or altogether due to the mill works of the Messrs Goodbody who employ large numbers of hands and are the means of circulating large sums of money over the district. F.R. Montgomery Hitchcock in ‘The Midland Septs and the Pale (1908) describes Clara as ‘the most enterprising area in the south of Ireland.
Quinn quotes Goldthorpe and Whelan (1992) in exemplifying the unique industrial nature of Clara, who state that in 1922 the 26 counties of the Free State had ‘only a miniscule manufacturing sector, two thirds of which comprised processing of food and drink while by 1926 ‘only 13 percent of the labour force was engaged in industry, broadly defined, and only 10 per cent of the labour force was in manufacturing’.
The period 1919-1923 was a challenging time in which to live in Clara, not just due to political unrest. The influenza epidemic caused misery to many families and inflation in 1920 led to strikes for more pay. After the Civil War and Irish Independence many challenges remained. World War 1 changed society, politically, economically and socially. In Clara, the flour milling business was under threat from British competitors and sold to Messrs Rank in 1930 and the jute factory, also under threat from overseas competition was turned into a public company enabling machinery to be replaced as well as a factory opened in Waterford. The company survived World War 11 expanding from jute manufacture to that of cotton and synthetics. Manufacturing in Clara continued but eventually, competition that affected all Britain’s textile industry led to the company ceasing trading in 1984.
Harold Goodbody’s history of Clara 1886-1945 [iii]notes that despite the economic woes of the interwar period, he believed that Clara in the latter 1930s as a whole was more prosperous than it had ever been stating ‘both the Mill and the Factory were doing well and paying good wages. The streets and roads were improved out of recognition by steam-rolling and the houses neater and cleaner …… the electric lighting of the streets and houses was a great improvement on the old gas supply and the public water supply was another advantage.’
I visited Clara with my parents first in the early 1960s. It was only the second time my mother had returned to Ireland since she left for England in 1946 and the first time she had returned to her home town since her aunt had died suddenly in 1946. She was saddened that there were so few people about. After visiting her aunt and uncles’ graves, we looked at the places where she and her relatives had lived and worked but it was the area where she had gone shopping, I now know as the Square, which saddened her the most. The Clara representing ‘home’ had been lost, not just as she had no relatives there, but it did not feel the same place to her. This is probably a common reaction to anyone returning ‘home’ after a long period. Of course, the Clara of her memory was as she described it in her memoirs ’…. a factory town – a very big jute factory that made the sacks for the flour for W. Rank, the big flour mill organisation.’ However, she pursued coming back every couple of years, sometimes with her sisters. The last time I took her there was in 1998, just after she had written her memoirs. She wanted to return to the places she had lived. I do remember her wondering why there was nothing to indicate or explain what a busy place it had been, just lots of derelict buildings. It was on this visit in the late Spring we saw the bog cotton she talked about so much. Normally I had been in Ireland during the summer.
Living in England, it has sometimes surprised me why some buildings are left in a state of disrepair such as Charleville Castle. Since Independence, Ireland seems to have actively embraced its heritage in terms of its oral tradition, music, crafts and landscapes but less so the built environment and industrial activity. There are over fifty buildings and street furniture listed in the Buildings of Ireland’s National Inventory of Architectural Heritage for Clara but a number are derelict or in a poor state of repair. Maybe, as an agricultural country this built heritage is seen as less significant and the buildings of the 19th and 20th not representative of Irish history but that of its British colonisers.
I have passed through Clara many times since 1998 and, on the surface, nothing much seemed to have changed. I returned in 2016 for a longer visit, staying at Clara House Spa. The area around the Square looked even more derelict than before with so many broken paving stones and a general air of neglect around the shops, many of which were unoccupied. It seemed to me that the town was in need of significant government funding to regenerate the area, not just for its inhabitants but to honour its industrial heritage in the same way that Clara Bog Centre, opened in 2011, acknowledges and conserves its natural heritage.
Although, the strategic aims of the Offaly County Plans for Clara in 2012 and 2021 were laudable, from a visual perspective, I saw little difference in the town in the intervening decade. However, when I returned to Clara in 2021, I was amazed at the difference in the town. Although still lacking commercial vibrancy, pavements at its centre had been renewed, hanging baskets displayed colourful flowers and overall, the town looked well kept. Clearly something had been happening on a community level. Obviously, there had been community efforts over the intervening years that had not been visible to someone passing through like me such as the activities and services of the Clara Community and Family Resource Centre.
I have become aware in recent years of two particular organisations through their online presence, Clara Tidy Towns and Clara Heritage. Clara Tidy Towns seems to be giving a facelift to the town making significant influence on its visual impact. Ivy has been removed from derelict buildings, green spaces tidied and graffiti removed. This community engagement has led to Clara being awarded €100,000, through the Streetscape Enhancement Funding from the Department of Rural and Community Development which will provide a great start to the regeneration of Clara. The Clara Heritage Group, states that it was set up ‘to promote, preserve and enhance the social, economic, industrial, cultural and natural heritage of Clara town and its environs.‘ Walks, talks, tidying graveyards and an Annual Literary and Music Festival, now in its second year, give a sense of the group’s purpose . The online presence of these organisations which includes short videos are important in reaching out to a diaspora with roots in Clara as well as show-casing what they do to a wider audience including funding bodies.
The Streetscape Enhancement Funding should hopefully spearhead the regeneration of the town. It would seem that the key resource that Clara has is its people. These custodians of the town are setting a path forward that acknowledges its past, conserves its natural features and aims to provide a healthy, sustainable environment for its population. I wish them well.
Sylvia Turner September 2022
[i]Fair Green, Clara, King’s Co. French, Robert, 1841-1917 photographer, Lawrence, William, 1840-1932, The Lawrence Photograph Collection, Published/created between 1880-1900. National Library of Ireland
[ii] D. B. Quinn, ‘Clara: a midland industrial town, 1900–1923’, in Offaly: history and society, ed. Timothy P. O’Neill and William Nolan (Geography Publications, 1998)
[iii] J. Harold Goodbody and Michael Goodbody (eds) 100 years of Clara History: A Goodbody Family Perspective, (Esker Press 2022)