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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

Grand Juries in Ireland: the politics of power in the counties. By Michael Byrne

The county grand jury system will be the subject of much focus from mid-2022 with the uploading of links to the county archives records throughout Ireland by way of the Beyond 2022:Virtual Record Treasury Project. The first thing to say is that a useful and well-illustrated booklet People, Place and Power: the grand jury system in Ireland (Brian Gurrin with David Brown, Peter Crooks and Ciarán Wallace, online 2021) can now be downloaded from the Beyond 2022 website as well as useful material from the county archives in Offaly, Wicklow and Donegal. Furthermore, Brian Gurrin has published online an interim listing of the records held in each county. The scope of the records is well illustrated and draws on more detailed catalogues for counties such as Offaly and Donegal where listings are available on the online catalogues from the county archives.

In summary the access position to these records will be revolutionised within the year and will greatly facilitate family historians, those interested in the workings of local government and how local elites interacted. What elite families provided the power brokers and controlled local patronage? All were men, most were landowners, representative of the county families, and, of course, most were Protestant from the early 1700s and the enactment of the Penal Laws. It was not until the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 that Catholics were admitted, and being a select club were scarce until the 1830s.

Grand Juries were ‘notorious for their jobbing’

The great historian Lecky in his five-volume Ireland in the Eighteenth Century remarked that in that period the grand juries ‘were notorious for their jobbing and for the vices that spring from monopoly’ and largely controlled by the great territorial families (vol. iii, p. 65). But Lecky as a convinced unionist, and yet a great inspiration to the nationalists, was quick to say that now (that is in 1892) all was reformed. This was a point made by R.B. McDowell in writing of the early 1800s that grand juries were shockingly careless when dealing with road contracts and that the ‘excellent Irish communications system resulted largely from the facilities afforded by road-building for using public money for private purposes’ (Public Opinion and government policy in Ireland, 1801 –1846, p. 80). This observation can be fully tested when the records of the grand juries go online and are used with records such as those of the provincial and national press and the first edition of the Ordnance Survey maps to look at the entrance roads to demesnes against presentments. Suffice it to say that Ireland as England’s great social laboratory in the first half of the nineteenth century affords ample example of the centralising tendences in local government that grew in the 1820s and 1830s and again 100 years later in the new Free State.

The assize judges entering the precincts of the Tullamore courthouse about 1914. Courtesy of Offaly County Library.

Some of that reforming zeal can be seen from 1817 onwards and with the appointment of county surveyors in earnest from 1834.  The year 1817 was the year of commencement of the retention of King’s County/ Offaly’s grand jury presentment books. However, at this time (due to the burning of the Tullamore courthouse in 1922 during the Civil War) the main series in Offaly Archives runs from 1830 to the 1880s. A set commencing in 1817 was sold at auction in 2016 but appear not to be in a public repository. More reforms followed with the building of courthouses and jails and the gradual transferring of power from local officials and grand jurors to professional administrators. For more on this see Byrne, Legal Offaly (2008) and the majestic work on the Irish courthouses by Richard Butler (2020, and see www.offalyhistoryblog). Grand juries also made contributions to ‘lunatic asylums’, reformatories and occasionally once-off payments to the widows of victims of crime. By 1836 baronial committees of justices of the peace and ratepayers had been established to review and sanction road contracts before sending them on to the grand jury (McDowell, Public Opinion, p. 82). This procedure can be followed in the local press.

As the nineteenth century progressed grand juries were gradually stripped of their powers, especially after the setting up the poor law unions (1838–9) with their sanitary powers, and the town councils for the management of town life including water, waste, some sanitation and later housing. The prisons, but less so the courthouses, came under the influence of national authority. And yet notwithstanding the emergence of the poor law unions (over 130), and of which there were five encompassing Offaly, membership of the grand jury was still a select forum. The chief figurehead was the High Sheriff nominated by the Lord Lieutenant with the former selecting the 23 ‘good men and true’ who as to their legal functions could find a true bill against a person before the assize courts or acquit.

The foundation stone of the Tullamore prison of 1826 with the names of the commissioners for the building of the new prison as appointed by the grand jury. Courtesy of Offaly History

On the local government side they could find in favour of a new jail in Tullamore in 1820 (completed in 1830) and the new courthouse (1835). Lord Tullamoore would busy himself drawing rules for the new jail in 1830 and the design of the new courthouse after 1830, and before the transfer of the assizes from Daingean to Tullamore in 1835. This was a boost to Tullamore trade as much business came with the Lent and Summer assizes, besides the accolade of county town status. Binns in his Miseries and beauties of Ireland (London, 1837) commented on this in the context of the loss of earnings to Philipstown/ Daingean following the termination of the assizes in that town from Spring 1835. For the parliamentary voters it was a boon to Birr as Tullamore was more centrally placed in the county and voting was in public until 1872 and generally in the assize town. In the study of such activities the preferences of the local power brokers are of great interest and can be the subject of Namierite scrutiny by those so enthused. The grand jury’s local authority functions, well whittled away as the nineteenth century progressed, were finally abolished under the Local Government Ireland Act of 1898 which established the county councils, the new urban district councils and rural district councils. In Offaly only one of the old grand jury members was returned (Perry Goodbody, the Clara industrialist and unopposed) while three were provided with seats ex-officio.

Abstracts of Presentments of the King’s County Grand Jury housed in Offaly Archives. Courtesy of Offaly History

The judicial functions of the grand jury go back to medieval times. Many of the Irish counties were established in the time of Elizabeth and shiring meant the introduction of English law and forms. The development of assize courts throughout the country would have progressed faster but for the scarcity of judges and the difficulties with travel. The provision of courthouses was also a problem. Sir William Gerrard, the lord chancellor, reporting on the Trim assizes of 1577 ‘found the hall where the sessions had been kept all open, full of dung and cattle in it’ and had to seek alternative accommodation. The following day he found neither bailiff, crier nor sheriff available. Of Queen’s County he noted that the sheriff had been murdered. Many of the earlier judges and, indeed, late eighteenth century and early nineteenth-century judges such as Sir William Cusack Smith and Lord Norbury, had no difficulty combining a political with a legal career and support for the government of the day was the road to judicial preferment. Often the assize judges would process to the courthouse and deliver themselves of a ‘pep talk’ to the grand jury on the state of the county.

John Wright’s, King’s County Directory of 1890 (reprinted with a new title in 1989) has much about the grand jury drawn from the original records. The courthouse was destroyed in July 1922 by the departing Republican IRA during the Civil War. Courtesy of Offaly History. This is very useful for grand jury business and copies are still available from Offaly History.

The effective end of the assize system followed on the adoption by the Dáil in 1919 of a programme for superseding British institutions but, between then and 1922, much of the work of the Dáil courts was on the civil side and such courts sat with difficulty due to the opposition of the British military. The last of the assize judges in 1920 and 1921 were the subject of extraordinary precautions taken for their protection. Gone was the great gathering of landowners many of whom owed their wealth and power to the plantation settlements of 300 years earlier. Of the thirty-seven grand jurors summoned only four attended before Judge Wylie in  Offaly’s last assize court in July 1921(see a blog on this in Offalyhistoryblog for July 2021).

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