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…
Ballinagar village early 1960s
In December 1968 Thomas [Tommy] Dunne received the tribute of a soldier’s burial from surviving I.R.A comrades in Offaly and the army in Annaharvey graveyard, near Tullamore.
Thomas Dunne grew up in Ballinagar (between Daingean and Tullamore) along with his siblings Mary, Richard, Margaret and James in the late 1800s. Their father was Tommy and their mother was Anne Brien from nearby Clonmore. Tommy was in his time a leading member of the local Fenian movement and came to Ballinagar from Rathfeston during the time Trench was the land agent for Lord Digby. The family tradition was that Tommy was about 27 at the time and by all accounts was a fine strapping young man. A family of Dunne’s owned the farm at the time, they were relatives of Tommy’s, but because they were all females and because of the impossible situation of that time, they were about to throw up the farm. Trench had someone in mind for the farm but Tommy took it over. One day Trench arrived on the farm and spent a while staring and trying to unsettle the young Dunne. Then Trench spoke “I see you have come Dunne.” “Yes” was the firm reply. Trench then said “On account your family has been here for so long I will let you stay, but instead of the rent being 7 shillings and sixpence an acre it will now be 30 shillings an acre.” This left it nearly impossible to farm but he managed. This incident took place shortly after the infamous evictions on the Geashill estate, where it was reported that the evicted tenants of Geashill filled the streets of Tullamore. A lot of these tenants went on a ship called Erin go bragh to Australia which was charted by a Fr Dunne from Daingean who raised funds for this purpose. He was possibly a relation of the Ballinagar Dunnes.
Ballinagar School about 1915
Mary, Thomas’s sister, who later became Rev. Mother Margaret Mary Dunne Mother General of the Brigidine nuns, she took the name Margaret in honour of her sister who died in 1896, elaborates on the feelings of the area in her ‘Recollections of seventy years’.
“I have a vison too, of my father during the long winter nights playing the fiddle in a masterly fashion or chatting with a neighbour about the troubles of the time which were many and great. In the eighties of the nineteenth century the Irish farmers were passing through a serious crisis. Agricultural trade was undergoing a period of depression; absentee landlords exacted from their tenants the payment of rent which were altogether out of proportion to the productive value of their holdings. As a result evictions were the order of the day. These troubles led to the stormy days of the “plan of campaign” and the “Boycott” – drastic weapons used by the land leaguers to carry on the agrarian warfare. At this period also the struggle for home rule followed by the Parnell crisis and The Split electrified the political atmosphere.
Little wonder that the farmers assembled in the evenings to discuss their grievances and weigh the merits of proposals for the betterment of tenants.”
Their parents also instilled in the family a love of music, education, reading and history. It was also a deeply religious household with a special devotion to the rosary. Their mother was full of stories of fairies goblins and the banshee. The family also were not afraid to question the norms of the time as can be gleaned from another extract from Margaret Mary:
“My mother often curtailed my excursions and insisted on the cultivation of indoor pursuits. Ireland was at that time puritanical as regards its girls, whatever evil beset them was not allowed touch them, with the result they grew up innocent but ignorant of the realities of life.”
At the beginning of the 1900s, as the Dunne family entered adulthood, the Geashill estate and its division was causing tensions in the area again.
James became a priest and Thomas and Richard farmed but the family’s nationalist tradition remained. Thomas became a local leader in the struggle for independence and this began for him with the land agitation on the Geashill estate in 1914.
Thomas, for his part in the Geashill cattle drive served two months hard labour in Mountjoy prison. On the first anniversary of this event, Thomas gave a speech in Geashill in November 1915. He mentions the evictions.
“In 1881, when the people on the Geashill estate banded themselves together for the purpose of getting a reduction in rents in order to enable themselves and their families to live in decency, a full company of soldiers was quartered in Geashill castle for the purpose of putting the people on the roadside .My own family were the victims of Digby’s exterminating policy”
He also criticised the press:
“I know the opinions of this district, and I know we have no press to voice them. The papers that emanate from Dublin and Tullamore do not voice the opinions of the people of the country but rather the opinion of English people.”
In that speech he also mentions an army recruiting drive which he elaborates on further in a letter to the Westmeath Independent in 1922.
“At that time  a Major O Conor was recruiting officer for the county and stated at the meetings that if the young men of the county did not join the British Army , they would eventually be kicked downstairs and forced into it .__I told the young men not to mind Major O Conor or his threats but to remain as they were, as the British government had no claim on their services in its hour of need, that it had forfeited any claim by its own laws and statutes which are still to be seen along with the home rule bill of 1914” .
Thomas had another small clash with the law in 1919 when he received a summons for having no light on a bike, he did not turn up in court and instead gave a note written on the back of the summons, addressed to the sergeant of the R.I.C. giving the reason why he had no light and how he agreed with the lighting up act:
“What I don’t agree with is the authority quoted in the summons to me as even in the opinion of English statesmen, that authority cannot claim to have the sanction of moral right in Ireland.”
Ballinagar thatched house in the 1980s
An interesting event was organised by Thomas and Fr. Burbage of Geashill in Ballinagar on the 4th of July 1920 called an Aeridheacht which was a promotion of all things Irish. There were football matches between Rhode and Tullamore, Cloneygowan and Ballinagar. ‘Singers, dancers, musicians and humourists of high repute have been engaged. Every national taste has been provided for so that visitors will have no excuse for finding fault with the entertainment.’ There were school choirs, Irish dancing and singing and recitations in Irish. Fr. Burbage had done a lot of work promoting the Irish language in the district and Thomas was an Irish speaker.
The Aeridheacht was also a promotion of cottage industries and at Ballinagar there was an exhibition of wool spinning. Courses on the use of spinning wheels were given and people were shown how they could save money on clothes and make extra household income. It would also help to increase the value of wool. Fr. Burbage thought that if the six hundred houses of the Geashill area took up wool spinning what they could earn in extra income would be equivalent to what it cost to run the county council. It was hoped that these cottage industries would mean that Irish people would not need to emigrate.
This event was held in a place called Finlay’s field and was said to be one of the most successful in Offaly, Thomas was master of ceremonies on the day.
Thomas and Richard were noted musicians and played at many dances locally. They were involved in reviving Maypole dancing in Ballinagar and Rathfeston and in 1916 helped James Scully and James Cooke in forming Ballinagar G.A.A. club. Their brother Fr. James was involved in setting up a Gaelic league branch in Carlow. Thomas married Winnifred Mahon in Birr in 1915.
Thomas along with Richard was involved in the formation of a Ballinagar branch of the National Volunteers in 1914. At a parade in Daingean that year Ballinagar had 60 volunteers present. On St. Patrick’s Day 1916 Thomas, along with other locals James Scully and James Cooke, were put under orders to march to Dublin for Easter week under the Athlone Brigade. Because of counter orders most of the brigade did not go.
After the Rising the National Volunteers reorganised and Thomas was one of the principal organisers of local companies of the I.R.A including Ballinagar. In 1917 a branch of Sinn Féin was formed in Ballinagar and in 1918 Thomas, standing as a Sinn Fein candidate was elected to Offaly County Council. By the time the Black and Tans had arrived in Ireland. Thomas was vice batt. Comdt. of the Offaly I.R.A. As the War of Independence continued on the I.R.A was becoming the de facto police force in Ireland, Thomas became a judge in the Sinn Féin courts which adjudicated on local disputes.
Thomas Dunne had to go on the run when the Black and Tans arrived . He was almost caught in Ballykane but a combination of luck and his own wit helped him escape. His own house was raided over twenty times and he blamed his mother’s death on this.
During the civil war he was on the anti-Treaty side and at the start of the civil war was liaison officer to the republican forces. He was arrested twice during this period, once when he was sick in bed and again with four others outside Ballinagar church for ‘Illegal collecting’ which was in fact collecting for the dependants of republican prisoners.
Ballinagar was not spared in the military conflict of that time, and as it was central to the barracks at Clonmore, Philipstown and Geashill, many raids and ambushes occurred there. The members of the Ballinagar I.R.A brigade were involved in many incidents in Offaly. Some of the Ballinagar incidents were:
A British army dispatch rider was ambushed in Ballinagar. His motor bike and dispatch letters were confiscated. He feared for his life when he was led over a hedge into a field but was relieved to find out he was being escorted to the Geashill Tullamore road where he could make his way back to Tullamore.
Arms were smuggled through Ballinagar on numerous occasions. The recreation hall was raided and the floors tore up by crown forces. Another day it was raided and burned. The hall was built on a piece of land owned by Thomas. This hall was rebuilt by local effort.
A local story comes from Thomas’s mother’s family who lived near Clonmore barracks. One morning a young girl was sent out to bring in the cows. As she was running from cow to cow trying to move them, a company of Black and Tans were on the road going to Daingean. One of them spotted her and took a shot. Luckily he missed. A constable in the barracks came running out on hearing the shot and sent the company on its way.
Geashill Barracks was attacked by the I.R.A. Philipstown police found all roads to Geashill were blocked by trees and the Clash bridge was blown up. This was a diversion attack so as to divide British forces as there was a major attack underway on Clara barracks .
Fr Burbage was cycling through Curragh when a party of troops fired over his head. The newspaper stated it was lucky no one was hit as it was a fine day and the local farmers were all in their fields.
Geashill castle was raided by the Ballinagar I.R.A led by Thomas where they stole the Geashill cauldron which is now in the national museum.
A road mine was found by the army near Clonmore which was about 10 stone weight. It was 3ft length 3ft height and 3ft in diameter.
A more unusual one, local Clonmore barracks was burned although it had been unoccupied for a while. The gable end faced the road and for a few days travellers on the road were treated to the sight of the head of a dead goat in the gable window with a placard on it with the words We have come back please cut our hair we are expecting a raid . In the goat’s mouth was a pipe.
Eamon de Valera (centre)
In his various roles during these years Thomas wrote letters and gave many speeches. They give a good insight into his views at the time. He shared the stage with many political heavyweights of the time including Eamon de Valera, Harry Boland, Countess Markievicz and Mary MacSwiney (sister of Terence MacSwiney who died on hunger strike in Brixton prison) on their visits to Offaly.
Here are a few quotes from him
At a commemoration event for the 1916 rising he stated “The rising was in keeping with the great Fenian tradition of ‘48 and ‘67. These people along with facing the might of the British Empire had to take the risk of meeting the ridicule of their own people.”
In a letter to Westmeath independent “ Irish Nationality is not the inheritance of Irish Catholics alone as it was the sturdy independence of the Dissenters or Presbyterians of Ulster that gave us to a great extent the Republican heritage and they were the first to die for it .” from the same letter “ It is very hard when we think of those days to ask men to take a position of servitude to a king whose lying mouthpiece [Hamar Greenwood ] stated week after week that he was not responsible for nor would not give any undertakings to stop the murders and burnings done by those he hired from the jails and convict prisons of England and let loose on Ireland with a free hand to murder loot and burn ”
An address from Mary McSwiney. Courtesy of UCD Archives
On welcoming Mary McSwiney to Geashill he says “the cause for which she stood was typified by the great struggle of Terence MacSwiney in Brixton jail. They recognised that the country’s salvation was not based on their chances of military success. Their chief hope of success lay in sacrifice such as that made by the late mayor of Cork.”
When sharing the stage with Eamon de Valera at an election rally in Tullamore in 1922 he gives his opinion on the oath of allegiance. He said that “the construction I put upon my oath under which I felt justified in waging war against the hirelings and agents of the king of England. To recede from that position and take an oath of faithfulness to the country or King I had been waging war with, would be an admission of defeat.”
Although Thomas was anti-Treaty reports from the time say that he took no active part in it. In 1923 a letter was sent to local papers signed by Thomas along with Sean O Ceallaigh and Seamus O Ceallaigh , the following is an extract “ We the undersigned neutral officers of the Offaly brigade hereby appeal to all our pre truce comrades who are not actively engaged in the present conflict and who wish to join us in the endeavour being made by the above association to end the present armed conflict between brother Irishmen whereby Ireland is daily losing some of its bravest and best of her sons to at once re-join their different units of the Brigade area .”
He gave another address at a rally outside the Sinn Féin offices in Tullamore in 1923 calling for the release of prisoners on hunger strike, this extract is on a subject that drew his ire on a few occasions, religion and nationalism “Religious issues, I for one would not touch because they are wide and far apart from the nationality of the country. Nationality was an entirely different thing and the two could not merge together. The present struggle was in defence of nationality. The I.R.A and the men on hunger strike in the jails were standing by nationality and they were not expected or supposed to take direction from any church upon that question.”
At a county council meeting in May 1923 he proposed that the council should express itself in agreement with the Republican peace moves . “The people never gave a mandate what so ever for civil war to be launched on the country by the bombardment of the four courts; their mandate was for peace .”
I will finish this article with the words of Rev Mother Margaret Mary Dunne who is still held in high esteem in the Brigidine order. In an article about her on her golden jubilee, the writer lists her achievements including convent schools opened in North Wales, Texas, Australia and New Zealand, but the writer thinks that her most notable achievement was establishing a Brigidine foundation in Windsor in England, as it was from there that the Tudors sent their ruthless military forces to pillage and destroy the Brigidine convents in Ireland.
Mother Margaret Mary writes: “My Father was a sterling Irishman who longed for the emancipation of his country. In the past he was associated with the Fenian movement. He remembered the famous clearances of the ‘forties and could relate harrowing tales of the famine period when so many in the district died of starvation. His patriotic spirt lived on in his sons who played well their part in the fight for freedom after the Easter rising in 1916.”
A cycle race in Ballinagar before the First World War