Ciarán Reilly, Maynooth University Arts and Humanities Institute
In his recent blog post Hugh Murphy, Head of Collections, posited ‘what is a special collection?’ (See here: https://mulibrarytreasures.wordpress.com/2021/06/01/digital-not-dusty-the-role-of-digitised-primary-sources-in-our-special-collections/, claiming that it was next to impossible to answer the question definitively. Of course, if you are a student or researcher of nineteenth and twentieth century Irish history one could argue that the Maynooth University Special Collections holds a number of ‘special collections’. The Belmont Mills archive is one such ‘special collection’; indeed, it is a veritable treasure trove.
From the outset it will be of interest to readers that other records relating to the Perry family and their milling operations exist, including a significant collection at Offaly Archives (see https://www.offalyarchives.com/uploads/r/offaly-county-library/1/4/d/14df7cdc9869eb9d2855ade3b0499e629e2751446835e7b1de0cf4ece94c4e02/P68_Descriptive_Catalogue.pdf ).
While a mill had operated at the site from as early as the 1760s, it was not until the late 1850s, when Henry Robert Perry purchased Belmont Mill from Captain John Collins, that the Perrys commenced business there. Situated south of the village of Belmont, and on the right bank of the River Brosna, Belmont was ideally suited for the transport of goods on the Grand Canal and on the Clara-Banagher Railway, which opened in 1884. Henry Perry’s brother, Thomas, acquired the ownership of the mill in the 1870s, modernising it in the process with the introduction of innovations including ‘roller mills’. However, throughout the course of its history a number of fires, most notably in 1879, 1909 and in the early 1920s threatened ruin for the family. When Thomas Perry died in 1900, his son Ernest who had been educated with a view to taking over the business, became the new proprietor and continued to upgrade the facilities, and expanded their export interests. The mill then passed to his brother Wilfrid in 1924, and in turn to his son Philip (died 1967) and his wife. Their son David Perry took over the mill but, following a fire in 1982, milling operations ceased. The mill was purchased by the Dolans in 1997. The papers in Maynooth Special Collections are largely divided into two strands; personal papers and business records.
The personal papers of the Perry family at Belmont provide an important insight into the social world of King’s County (now Offaly) and their interactions which centred mainly on the upper classes and the gentry. For this reason, social historians and those interested in the country house will find the papers informative, particularly in relation to their sporting and other leisure pursuits. The development of sport in the midlands and provincial towns is a burgeoning research topic, and the papers provide evidence of this. From tennis tournaments at the height of the Land War, to golf, ‘association football’, fishing and hockey, the Perrys were active in a host of sporting activities. In 1900 Ernest writes that ‘Wilfrid and I going to play hockey at Shannon Grove’, while on another occasion he remarked that ‘some sportsmen in Banagher are trying to get up a hockey club but it is only a suggestion as yet. I hope it will succeed’. Tennis was predominantly played at the private homes of what Sir Charles Coote described as the ‘minor gentry’ of Offaly. In 1905 one tournament held at ‘Sherrards’ was attended by the Burdetts, Sherrards, L’Estranges; Seymours; Moonys , Droughts, Hodges; Trenchs; Bouchers; Goodwins; Kearns’, and Walkers. Other visitors included the Drevars, of whom Emily remarked in 1908 that she was looking forward to visiting Belmont again to play tennis ‘much as I used to enjoy though ignorant of the rules’. The Perrys were also avid golfers taking to the course at Moystown and Tullamore, while also undertaking trips to Greenore and Malahide in the early years of the twentieth century. Fishing holidays were usually undertaken in the west of Ireland near Ballinrobe in County Mayo. Their social world also revolved around visiting neighbouring families where musical evenings were enjoyed. In September 1899, for example, Wilfrid informed Ernest that he had ‘rode over to Lissanode yesterday to a musical afternoon’ and that ‘we rode on from Lissanode to Inchmore’, remarking that the ‘Inchmore people were very full of Colonel Cox’.
A feature of the archive are the letters written by Ernest Perry in the early 1880s while at boarding school at Chesterfield, Parstonstown (Birr). Young Ernest was not happy about his time at Chesterfield, informing his mother in 1881 that they were being ‘unkind and cold hearted’ for not coming to see him. In another letter he concludes: ‘if you want to prove your love to me’ you must come and visit. His time at Chesterfield was far from happy, prompting him to the pen the following lines in advance of the summer holidays:
‘This time 14 weeks where shall we be,
out of the gates of misery,
no more cabbage full of slugs,
no more tea out of dusty mugs’
By 1884 Ernest was enrolled in boarding school in England from where he enquired whether there was ‘any particular branch of chemistry for milling’ that he should learn.
The archive also contains other fascinating insights into the Perry family and their relations, including those in South Africa, and combined with other papers in Maynooth Special Collections, these provide glimpses of life around the turn of the twentieth century and the Second Anglo Boer War. When Thomas Perry died in 1900 his wife Harriet undertook a number of trips to the Cape Colony to see her daughter May, who married Walter Edmonds, and her children. Farming over 6,000 acres at a place called Komgha, the Edmonds had 200 breeding cattle, 1,800 sheep and 600 sows. Letters to Harriet while in South Africa often contain the best insights into life in Offaly at this time as she was kept up to speed with what was happening back home!