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…
Welcome to this our 48th blog for the Decade of Centenaries. All of them will soon be posted to the Decade of Centenaries site hosted on www.offalyhistory and with thanks to all our contributors and partners and especially Offaly County Council, Offaly Libraries, the heritage office and Offaly Archives. We have now posted 302 blogs since 2016 and reached 304,000 views. Our contributors grow in number and so does this body of knowledge, free to use and enjoy across the globe. We welcome new contributors via [email protected].
The coming into force of the Truce in the war with England on 11 July 1921 marked the end of an era in that the struggle with our powerful neighbour was to cease. The editor of the Midland Tribune, James Pike, of Roscore, Tullamore, saw it as grounds for optimism. The Offaly Independent was burned out by the British security forces the previous November. The Chapman family paid a heavy price for their advocacy of Sinn Féin. The Birr King’s County Chronicle, as a staunchly loyalist newspaper, cannot have been much pleased with the outcome but it was accepted.
Only the previous week the might of England was displayed when the visiting assize judges, Wiley and Sullivan, came to Tullamore courthouse for the last time, surrounded by soldiers, but with hardly anyone in attendance at the courts, save the officials and just four grand jury members. Despite the high level of serious incidents reported by the police, there was no one held accountable. The Chronicle reported (and see our blog of 10 July 2021) ‘There was no criminal case for hearing at King’s Co Assizes, and the Sub-Sheriff (Mr. Barry) presented, Mr. Justice Wylie with white gloves, which his lordship declined to receive. Mr. Serjt. Sullivan, K.C., sat in the Record Court.’ KCC, 14/7/1921)
Mr Justice Wiley, the last judge of the assizes in Offaly sitting on 4 July 1921 was hopeful of prospects for Ireland and declined to harangue or accept white gloves
The war in Offaly in 1921 included the following:
Jan., 1921 – Ambush at Belmont. Eight rifles and 900-rds. Captured.
22nd Feb., 1921 – Police ambushed near Philipstown; five wounded.
22nd Feb, 1921 – Police lorry ambushed at Mount Lucas, Edenderry.
21st March, 1921 – Police fired on at Portarlington; one wounded.
(6th Period) – Blueball – planned ambush.
1st April, 1921 – Policeman wounded in Tullamore [and death of IRA man Matthew Kane]
18th April, 1921 – Philipstown Barracks attacked; one wounded.
23rd April, 1921 – Edenderry Barracks attacked.
15th May, 1921 – Constable wounded at Edenderry.
17th May, 1921 – Two constables killed and two wounded at [Kinnitty] Birr.
3rd June, 1921 – Edenderry Barracks attacked.
Late June 1921 – Burning of Derrylahan House four miles south of Birr in North Tipperary[30 June 1921] the killing of two of the Pearson brothers, Richard and Abraham, at Coolacrease
4th July, 1921 – Crossley tender ambushed at Ballycara
 6th July, 1921 – Military and police ambushed at Raheen, Geashill.
8th July, 1921 – Police ambushed near Ballyduff.
8th July, 1921 – Skirmish in Mitchell’s Lane, Tullamore.[‘An ambush of Crown forces took place on Friday evening near Ballyduff Hills, at a place known as Mitchell’s Lane. The Crown forces replied, the interchange continuing for some time, but the attackers eventually withdrew. As far as can be ascertained there were no casualties.’]
(7th Period) – Banagher – planned attack.[10 July 1921] Killing of an alleged spy Alexander Steadman near Tullamore
11th July, 1921 – Policeman wounded at Edenderry.
In the three months before the Truce the war in Offaly was intensified. An attack in Tullamore in April left IRA volunteer Matthew Kane dead. In May two policemen were killed in Kinnitty. Something that very much upset the parish priest of Birr as did the killing of Sergeant Cronin in Tullamore on 31 Oct. 1920 against which Fr Callary had much to say. The Kinnitty ambush took place in which two constables (of a group of seven cycling policemen) serving summonses for jury duty were killed and two more injured while engaged in what Ryan saw as a harmless and not meddlesome duty. He went on to declare to his parishioners that thankfully Birr and the surrounding districts had been up to that point spared the troubles, the terrors, the bloodshed prevailing in parts of the country. People were justified, he said, in asserting their civil rights, but only within the law of God. The Midland Tribune was strongly pro-Sinn Féin and reported that the shops in Birr had been directed to close for the funeral but that few local people attended. The unionist King’s County Chronicle reported the attendance of a large and representative gathering of the general public. Of the two constables who were killed John Dunne was serving in Birr and had joined the RIC in 1918. Edward Doran, also killed, had joined in the same year.
From the Chronicle of 7 July 1921
Head Constable McEvill was shot dead in Kilbeggan on 12 June. Paul Hughes in a recent blog on the Westmeath Decade of Centenaries platform noted that:
The killing of McElhill is documented as part of an account of activities of the Irish Republican Army’s Offaly No. 1 Brigade, under the command of which the Kilbeggan Company fell. IRA veterans recalled that five Volunteers led by Offaly No. 1 Brigade officer and Kilbeggan man Sean McGuinness were involved in the shooting, four of them directly so.
With McGuinness was fellow Kilbeggan man Christopher Bastick and Tullamore Volunteers Martin Connell and Thomas Berry, with Patrick Crowley, Kilbeggan Company, functioning as a scout. McElhill was shot by the IRA party from close quarters before being disarmed by Berry, who had to cut a lanyard to remove the policeman’s revolver. sources. . .
Both Offaly brigades were under intense pressure from the IRA’s General Headquarters (GHQ) for their perceived lack of activity in the war against Crown forces, and it is against this backdrop that the targeted killing of McElhill took place.
There were others who also suffered in those June days such as the Pearson brothers at Coolacrease. A policeman in Edenderry (severely wounded) and an alleged spy in Tullamore Alexander Steadman. His death came in the days before the Truce came into effect and he was found dead at Puttaghan, Tullamore on 10 July. The Tribune recording that:
DEAD BODY FOUND –
A report was received in Tullamore on Sunday morning that the dead body of a man was found lying on the roadside a short distance from the town. The Crown forces went out and took possession of the remains about 9.a.m. They were found at Puttahawn, about a mile from Tullamore, the body being labelled “Tried, convicted, and executed on the 9th July, Sooner or later we get them’. Beware of the I.R.A.” and on the label also was the name, according to report received, “Alexander Steadman, Birmingham.” He appeared to be a man of about 35 years of age, and it is stated must have been dead for some time, local opinion being that he was shot in some other place and moved to the spot at which his death was discovered. (Midland Tribune, 16 July 1921).
John Poynton, of Portarlington was dragged from his bed at three o’clock on Monday morning and shot dead by two armed and masked men.
The house of M Buckley, an ex-soldier, was burned down on the previous night in the same locality. (KCC, 14/7/1921)
Courthouse and jail. By July 1922 both buildings were destroyed in the civil war.
LOCAL PRISONER’S REMOVED from Tullamore jail
Prisoners removed to the Curragh from Tullamore Jail are :- Peter Mahon, Cloncon, Killeigh; P. Bergin, Clareen, Birr; M Bergin, do.; S. Lyons, Ross; J. Conroy, do; A. Molloy, John Donegan, Geashill; M Donegan do ; Tim Guinan, Clareen; – Murray, Banagher; T. Guinan, do.;- Garrihy, Cloghan; H. Grogan, Killyon;;- Jennings, d;- Donnelly, Cadamstown; J. G. McRedmond; do;- Dillon, do; John Carroll, do; T. Horan do; James Delahunty, do; Jos. Carroll, do; John Coughlan, Belmont; Chairman, Birr Board of Guardians; Patk. Fox, Five Alley, Birr; M. Colgan, Banagher. (KCC, 14/7/1921)
The Truce came into operation on Monday 11 July. The flags, so often removed by the RIC, from 1917 onwards, would now be left undisturbed. The weather was good and people were happy to be out in the sunshine and free of danger. The divisions to come in the IRA, and the civil war to follow by June of 1922, were not on the radar. On the day before the Truce the Chronicle reported:
Great swimming exhibitions were witnessed by a large crowd at the Banagher Bridge on Sunday, when songs and step dances, to melodeon accompaniment, on one of the canal boats, were also greatly enjoyed.
The Tribune reported that
The truce took effect at 12 0’clock (noon) on Monday [11 July 1921], when signs of joy and hope were everywhere in Tullamore. Republican flags were hoisted from various buildings-notably those which suffered from the effects of reprisals – including the wrecked Sinn Fein Hall. A feeling of relief was experienced after the long period of anxiety and tension. During the day bicycles were about as usual, and cyclists who felt the ban and the want of facilities were in a happy mood as they wheeled along again in freedom. Those who travelled on foot or by vehicle once again did so under favourable conditions, and free from risks and difficulties which up to this made travelling a hardship and danger. Greatest of all difficulties perhaps, curfew was off, and people, especially younger folk, were roaming in the gloaming as of old. The people enjoyed to their hearts content the spirit of freedom after their anxieties and troubles, and were at the same time full of hope that there would never again be a return to conditions which tried their courage and endurance, and tired them not in vain. Soldiers and police walked about unarmed. All were untroubled by anything save the terrible host which seems determined to continue to make things to make things hot for us; but we don’t complain – for it is indeed delightful weather, and one of the summers that from the weather point of view – apart from the other things which have helped to make it historic – will not soon be forgotten. Children and the sunshine sang songs of glee, for their delight at having peace and freedom of movement were not less than that of their elders. The day marked the end of an era in the history of the country. The developments give ground for confidence and hope. The first and most important step has been taken, and by it Ireland is placed in a position which since the olden days she has not enjoyed. It is significant and is with just justification regarded as a distinct advance on the road to national freedom. (Midland Tribune, 16 July 1921)