President Robinson’s Visit to Ennistymon

By Frances Madigan, P.R.O., North Clare Historical Society

President Mary Robinson paid her visit to North Clare on the beautiful sunny afternoon of Monday, 27th January 1992. The President came to Ennistymon Library at the invitation of the North Clare Historical Society, to launch the Ennistymon Union Workhouse 1839-1850 Exhibition. This exhibition brought to fruition a year long research programme undertaken by the Society to study Ennistymon Workhouse in depth. The main sources for research were the hand-written and fading, Minute Books of the Meetings of the Boards of Guardians of Ennistymon Union. The Society was most fortunate in being able to enlist the help of FÁS in a Community Response Project to copy and index those Minute books, covering the period from the establishment of the Union in 1839, to its re-organisation in 1850, when Corofin and Ballyvaughan Unions were created.

Clare County Council were only too willing to co-operate with the Society in allowing the use of Ennistymon Library as a work centre. 16 FÁS trainees were involved in the research programme under the expert guidance of project supervisor, Maureen Comber.

The bright winter sunshine seemed to reflect the mood of the Ennistymon people, who lined the streets and thronged the Square to catch a glimpse of President Robinson, and hopefully, to be fortunate enough to shake her hand. There was indeed a great sense of occasion. Bunting and banners hung gaily outside the library. A large banner hung on the library well read, "Ennistymon Welcomes President Robinson". The red carpet was ready for her to tread on.

The Presidential cavalcade stopped at the Square, where another banner proclaimed : "Here’s to you Mrs. Robinson" in green, white and gold. School children waved their hand-made flags to salute their President.

President Robinson alighted from her car, accompanied by her husband Nicholas, to walk the 100 or so yards down to the library. She looked elegant as always in a wool suit comprising of a red and green tartan jacket and a green skirt. She was most gracious in shaking the outstretched hands of young and old on both sides of the street as she made her way to the library.

On her arrival at the library, she was formally welcomed by Mr. William Callinan, Chairman of the North Clare Historical Society, and by Mr. Michael Hillery, Chairman of Clare County Council.

As she entered the building, the President was applauded loudly by the 200 or so invited guests, which included Minister Brendan Daly, Donal Carey, T.D., Madeleine Taylor-Quinn, T.D., Síle de Valera, T.D., Bishop Darling, Councillors and officials of Clare County Council, representatives from FÁS, and representatives from local cultural organisations. Refreshments for the reception were organised by Mrs. Betty Wall and her pupils from Scoil Mhuire, Ennistymon.

President Robinson was presented with a beautiful bouquet of flowers by Fintan MacMahon, a trainee on the project, on behalf of all the FÁS trainees. William Callinan then introduced her to Maureen Comber, who proceeded to show the President around the exhibition, which included magnificent models of Ennistymon Workhouse and graveyards (executed by Gerard Hartigan, trainee on the project), charts and graphs depicting the impact of the Workhouse on the locality in a period of great upheaval, summaries of the roles of chief officers of the Workhouse and the origins and development of the Poor Law in Ireland.

President Robinson was also shown some of the original Minute Books, and the 800 page, comprehensively indexed publication, comprising the first nine of these, covering the period 1839-1850. This publication makes easily available, information which was formerly virtually inaccessible, and should prove a great boon to research on Workhouses, the Poor Law and the Famine in Ireland.

The President showed a keen interest in the exhibition, questioning Maureen Comber and the FÁS trainees on different aspects of the exhibition. Mr. William Callinan, in his opening speech, officially welcomed President Robinson to Ennistymon and stated that the North Clare Historical Society was deeply honoured by her visit to launch the exhibition. He paid tribute to FÁS and the County Council and indeed to the hard-working trainees. Mr. Michael Hillery welcomed the President on behalf of the County Council, and Mr. Phil Duggan of FÁS congratulated the Historical Society on their initiative.

Mr. Callinan then requested President Robinson to address the gathering. The President stated how delighted she was to be in Ennistymon on such a perfect day, with County Clare showing all its treasures as she drove through it. She had managed to carve out time to visit Lahinch and the Cliffs of Moher and to see the natural beauty of Clare and the natural simplicity of its stone walls.

She was more than pleased to accept the Historical Society's invitation to come to launch the Workhouse Exhibition. The Exhibition depicted a bleak part of our past - a part we are often defensive about or try to forget. She stated that it is important that we know about, draw on and build on our past. She would like to be seen as a voice for the voiceless, those of whom we have only the merest record, those buried in mass graves, our forebears.

The President said she was struck by the sheer scale of Ennistymon Workhouse which stood on a 6 acre site. She was impressed with the capacity to retrieve information by the computerised index. Commenting on the fact that the name "Robinson" did not appear on the index to the main publication, the President said however, that she found a Mary Bourke (which was spelt correctly), an inmate who had died at the young age of 34 in the Workhouse, a minimal record of one Irish woman who had lived in the Famine era.

President Robinson commented again on how important it is to be a voice for the voiceless, with that in mind as an important reason to research and to bring to modern consciousness that bleak period in our history. It should also mean that we have human, social and historical links with developing countries because of the silences and sufferings of our past, particularly with those experiencing famine as they need the historical understanding of a people who have passed through a similar period in their past.

On a lighter note, she was pleased to hear that the resources of the Irish Architectural Archive were drawn upon during the research for the project, as her husband Nicholas was Chairman of the Archive. The President stated that she was honoured to be Patron of the Famine Museum in Strokestown Park House and encouraged communication between the North Clare Historical Society and the Famine Museum.

She paid tribute to the North Clare Historical Society for organising the project, of whom she said, though being a small dedicated group, they had a very good sense of their historical heritage. She also paid tribute to FÁS trainees under the inspirational leadership of Maureen Comber.

Ansin dúirt sí go raibh an-athas uirthi an taispéantas sár-thábhachtach seo a chur ar oscailt go hoifigiúl.

Mr. William Callinan then presented President Robinson with a specially bound copy of the main publication;"Ennistymon Union, Minutes of Board Meetings 1839-1850", and a copy of "A Guide to Ennistymon Union", also published by the Society.

The President then mingled with the guests and was introduced to centenarian Mrs. Maggie Davis, Ennistymon's oldest inhabitant. She was later introduced to the committee of the North Clare Historical Society and obliged with photo-calls with the committee and with the FÁS trainees.

All too soon, her secretary reminded her of the time and whisked her off to fulfil her next engagement in Ballyvaughan. The crowds had waited patiently outside the library to send her on her way and to thank her for making Monday, the 27th January 1992, an historic day for the town of Ennistymon, a day which has happily been preserved on video, thanks to Historical Society member, John Morgan.