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Offaly History (short for Offaly Historical & Archaeological) was first formed in 1938 and re-established in 1969 and is located at Bury Quay, Tullamore, Co. Offaly since 1993(next to the new Tullamore D.E.W Visitor Centre).

We are about collecting and sharing memories. We do this in an organised way though exhibitions, supporting the publication of local interest books, our website , Facebook, open evenings, our library and offices at Bury Quay.

Our Mission
To promote Offaly History including community and family history

What we do:

  • Promote all aspects of history in Co. Offaly.
  • Genealogy service for counties Laois and Offaly.
  • Co. Offaly photographic records for study and sale in addition to a limited number of publications on Laois and Irish general historical interest.
  • Purchase and sale of Offaly interest books though the Society’s book store and website.
  • Publication of books under the Society’s publishing arm Esker Press.
  • The Society subscribes to almost all the premier historical journals in Ireland.

Our Society covers a diverse range of Offaly Heritage:

  • Architectural heritage, historic monuments such as monastic and castle buildings.
  • Industrial and urban development of towns and villages.
  • Archaeological objects and artifacts.
  • Flora, fauna and bogs, wildlife habitats, geology and Natural History.
  • Landscapes, heritage gardens and parks, farming and inland waterways.
  • Local literary, social, economic, military, political, scientific and sports history.

Offaly History is a non-profit community group with a growing membership of some 150 individuals.

The Society focuses on enhancing educational opportunities, understanding and knowledge of the county heritage while fostering an inclusive approach and civic pride in local identity. We promote these objectives through:

  • The holding of monthly lectures, occasional seminars, exhibitions and film screenings.
    Organising tours during the summer months to places of shared historical interest.
  • The publication of an annual journal Offaly Heritage – to date nine issues.
  • We play a unique role collecting and digitising original primary source materials especially photographs and oral history recordings
  • Offaly History is  the centre for  Family History research in Counties Laois and Offaly.
  • The Society is linked to the renowned Irish Family Foundation website and Roots Ireland where some 900,000 records of Offaly/Laois interest can be accessed on a pay-per-view basis worldwide. Currently these websites have an estimated 20 million records of all Ireland interest.
  • A burgeoning library of books, CD-ROMs, videos, DVDs, oral and folklore recordings, manuscripts, newspapers and journals, maps, photographs and various artifacts.
  • OHAS Collections
  • OHAS Centre Facilities

The financial activities of the Society are operated under the aegis of Offaly Heritage Centre Limited, a charitable company whose directors also serve on the Society’s elected committee. None of the Society’s directors receive remuneration or any kind. All the company’s assets are held in trust to promote the voluntary activities of the Society. Our facilities are largely free to the public or run purely on a costs-recovery basis.

Acting as a policy advisory body –  Offaly History endeavors to ensure all government departments, local authorities, tourism agencies and key opinion formers prioritise heritage matters.

Meet the current committee:

Our Committee represents a broad range of backgrounds and interests. All share a common interest in collecting and promoting the heritage of the county and making it available to the wider community.

2017 Committee

  • Helen Bracken (President)
  • Pat Wynne (Vice President and Joint Treasurer)
  • Niall Sweeney (Vice President)
  • Michael Byrne (Secretary)
  • Lisa Shortall (Deputy Secretary)
  • Dorothee Bibby (Record Secretary)
  • Charlie Finlay (Joint Treasurer)
  • Darrell Hooper
  • Brian Pey
  • Fred Geoghegan
  • Noel Guerin
  • Henry Edgill
  • Peter Burke
  • Angella Kelly
  • Rory Masterson
  • Shaun Wrafter
  • Ronnie Matthews
  • Oliver Dunne
  • Ciara Molloy
  • Stephen Callaghan (Heritage Items)

If you would like to help with the work of the Society by coming on a sub-committee or in some other way please email us or let an existing member know.

+353-5793-21421 [email protected] Open 9am-4.30pm Mon-Fri

The Terror of Tullamore Gaol. By Maurice Egan


One hundred and thirty five years ago on Christmas eve 1887, one of the two ‘Heroes of Tullamore’, John Mandeville was released from Tullamore Gaol in wretched physical condition. Mandeville who farmed two hundred acres and was chairman of Mitchelstown Board of Guardians and his fellow Irish National Land League member William O’Brien, born in Mallow, and MP for northeast Cork were imprisoned first at Cork gaol on 31 October and two days later were transferred by train and incarcerated at Tullamore gaol. Earlier on 9 September, after an 8,000-strong demonstration led by John Dillon MP, three estate tenants were shot dead (John Shinnick, Michael Lonergan and John Casey) by police at the town’s courthouse where O’Brien had been brought for trial with Mandeville on charges of incitement at the Kingston Estate under a new Coercion Act. This event became known as the Mitchelstown MassacreMandeville, a tall burly man was singled out on instruction for particularly callous and brutal treatment at Tullamore gaol. He died six months after his release and an inquest held to establish the cause of his death concluded it was as a result of his maltreatments at Tullamore gaol. Before he died, he described the gaol conditions in letters to his wife and friend Sydney Halifax.

Ireland in 1887

Arthur Balfour was educated at Eton. In March 1887, when he was only thirty-eight, he was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland by his uncle and British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury (Robert Cecil). He got this senior role because of his uncle, and it is believed this is where the idiom ‘Bob’s Your Uncle’ originated. Balfour suppressed agrarian unrest whilst taking measures against absentee landlords. He opposed Irish Home Rule, saying there could be no half-way house between Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom or becoming independent. A brilliant debater, he was described as aloof, viewing himself above criticism and bored by the mundane tasks of party management. The Plan of Campaign was a strategy adopted in Ireland between 1886 and 1891, coordinated by Irish politicians for the benefit of tenant farmers, against mainly absentee and rack-rent landlords. In response to the Plan of Campaign, Arthur Balfour secured the Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act 1887 or ‘Perpetual Crimes Act’, a Coercion Act aimed at the prevention of boycotting, intimidation, unlawful assembly and the organisation of conspiracies against the payment of agreed rents.1 On 2 November 1887, William O’Brien MP and chairman of Mitchelstown Board of Guardians, John Mandeville, were imprisoned under the Coercion Act at Tullamore gaol. They were to have appeared at Mitchelstown court on 9 September to answer charges of inciting tenant unrest and rent boycotting on the Kingston estate. They refused to attend. Later in 1887, when O’Brien and Mandeville were taken for trial to Mitchelstown, fellow Land Leaguer John Dillon MP was present and after he delivered a speech denouncing Balfour, the crowd of 8,000 threw stones at the police, who retreated and then opened fire, killing three people in what became known as the ‘Mitchelstown Massacre’.

Footnote: John Mandeville (24 June 1849 – 8 July 1888) was born in Ballydine, near Carrick-on-Suir, County Tipperary. His maternal uncle was the founder of the Fenian BrotherhoodJohn O’Mahony

William O’Brien (2 October 1852 – 25 February 1928) was an Irish nationalist, journalist, agrarian agitator, social revolutionary, politician, party leader, newspaper publisher, author and Member of Parliament (MP) in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Tullamore Gaol

Fig 1. Tullamore Gaol 1830-1921, courtesy Offaly History.

Building of the gaol commenced in 1826 and the first prisoners were taken in four years later in 1830. A total of 122 cells were constructed. The governor’s house was attached to the prison and designed in such a position as to have sight of all prison corridors. Built alongside the governor’s accommodation was a terrace of four warders (aka turnkeys) double story houses, on Jail Lawn, Charleville Parade. The jail was decommissioned in 1921.2

In 1887, the governor was Captain Henry Fetherstonhaugh (appointed in 1866) formerly of the Westmeath Rifles. He was brother-in-law to one of the Prison Commissioners Francis Berry Esq of Eglish Castle. The deputy governor was Thomas Andrews. The prison warders at the time were: Chief warder Bartley, Messrs Daniel Goulding, Houlihan, Wilson, Mooney, George Bagnal, and Alexander McCullagh. It is believed Fetherstonhaugh (1826-1898) was replaced upon his death by Cavan man William Morton. The General Prison Board’s appointed medical attendant was Dr James Ridley (1845- 20 July 1888) of Moore Hall, Tullamore.3 

Gaol Conditions

‘Intensified Home Rule and land reform agitation, coupled with the Conservative Government’s Jubilee Coercion Act of 1887, led to the imprisonment of most important Nationalist leaders. Leaders like William O’Brien M.P. and John Dillon M.P., plus hundreds of their followers, were subjected at the direction of Chief Secretary Arthur J. Balfour, to the plank bed, prison diet and uniforms, regulation haircuts and shaves, and all other restrictions placed on ordinary prisoners. Balfour and the Irish Nationalists hotly disputed the Government’s refusal to recognize Crimes Act prisoners as political offenders.’4

‘This political contest had important consequences for the prisons and their officers, no administrators more so than the men who served as medical members of the General Prisons Board. These were men pulled in opposing directions, and their actions, real or supposed, were subject to public criticism. As bureaucrats, they helped set general diet, work, and punishment regulations which as doctors, they had to moderate in individual cases.’5 ‘William O’Brien remembered a number of conversations in which Dr James Ridley had prophesied “that from the first time he heard we were coming to Tullamore he had a haunting feeling that it would end badly .. .”. O’Brien observed that “every official seemed to be under a superstitious terror of the power of the Prisons Board, Mr. Balfour, or somebody in Dublin Castle.’6

In a letter written by former inmate John Mandeville in January 1888, some six months before he died of his prison inflicted torture, he explains in detail to his friend Sydney Halifax, conditions experienced by political prisoners at Tullamore Gaol. He writes:

‘It seems contemptible to have to speak of prison food and such matters…. For city men such as William O’Brien and Alderman Hooper it can scarcely be said that it is proper food. Poor O’Brien got very ill after a short time, but as he was only off punishment diet, consisting of bread and water (one pound of bread in twenty-four hours), I could not say but he might have held up against ordinary prison fare had no starvation been attempted. Hooper had not been long in prison. He is a delicate man, a journalist, of large frame, accustomed to a comfortable home, and I think confinement and rough fare are likely to tell heavily upon him. The greatest sympathy is felt for him here, as he is a most amiable, upright man and has a large family depending on him for maintenance. Even the Tory bigots regret the cruelties practiced upon him….. I saw him the day before they discharged me from Tullamore. He had been deprived of his clothes and was taking exercise with us in the convict grey. He appeared to walk with difficulty in the hobnail shoes provided by the gaol authorities, and tired, and requested permission to return to his cell after about a twenty minutes’ walk. On that evening he was put upon bread and water for refusing to clean out his cell, and since then he has had two days punishment on the same luxuries.

Fig 2. The Tullamore Gaol warders’ houses, Charleville Parade, courtesy Offaly History.

Footnote: Englishman Sydney Hallifax was lecturer for the National Reform Union and The Home Rule Union.

In addition to the punishment of the severe starvation, you are always confined in a close cell, and all outside exercise or air are forbidden to you. I felt this confinement without outdoor exercise much more than starvation. The cell, which is generally 6ft. by 14ft. after been occupied continuously for a few hours, becomes quite stuffy; and when you do get back to ordinary prison fare, you are so poisoned by the atmosphere of your cell, that you can scarcely take any food until you have some outdoor exercise. During my imprisonment I managed to exercise myself by swinging my stool around my head in the manner of an Indian club, and it served to keep me from falling away altogether. In a punishment cell you are allowed no stool, and as the cell is flagged, and the prisoner is compelled to wear thin slippers, the sufferings of a rheumatic person are considerable taking walking exercise. The ventilation of the punishment cell is very bad (unless what comes through the large spaces round a badly fitting door, almost no air). I complained of the cold resulting from this space around the door, particularly under it. The door is within nine feet of the head of the prisoners permanently fixed bed, and I was obliged to muffle my head in order to avert an attack of inflammation of the lungs. This defective door was remedied on Dr Moorhead’s recommendation. The prison authorities got a sack and stuffed it under the door. Daylight appears through a narrow window in such a very dim way that ordinary print, such as a Bible or morning prayers in a Common Prayer-Book, cannot be read. The cell is pitch dark once evening comes until daylight, all gas and candles been forbidden to the unfortunate inmates. The offence for which I was put in here was for refusing to clean out my cell. I refused on the ground that I was a political prisoner. I had been punished before by being confined to my own cell without any exercise for refusing to wear prison clothes. While confined thus to my own cell I was kept on bread and water, just as if I had been in punishment cell; but as daylight had a tolerable free entrance here, and as gaslight is also supplied, the punishment or torture is not entirely as great; besides, the prison stool does not make such a bad tool for exercise. I had also to keep my cell for several days voluntarily rather than take exercise with criminal prisoners. This was hard upon my health. My eyes got tender, and still suffer from the effects of the white prison walls. I can now scarcely read or write by lamplight. I believe poor Hooper refuses to exercise with criminals as well as to do menial work. He has never had much athletic training and can scarcely manage to take enough exercise to keep his health and spirits up to the mark in a small space of a prison cell. The punishment diet always makes me ill.

I was obliged to give up taking water with my bread and had to swallow the later dry or an attack of diarrhoea was the result. This attack generally lasted for three days, and on one occasion for more than six. I complained to the Governor in the presence of Dr Moorhead (a J P for King’s County), of the unfairness of putting me on punishment diet as a double penalty of illness and starvation, yet he had no right to injure my health. His reply was that the medical officer of the prison made no such representation to him, having certified me fit for punishment, and that as I had refused to comply with regulations of the Prison Board, he was compelled to punish me in the proper discharge of his duty.

Footnote: Alderman John Hooper (1846 – 23 November 1897) was an Irish nationalist journalist, politician, and MP in the House of Commons, and as member of the Irish Parliamentary Party represented South-East Cork from 1885 to 1889. In December 1887, he was imprisoned in Tullamore Jail, along with T. D. Sullivan for publishing reports of suppressed branches of the Irish National League.[1] He remained in parliament until he retired from politics in 1889.[2] At the time of his death he was editor of Dublin’s Evening Telegraph. He is mentioned in James Joyce‘s Ulysses when a matrimonial gift of a stuffed owl given by “alderman Hooper” is described along with a number of items sitting on a mantelpiece.

At this very time, I was suffering from a cold and bad sore throat, and being medically treated for the latter, besides being generally out of condition, the doctor must have known, as he saw me daily. Yet I was sentenced to seventy-two hours punishment. After being fourteen hours on punishment dietary I got a violent attack of diarrhoea. I complained to the doctor that day. Yet as some prison test, unnecessary to mention, did not satisfy him, I was kept on punishment for thirty hours longer. On this occasion I remained twenty-four hours without taking any food, as the dry bread hurt my throat, and I feared to use water to moisten the food, knowing from former experience its effects.

I certainly felt very ill and miserable, but hunger was not my punishment. I have all my life been able to endure want of food without suffering much pain, such as numbers of people complain of; but I consider I was savagely ill-treated, because the prison physician said I was not ill, and Dr Moorhead had expressed a contrary opinion.

However, I got so very ill and weak, and the prisons physicians test having been satisfied, I was allowed off all punishment on the evening of the third day and put-upon medical treatment. The only change made in my ordinary prison food was white bread substituted for brown. Next day I was very weak and tired after a couple of rounds of the exercise ring. I did not recover my general health for a full week.’

Fig 3. The Tullamore Courthouse and jail, Charleville Parade, courtesy Offaly History.

The Tullamore Tweed Incident

In a show of support and demonstration against their harsh treatment, Henry Egan of The Hall, Tullamore, and his brother-in-law Dr George A Moorhead of High Street, Tullamore (later the Marian Hostel) visited fellow Irish National Land Leaguers Mandeville and O’Brien upwards of thirteen times a day. On each visit hundreds of townsfolk marched with them to Tullamore gaol. It is believed, Henry Egan somehow smuggled in a suit of Blarney tweed, a soft hat, and an emerald green tie, for William O’Brien to wear. He duly obliged. The following morning, the prison warders, to their consternation, found O’Brien, sitting upright in his bed wearing a full and fine suit of Blarney tweed. O’Brien was subsequently to wear his Blarney tweed suit on all occasions his adversary Arthur Balfour was present in the House of Commons. Balfour later referred to this as ‘The Tullamore Tweed’ incident, and worldwide sales of Blarney tweed surged.

At the inquest held to determine the cause of Mandeville’s premature death post his release from Tullamore Gaol, lawyers for the General Prisons Board insisted on the following: ‘Lawyers for the G.P.B. held that Mandeville, dying some six months after leaving Tullamore, had worn himself out speaking at open-air meetings conducted during inclement weather.’8 The inquest disagreed and laid the blame firmly with the prison authorities and those instructed to maltreat him in gaol.

John Mandeville had this to say: ‘I have had my two months of suffering, but I forgive much of the English people. It was more a Tory spirit that prompted my jailors to persecute me. I come out of jail as unfettered as I went in, and the principles I hold I will continue to advocate to the last moments of my life.’9

Fig 4. Captain Henry Fetherstonhaugh, governor of Tullamore Gaol from 1866-1898. Courtesy OHAS.


1 Egan, M.G. and D.F.M. (2020) ‘The Egans of Moate and Tullamore: Business and Politics’. Esker Press

2 Byrne, M (2018) Tullamore jail: 1830-1924 the early years to the end of public executions in the 1860s.

Available at: (Accessed: 15 November 2022)

3 Hallifax, S. (1888) John Mandeville Martyr. The Story of his Prosecution, Imprisonment, and Death, with Extracts from his Correspondence on Irish Affairs. Available at: (Accessed: 15 November 2022)

4 Smith, B.A. (1982) ‘Irish Prison Doctors- Men in the Middle, 1865- 1890’, Medical History, 26, pp. 371-394. Available at: (Accessed: 16 Nov 2022)

5 Ibid

6 Ibid

7 Hallifax, S. (1888) John Mandeville Martyr. The Story of his Prosecution, Imprisonment, and Death, with Extracts from his Correspondence on Irish Affairs. Available at: (Accessed: 15 November 2022)

8 Smith, B.A. (1982) ‘Irish Prison Doctors- Men in the Middle, 1865- 1890’, Medical History, 26, pp. 371-394. Available at: (Accessed: 16 Nov 2022)

9 Geary, L.M. (1987) ‘John Mandeville speech on returning to Mitchelstown’, Irish Historical Studies, 25 (100), pp 358-375.

Our thanks to Maurice Egan for this article and to all our writers who contributed over 100 articles this year to Offaly History Blog. Happy Christmas and New Year to you all and to our viewers and supporters of Offaly History.

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