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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 Offalyhistory.com , 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

Marking the opening of the first public library in Tullamore: May 1921. By Michael Byrne

For many the habit of reading started with the local library and has never left us. Recollections of the several libraries we have had in Tullamore remind us that so far as reading and comfort goes we have never had it so good. This is the time to recall the first public library in Tullamore started in May 1921, just 100 years ago. For that we have to thank an unsung hero E. J. Delahunty, a native of Clonmel, who was in charge of technical education in the county from 1904 to 1930 and died in 1931. He organized the first ‘students’ union’ in Tullamore and a superb lecture series on the great issues of the day in the 1916–21 period, and with mostly well-known speakers with a national reputation. The Midland Tribune gave the opening of the library an editorial and regretted that the lecture series had to be abandoned that year. Delahunty was shrewd and had the Tribune editor, Seamus Pike, on side. Another unsung hero of the revolutionary decade was Revd John Humphreys, a Tullamore-based Presbyterian minister, and great advocate for technical education. These are three people who need to be included in the Offaly Dictionary of Biography.

Midland Tribune, 7 May 1921

The new public library was started during the War of Independence with 250 books housed in the town council’s offices behind what is now Banon’s house in O’Moore Street. The rooms were shared with the Tullamore Technical School and the council, and the new library was intended to support the school and the public in that order. Delahunty was hoping for a new technical school but that was not realized until 1937.  So, the town library had modest beginnings reflecting the difficult times. The public library, started in 1921, saw many vicissitudes not least being the burning of the courthouse in 1922 and the pressure that put on space when accommodation had to be found for the council until the new courthouse was completed in 1927.

There had been voices in support of public libraries earlier than 1921. In 1902 Tullamore-based James Rogers, then a law clerk who qualified a solicitor in 1909 (and was the founder of the original Offaly Historical Society in 1937–8), wrote to the press about the Carnegie library start-up grants,  and that several towns in Ireland had availed of these grants. It should also be said that the Mercy Sisters in Tullamore provided a small library and it was there that ‘Flann O’Brien’ borrowed some books when he lived in the town in the early 1920s. The Carnegie-funded library movement was getting well established in Ireland, but it was not much availed of in County Offaly until 1925 with the start of a small scheme which formed the basis of the present county scheme and the help of a £2,000 grant. In the same year new local government legislation enabled county councils, via the rates, to support a library scheme. Some of the public representatives on the grounds of economy, together with some bishops in apprehension of upset to public morals, were not in favour of the Carnegie proposal for a lending library in Offaly. Bishop Fogarty of Killaloe (bishop, 1904–55) and then only two-thirds of the way through his episcopal ministry (which included Birr and south Offaly) was colourful in his objection to such profligate expenditure and the Irish Times probably enjoyed reporting his letter to their sophisticated readership:

Bishop Fogarty wanted nothing to do with the Carnegie Library while Fr Burbage of Geashill took exception to certain writings of Yeats and Lennox Robinson. Irish Times 1925. The original letter is in Offaly Archives.Lennox Robinson was a problem for some of the hierarchy. This letter is in the fine collection of papers collected by Offaly County Library and now in the new Offaly Archives. He was with the Carnegie Trust from 1915 until dismissed in 1924 amid controversy over a short story he published,

The Most. Rev. Dr. Fogarty, in the course of his letter to the library committee of the county council (then under the control of Commissioner O’Keeffe), said:- “I will have nothing to do with a Carnegie Library. I have seen some of these institutions. They are storehouses of wretched novels and semi-pagan stuff of the same cultural level as penny-illustrated papers from England, which, I am sorry to say, our people buy and smoke like opium, with the same narcotic effect on their brains and better life. We have enough of that poison without taxing the people to supply more of it. What advantage are the ratepayers, already overburdened, from the mountains of Kinnitty to the bogs of Edenderry, going to get from supplying out of their slender purse lounges and novels to the cigarette-smoking, idle, mooning youths of Tullamore and like towns; for no one else is going to resort to your fanciful treasure houses?”

Dr Foley of Kildare and Leighlin has some initial reluctance but did come round

Dr Foley, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin was another who objected as did Fr O’Reilly of Kilcormac. He was echoing the views of the bishop of Meath. To the credit of Tullamore’s TD, and businessman, Pat Egan, sufficient public support for the scheme was secured with a room in the courthouse and an ex-Free State army officer as librarian. It may come as a surprise that while there was significant opposition from bishops to the 1925 scheme, it proceeded and their opposition was surmounted.

The background to the first library scheme, 1918-25, and perhaps names familiar to some including Henry McNally of Sinn Féin rooms fame in 1916. He later worked in Hoey & Denning and was meticulous in his rent ledgers.

The Irish state was in poor shape in the 1920s and worse off in the 1930s, but nevertheless locally the new vocational school was built in O’Connor Square in 1937 and a new garda station was also completed at Patrick Street (or Barrack Street as it was then called by locals) in the same year. Soon after the library stock was moved from the courthouse to the former garda barrack in Church Street. This was an old building erected as a hospital or infirmary in 1788.

Church Street

Many Tullamore people remember this building in the 1960s, now rebuilt save for the facade as Library Hall apartments (1995). The genial and ever helpful Paddy Daly (a founder member of Tullamore Credit Union in 1963) was librarian from the mid-1930s and it was he who bought books from a meagre budget to build up the collection. So, in the 1960s one could sit and browse in a window alcove in the old Church Street library or huddle near its pot-bellied stove, full of turf hauled up from the basement. The upper floors of the old building were derelict while other rooms held the great stock, only some of which was on view.

Tullamore library, 1942-77. Courtesy of Offaly History

O’Connor Square

When the old vocational school in O’Connor Square became available after 1974 part of the building was adapted for a new and greatly improved library under the care and management of the new county librarian, Anne Coughlan (county librarian, 1973–2008, d. 17 March 2016).  The move to the former vocational school in 1977 (or rather 5,300 ft of it) was seen as a short-term measure, but it was soon after the first oil crisis and the Cosgrave-led government sought to restore the public finances, and so a new library was ruled out.

The greatly expanded services for children and for local studies had to make do with slender budgets in the 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s. However, it was not until the twilight of the Celtic Tiger years that firm plans were considered for a new library and arts centre in Tullamore estimated as costing some €20m. It was to include a 300-seat theatre and new headquarters for the library services. It was anticipated that the arts centre would cost €8.6m, the library €8.2m and the commercial space €3.6m. The shortfall of €6.8m would have to be found and the local contribution would be at least €4m. Other counties had done this so why not County Offaly. The new facility was to be housed in a ‘new flag-ship three-storey building’ on the site then occupied by the VEC and the County Library at O’Connor Square. Not surprisingly as the economic crisis took hold after 2008, the idea of any grand building devoted to education and leisure got the chop. Now the arts centre is proceeding in High Street and plans have been announced to connect Church Street and O’Connor via the old bridge behind the library (another blog perhaps!).

Mary Stuart was appointed as county librarian in 2009 and soon had plans in place to convert the old school to a modern-style building. Phil Hogan who did the opening in 2013 was happy that is had cost only €2.2 million. The new ‘Tullamore Central Library’ serving also as the headquarters of the present-day county system was completed to universal praise and the public library had been increased in size from 388 m2 to 7,333m2 and ‘was designed to create a very visible presence in the square. It will be a library for the community with improved access and an enhanced customer experience’.

My Open Library has been a big innovation in Offaly Libraries since November 2014, when the scheme opened as a national pilot in Tullamore and Banagher libraries. The move would see the libraries open from 8 o’clock each morning until 10 o’clock every evening including Sundays. My Open Library is a major boost for students in particular and seems to be going back to the original idea of a public reading room with less focus on the lending library aspect, as least so far as it relates to borrowing physical books from a lending library. All a long way from the alcoves and pot-bellied stove of the old Tullamore library of the 1960s, and for the students of the new independent Ireland of the 1920s the selection of between 100 and 250 books.

The new Tullamore Library is fast becoming a great people’s university, with lectures, readings, film club and book launches. Tullamore now has a public library to be proud of and it was opened in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. It is ideal for book launches, poetry readings and training in languages and computers.  The potential is enormous and is greatly enhanced with the development of a public square for people to relax in. The current County Librarian, Eimear McGinn, was appointed in May 2019, the fifth County Librarian since 1925.

Both library and square have become icons of modernity for Tullamore. In the meantime keep reading and researching. We have never had such great facilities. Let us recall those who soldiered in the literary fields in the past – E.J. Delahunty, Revd John Humphreys, James Rogers, Pat Egan and all those who worked in the library service since 1921 and with thanks to our councillors and management teams who secured the funds so that in this centenary year we have a library we can be proud of.

E.J. Delahunty in 1908 – centre back row in a county council photograph. Delahunty may have been something of an idealist but they are needed too. Unfortunately, in 1920s Ireland with no budget what could he do? The new school he so much wished for was opened in 1937, six years after his death. He came to Tullamore when he was 26 and gave the next 26 years to furthering education in the county. It is a pleasure to honour his memory in this centenary year.

Postscript:

Offaly Libraries are currently undertaking a survey of their users and would be delighted to receive feedback from its users.

The survey link is here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NRTW6F9

And more information via Facebook is available here: https://www.facebook.com/offalylibraries/posts/4159833284061309

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