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Co Offaly Overview.
KING’S COUNTY, an inland county of the province of LEINSTER, bounded on the east by the county of Kildare ; on the north, by that of Westmeath, and a small portion of Meath ; on the west by those of Tipperary, Galway, and Roscommon, from the two latter of which it is separated by the Shannon, and on the south by the Queen’s county and Tipperary. It extends from 52º 48’ to 53º 24’ (N. Lat.), and from 7º 0’ to 8º 0’ (W. Lon.) ; comprising an area, according to the Ordnance survey, of 528,166 acres, of which 394,569 are cultivated land, 133,349 unprofitable mountain and bog, and 248 are under water. The population, in 1821, amounted to 131,088, and in 1831, to 144,225.
Early People & History.
This part of the island, owing to its inland situation, is not noticed by Ptolemy ; recourse must therefore be had to the early native writers as the only source whence to ascertain its former state. From these it has been concluded that, at a very remote period, the county formed part of the territory denominated by Falgia, which included also those of Meath, Westmeath, Dublin , and Kildare. It was also included, together with the Queen’s county, Dublin , and Kildare, under the denomination of by Laoighois, the chieftain of which territory resided at Dunamase, in the Queen’s county.
Afterwards, this territory, or, as some say, the southern part of it only, was included in the district of Eile, or by Leigh, comprehending also the western part of the Queen’s county, and the northern part of Tipperary. That district was afterwards divided into three principalities, each under its own chieftain ; one of which, forming the southern portion of the King’s county, and lying west-ward of the Slieve Bloom mountains, obtained the name of Eile in Chearbhuil, or “ the plain near the rock,” afterwards corrupted into Ely 0’ Carroll, the chiefs of which were called O’Carroll, and under them was a subordinate dynast, named O’Delany, who ruled over a district in the south, denominated Dal-leagh-nui, or “ the district of the flat country.”
These principalities, with the more northern parts of the present King’s county, occupied by the Mac Coghlans, O’Molloys, and O’Conors, were afterwards united into one kingdom, under the ancient title of the kingdom of by Falgia, or Offallia, which comprehended also a part of the county of Kildare, and the lands of the O’Dempsies and O’Duins, in the Queen’s county. It retained this title for several centuries after the landing of the English, and included a smaller territory, called by Bressail.
So early as 1170, the English power was extended into this part of Ireland , though not with permanent vigour. Thus the lands of Cryngidubh were deemed in all matters of English jurisdiction to form part of Meath ; the manor of Geashill, held by the Fitzgeralds, was esteemed part of the county of Kildare ; and from the Black Book of the Exchequer, and divers pipe rolls, it appears that the whole of Offallia was charged with twelve knights’ fees to the king as part of the county of Kildare.
But as the English power declined, its laws and customs were disregarded, and under the name of West Clonmalugra , or Glenmalire, this district was for successive centuries one of the most turbulent and hostile to the Anglo. Irish government. Eastern Glenmalire , or Glenmaleiry, and Leix, were the names then given to the Queen’s county, the Barrow river being the boundary between the two districts.
The O’Conors were the commanding sept in Offallia ; in the reign of Edward VI., uniting with the O’Mores of Leix, they spread disorder through the province of Leinster ; but the lord-deputy, Sir Anthony Saintleger, aided by a force sent from England under Sir William Bellingham, dispersed them with little difficulty, ravaged their lands, drove the inhabitants into their fastnesses in the bogs and woods, where they were reduced to the last extremities by famine, and secured their subjection by building six castles in their territory. The chiefs themselves submitted, and attended Saintleger into England, where they were thrown into confinement, and their lands being declared forfeited were shared among English officers and settlers : the O’Carrols, occupying the remotest situation, appear to have been the least affected by these disastrous events.
The new arrangements were completed in 1548, and procured for Bellingham the honour of knighthood and the government of Ireland . But the old Irish families did not patiently relinquish their claims and possessions. They were indefatigable in their efforts to resist what they deemed an unjust usurpation. Numbers were consequently cut off in the field, or executed by martial law ; and the whole race would have been extirpated in the reign of Mary, had not the Earls of Kildare and Ormonde interceded with the Queen, and become sureties for the peaceable behaviour of the survivors. By an Irish statute in 1557, Lord Sussex was empowered to grant estates or leases in the districts recovered from the Irish inhabitants ; another, reciting their forfeiture to the Crown by rebellion, erected them into the King’s and Queen’s counties, so named in honour of Philip and Mary ; the former comprised Ophaly, and such part of Glenmalire as lay east of the Barrow, and had for its capital the fort of Dingen, formerly the chief seat of the O’Conors, and henceforward called Philipstown,
In this division was included a small portion of the county of Kildare, containing the parishesof Harristown and Kilbracken, which still, though completely enclosed by Kildare, continue to form part of the King’s county. During the entire reign of Elizabeth , the desultory attempts of the natives against the English forces were continued ; and the most unscrupulous measures were, on the other hand, exercised against them. In 1599, the lord-lieutenant entered the county with a force of 2500 men, and totally defeated the O’Conors ; but in the following year they became as troublesome as before ; until at length Sir Oliver Lambert was sent thither at the head of 1000 foot and 100 horse, and after raising the siege of Philipstown, which had been closely pressed by the insurgents, he dispersed them so completely that no resistance of any importance was afterwards attempted.
The county extends into each of the four ecclesiastical provinces, being partly in the diocese of Clonfert, in Tuam, partly in that of Ossory, in Dublin , partly in that of Killaloe, in Cashel, but chiefly in those of Meath, in Armagh , and of Kildare. For purposes of civil jurisdiction it is divided into the baronies of Ballyboy, Ballybritt, Ballycowen, Clonlisk, Coolestown, Eglish, Garrycastle, Geashill, Kilcoursey, Lower Philipstown , Upper Philipstown , and Warrenstown. It contains part of the borough and market-town of Portarlington ; the market and assize town of Tullamore ; the ancient corporate towns of Philipstown and Banagher ; the market and post-towns of Parsonstown, (formerly Birr,) Clara, Edenderry, and Frankford ; and the post-towns of Farbane, Shinrone, Moneygall, Geashill, Cloghan, and Kinnitty.
Amongst the largest villages are those of Ballycumber, Ballingarry (each of which has a penny post), Shannon-bridge, Ballyboy, and Shannon-harbour. The county sent six members to the Irish parliament, two for the county at large, and two for each of the boroughs of Philipstown and Banagher ; but since the union its representation has been confined to the two members for the county at large.
The constituency, as registered under the act of the 3rd and 4th of Wm. IV., to Feb. 1st, 1836, consists of 417 freeholders of £50 each, 292 of £20, and 985 of £10 each, making a total of 1694 registered electors ; and in the county books they are all classed under the head of freeholders except one rent-charger of £50, five of £20, and four leaseholders of £10 each. The election takes place at Tullamore. The county is included in the Home Circuit. The assize and general quarter sessions of the peace are held in Tullamore. Quarter sessions are also held at Birr and at Philipstown.
The county gaol and court-house are at Tullamore, and there are court-houses and bridewells at Birr and Philipstown ; the former is a modern and well-constructed building, the latter is the old county gaol. The local government is vested in a lieutenant, 7 deputy- lieutenants, and 105 magistrates, besides the usual county officers, including two coroners. There are 45 constabulary police stations, having a force of a sub-inspector, three chief officers, 41 sub constables, 182 men, and 6 horses.
The county infirmary is at Tullamore ; and there are fever hospitals at Shinrone and Parsonstown, and dispensaries at Banagher, Clara, Edenderry, Farbane, Frankford, Geashill, Kinnitty, Leap, Moneygall, Parsonstown, Philipstown, and Shinrome, supported equally by private contributions and Grand Jury presentments. The lunatic asylum for the county is at Maryborough. The Grand Jury presentments for 1835 amounted to £21,060. 19. 8., of which £4739. 14. 4. was for public works, repairs of roads, &c. ; £11,179. 16. 6. for public buildings, charities, salaries, and incidents ; and £5141. 8. 10. for the police and the administration of justice. In the military arrangements the county is included in the western district, and has barracks for infantry at Banagher, Parsonstown, and Shannon-harbour, and for cavalry at Tullamore and Philipstown, affording, in the whole, accommodation for 68 officers and 1412 men.
The form of the county is very irregular ; it has three isolated portions, which, though considered to be parts of Upper Philipstown, are wholly included within the barony of Ophaly, in the county of Kildare ; its surface is, for the most part, an uninterrupted flat, except where it rises at its south-western extremity into the Slieve Bloom mountains, which range in a direction from north-east to south-west for twenty miles, forming the boundary between the King’s and Queen’s counties.
The highest point is called the Height of Ireland ; there is but one passage through them, called the Gap of Glandine, which is very difficult of approach, steep and craggy, and but five feet wide. The only other elevations which merit notice are Croghan hill, to the north of Philipstown, rising about five hundred feet above the surrounding country, and beautifully clothed with verdure to its summit ; and the great hill of Cloghan, which is the most commanding eminence between the Brosna river and the Slieve Bloom mountains, and abounds on all sides with numerous and never-failing springs. Lough Pallas, between Tullamore and Ballyboy, is the most remarkable lake in the county : it is of inconsiderable extent, but has the finest tench in Ireland .
Lough Anmagh partly belongs to this county, as the divisional line between it and the Queen’s county is drawn through its centre. It contains about 315 acres, the greater part of which is from five to eight feet deep in summer : its bottom is chiefly composed of bog, interspersed with roots of trees, with a bank of gravel and stones in the centre : several small streams flow into it, and its Waters are discharged into the Silver river, which flows into the Brosna.
Deroin lough, in the barony of Eglish, comprises about 200 acres. Lough Boura contains 175 acres, but is so shallow that a man may wade through every part of it in the summer time : its bottom is composed of fine black bog and gravel. Lough Couragh is a small lough in the bog between Frankford and Parsonstown.
Although a great part of the county is covered with bog, the climate is as wholesome as in any other part of Ireland. The general soil, in its natural state, is not fertile, and is only rendered so by manures and attention to a proper course of crops. The quality is, generally, either a deep moor or a gravelly loam ; the former very productive in dry summers, the latter most benefited by a moist season.
Limestone is the general substratum, yet as a manure it is not used so extensively as it should be. Limestone gravel, here called corn gravel, is also abundant and in general use as manure, and without burning or any other preparation it produces abundant crops. The pastures, though not luxuriant, are excellent for sheepwalks, the flocks producing wool in abundance, and of very fine quality. The unreclaimed moor is highly nutritious to young cattle ; but it is observed that where bogs have been reclaimed, although the vegetation is rapid and rather earlier than in the upland, corn crops are generally two or three weeks later in ripening.
The best land in the county is on the western side of the Slieve Bloom mountains, extending from the boundary of the Queen’s county through Ballybritt to Parsonstown ; but the barony of Clonlisk, in general, is decidedly the most fertile ; that of Warrenstown has been recently much improved by the efforts and example of two enterprising Scotch farmers of the name of Rait : the land in it, though naturally good, requires great attention to draw forth all its capabilities. The beneficial change has been brought about at considerable expense and labour, and it is now nearly as productive as the fertile barony of Clonlisk.
A great part of the bog of Allen lies within this county, forming, in detached portions, the most remarkable feature of its surface. The mountains have a great variety of soils and substrata ; but the greater portion of them merely affords a coarse pasture to young cattle in dry seasons ; the only part wortby of especial notice is a tract of fertile pasture, which is grazed all the year by numerous flocks of sheep and young cattle, and having a limestone soil, with a stiff clay at the basis of the heights, yields abundant crops of corn.
The farms were formerly very large. It was not uncommon for one person to hold a thousand or fifteen hundred acres ; but their size is now much reduced, averaging not more than from 12 to 17 acres ; few are so large as 200 acres. Considerable tracts of mountain and bog are reclaimed every year by young men after marriage, who locate themselves in cabins generally near the bog for the advantage of fuel. Many of the little elevated patches in the bog of Allen, here called islands, have been thus brought into cultivation.
The chief crops are wheat and potatoes, except near the bogs and mountains, where oats are principally grown. Barley and rape are also extensively raised ; the latter is found to flourish on the most boggy soil, if properly drained. Turnips,mangel wurzel, vetches, and clover are everywhere grown by the gentry and large farmers ; but the generality of the small farmers do not venture on the green crop system, except in the barony of Warrenstown, where a regular rotation crop is general.
Red and white clover are found on most farms ; the former, with rye grass, answers bog land extremely well, and throughout every part of the country it affords a remarkably early herbage, ripens a month earlier than the natural grasses, and is made into hay with much less trouble. Flax is grown for domestic use in small quantities in patches or in the corner of a field.
On the banks of the rivers are extensive marsby meadows, called callows, which are mostly inundated in winter, but afford a valuable pasture in summer. In the district between Birr and Roscrea they are very extensive, and yield great quantities of hay of very superior quality ; the hay from the callows on the Shannon is not so good.
Dairies are not so frequent here as in some of the neighbouring counties ; nor is the same attention paid to the breeding of milch cows, although near Parsonstown and on the borders of Meath the dairy cows are very good. Butter is the chief produce ; cheese is seldom made, and of inferior quality.
Much has been done to improve the breed of horned cattle : that mostly preferred by the farmer is the old native stock crossed by the Durham. A very serviceable breed has been introduced by a cross between the Meath and Devon : the cattle are exceedingly pretty, and thrive well on favoured soils. In the barony of Ballybritt is a very heavy and powerful breed of bullocks, being a cross between the Limerick and Durham, excellent for field work, of large size, and rapidly and economically fattened : they are principally sent to the Dublin market.
The breed of sheep has also been much improved. A cross between the new Leicester and the native sheep of the valley gives excellent wool, and draws higher prices than any other. On the hills the sheep appear to have been crossed till it would be difficult to give the breed a name : the best appear to combine the old Ayrshire with the Kerry.
The horses are well bred, light, and active, and when properly trained, excellent for the saddle ; they are bred in great numbers : it is no unusual thing to see herds of young horses, mostly bays, in the mountains or bogs of Eglish and Ballyboy. There is a greater number of jennets here than in any other part of Ireland.
Pigs are found everywhere, but very little attention has been paid to their improvement. Asses are mostly kept by the poor people, and mules are common with the small farmers. Goats are by no means numerous. The county is generally well fenced, mostly with white thorn planted on the breast of the ditch, but from the time of planting, the hedges appear to be neglected, except towards the south-western parts, where the country much resembles some of the midland districts of England. Draining and irrigation appear to be unknown ; yet the country is highly favourable for both, for although chiefly a plain, and interspersed with large tracts of bog, it is so much elevated as to afford opportunities everywhere for carrying off the redundant water into some river.
The general manure is limestone gravel, of which the best kind is found in hillocks, or at the foot of hills, and has a strong smell when turned up. Burning this gravel in heaps, with the parings of the moors, furnishes a manure producing extraordinary crops. Bog stuff by itself, or worked up into a compost with dung, is much used. In high grounds, with a deep limestone bottom, this latter is found to be the best manure.
The old plough is still in use. Oxen are employed in tillage, for the harnessing of which a singular kind of yoke is in use in the neighbourhood of Leap ; it consists of a flat light piece of wood which lies on the forehead, and is strapped to the horns, so that the force of the draught is brought to the neck, in which the animal’s strength is supposed chiefly to exist ; the oxen rather pushing than pulling. Another mode has also been introduced when four oxen are employed ; they are coupled together and a long beam is laid across their necks, embracing the throat by an iron bow which pierces the beam, and is keyed at the top ; from the centre of the beam the long chain is suspended : this kind of yoke is considered to be very easy to the cattle. The Scotch plough and the angular harrow are everywhere used, except in the mountain districts and by the poorer farmers : the slide car, and that with solid wheels, are both exploded, and a light car with iron-bound spoke wheels has taken their place ; it is formed of framework, consisting of the shafts and a few transverse bars for the body, on which rests a large wicker- work basket, here called a kish ; by removing the basket the frame serves to carry bulky articles, such as sacks of grain or hay ; this car is very light, not weighing more, when well made, than 1½ cwt. The Scotch cart is seldom seen but with the gentry.
Evident marks exist at the present day to prove that the whole surface of the county was once an uninterrupted forest : the alder is indigenous, and a small patch of the ancient forest still remains in the demesne of Droughtville. The borders of the county, near Tipperary, are well wooded and have a beautiful appearance ; but the principal woods are those of Killeigh, Charleville, and Castle Bernard ; there are likewise very extensive plantations and ornamental timber around Woodfield, Droughtville, Mountpleasant, Leap, Goldengrove, Doone, Moystown, Geashill, Newtown, and Clara. The timber is large and excellent : the ash from this part bears the highest price in Dublin ; oak, birch, and lime also thrive well. Much planting has been effected on the borders of the bogs, and on the islands and dcrries interspersed through them, some of which are ancient stands of timber. Trees are also found growing within a few feet of the ancient timber, which is now several feet under the surface.
The bogs, which cover so large a portion of the land, supply a never-failing quantity of fuel : their elevation renders them easily reclaimable, and the quantities of limestone and gravel found in the escars and derries with which they are interspersed afford great facilities for bringing them into a state of tillage.
The level portions of the county form part of the great field of floetz limestone. Its structure varies from the perfectly compact to the conjointly compact and foliated, and even granularly foliated. Beds of the last kind are quarried and wrought for various purposes near Tullamore ; the stone is of a greyish white and of a large granular texture.
The Slieve Bloom mountains consist of a nucleus of clay-slate surrounded by sandstone. The sandstone appears to sweep round the clay-stone nucleus, following the sinuosities and curvatures formed by its surface, with a dip that conforms to the declivity. Quarries are formed all round the mountains, in some of which the strata are from one to three feet in thickness ; while in ot.hers excellent flags are raised from an inch to four or five inches thick, and seven and eight feet square. The sandstone of these mountains is commonly yellowish-white or grey, sometimes exhibiting small porous interstices filled with iron ochre.
Croghan hill is a protruding mass of basalt, supporting on its north-western and south-western sides the floetz limestone. The gravel hills or escars form a very singular feature in this county. They appear in the borders of Westmeath and proceed by Philipstown in a south-western direction to Roscrea. They are entirely composed of gravel and sand, those in the northern part being of silicious formation and in the southern argillaceous. In no other part of Ireland do they present so great a variety of structure or exhibit a more bold and marked appearance. Neither coal nor any other of the more valuable metallic ores has been found ; those discovered being manganese and iron in very small quantities, with some ochre and potters’ clay.
The woollen manufacture is very limited : the women spin worsted, which they dispose of to the manufacturers. Friezes, stuffs, and serges are made in the county, but entirely for home consumption. The linen manufacture was formerly carried on with much spirit in some parts, particularly in the baronies of Garrycastle and Kilcoursey.
The women are peculiarly industrious ; they are all spinners, and their auxiliary exertions for the subsistence of the family are so proverbial, that it is common for an industrious young man to take a journey into this county in quest of a wife. There are extensive flour-mills, distilleries, and breweries at Parsonstown and some other parts of the county, but the people are mostly engaged in agricultural pursuits.
The Brosna, formerly called Brosmog, rises in the county of Westmeath, and running westward by Ballycumber and Ferbane, discharges itself into the Shannon, which forms the entire western boundary of the county, separating it from Connaught. The county is also bounded for a short distance on the north-east by the river Boyne ; the Barrow separates it from the Queen’s county, in the neighbourhood of Portarlington ; the Feagile separates it from Kildare, a little above Monastereven.
The Lesser Brosna, which joins the Shannon below Banagher, is the boundary between this county and Tipperary, a distance of seven miles, and has been rendered navigable from the Shannon for about two miles above Riverstown bridge, for small turf boats. This interesting little river, from Riverstown bridge down to thc Shannon, is also the boundary between the provinces of Leinster and Munster, so that at the mouth of the Lesser Brosna are the junction of three provinces and three counties.
Through numerous glens in the hilly district descend rapid mountain St reams, which only flow in wet weather : the fall of their waters is generally as sudden as their rise. Many of them are discharged into Knockarley river, which sometimes appears but an inconsiderable stream, but when swelled by the mountain floods it becomes of great magnitude, occasionally rising several feet and carrying away every thing on its banks : its bed has been completely changed in consequence of the violence of these floods, which baffle all the art and labour expended in endeavouring to confine the river to its original channel.
The Grand Canal enters the county near Edenderry, and continues its course through its entire length, in a western direction, by Philipstown and Tullamore, till it joins the Shannon, at Shannon-harbour, near Banagher, opening a direct communication with Dublin on the one side, and with Ballinasloe and the Shannon on the other : it is the chief line of trade for the county.
It is proposed to make a navigation from the Shannon up the Lesser Brosna to Parsonstown.
The roads are numerous in every part, and have been greatly improved within the last few years ; several new lines have been opened through the bogs ; but notwithstanding the central situation and great extent of this county, it is a singular fact, that there is not a mail coach to or from any town in it; the only mail coach road touching the county is that from Dublin to Limerick, for a very short distance south of Roscrea. The roads are all maintained by Grand Jury presentments.
The most ancient relic of antiquity is a ruin called the White Obelisk, or Temple of the Sun, in the Slieve Bloom mountains, being a large pyramid of white stones. Danish raths are common : a chain of fortified moats commanding toghers or bog passes extends through the county. Ballykillen fort was a famous rath, in the centre of which was a vault where some curious relics were found.
The number of religious establishments in this county appears in former times to have been very great in proportion to its extent. Of the existing remains the most remarkable are the ruins at Clonmacnois. Of the other religious establishments, there are still vestiges of those of Clonfertmulloe, Drumeullin, Kilcolman, Killegally, Rathbeg, and Reynagh, which have been converted into parish churches.
At Killeigh, now a small village, there were three religious houses. Durrow was the site of a sumptuous abbey, founded by St. Columb ; the abbey of Monasteroris was founded by one of the Birmingham family, in a district then called Thotmoy ; Seirkyran abbey was founded by St. Kieran, near Ballybritt : the abbeys of Clonemore, Glinn, Kilbian, Kilcomin, Kilhualleach, Killiadhuin, Liethmore, Lynally, Mugna, Rathlibthen, and Tuilim, are known only by name.
The ruins of ancient castles are also numerous ; most of the baronies take their names from some one of them. Several are still kept up as the mansions of the proprietors ; but the greater number are in ruins. Those deserving special notice, together with the modern mansions of the nobility and gentry, are described under the heads of their respective parishes.
Though there are some good farmsteads, the land-holders in general pay but little attention to the arrangement of their offices or their internal convenience or neatness, except in those belonging to gentlemen of fortune. The houses of the small farmers are very mean, and the peasants’ cabins are throughout miserably poor, in few instances weather-proof, and mostly thatched with straw ; on the borders of the bogs they are still worse constructed, being covered only with sods pared off the surface, called scraws, or with rushes ; yet the people are said to prefer the shelter thus afforded to that of Stone and slated houses, partly from custom, partly, too, on account of the warmth retained by the smoke and closeness of the earthen buildings.
The food is potatoes, milk, and oatmeal. In the neighbourhood of Philipstown, bacon forms an occasional addition to the family fare, and beer is in much demand. In Kilcoursey, most cottier families consume a bacon pig annually. Though illiterate, they are very anxious to have their children instructed, as is evident from the number of small schools in all parts. They speak English everywhere ; if a person is heard speaking Irish, they invariably call him a Connaught man.
Their clothing is of the coarsest materials, manufactured at home. The women prepare the yarn for the manufacturer, and execute many of the details of agricultural industry. The use of cotton in lieu of linen and woollen has become very general, particularly for female dress.
Chalybeate mineral waters are frequent : some wells at Shinrone throw up a strong ferruginous scum, and their waters leave a lasting mark on linen. In Garrycastle barony they are particularly numerous ; there is also one at Escar in Coolestown, another at Kilduff, in Philipstown, and another near Aghancon church, in Ballybritt.
In Ballycowan barony is a well which exhibits a combination of sulphur with iron ; yet none of them are much noted for their medicinal effects. At Ballincar, near Whigsborough, is a spa resembling that of Castle Comnell, in Limerick ; its waters are of a yellowish hue, and it is much esteemed for its efficacy in healing bad sores and scorbutic ulcers. Besides these may be mentioned a spring on the glebe land of Geashill, the waters of which never throw off any sediment ; but, though preserved for many years in bottle, continue perfectly pure and undistinguishable in taste and colour from that drawn fresh from the spring.