In his regular feature article 'Nothing New Under the Sun' in the Leinster Leader, Liam Kenny reflects on the changing fortunes of Edenderry, as recorded by local historian Ciarán Reilly in his book ‘Edenderry 1820-1920, popular politics and Downshire rule
The changing fortunes of Edenderry
Edenderry, tucked into the corner of Offaly that borders with Kildare, has not always got a good press: ‘a little inconsiderable place on the edge of the Bog of Allen’ was the verdict of travel diarist Philip Luckombe in 1780 while, some years later, the perception of writer John Gough in 1821 was that Edenderry had gone from being a ‘good town to a poor village.’ Such observations from passers-through are recorded by local historian Ciarán Reilly in his book ‘Edenderry 1820-1920, popular politics and Downshire rule’.
In prosperous times Edenderry presented a more attractive picture. The broad street, the spacious market with the impressive town hall and the branch of the Grand Canal ending in a harbour above street level, all marked Edenderry as a town which had benefited from civic improvement over the years. The powers behind the improvements were, as was often the case, the principal landlords of the locality whose wealth and political influence facilitated conspicuous benefits to the town under their patronage. In the case of Edenderry the big landlords were the Downshires (family name of Hill).
Ciarán Reilly outlines the succession of the landlord owners of Edenderry which began at the time of the plantations of King’s County in the 16th century when Elizabeth I granted the lands to Sir Henry Colley. In a later generation a Colley married a Blundell of Berkshire in England and the Blundells left their mark on the town, a bridge under the canal on the outskirts of Edenderry being known as the Blundell aqueduct to this day. Through later marriages the town of Edenderry passed to the Downshires, an evolution which gives Edenderry a common heritage with another Downshire town, Blessington, and connects both in turn to the family seat at Hillsborough, Co. Down.
Ciarán Reilly records that the third Marquess of Downshire was regarded as an improving landlord and began his tenure by replacing the mud-walled cabins of the main street with slated stone houses.
Another major boost to Edenderry was the construction of a branch of the Grand Canal from the main line which passed across the bogs to the south of the town. As the author reports: ‘ Without the Grand canal Edenderry would not have prospered as it did, the canal providing a much needed communication network and transportation for goods to Dublin.’ The canal construction in the Edenderry area was a marvel of 18th century engineering built on high embankments to take the waterway across the deep bog lands. But this elevated construction made the canal vulnerable to breaches. In 1833 a massive breach spilled floods of water on to the landscape. According to Murray, agent for the Downshire estate, the cascading canal waters had ‘inundated the entire country, causing considerable damage with one child drowned and several persons having a narrow escape … one poor woman and her five children had to climb on top of their house to avoid being swept away’. A later breach near Edenderry in 1916 was thought to have been triggered by an earthquake under the Irish Sea
No doubt one of the local merchants who made most use of the canal was M.P. O’Brien whose name was to become a byword in retailing throughout mid-Leinster. He set up his store in Edenderry in 1855 and before long had opened branches in Tullow, Allenwood, Clonbullogue, Moyvalley and Kilmeague under the name of the Universal Providing Stores. However the business was to become better known by the name of its proprietor M.P.O’Brien who became a household name through Offaly and Kildare. The family business was to the forefront of retailing innovation well into the twentieth century bringing Naas its first supermarket – known as O’Brien’s – which opened in the town’s South Main Street in the mid1960s.
Ciarán Reilly’s book on Edenderry is a model of how to trace the influences of major national movements on the life and times of a small town in Leinster. He devotes much attention to describing the impact of land agitation and the various generations of nationalist activism in the town with chapters including: The Land War and the Edenderry Home Rule club; Literary nationalism and pastimes; Edenderry Town Council and the decline of Home Rule; Edenderry men in the Great War, 1914-18; the independence struggle at Edenderry; and the Civil War and compensation. A selection of old photographs of Edenderry and its people add much interest to the publication. As well as its informative and well-referenced text, the book includes humorous snippets relating to Edenderry from the files of the local newspapers such as the following from an issue of the Leinster Leader, 4 February 1893: ‘Disgraceful scenes are reported from Edenderry where a wedding took place on a Sunday. The wedding party went about the town shouting and blowing horns. The reporter has never heard of this happening before (Leinster Leader, 4 February 1893).’ Could this be another incidence of the enigmatic custom known as ‘kettling’ when local characters kicked up a racket where the wedding involved a second marriage for the husband in question?
For this and much more enquire in bookshops for: ‘Edenderry 1820-1920’ by Ciarán J. Reilly, and published by Nonsuch publishing, 73 Lower Leeson Street, Dublin 2.