Skip to content

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

 ‘Unity, Nationality and Benevolence’  Tullamore and the Irish National Foresters 1899-2024. By Aidan Doyle [We are marking the 100th anniversary of the re-opening the new hall, cinema and club rooms on the eve of St Patrick’s Day 1924 and the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Tullamore branch in April 1899.] Part 2 tomorrow

The weather was bad when Joseph Hutchinson arrived in Tullamore. For 22 years Hutchinson had dedicated himself to the Irish National Foresters and as a result a small mutual aid society founded by 18 men in Dublin, had spread across the globe and recruited over 20,000 members in Ireland. On Sunday 9 April 1899, Hutchinson had come to the midlands to recruit some more members and establish the first INF branch in King’s County. His visit that day would have profound repercussions for Tullamore, but it had its roots in the north of England.

Rochdale Began! – Friendly Societies Emerge

Rochdale sits about 15 KMs to the north of Manchester. The area was recently in the news following the election of George Galloway in a by-election. To a generation of Irish radio listeners, the town is best known for its soccer side A.F.C. Rochdale, which was once described as the least successful club in English football history and was adopted by 2FM and RTE reporter Des Cahill during the 1990s as part of his ‘ABU-Anybody But United’ campaign, which was designed to needle Ireland’s Manchester United Irish fanbase.

 But Rochdale’s importance in Irish affairs long predates its more recent media mentions. During the Industrial Revolution the area played an important role in the booming Lancashire textile industry.

Conditions in the mills were tough and sick pay was unheard of. As a result, workers banded together to form benevolent or friendly societies. These groups were designed to provide financial support when a comrade fell ill or was unable to work and ensured that funeral costs were met in the case of a premature death. During the eighteenth century several foresters’ mutual friendly societies sprung up to help their members ‘through the forests of life’.

Despite their exotic title, these societies had nothing to do with trees and most of their members worked in industry, although the more romantic of their admirers liked to suggest that the foresters had their roots in Robin Hood’s belief in helping the less well off. In 1834, several foresters’ societies gathered in Rochdale and the Ancient Order of Foresters was born.

The foresters and their contemporaries grew into something more than a mere insurance fund. Throughout the nineteenth century there were massive changes in relation to industrialisation, urbanisation, education, and transportation. These changes were accompanied by several generations of ‘Joiners’. Between 1850 and 1930 the foundations were laid across the western world for the trade union movement, modern political parties, military veterans’ groups, and the bodies which organise sport to this day.

There was also a widespread embrace of the concept of fraternalism. In the United States, the later third of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century is often described as the ‘Golden Age of Fraternalism’ and was signified by the emergence of new bodies like the Order of Columbus and the Elks or by the largescale expansion of existing organisations like the Freemasons and the Oddfellows.  

Fraternalism was an intrinsic component of the AOF and its shared brotherhood was often expressed through the wearing of colourful sashes on ceremonial occasions. In Ireland sashes are largely associated with the Orange Order, which was enjoying its own fraternal expansion during the period. But by the 1860s the AOF had travelled across the Irish Sea and forester regalia was a common sight on the streets of Dublin at public demonstrations.

‘If you’re to Ireland true’- The formation of the Irish National Foresters

Throughout the 1870’s a campaign in support of the release of Fenian prisoners held in English jails won widespread support across Ireland. In 1874, Irish AOF members received an admonishment for marching to an Amnesty meeting in support of the prisoners while wearing Forester sashes. In response several ‘Independent Irish Order of Foresters’ branches were formed in Dublin. With names like Court: Home Rule and Court: Wolfe Tone, these groups firmly nailed their political colours to mast.

Nevertheless, it remains difficult to measure the intensity of the disagreement between the groups. Many within the AOF remained sympathetic to nationalism. Home Rule leaders Isaac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell were both members of the same Dublin court/Branch. Many other issues may have feed in the wish to create a separate Irish organisation.

In July 1877, 18 men meet at 55 Bolton Street to establish the Irish National Foresters. In time it would adopt the motto ‘Unity, Nationality and Benevolence,’.

Although the new society was unashamedly nationalist, there was no religious bar. Its leaders were at pains to stress its non-sectarian nature and regularly quoted from Thomas Davis’s Celt and Saxons

Irish-born man,
If you’re to Ireland true,
We heed not race, nor creed, nor clan,
We’ve hearts and hands for you

In addition to banners and sashes, the INF also chose a formal uniform to worn on special occasions modelled on a Robert Emmet costume.  Peter Flynn a forester character in Sean O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’ is described as dressed in a …

Green coat, gold braided; white breeches, top boots, frilled shirt. He carries the slouch hat, with the white ostrich plume, and the sword in his hand’

While progress was slow to begin with, from the middle of the 1880s the National Foresters began to grow steadily.

The AOF never remotely matched the newer organisations growth, but it did not completely fade away. Until the middle of the twentieth century Athlone was one of the few towns in Ireland to host both a branch of the Irish Nation Foresters and an Ancient Order of Foresters court. The AOF is now based at Southampton and continues to operate in mutual insurance fund under the title the Foresters Friendly Society.      

Going Global- Foresters and the Irish Diaspora.

The INF spread across Ireland and became popular with the Irish emigrants in industrial Britain. Enrolment in Scotland probably surpassed forester membership on the island of Ireland during the first decades of the organisation’s existence. In 1888 when the Sligo born Marist Brother Walfrid organised civic leaders from Glasgow’s Irish community to establish Celtic, as a means to fund relief for the city’s poor, local National Foresters played a prominent role in the foundation of the new side and three of the club’s first board were members of the O’Connell Branch. Amongst the gold fields of South Africa, the Foresters were primary organisation catering to Irish emigrants including the Fenian John MacBride. Branches of the society were also established in the United States and Australia. 

Tullamore- Conn of the Hundred Battles. 1899

The ubiquitous figure in the first half century of the INF was Joseph Hutchinson. A native of Borris in Ossory, Hutchinson came to Dublin aged 15 and was among the 18 men who established the national foresters in 1877. He was still serving as the organisation’s general secretary on his death in 1928. Elected as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1904 and 1905. Hutchinson dedicated a large amount of his time travelling across Britain and Ireland on Forester business. Arriving in Tullamore in April 1899 he found that a large crowd had gathered at Charleville/O’Connor Square to hear him expound on the benefits of the Forester’s organisation, but with the inclement weather it was decided to retreat to the Catholic Young Men’s Society Hall.

The hall was packed to overflowing with members of the town’s merchant and labouring classes. Those present received a potted history of the INF from Hutchinson and the enthusiastic encouragement local nationalist politicians. A branch was duly established, with Micheal Treacy as Chief Ranger.

The new branch was number 351 affiliated to the Irish National Foresters and named ‘Conn of the Hundred Battles’. Conn (Conn Cétchathach) was a legendary High King reported to lived during the 2nd century AD. In mythology the ‘Connachta’ after whom the province of Connacht is named were descendants of Conns royal dynasty. One of Conn’s many battles, is recorded as occurring at Mag Lena in the vicinity of modern-day Tullamore.

A Safety Net- A game changer for Tullamore’s working class

The arrival of the Foresters heralded a quiet revolution around Tullamore. Most of the town’s labouring class worked in the malting and distilling industries. These men and their families lived a precarious life. When times were good, no problems arose. But few labourers had amassed much savings. For many families, a sudden illness or an unexpected expense was the gateway to serve financial hardship. By paying a weekly contribution, workers created a small but important cushion in times of hardship. The branch appointed an officer known as a wood-weed, tasked with visiting the sick, administering the benefit fund and encouraging those it was felt were ‘malingering’ to return to employment.

In 1911, David Lloyd George passed the National Insurance Act and in so doing created the Welfare State. In future, sickness and unemployment relief would be funded by payments from employers, workers, and the government. Initially, the existing friendly societies were suspicious that the new scheme would put their existing operations out of business. But the Welsh Wizard placated these concerns by allowing registered friendly societies to administer aspects of the new system. It was a comprise which proved mutually beneficial. The Liberal government got support for its welfare policies and the societies got many new members.

In Ireland, the Insurance Act was one of the factors which saw the rapid expansion of the Ancient Order of Hibernians from its stronghold in Ulster into Leinster and Munster. The Hibernians established divisions at Belmont, Birr, Clara and Edenderry in the years which followed the new act.

In Tullamore, the Foresters also expanded to service the new act. A women’s section was developed to cater for females working in the towns industry and by 1912 there were 900 members on the books of Conn of the Hundred Battles.

Members gathered outside the first hall in 1903-7. The hall was destroyed in 1920 (see part 20

A Place to Meet- The First Foresters Hall   

From the beginning, the social element played an important role in the expansion of the society. Sunday excursions were arranged to neighbouring town where the Tullamore men were sometimes the guests of fellow foresters like the ‘Bridge of Athlone’ branch. For years an annual banquet was organised along with concerts and plays. For a period, the society even established a brass band. In 1903 members of ‘Conn of the Hundred Battles’ officially opened their own hall at Henry Street on land acquired from the Grand Canal Company. In April 1907, disaster struck when the hall was burned down in an accidental fire the branch rebounded quickly with a new and improved building opened the following September. Insurers paid out £340, but the Foresters spent over £600 on restoring the building, but nevertheless ended up in a dispute with their contractor. In the years that followed they continued to invest heavily in improvements.

The restored hall proved to be a massive addition to the town and organisations as diverse as the Gaelic League, the Choral Society, Co-op society, Dramatic Society, Town Tenant League, King’s County Farmers Association and the ITGWU were to utilise the facilities.

The Foresters first entered the movie business around 1912 and laid out the substantial sum of £1,080 for equipment. Mindful of this large outlay, the Urban Council were reluctant to licence competitors in the years that followed. The enterprise proved popular and soon dramas and Charlie Chaplin comedies were entertaining the Tullamore crowds.

Political Realities- The Foresters and broader nationalism 1900-1914

The INF was broadly nationalist in its politics, but it avoided enforcing a rigid top-down discipline, allowing for a great deal of variety at branch level. While the GAA found itself in a series of conflicts over control and riven with divisions in the aftermath of the Parnell Spilt, the Foresters deftly navigated the various conflicts within nationalism.

 On his return from the Boer War, major John MacBride lived for a period on a boat moored in Athlone, during his stay the town’s INF branch was viewed as having adopted an advance nationalist position. One of the central figures in the Dublin Foresters was veteran Fenian James Stritch. As a result, the Foresters Hall on Parnell Square served as in important revolutionary meeting place and training location in the run up to the 1916 Rising.

John Redmond joined the INF and had branches in both Australia and Dublin was named in his honour. Throughout the 1920’s Foresters dressed in ‘Robert Emmett’ costume often laid wreaths at the Great War Cenotaph in Dublin.

The leading Belfast nationalist politician Joe Devlin was a longstanding Forester, but he also helped boost the expansion of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. On a fundraising trip to the United States, Devlin had been impressed with the American Hibernians and came to believe a similar organisation could provide him with an important power base. Between 1905 and 1909 the AOH (Board of Erin) expanded across Ulster, with membership rising from 10,000 to 60,000.

Unlike the Foresters, membership of the Hibernians was open only to Catholics and it was overtly partisan in politics. In the aftermath of the infamous 1909 Baton Convention, William O’Brien accused Devlin of using Belfast Hibernians to physically silence opponents.

Occasionally the Belfast man found that limits existed to Hibernians’ power within the home rule movement. In 1907 James Lardner claimed that a convention to select a nationalist candidate for the North Monoghan by-election had been rigged by local Hibernians. Lardner was elected unopposed to Westminster following the intervention of John Redmond. At the INF 1910 convention, Lardner was elected High Chief Ranger.

In 1900, the Tullamore Foresters sent three delegates to the Irish Convention called to unite the pro and anti-Parnell wings of the home rule movement. Like most large organisations in the county, the branch sent an address welcoming John Redmond on his visit to Birr in 1907.

In February 1913, when prisoners from the Irish Women’s Franchise League launched a hunger strike in Tullamore Gaol, Hanna Sheehy Skeffington addressed a suffragette meeting at the Foresters Hall.

The 1914 Kings County (Tullamore) By-Election.

Following the death of E.H. Burke MP in 1914, three nationalists Paddy Adams, P.J. Bermingham and E.J. Graham put their names forward to contest the resulting by-election. A convention was held in the Foresters Hall, where delegates from the United Irish League, the Land and Labour Association, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the ‘Conn of the Hundred Battles’ were represented. The Tullamore Foresters threw their support behind Adams, and they appeared to have backed the right horse when the young Tullamore man was declared the official home rule candidate, but his opponents claimed the poll had been rigged and refused to accept the result. With the help of a broad coalition Graham entered the by-election as an Independent Nationalist and triumphed by 79 votes in a consistency poll.  

O’Carroll chaired the first meeting in 1899.

Our thanks to Aidan Doyle for this valuable two-part article. More tomorrow.

Text: Aidan Doyle

Pictures: Offaly History

Back To Top