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Leinster Leader 1st April 2010
A fragrant reminder of times past …
Kildare’s neighbouring county to the west, Offaly, is one of the richest of Ireland’s counties in terms of its layers of heritage which bear witness to the story of settlement on this island. And layers is used in the literal sense here in that the layers of peat across the great Bog of Allen have preserved archaeological treasures which reveal a great deal about the early people of the midlands.
Offaly is an unpretentious county, flat in its topography and easy on the eye, its peat covered plains stretch west to the meandering waters of the Shannon. On Offaly’s eastern perimeter the heather-scented landscape traverses county boundaries where the Bog of Allen encompasses large tracts of west Kildare, from Rathangan to Carbury. If there is one blind spot in the image of County Kildare portrayed in publications it is the fact that the subtle beauty of the county’s peatlands is sometimes overlooked. The Kildare share of the Bog of Allen is an important part of the county’s mosaic which tends to get submerged under the published emphasis on horses and racecourses. There is no such blind spot in Offaly where even the County Council’s coat of arms includes a sprig of bog heather.  Now the much layered history of Offaly has been brought to book by Thomas Lee whose publication ‘Offaly – through time and townslands’ outlines the story of ‘the Faithful County’ from the earliest times to the modern era. The tools which the author uses to navigate the complexities of Offaly’s story are the townslands and their names. He treats his readers to a systematic exploration of all of Offaly’s townslands and shows how the placenames are treasure troves of meaning and memory.  In an introduction to the book, John Feehan (who himself has published brilliantly on the landscapes of the midlands) describes the placenames as ‘whispers out of a lost human past we thought had left no words for us to hear.’
The name Offaly originates in recollections of an ancient clan, the Uí Failge, who from their fort at Rathangan were lords of a large tract of mid-Leinster. Indeed a faint echo of the Uí Failge presence in what is now Co. Kildare lies in the names of the Kildare baronies of East Offaly and West Offaly. These baronies located in the neighbourhood of Kildangan, Monasterevin and to the west of Kildare town were mapped as detached portions of Offaly until the Ordnance Survey of 1837 tidied up boundary anomalies and included the detached baronies within Kildare.
The book describes how the process of creating a county now known as Offaly began in 1556 when the English Government claimed the districts occupied by the Irish clans of ‘the Connors, Moores, Dempseys and other rebels’ and brought them under the patronage of the then royal couple, Mary and Philip. More territories were added later in the 16th century and from this shiring process emerged the counties of Queens County and Kings County with their respective county towns of Maryborough and Philipstown. Such English labels were to endure for centuries until after Irish independence in 1922 when the counties were renamed Laois and Offaly while Maryborough and Philipstown were gaelicised as Portlaoise and Daingean. 
The greater part of the book is devoted to a description of each of Offaly’s 1,136 townslands with an elaboration of the name, its meaning, and outstanding historic landmarks of the townsland. The townslands are set out in a table form with footnotes adding in some helpful interpretive information. To take for example the townsland of Edenderry: the original Irish is given as Eadan Doire or ‘Front of the wood’. A footnote informs the reader that the old castle in the townsland, Blundell castle, was owned in 1659 by one George Blundell.
It is interesting to note the frequency of Offaly townslands with ‘Esker’ in their names – Derryesker, Eskermore and Eskerbeg being examples which chime with similar names in Co. Kildare such as Rathasker (fort of the esker) outside Naas. In each case the Esker refers to the ridges of gravel laid down during the Ice age which were to become important route ways across the bogs for early midland settlers.
Offaly’s placenames are described in the introduction to Tom Lee’s book as like a ‘lingering fragrance’ from the past, an apt metaphor given the natural fragrance of the peat land heathers which permeate the Bog of Allen landscape at this time of year.
‘Offaly – through time and townslands’ by Thomas Lee is published by Ottait Publishing, Kootenay, Breffni Lane, Sandycove, Co. Dublin.  Series no: 171.


In his regular feature 'Nothing New Under the Sun' in the Leinster Leader 1st April 2010, Liam Kenny looks at the archaeological treasures which reveal a great deal about the early people of the midlands.....Our thanks to Liam

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