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…
After 101 years Laois Offaly is to be divided into two three-seat constituencies according to the just announced electoral commission report. ‘This would be the first time that the Offaly constituency would fully align with its county boundary.’ Now what was it like in the first Free State election in 1923 just 100 years ago? It was remarkable that the 1923 general election held on Monday 27 August 1923 was in general peaceful. It was only in early July 1923 that Ministers Milroy and Blythe spoke at a Cuman na nGaedheal (CnG) meeting in Tullamore in what was described by the Chronicle as scenes of an unprecedented character in the history of public meetings in Tullamore. The ‘supporters of Mr de Valera’ had posted anti-government posters about the town recalling the executions of Byrne and Geraghty, and also the three young men shot in Birr on a charge of armed robbery. On the office of the state solicitor, James Rogers, in High Street, Tullamore was pasted the words ‘Come inside and see the executioners’. Rogers would have been known both sides in the civil war as someone who defended Sinn Féin prisoners in the 1917–21 period. The newly appointed civic guards kept the peace between Cumann na Gaedheal supporters and supporters of Republican IRA.
The civil war had ended in May with the ‘dump arms’ order to the anti-Treatyites, but not in time to save Durrow Abbey from destruction by the local Republican IRA. New legal forms were being established from January 1923 with district courts held in Birr and Tullamore and that for Kilcormac only in early July after a gap in holding Kilcormac Court for three years. Legislation was also in progress for the winding up of the Dáil courts in July 1923. That said many of the Republican prisoners were still interned and the bodies of executed men had not at that stage been repatriated. So far as Republicans were concerned, in the view of Mary MacSwiney (speaking at Geashill in July 1923), the will of the people did not include ‘the right to swear allegiance to a foreign king’. In the opinion of Mrs MacSwiney ‘The Treaty could not be unsigned and must be broken.’ Mrs MacSwiney also spoke at the GAA grounds at Ballyduff. Notwithstanding some fiery speeches everything went off in Offaly reasonably peacefully in the 1923 general election with the exception of ‘a sort of general melee’ in Cloghan with anti-Treatyites the cause of the disturbance’.
The fourteen candidates and their assentors. Tommy Dunne proposed John (Sean) McGuinness and Edmund Williams Pat Egan and Frank Bulfin.
By early August the Offaly Independent concluded that the general topic of conversation was the coming general election, and the fight for the Offaly-Leix constituency in particular. There was little more than three weeks and ‘Up to the present, candidates have been selected in Offaly-Leix constituency representative of Cumann na nGaedheal, Irish Farmers Union and Labour, and it is believed that other interests will also step into the arena. The Independent was, in contrast to its period from April 1916 to its burning in November 1920, strong on law and order. In 1923 it fully supported CnG as it ‘stands for the country as a whole’ and is above party and class interest.
At a convention in Mountmellick in mid-August representatives attended from Tullamore, Killeigh, Geashill, Clara, Portarlington and Edenderry. It was reported that no business was transacted as the constituency was not represented as fully as was considered necessary. The name of P.F. Adams, was mentioned as a candidate by the Tullamore delegates, but no action was definitely taken, and the Convention adjourned to Tullamore at 3 p.m. on the Sunday following. A letter was read from Mr. Coghlan Briscoe, General Secretary of the Town Tenants League drawing attention to the necessity of calling ‘a little convention’ for the purpose of discussing the position, selecting the most suitable candidates, and collecting the town and villages in order to raise the expenses. At the meeting of Tullamore Town Tenants League on Friday night, P. F. Adam, Chairman presided. Also present – Messrs. M. Behan, J. Flattery, R. Forrestal, P. Rafter, M. Gilligan, M. Whelan, J. Pender and P.J. Daly, Sec. On the motion of Mr. Daly, seconded by Mr. Behan, it was decided to put forward P. F. Adams as Independent Labour and Town Tenants’ candidate for Leix and Offaly. Messrs. P.F. Adams, Daly, J. Pender, M. Behan, C. Adams and M. Gilligan were appointed delegates to the Mountmellick Convention which as stated above was adjourned to Tullamore.
In the event P.F. Adams declined to go forward. Adams had run for North King’s County in the 1914 by-election created by the death of Irish Parliamentary Party MP Haviland Burke. Adams was defeated in a closely fought contest by the D.E. Williams backed candidate E.J Graham. The latter died in 1918 and the second by-election was won by McCartan in a no-contest with some saying that Adams was intimidated into not running by Sinn Féin. This is an unlikely scenario given that he had retired from the county council in 1917. By coincidence Mrs Haviland Burke was killed in a motor accident in O’Connell Street, Dublin in August 1923. Graham was the first Tullamore man to be elected for the North Offaly or a county seat and was followed in 1923 by Patrick (P.J.) Egan, managing director of P.&H. Egan.
Six names were brought before the CnG convention and on a vote four were selected. These were: D. Williams, Mountmellick; Sean O’Kelly, Edenderry; P.J Egan, the chairman of Tullamore UDC since 1915; Frank Bulfin, T.D. Dr MacCartain was outgoing and had gone on record to say he would not be a Cuman na nGaedheal candidate as he did endorse the policy of that party for the previous six months. In the event he did not run. He had reluctantly voted in favour of the Treaty as the least bad outcome and was persona non grata with both sides. It was all a long way from his North Offaly win in April and December 1918 and his reception when he first the constituency in October 1921. Williams did not run either so it was to the three CnG candidates O’Kelly, Egan and Bulfin.
Those candidates who decided not to stand were well aware of the anti-Treaty support in the Leix-Offaly constituency. According to Michael Gallagher the strength of that vote was hidden in June 1922 because of the Collins-de Valera Pact, but account should also be taken of the tremendous support for William Davin, the Labour victor in that election who had two quotas (see our blog of June 2022). Offaly has always been strong for Fianna Fáil (at least up to 2011) and the anti-Treatyite sentiment post 1921 was strong and well represented on the military front also. In August 1923 both Sean McGuinness (the commander of the Offaly IRA brigade) and Laurence Brady were elected but did not take their seats. That led to the third by-election in the county in twelve years.
Birr town had a Republican meeting in mid-August with Dublin speakers and a denunciation of the government. Two candidates were selected in Offaly to represent the republican position; A large attendance gathered in Tullamore for the convention of Farmers’ Union candidates for the forthcoming elections. This included the long-standing local politician P.J. Bermingham. There were now five seats in Laois-Offaly constituency by contrast with 4 in 1922. As of mid-August fourteen candidates were in the field: CnG 3; Farmers 3; Anti-Treaty 2, Labour 2; Town Tenants 2; Land League 2.
The clergy were strong in their support for CnG including Fr Lynam in Tullamore who had chaired the troubled early July meeting. Fr Gaynor in Birr also supported the government party. He had attended on the three young men executed in Birr in January 1923 (see earlier blog). Letters of support for the Treaty from Philip O’Reilly, Tullamore and Fr E. O’Reilly Kilcormac were published in the press. The latter advised constituents to vote for law and order. ‘The Republicans have wrought ruin on the country’ while Mr Davin is connected with a party associated with the Labour union and dangerous. The Midland Tribune under Pike’s editorship from about 1912 to the mid-1940s was pro-Sinn Féin and from 1922 in favour of working the Treaty as ‘the great need for Ireland was peace’.
The brief but strenuous election campaign closed on Sunday in Tullamore, and on Monday people went to record their votes in the most historic election held in this country for centuries- the first election to the new Irish Free State government.
The outcome of the election
For the 1923 election there were five seats to be filled in Leix Offaly. The total poll was 41,915 on an electorate of 64,211 and the quota was 6,720. So far as the Tribune was concerned the outcome of the election would be a vote against further destruction. After the election it commented that the people had voted for CnG as the country was opposed to destruction. Education was needed to improve the electorate. The constituency had 1,598 invalid votes. By the early 1930s the Tribune had swung back to support Fianna Fáil while the Chronicle was non-committal (or quietly pro CnG) being the newspaper of the Protestant minority. Little was said in the local press about the anti-Treaty save Egan’s comments as below.
The outcome of the Leix-Offaly vote in 1923
Tullamore gave its new T.D., P.J. Egan, a big welcome home at a meeting in O’Connor Square chaired by John Williams. In an interview he gave to the Midland Tribune he described the election as a triumph for constitutional government. It was he said the transfer of Mr Cullen’s (Labour) votes he said put him in. Davin had attended 95 meetings it was noted. The Republican vote had kept out Cullen. Egan said he had met Jack McGuinness under peculiar circumstances but he wanted him and others to come and govern the country. After the reception for Egan in Tullamore some 400 to 500 workers of Egan’s and Williams’ were entertained in the old distillery by Mr Egan –‘ a number of beer barrels of stout were tapped’.
The national outcome
A local connection with the election was the gaining of a seat by Mrs Cathal Brugha in Waterford. Formerly of Birr (see earlier blog) she was a daughter of William Kingston and sister of former county secretary Charles Kingston. She had been active in language classes in Birr.
 Offaly Chronicle, 5 July 1923.
 Ibid., 19 July 1923.
 Michael Gallagher, ‘Politics in Laois-Offaly, 1922-92’ in Padraig G. Lane and William Nolan (eds), Laois history and society (Dublin, 1999), pp 657-88, p. 681.
 Offaly Independent, 11 Aug. 1923.
 Michael Gallagher, ‘Politics in Laois-Offaly, 1922-92’, p. 680.
 OC, 16 Aug. 1923; Offaly Independent, 25 Aug. 1923.
 Ibid., 11 Aug. 1923; Offaly Chronicle, 9 Aug. 1923.
 Offaly Chronicle, 16 Aug. 1923.
 Leinster Leader, 11 Aug. 1923.
 Offaly Independent, 25 Aug. 1923.
 Midland Tribune, 25 Aug. 1923.
 Offaly Independent, 1 Sept. 1923.
 Midland Tribune, 25 Aug. 1923.
 Ibid., 1 Sept. 1923
 Midland Tribune, 8 Sept. 1923.
 Offaly Independent, 8 Sept. 1923.
 Offaly Chronicle, 6 Sept. 1923.