Welcome to my ‘5 Things Friday’ blog, where this week I’m taking a look at some interesting facts about Co. Offaly. Apart from being the county where I had the bejaysus scared out of me (see my blog on my visit to Leap Castle), Offaly has a wealth of things to see and do, not to mention being home to some amazing people and facts, the most interesting (to me!) of which I’ve listed below.
Population of Co. Offaly: 76,687 (2011 Census)
Area: 2,001 Sq. Km (773 Sq. mi)
Co. Offaly is part of the midlands of Ireland and is the 18th largest of our 32 counties. Tullamore is the county town and its largest town. It was historically called King’s County, acquiring its current name after Independence in 1922, and is the home to beautiful landscape including the Slieve Bloom Mountains and the Bog of Allen amongst other natural delights. Through my research for Ireland Planner I’ve come across many interesting things about the county that I didn’t know. Some of my favourite facts are listed below.
Croghan Hill, rising majestically from the Bog of Allen, is Ireland’s only volcano! Who knew?! Of course, it has been extinct for many centuries, but it was active in the Carboniferous period millions of years ago. It is less than 800 feet high but because it lies in such a flat area it commands wonderful views of the surrounding midlands counties. Its summit is thought to be a Bronze Age burial place and has strong associations with St. Brigid who is said to have been born nearby. There are lots of legends associated with the hill, one of which is that the inside of it is believed to be a magic underworld known as Bri Ele. It was near this hill that Croghan Man was discovered, a preserved bog-body of an Iron Age man believed to be over 2,000 years old. This remarkable find is now on display in the National Museum in Kildare Street, Dublin.
One of the most interesting Offaly people that I’ve come across is a lady called Kate Shelley. She was born in Loughan, Dunkerrin near Moneygall in 1863 and her family emigrated to Iowa in the United States when she was a baby. Her father died when the family was young and it fell to 15 year old Kate as the eldest to plough and harvest the land and hunt to help feed her family. The Chicago and North-Western Railway line ran near their home and a night in July 1861 changed Kate’s life forever. There was a torrential rain storm and a pusher train carrying four men which had been sent to test the flooded rail line plunged off the Honey Creek bridge near their farm at around 11pm. Kate knew that the midnight express train from the West to Chicago carrying 200 people was due and would suffer the same fate unless it was stopped. She set out in the storm across flooded land with only a lantern to get to a depot a few miles away to warn them to stop the train. She had to crawl 50 feet up an embankment to cross the precarious bridge above a raging river. The span had no floor and cross ties were a yard apart with nothing below but the swollen rapids. She crawled along on her hands and knees and her lantern went out, so she had to feel her way in the darkness. Eventually, she reached the other side, then walked two more miles in the dark to raise the alarm. The express was stopped and she led a search party back to the crashed pusher, saving two of the four men. She became a national heroine overnight and money was raised to help her and her family. She went on to become a teacher and died in 1912. Today, a train, The Kate Shelley 400, runs from Chicago to Boone and the old station she ran to holds the Kate Shelley Memorial Park and Museum. The original bridges have been replaced with a new bridge called the Kate Shelley High Bridge. All reminders of an incredibly brave woman who save countless lives who started her own live in Co. Offaly.
A couple of miles outside the lovely village of Shannonbridge there’s a small castle set in from the road called Clonony Castle. Built in the early 1500’s it is a three-storey tower house, now a private residence. Clonony lacks the grandiose entrance and standing often associated with Ireland’s greater-known castles, but this belies its interesting historical associations. It in fact was ceded to Henry VIII by the McCoughlan clan who owned it, and he in turn gifted it to Thomas Boleyn in exchange for his daughter Anne’s hand in marriage (yes, THAT Anne Boleyn!). The Boleyn’s lived out their days here and 2 Boleyn girls, Mary and Elizabeth, (Anne’s cousins) are buried in the grounds of the castle. Their tombstone is still there today. However, some local legends have it that Anne sent one of her ladies-in-waiting to her appointment with the executioner and she actually went on to live out her days at Clonony Castle!
The castle is privately owned but the owner is happy to show visitors around if they are home, or just phone ahead. It is also reputedly haunted and a ghostly figure is often seen standing on top of the 50ft tower, although we didn’t see him when we were there! An interesting place with a fascinating link to a very famous family and one of the only Tudor castles in Ireland (if not the only one), Clonony is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
Kinnity is a small village 8 miles east of Birr whose name derives from a myth that the head of an ancient princess is buried beneath it. The word ‘ceann’ is Irish for head and ‘Eitigh’ was the princess’s name. Its name may also well be familiar due to its association with the nearby Kinnity Castle, now a hotel popular for weddings and the odd ghost or two (that’s another story!). But of much more interest to me was finding out that the village is also home to a unique pyramid built by Lt. Col. Richard Wesley Bernard in the mid 1800’s on his return from Egypt. Standing in the Church of Ireland graveyard in the village, it is an exact replica of the Pyramid of Cheop in Egypt and stands an impressive 30 feet tall. It was built as a crypt for his family and holds the remains of six of the Bernards. The last burial took place in 1907 and the crypt is now permanently sealed, but it is still a fascinating and unexpected sight to behold in a rural corner of Ireland.
Birr Castle in Co. Offaly is home to Ireland’s Historic Science Centre which details the history of Ireland’s scientists and their contribution over the years to astronomy and botany. The castle is home to the Earl of Rosse and is closed to the public but the grounds can be enjoyed as well as the museum itself. But of particular note is the Great Telescope or The Leviathan to give it its proper name. This was built by the Third Earl of Rosse in 1845 and was used for many years until the early the twentieth century. It was the largest astronomical telescope in the world from its creation until 1917 and was a wonder to behold at that time. It was restored in the 1990’s and is now open to the public. Also of note, are the castle’s walled gardens, which have 300 year old box hedges that are the oldest in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The grounds also contain the oldest wrought iron bridge in Ireland, dating from 1820.
So there you have it for another edition ‘5 Things Friday’. A few of my favourite ‘interesting things’ about Co. Offaly. As ever, there are many more, but I’ll save those for another date. Please feel free to comment and please share the blog with your friends.
Happy Irish travels,