Royal visit to Clara helped promote tourism in Offaly

JJ Gibbons

Reporter:

JJ Gibbons

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Clara railway station in the 1890s

Tourism in Offaly is nothing new.  The Duke and Duchess of York (the future George V and Queen Mary) helped to promote Offaly as a tourist destination when they visited in 1897.  The royal couple even went through my grandaunt’s garden on River Street in Clara on 1 September, 1897, albeit for a few seconds, while travelling on board the royal train; the track literally went over the boundary of what was to become Dan and Eileen Quinn’s shop, house and garden, just beside the railway bridge in the town.

A large crowd gathered in Clara on that Wednesday afternoon and the station and surrounding houses were decorated with harps and some had union jacks.  The future King and Queen boarded a steamer to travel from Killaloe to Banagher and then went by royal train to Clara, Mullingar and on to Enniskillen to visit the Duke of Abercorn in Tyrone.  When they arrived in Banagher they were received by Lord Rosse and the local rector’s daughter, a Miss Sherrard, presented the Duchess with a posy.

Then the Duke and Duchess boarded the Royal train which was built by the Great Northern Railway Company, and used for the first time during the Irish visit.  It consisted of six vehicles, including a drawing room saloon, dining saloon, first-class carriage, composite coach, and two vans.  The drawing room saloon was constructed on the Pullman system and electrically lighted throughout.  The interior was fitted with fixed seats upholstered in moquette velvet and there were revolving armchairs in gold velvet and the walls of the carriage was panelled in Hungarian oak and walnut.

Then was an element of Lannigan’s Ball as various officials stepped in and out during the train journey.  The train ran from Banagher to Clara over the Great Southern Company’s line, and was in the charge of their officials for that distance.  Then it was taken in charge by the officials of the Midland Company from Clara to Cavan, and from Cavan to Newtownstewart was controlled by officials of the Great Northern Company. 

As the royal train pulled into the Clara station the upper echelons of society were represented on the platform by amongst others, A. A. Fuller from Woodfield and a series of related Goodbody families including J P Goodbody; J C Goodbody; Robert Goodbody; Richard Goodbody, and Lewis Goodbody.  Abraham A. Fuller was probably the only one on the platform at ease; he was a cousin of the 3rd  Duke of Wellington and his grandfather was the first Duchess of Wellington’s third cousin, a Pakenham having married a Fuller in the 18th  century.

J. Perry Goodbody from Inchmore in Clara had been appointed Deputy Lieutenant of the county in 1897 and his daughter presented the future Queen Mary with a small posy of flowers.  Despite the best attempts of the Royal Irish Constabulary to keep Clara folk away from the train, a swarm of townspeople broke through and surrounded the carriages to cheer on the royal couple.  The Duchess of York, came to the window several times and bowed to the people as they roared, ‘God save the Queen’.  This sort of cheering in various locations throughout the country helped pave the way for Queen Victoria’s final, reconciliatory visit to Ireland in 1900, shortly before her death.

Earlier that morning royal servants who did not accompany the Duke and Duchess on the boat trip to Banagher travelled from Limerick Junction to Portarlington and on to Clara and waited around to board the royal train in Clara, once it arrived from Banagher. 

It is perhaps possible to see a certain irony in the fact that it was during the years of growing nationalist fervour that Clara had a visit from the future King George V and Queen Mary. 

In Clara the couple were met by royal fans (nothing new there) but there was also a group of republicans who did not cheer.  Meanwhile, a group of Protestants and their families were given pride of place and this was where my great great grandfather, William J Meehan, stood with his family alongside James and Isabella Stewart of Bridge Street and Francis and Maryanne Poff of Avonmore in Clara; Francis Poff and William J Meehan were both descended from Palatines. 

William’s children were used to the venue as they usually played with the stationmaster’s sons, Bobby and Charlie McIlwee and they were joined for the royal visit by Ernest Frith, whose brother, William Frith, worked as a railway porter at the station. 

William J. Meehan had a happy enough childhood growing up in Cormore House near Doon, although one of his brother’s, Reginald Hamilton Meehan, died aged 5 in Ballycumber.  William’s mother, Catherine Boston, was a daughter of a sergeant of police, William Boston, and his wife, Mary Dolmage; the latter was a great granddaughter of Johannes Adam Dolmetsch who fled the Rhineland Palatinate and settled in Limerick in 1709 and whose lineage can be traced back a Holy Roman Emperor, a King of Italy and for good measure the Dukes of Württemberg.  Catherine disowned her son when he went to work for the Goodbodys and his father, Joseph Meehan, an RIC pensioner, didn’t get a look in; William may as well have joined the circus.  Her wealthy Dolmage cousins looked down on the Perrys of Limerick who in turn had close marriage connections with the Goodbody family.  She relocated to Ontario in 1890 -where many Palatines had settled - after her husband died and oversaw the strict religious upbringing of her new born grandson, Reynold Dolmage Hamilton Bray.  One Canadian relative quipped that Catherine died of snobbery in 1918, aged 94. 

Meanwhile, the Poff family of Clara made sure that William was treated the same as other protestants when he married a Catholic, Mary Ford in 1884, at St Brigid’s Church of Ireland.  The ceremony was performed by Rev Frederick W. Macnamara, the first Rector of Clara following Disestablishment and for his part, William agreed to raise all of his children in the protestant faith; this was before the Ne Temere decree of 1907 and Monsignor Gaffney, the parish priest of Clara was not best pleased with Mrs Meehan.  The family had a peripatetic lifestyle and lived in Clonshanny; then in Erry Cottage and many other places around the town depending on the whim of William’s employers who warned him several times that his wife was having meetings with the local priest; each warning resulted in smaller living conditions for the Meehans.

As the royal train pulled out of Clara Station and headed over the railway bridges of the town lunch was served.  It built up a speed of 40 mph as it headed towards Streamstown and onto Mullingar, where it was met by local dignitaries including Lord Greville and a large crowd from Westmeath before it sped off towards Enniskillen.

Later in the afternoon, despite the drizzle, a strawberry tea was held at Clara House to celebrate the visit and the various Goodbody families were joined by local Protestants including the Meehans.

A few years later, the Duke of York became Prince of Wales on the death of his grandmother, Queen Victoria; then on the death of his father, Edward VII, he became George V.  In a move that would have appealed to the priests in Clara, the new king had ‘The Protestant Declaration’ removed from his first parliamentary speech and in his coronation oath, George had the anti-Catholic clause annulled.  He truly believed the Irish liked him and did not understand, as one historian put it, the circumlocutions of the Celtic mind, which can both like and dislike simultaneously.  He thought the Irish authorities would be delighted when he offered to open Dail Eireann.  The offer was rejected.

Many years later William Meehan learned that Mgr Gaffney had exerted pressure on his wife from the beginning of their marriage and that she agreed to a proposal to have some of their younger children secretly baptised by him following the murder of her eldest daughter, Mary Kate, in 1891.  The baptisms took place without William’s knowledge and by the time he found out, the canny monsignor who was installed as the catholic bishop of Meath in 1899 was long dead.  But in any event the older girls –including this writer’s great grandmother – converted to Catholicism upon marriage.  

Meanwhile, the railway porter, William Frith, asked Perry Goodbody to recommend him for the Dublin Metropolitan Police and as mentioned here last year, he was one of the first to die during the 1916 Rising.