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…
Knockaulin, Charleville Road, Tullamore
My father John Mahon
My late father John or Sean Mahon was one of the youngest of twelve children, born in Killurin. At seventeen years old he went to America to work for his eldest brother Pat in Chicago. Pat had a small grocery business and most of his customers were Irish, living in tall tenement blocks. It was Dad’s job to drive the horse and wagon and deliver the groceries, which he had to carry in heavy boxes up several flights of stairs. The winters were very cold with heavy snowfalls, and the summers were very hot and smelly due to the abattoirs being too close for comfort. Dad had left for the U.S. with the intention of settling there, but fate stepped in to scupper that plan. First I must say, when he was leaving home, my granny produced two sovereigns she’d managed to save, and gave them to him. He loved his mother dearly and always spoke of her with great affection. He never spoke of his father, other than to complain that he made them all kneel down in the kitchen every Sunday afternoon and recite all fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, while the other neighbouring boys were in the field kicking football.
My uncle Joe went to the Irish House in Paris to train for the priesthood. Due to poverty the diet was poor, and Joe got T.B. The priests thought that if they sent him out to California the sun would do him good, but of course it had the opposite effect, and he was sent home to die in Ireland. My dad (aged twenty-one) and Aunt Maggie sailed back with him but poor Joe died at sea and was duly buried at sea. The trauma of that tragedy stayed with my dad for years. He returned in 1900 to a changed Ireland. The resurgence of Irish culture, games and language had got well under way, to his delighted wonderment. He was utterly astounded to know, for the first time, that we had always had our own language. He started to learn Irish and mopped it up like a sponge, and in later years he ran into some leaders of the movement, including Padraig Pearse. I remember him saying that Pearse didn’t approve of cuaigtheor (I think that was the word) meaning a sort of regionalism rather than a unified accent and language. Nowadays we enjoy diversity in accents and habits, but of course with the rediscovery of our own identity it was understandable to want to keep the language ‘pure’. My dad joined the Gaelic League and so immersed was he in our language and culture, that he traveled round the Feiseanna as a judge. It was on one of these trips that he met my mother who was from Kerry and a native speaker. He got her a job teaching in the convent school in Kilcormac, after she’d done a five-year monitorship and they got married shortly before her twentieth birthday. I think my mother was an offender against Pearse’s wish for Gaelic purity, because she used to get angry with us for coming from school with Connaught Irish! I must say in her mitigation, the southern Irish seemed less harsh and more musical to my childish ear.
Sleeping Sickness in Tullamore – Black and Tans blamed
In 1924 a tragedy happened in Tullamore with the introduction of sleeping sickness. It was blamed on the B. and Ts, and may well have been, but in view of their background, i. e. prisons, crime-ridden slums etc. I often wondered if it had unwittingly, been brought back from Africa by one of our own missionaries. However, my brother Des was sixteen at the time and he got it in its worst form. He lived for twenty eight years, and between the end of the first seven years and the end of the second seven years his suffering was indescribable. All of the victims were young. The young victims of sleeping sickness were Des, Ted Smith, Andy Gallagher, Willy Sheil, Molly Dunne, and Nan Woods, all of whom lived in the town. As far as I know, no cure has been found for it, even today, eighty years on.
The first second level Sacred Heart School for girls at Bury Quay was built in 1911
School at Bury Quay
I started at the Convent School in April 1926 and had mixed experiences there. Some of which were not pleasant. However there was a lovely woman, Miss McDermott, who introduced us to the tonic sulfa, using hand signs to distinguish the notes. I was utterly fascinated by these lessons, and although it must be seventy-six years ago, I well remember her emphasizing the note ‘me’, and dwelling on how lovely it sounded to the ear. That experience must have fashioned my future because I ended up in a large comprehensive school as Head of Music. After I’d made my First Communion I went to St. Joan’s, which was in a little terraced house next but one, to the Convent. The Ryans were renting the house immediately next the Convent. At St. Joan’s I had the fortune to meet Miss Kennedy, who was a gentle but firm lady, who never used painful punishment for petty misdemeanours, and later at the Sacred Heart School, there was a gem of a teacher, Miss McGowan from Balllyhaunis, Co. Mayo. She taught us English in an erudite and interesting way. I could never understand why the lay teachers were much nicer and much better teachers in every way than the women who apparently were devoting their lives to God.
A 1927 Corpus Christi procession – the first in Tullamore and seen here outside the former Parochial House, demolised in 1974.
A Corpus Christi procession
I have pleasant memories of the Corpus Christi Procession, although shortly after my First Communion, myself and about seven other young girls were selected as ‘angels’ to kneel on the hard cold steps of the convent entrance on Bury Quay. We had to line up for ages beforehand and at some stage I was bursting to pee, it trickled down my legs and on to the ground. My shoes were white and I did my best to cover the damp patch on the ground and to my great relief nobody noticed. I was sure I was going to be half-killed.
Another memory came into my mind recently, and that was Killeavy’s butchers’ stall where my mother shopped every Saturday. It was first on the right in Patrick Street, and was a lock up, with a single huge door, with the carcasses kept at the back, and some large joints hanging from giant hooks. They had an assortment of wicked looking cleavers, which were frightening to watch being used. There was (to my child’s nostrils) an overpowering smell of animal blood, which got largely soaked up by thick sawdust on the floor. The assistant was a man called Martin Poland, who was the owner of one of the most pleasant manners I’ve ever met. Martin had a very strong speaking voice, allied to strong outstanding features, and was, altogether a most cheerful kindly man.
O’Moore Street people
Another memory was Earl Street where the Thomas family had a barbershop, while further along there was a boot maker’s shop, owned by a Thomas James. Next to James’ shop lived the Dunne family, and Willie Dunne had a shop in High Street, which I think sold shoes. It was the Dunne family who had poor Molly, one of the victims of sleeping sickness. Also in Earl Street lived an old lady who in her eighties was still quite attractive called Emily Barry. Her daughter was Mrs. Emily O’Reilly, and one of her sons was a well-respected patriot. I believe one of Mrs. E. O’Reilly’s descendants hears her name and is a well-known employee of an Irish newspaper. As it is so many years since I left home, I don’t know much of who’s who, alas! Another inhabitant of Earl Street was a Nurse Hutchinson, a widow. She worked for years past retiring age, and always wore her nurse’s uniform, long after she finished work. Her uniform was something from the nineteenth century, all starch and ribbons, with a sort of pleated bonnet. As the years passed poor Nurse Hutchinson’s uniform got very shabby looking and she herself looked unhappy and not at all as sprightly as she once was She didn’t seem to have any friends in her very old age, and it used to sadden me to see her looking frail and undernourished. I hope she ended her life happily and cared for. It’s possible that she had never married but because of her nursing qualification she was justified in putting Mrs before her name.
O’Moore St. c. 1910
Mrs Kenny, church organist
Before I finish I must mention Mrs Kenny the church organist. She used to produce wonderful organ preludes before last Mass on Sunday, which to my child’s ear were wonderfully satisfying. One beautiful chord after another led to a perfect solution, and while she was building up to the final resolution I was excitedly awaiting the complete whole. (Incidentally, Mrs Kenny also produced a very talented family of musicians.) It was worth the very long dreary last Mass, with the long dreary sermon and the long dreary Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity which were read out before mass started, and the hard wooden kneeler. On which I knelt with bare knees.
Nuala Ni Mathgamhna