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Folklore of the Troubled Times

Laois Local Studies > Articles > Folklore of the Troubled Times
Borris-in-Ossory Courthouse

By Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

Between 1937 and 1939 the Irish Folklore Commission, in conjunction with the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation and the Department of Education, collected folklore in primary (or ‘national’) schools across the Irish Free State. To be more precise schoolchildren, directed by schoolteachers, collected folklore from older members of their community. This was 14 or 15 years after the last shots of the Civil War signalled an end to what we think of as the revolutionary period. In looking back to the past they were more looking back to say the time of the Penal Laws or the Famine, but here and there what was almost their own time could creep in, especially under the rubric of ‘Local Happenings’. The collation had a broad remit, and within expansive themes it was quite idiosyncratic in what was focused on in one school in comparison to another. The handful of instances of memories of the troubled times I have found from Laois schools in doubtlessly non-exhaustive searching are of interest in a number of ways. One thing is that looming large in memory were the burnings of the likes of income tax offices, court houses and the evacuated, but not altogether unoccupied, police barracks. This tactic had its springtime in early April 1920, when, locally, the income tax office in Mountmellick and eight Royal Irish Constabulary barracks were subjected to arson, that is those in Ballinakill, Ballyroan, Castletown, Coolrain, Doonane, Luggacurran, the Heath and Timahoe.[1]

Multiple Narratives

Especially of interest is the presence of multiple narratives. Events were certainly remembered in a heroic style. From Morette, Portarlington, amid recounting of medieval ruins we have the story of a modern ruin:

The Heath Barracks. Was built by the British Government and the R. I. C. lived in it. It was burned between 1919 and 1921 by the Irish Republican Army when fighting for the freedom of their country against the British Army.[2]

A similar event was remembered and recorded quite differently in the Convent in Borris-in-Ossory:  

The court House we have in Borris-in-Ossory was only recently built. The old court House was burned during the trouble times in Ireland in 1921. A number of men came over one night late and wrecked and burned it. The caretaker was a Miss O’Brian, a protestant and she had to leave it. She lived there for many years and she was broken hearted on leaving it. When they had it burned they came and did likewise to the police barracks. The one we have now was recently erected.[3]

From Tolerton we learn “Once there was a great burning of the Barracks 1920.”[4] This was subsumed into a litany of local fires of note dating back as far as the eighteenth century, significant, no doubt, but part of a story of conflagration more than liberation.  

Crime and Civil War

Also recorded in the Convent in Borris-in-Ossory was the mid-April 1921 killing of Michael Byrne:

Mr. M. Byrne, Windsor was going from Whelan’s Cahir, one night about half past ten. He was shot. The people for mile around the district heard the shot and some of them said, “There is some poor fellow done for to-night.[5]

Byrne was supposed to be the victim of an armed robbery – he was a cattle dealer and believed to be in the habit of carrying large sums of money.[6] It may seem an ill-fit to include this within the annals of the revolution, as it seems to have been a decidedly ‘non-political’ crime. But in fact at times the revolution saw explosions in the rate of ‘ordinary’ crime. That too was part of the experience of these years.

Grave of Michael Byrne

The event of the time given greatest detail in the Laois schools’ folklore collection was the Civil War ambush at Tunduff, north of Abbeyleix, in late July 1922. Some of the account given of that reads:

Fierce shooting took place for a while, and in the end the Republican party retreated across the fields and took refuge in an old disused pit in Coole. They were pursued by their opponents who found them in the pit, and as they were about to surround it the Republican party fired from the inside, killing two of their enemies named McCurtin, and Collison. This ended the big Ambush of Tunduff with the loss of three lives to the other I.F.S. soldiers and the other party escaped without a scratch. Their plans were successfully carried out, but what a pity to see Irishmen killing one another. This would have been a remarkable event if it had been to destroy the Black-and-Tans, but what a mistake it was amongst our own countrymen.[7]

A poignant ending, however an inaccurate one, a significant portion of even the Black-and-Tans were comprised of “our own countrymen”.

The Cattle Drive of Curraghmore

Another tale from prolific Borris-in-Ossory was that of the cattle driving of Curraghmore:

 Ten young men of the neighbourhood collected together and went through all the farm, got all the cattle, a hundred or more and drove them all to the owner’s yard. The owner being Mr. Peter Roe, Ballykelly. They demanded the land and Mr. Roe was not satisfied to give it and he got all the cattle put back on Curraghmore again and got the police of the time to watch the farm but they were not able to do so. The cattle were driven off twice again by the same men along with others including some of the women. The police arrested all the young men and brought them to court in Borris first and then to Portlaoighise. A great hay barn of hay was burned on the farm belonged to Mr. Roe during that time. Rags steeped in lamp oil started the fire. A song was composed about it by J. Bergin.[8]

The land in question was land leased, not owned, by Peter Roe, and was neighbouring his farm in the townland in which he resided — Ballykelly (which, being just over the border into Tipperary is sometimes given as ‘Ballykelly, Roscrea’ but it is in fact adjacent to Borris-in-Ossory).  In the court case resulting from the cattle drive it was claimed he, and his brother, had already lost hundreds of acres when the Estates Commissioners (a government body) re-distributed land on the White estate. At that time the Estate Commissioners rejected the lands at Curraghmore as unsuitable for re-distribution.

Two cattle drives took place at Curraghmore on the 25th of February 1920. Two, as Roe returned his animals from Ballykelly to Curraghmore and then they were driven back again to Ballykelly. Twelve men were sentenced to three months imprisonment for taking part in these cattle drives.[9] A thirteenth man, Thomas Cummins, was released under the rule of bail on humanitarian grounds as he had an ill child.[10] The twelve were Thomas Condron, Peter Bergin, Daniel Delaney, Patrick Delaney Jr., William Bergin jr., Edward Bergin Jr., Michael Bergin, James Bannon, Patrick Bergin, George Hanrahan and James Downes.  I have not yet found any corroborating reports of arson as recounted in the schools’ folklore collection. In the summer of 1920 Peter Roe surrendered the land and a local committee was apportioning it out in plots of two to fourteen acres, nineteen plots in total.[11]  

Donaghmore workhouse, used as a temporary barracks by the British Army in response to cattle driving and the burning of RIC barracks

During the drives one of the defendants complained that between them they had not enough land to sod a lark. An expression which inspired the adjudicating magistrates’ admonition:

It was a mistake to suppose that land was different to any other property. These men complained that they had not enough land to sod a lark, but if they were passing along a road and had not liquor to drown a fly, they were not justified in taking possession of the publichouse on the roadside. If they had not enough pork to make a sausage amongst them, they were not justified in taking a pig, but that was the theory put forward. He was sorry to see a recrudescence of this thing in the Queen’s County.[12]

One expects events in the next few months were to make him a great deal sorrier, but soon, with the forming of republican courts, cattle driving and crime waves wouldn’t be his problem to worry about.  

[1] Michael Rafter, The Quiet County: Towards a History of the Laois Brigade IRA and Revolutionary Activity in the County 1913–1923 (Naas, 2016) p. 32.





[6] Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin, The Dead of the Irish Revolution (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2020) p. 382.  



[9] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 6 March 1920.

[10] Leinster Express, 6 March 1920.

[11] Hilary D. Walsh, Borris-in-Ossory, Co. Laois: An Irish Rural Parish and its People (Kilkenny, Kilkenny Journal, 1969) p. 185; Nationalist and Leinster Times, 12 June 1920.

[12] Leinster Express, 6 March 1920.