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…
Francis Edward Biddulph was born in Congor, County Tipperary, the son of Nicholas Biddulph and Catherine Lucas. His mother died shortly after his birth. Francis was cared for by his aunt, and later by his stepmother Isabella Digges la Touche. He was to have nine half-siblings, many of whom would later live in Birr.
In 1861 he married Annabella Kennedy in Southsea. He was then a lieutenant in the 19th Regiment. They had fourteen children, six of whom survived to adulthood. The family moved from England to Burma and India, and back to England.
Francis and Annabella, Pembroke Dock, 1873. (Private Collection)
Their eldest daughter, Catherine Mary (Kate), had died in Bangalore, India aged 8. On their return to England they lost four more children. They are buried together in Llanion Cemetery, Pembroke Dock, Wales.
On his retirement from the army, Francis and Annabella returned to Ireland with their sons Nicholas, Charles, Hugh and Arthur, and their daughter Amy who had been born in Aldershot in 1875. Another daughter, Alice, died in Kilmainham, in 1877 and is buried in Grangegorman Military Cemetery. They took up residence, first in John’s Mall, and then in a house called St. Kilda’s, in Birr, then known as Parsonstown after the Parsons family who lived in Birr Castle. The two youngest daughters, Beatrice and May, were born in Birr. Arthur was later to die in Congor aged ten.
Francis became a Justice of the Peace. Later he became chairman, when Lord Rosse was away, of the Board of Guardians, and was on the Board. Then, in the church, he was the Rector’s Churchwarden, also teaching in Sunday school. For eleven years he belonged to the Unionist Association, and for the same length of time he was secretary of the tennis club.
Amy, the eldest surviving daughter, described living on John’s Mall as a child, and being taken for walks on Sunday afternoons with Francis and Annabella in the demesne of Birr Castle ‘a glorious park, with miles of walks and rivers and a huge lake where water lilies abounded in summer, which I am ashamed to say often came home hidden under our coats as we were not supposed to pick them.’ Here she would play with her friend Emma McSheehy, daughter of the stipendiary magistrate, climbing the big trees, watching the fish in the river and scampering around what was at that time the biggest telescope in the world. Francis and Annabella would be asked to dinner parties and Lord Rosse would take the guests out to look at the stars and moon on a clear night, which they told Amy was a very wonderful sight.
She also gave an account of a terrible accident on the lake at Birr Castle:
In winter the lake froze and when the noble earl considered it safe for skating it was thrown open and there at seven I learned to skate. How I loved it – one part of the lake was not as safe as it was supposed to be and a bad accident happened – two sisters who were skating together happened on the thin part and one went through. The other tried her best to save her but alas, by the time others had come with ropes she had gone under altogether and I don’t think her body was recovered ‘til the ice melted. After that much greater care was taken and next year parts of the lake were roped off. We also used to skate when it wasn’t thought to be safe on some flooded fields near the barracks and that always ended in tea and lovely hot toast swimming butter in the depot mess, before a huge fire.’
In 1883 the family moved from John’s Mall to St. Kilda’s. The house was close to Crinkill barracks where there was always a regiment. The Leinster Regiment had their depot in Crinkill Barracks. Amy went to sleep every night to the sound of the Bugler’s Last Post, and woke to the Morning Reveille.
St Kilda’s, Birr, Co. Offaly (Private collection)
While the older Biddulph boys were away, Nicholas in Egypt with the army in Egypt, Hugh and Charles at boarding school in Aravon House, Bray, County Wicklow, the girls remained at home. Amy and the younger girls received an education from a governess. In Amy’s own words:
‘A governess came daily for a couple of hours to give me and my two sisters lessons. Education wasn’t much thought of for girls. As long as we could read, write a good hand and add up a few sums and have a smattering of history and geography. With me they went a bit further and I had painting lessons in the town and a master for music. The others didn’t get that far except what our governess could teach them.’
All three sisters attended Sunday school in Birr.
Beatrice, Amy and May Biddulph (Private collection)
Amy had dancing lessons in Birr Castle, with the children of Lord Rosse. They also frequently visited nearby Kinnity where their relatives, Assheton Biddulph and his wife Florence, together with their daughters Kathleen, Ierne, Norah and Ethne, and their son Robert, lived in Moneyguyneen, close to Kinnity Castle. Born between 1881 and 1891, the children were close enough in age to be playmates for the two younger Biddulph daughters, May and Bea. Assheton’s brother Middleton Biddulph lived and farmed at the Biddulph family home of Rathrobin with his wife Vera. They had no children.
Francis Biddulph’s younger half siblings Annie, Mary, James and William were all living in Parsonstown at this time. Annie lived at Birr View. There is a memorial window to Annie in Ardcroney church but the church itself is now located in Bunratty Folk Park. Mary and James lived at Bunrevan, Parsonstown.
James Digges La Touche Biddulph was the second son of Nicholas Biddulph, and the first son of his second wife Isabella Digges La Touche. His sister Mary was born the same year of 1842. It seems likely that they were twins but there are no surviving baptismal records. The church records for Ardcroney were destroyed in 1922.
James Biddulph died in Parsonstown in 1895 from general debility according to his death record. He was fifty years old. His sister Mary Biddulph was present at the death.
BIDDULPH – October 14, at Bunraven, Parsonstown, J. Digges la Touche Biddulph, son of the late Nicholas Biddulph, Congor, Borrisokane. Funeral at 9 o’c. tomorrow (Thursday) morning for Congor.
William was a Church of Ireland clergyman and married to Rebecca Clarke.
Amy described St. Kilda’s as her very happy home – ‘there was a large garden at the back of the house and at the end of it large apple and pear trees – one of these which I claimed as my own had very good branches for climbing and many a day when my two young sisters would be off playing their own games I would sit up for hours partly reading and partly watching the lambs which adjoined our place. How they skipped and jumped – she wrote – especially on old roots of trees which abounded – and then suddenly rushed off like mad things when their mothers called them. They were my delight, and also the rabbits, especially the tiny ones when they first came out of their burrows of which there was a lot in our fields.’ Her brothers, however, caught them in traps and shot them. They were a most useful addition to the menu.
‘The avenue which was more than half a mile long, opened off the Barrack Road.
There was a very high hill covered with big trees on one side and a pretty little lake on the other. When my brothers were home for the holidays they made a rustic bridge and a boat – and the island was always a sort of misty place inhabited by fairies and gnomes.’
Among Amy’s childhood memories were some involving her donkey Yankee. She described him as being almost human. ‘When some of the officers would come over from the barracks one of us would jump up on Yankee with just a stick in our hands to guide him, no saddle or bridle, and canter him round and then we would invite one of them to get on which they would do while we stood at its head. Then we’d say ‘Gee-up, Yankee’ and round he would go, kicking and jumping and arching his back ‘til the unlucky victim would fly off. How we trained him to do that trick I don’t know, but it was an unfailing one.’
But while Amy’s life was happy, these were troubled times. From the age of nine Amy began to hear of the Land League. Francis read the newspapers out loud every day for the benefit of Annabella. Just after the shooting of the Chief Secretary Lord Frederick Cavendish in the Phoenix Park, her brothers were walking along one of the roads in the town near their house with two policemen walking in front of them. They saw a flash out of one of the houses and one poor young policeman fell dead almost at their feet. There was constant anxiety about Francis. As a J.P., a landlord and an army man he was a marked man. One day he received a letter containing a picture of a coffin with his name on it.
In spite of this, for the three girls growing up in Birr, there was a lively social scene.
On the 1st January 1890, according to an item in the Irish Society (Dublin) of the 11th January 1890, the Countess of Rosse and Lady Muriel Parsons held a children’s fancy dress ball in Birr Castle.
‘Dancing commenced soon after 8 o’clock in the beautiful drawing room of Birr Castle, and was continued throughout the evening with the greatest possible spirit and enjoyment. Supper was served at 11 o’clock in the dining room, which was brilliantly illuminated with electric light.’ Miss Amy Biddulph attended as a Russian Tambourine Girl, Miss May Biddulph, as a Watteau Shepherdess, Miss Beatrice Biddulph, an Ice Queen. Miss Kathleen Biddulph, aged 9, daughter of Assheton Biddulph, was Little Bo-Peep.
As the three sisters grew older they played an active part in the life of the town..
May was a keen cyclist. Her name appears in an account of the Bog of Allen Club Bicycle Gymkhana which took place in July 1897. She was clearly an enthusiast of the bicycling craze which swept America and Europe at this time and promised greater freedom for women.
The Annual Gymkhana, promoted by the Bog of Allen Club, came off successfully at Oldtown, Naas, in tropical weather, and in the presence of a large and fashionable concourse of spectators. The Band of the 5th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers played a fine selection of music during the afternoon, under the baton of Mr. Colvet.
She took part in the Hallow Eve Race (for Pairs) with Rev. L. Fletcher, and also in the Bending Race (for Ladies). Her sister Bea also took part in the Bending Race. The final race of the day was a One-legged Race (Ladies and Gentlemen). It’s not known if either May or Bea took part.
Amy Biddulph and her aunt, Miss Biddulph of Bunrevan, took part in a Birr Barracks Entertainment, an account of which appeared in the Midland Counties Advertiser of the 27th October 1892. Amy was seventeen years old.
‘Miss Biddulph, of Bunrevan House, next contributed a pleasing number ‘Saved from the Wreck’ which was very favourably received…Miss Amy Biddulph, St. Kilda, the eldest of the pretty daughters of Colonel Biddulph was, in the absence of Mrs Frend, requested to furnish a song, and greatly pleased her audience by giving a charming rendering of ‘The old home beyond the hill.’ The youthful vocalist fully sustained the musical reputation of her respected family, and she made a most favourable impression. Possessing a voice of singular power and sweetness and under perfect control, this young lady gives every promise of becoming a valued addition to local musical circles.’
Amy played tennis, sometimes mixed doubles with her brother Charlie, sometimes with Emma McSheehy. One year the annual tennis ball was held in St. Kilda’s. ‘It was a lovely moonlight night high in midsummer and the hay had just been cut and put up in heaps to dry and next day we had a great time discovering hankies and fans etc., at a great distance from the house – even on the island which told a tale! Also we weren’t very pleased to find the haycocks had been flattened.’
However this life couldn’t last. Francis had commuted his pension to fund the purchase of the 50-acre farm. When the farm failed through a combination of the agent’s deliberate mismanagement, Francis’ lack of competency, and the difficulties arising from the agrarian unrest, together with the refusal on the part of one of his half sisters to help him financially, the original entail inheritance having been broken to support his half sisters. He had borrowed money at an exorbitant rate from Joyce the moneylender in Dublin, and he was bankrupt. The family was forced to leave St. Kilda’s. All their horses were rounded up to be taken away and sold, though the donkey Yankee and the old pony Countess were later saved. Amy ran until she came to the wishing well and lay on her face on the mossy bank and cried her heart out. Amy’s brother Charlie helped to save some silver and jewellery by packing them into his uniform cases. Bea and May carried out pictures and hid them in an old derelict lavatory in the bushes. Next day they left St. Kilda’s forever and stayed in lodgings in Birr.
Francis and Annabella moved first to Dalkey in County Dublin. Their youngest daughter Bea, went with them and trained to become a nurse. There was worse to come when Charlie died of typhoid on the 26th of June 1900 in Queenstown, South Africa.
May married Charles Francis Pease in Belfast in 1904. He was ‘a well known Irish cyclist’ and the son of Charles Clifford Pease of Hesslewood, Yorkshire.
Amy travelled to Belfast to become a companion to an elderly relative. She married Surgeon-Captain James Walker in Belfast in 1906. By a strange twist of fate he had served in Crinkill Barracks, in Birr. They had seen each other but had never met. He died of pneumonia 18 months later in Jacobabad, India.
Bea would later marry Archibald Mateer, stepson of John Parnell, whose brother Charles Stewart Parnell had founded the Land League.