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…
Early April 1921
Master Lavan’s house at Charleville Road, also 1911.
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 and my mother often recounted the fact that after my birth I was a very jumpy baby. Often waking myself up with a violent start. My father used to keep a shotgun to keep the wood quests from devouring his cabbages, so perhaps that caused a certain amount of suspicion. Whilst the Brits were combing our house, the lads had skedaddled down the open fields to the callows and probably down to Ballycowan, across the canal, or maybe they legged it over Charleville wall. Who knows? Incidentally after my father sold the gun the wood quests returned and my poor dad used to attribute human qualities of cunning and greed to the birds. Well how did the birds hide so well? Charleville road used to have some fine trees by the side of the road, and one grew between Lavan’s and our house ‘Knockaulin’ built in 1911, the first on the right about a quarter of a mile from the station, except for Dix’s Cottage and smallholding. Some years later Mr Lavan had a house built next to ours. He was a national schoolmaster with two daughters. Ethel a bank clerk, and Lily who stayed at home. (I noticed in Clonminch Cemetery that Lily’s age at death was put on the cross at 70 plus. In actual fact she lived to be over one hundred. The architect who designed our house suggested that it should face south and consequently its the only house not facing the road. The garden where my dad conducted his battle with the wood quests had been used by a butcher from the town to bury his offal, so consequently the soil was very rich. The first few years my dad grew huge strawberries for sale, and from the proceeds he bought garden tools, lawn mower, apple trees etc.
Dillon Street about 1940.
I mentioned Dix’s cottage. They kept a donkey and creel in which Pat used to bring home the turf and Mrs Dix kept a pig. Their garden extended along Charleville Rd. past the present Dillon Street opening and past the two semi-detached houses. It was bounded by a continuous hedge and I remember seeing Pat scratching at the ground, not very successfully. They also had a fine looking green painted pump outside their gate. Pat’s sister, Lizzie, was a teacher in Great Harrod, Lancashire till she retired about 1945. When Dillon Street was first built there was only four semis, housing the families of eight ex-soldiers. Hogans, Connells, Lloyds, Fords, Cosgroves, Briscoes, O’Reilly’s and O’Dowds. The entrance was a narrow rough road at the end of Dix’s land which ran down hill, turned sharp left, then right to the end of the street. Several years later the other houses were added and my friend Maura Briscoe and I had great fun playing on the sites till I fell into a lime pit one day. Several years later another street of bungalows were added: Healy Street, (parallel to Dillon Street), which ended at the bottom of our garden. Some of the lads used to nip in, nick some of our apples and leave my mother furious! Incidentally when the first families moved into Dillon Street, the poor mothers were up and down to Mrs Dix’s pump, with buckets all day, which caused my brother Alo to christen it Bucket Street. I really thought that was the correct name for years! Patsy Briscoe had served in the Boer War as well as the First World War. He’d managed to survive the trenches and filth and lice in Flanders and was a pleasant smiling man. He pounced on the back of my neck one day, thinking he’d caught a ‘poux’ on me, but it was a mole! He pronounced poux as poo.
The former Dix cottage at Charleville Road, Tullamore and close to Knockaulin
Saving Turf in Ballard Bog
I started to say I know another survivor of the Boer War. He was Ned Smith who lived in Ballard just beside the bog. He was married to a Lyons, an old Tullamore family, which included also Pat and Joe, and a Mrs McNamara. Pat and Joe had a smallholding down the end of Spollenstown and another brother lived in a cottage down Kilcruttin Lane. Pat and Joe were a wonderful pair of good old stock, keeping the real tradition of hospitality alive. It fell to Pat to cook the dinner (all home produce) and every day he put a few extra spuds in the pot, or an extra cabbage ‘in case someone called in on the way to the bog’. At that time, there was a road through to the banks directly, which at some later date got blocked off, as people had the extra mile or so along Charleville Road, and down Ballard Lane to reach the bog. I often woke early on a summer’s morning and heard the donkeys clattering along quietly pulling an empty creel. Their last trek home at night would be at about nine to give the owners’ time to unload in daylight. Ned Smith’s two daughters used to work on the bog during the summer, and Sis, the eldest always had a joke and a pleasant smile as she passed. In those days, Spollenstown was almost like a little settlement of its own. Lloyds, who owned a grocery and dairy on Charleville Parade (Cormac Street) also had a herd of cows. They were driven twice a day up to Spollenstown to graze, and then back down to fields opposite the courthouse, to be milked. There was a tennis club in Spollenstown where a lot of young townspeople used to play. I went there as a small child with my older sisters, but it closed down while I was still quite young.
A threshing on Charleville Road in Sarah Walsh’s field
Sarah Walsh’s house at Bury Quay/Convent Road, Tullamore, c 1996. Extreme right. Pic Offaly History
On the left hand side of Charleville Road going away from the town, and just past Dew Park, a maiden lady called Sarah Walsh owned a large field. One gate was opposite our house, and one about a hundred and fifty yards up the road. Sarah had a house and farmyard on Bury Quay, between the convent and the Christian Brothers School. In those days most farmyards kept their pile of manure in front of the house and we children used to have to run past it in summer holding our noses. Sarah used to cycle up daily to inspect her field and see that her employees were getting on with their work. I suppose every second year a field of corn was grown at our end. When the corn was ripe at our end it was very exciting. A huge threshing machine appeared about 8 a. m. along with a team of workers. They literally never stopped working all day long and by about 7 p. m. the field was bare and the gate locked! No drinks, no dinner, no nothing. We children used to stand (well back I may say) staring at the workings of the machine. There used to be a lot of dust blowing about and a strong oily smell coming from the machine. Another exciting development was the laying down of the tarmac on Charleville Road. That was roughly about the time the electricity from the Shannon Scheme was brought to Tullamore. We put it into our house in 1931 and our bedrooms were lit by the brilliance of forty-watt bulbs. After candles it seemed to be brilliant, and as to the miracle of the two-way switches on the stairs! No longer did my poor sister have to accompany me upstairs to the toilet when I was too scared to go on my own.
A much earlier memory, when I couldn’t have been more than two, was my brother, Alo, being ushered out the back door holding a plate covered by a tea towel. I was mildly curious at the atmosphere in the kitchen, as if everyone was holding their breath and hardly speaking, but it was years later when I heard the reason for it, that I recalled my childish awareness of something clandestine going on. It was because a young man from the town called Mike Whelan was on the run, and was sheltering in our outhouse loft. Mike was an insurance agent when I was growing up, and I always thought of him as a friendly sort of chap, because he always smiled at me. It was later that I found out why.
Another very early memory was my first sight of Irish Free State Soldiers in High Street. They looked great in smart green uniform and were standing to attention outside the big house, which later belonged to Daniel Williams [now Farrellys]. I could not take my eyes off them but I can’t properly remember whom I was with. I vaguely think I was walking past the Ulster Bank with two older sisters.
Nuala Ni Mathgamhna