In our latest article we look at one example of life in Westmeath after the end of the Civil War. For a few years during the early 1920s Athlone was known for its annual bazaar and carnival. Held during the summer, the eclectic mix of attractions drew crowds from across the midlands. The carnivals brought a welcome boost for local businesses but their primary function was to raise funds for the construction of a new church to replace the town’s St. Peter’s Church.
A sketch which appeared in the Freeman's Journal newspaper on 1 September 1923
Built during the 1790’s on the site of what is now the Dean Crowe Theatre, St. Peter’s had long passed its heyday by 1920. Cold, small and crumbling, it was described by its then administrator, Archdeacon Francis Keane, as ‘a plain barn-like structure without spire, tower or belfry’. No longer willing to tolerate the building’s deficiencies, Keane launched a bazaar on 25 July 1920 to raise funds for a replacement. For the following week, Athlone was bedecked with bunting and, according to the Offaly Independent, an ‘atmosphere of gaiety’ settled on the town.
The paper reported that the ‘annual holidays granted to the employees at the Athlone Woollen Mills’ coincided with the bazaar and ‘several hundreds of workers were afforded an opportunity of participating in the big events which filled up the week’s programme, in addition to attending the different amusements…’ A typical evening was described by the Westmeath Independent: ‘A visit to the Bazaar grounds particularly towards the close of each evening, when approaching darkness necessitated the switching on of the elaborate lighting system, revealed a wealth of attractions as remarkable for their number and variety as they were totally unprecedented in any function of the kind ever organised locally.’
The 1920 festival was a success but, as recounted in numerous earlier articles, the following months saw much violence in Athlone and its hinterland. Although carnivals were planned in both 1921 and 1922, they were cancelled due to the War of Independence and the outbreak of the Civil War. The festivities resumed in September 1923, less than four months after the end of the latter conflict. By that stage, St. Peter’s had a new Administrator. Keane died in 1921 and was replaced by Canon John Crowe, a native of County Galway who had studied at Summerhill College, Sligo, before attending Maynooth.
Crowe, as once explained to me by historian Patrick Murray, was a very persuasive character and he quickly became a dominant religious and social presence in Athlone. As discussed in a recent article, Crowe convinced the tenor John McCormack, an old schoolmate, to add Athlone to his Irish itinerary in August 1923. Crowe’s persuasiveness had its limits, however, as he was unable to convince McCormack, who was revelling in the success of his recent European tour, to perform during the subsequent month’s carnival.
Despite McCormick’s absence, the 1923 bazaar and carnival, which was centred around the town’s old workhouse, offered visitors a wide range of events and attractions: pony-racing, athletics, Gaelic football and hurling matches, horse-jumping, boxing, boat trips on the Shannon, dancing halls, and numerous stalls and amusements. Accounts of the boxing tournaments give a sense of the various entertainments provided during the carnival: spectators could see professionals and high-ranking amateurs in action alongside bouts in which a pair of dwarves fought what the Westmeath Independent described as ‘three ding-dong rounds’. One of the main attractions was the dancing saloon, ‘most tastefully decorated and brilliantly illuminated with electric light’. It drew large crowds, although the Offaly Independent reported that ‘those who preferred the more lively measure’ chose the Céilí Hall ‘where they ‘had the opportunity of indulging to their hearts’ content in Irish dances and listening to Irish songs’.
The stalls, the Westmeath Independent reported, ‘with their charming blend of colours, their beautiful tempting wares and their brightly costumed attendants contributed not a little in making more effective the delightful scene of animation and gaiety presented each night.’ Those stalls drew large crowds throughout the week. There was a Palmistry Stall, in which ‘Miss Walsh’ claimed to predict the futures of her patrons. Nearby, the Children of Mary Stall offered religious memorabilia and a grotto. The Coosan Tea Stall provided refreshments, although it faced a competitor in the Oriental Tea Stall. Managed by ‘Miss Keane’, who was ‘assisted by a bevy of young ladies attired in the fascinating costumes peculiarly of the east’, the Oriental Stall had ‘a continuous stream of customers’.
Many of the stalls displayed Irish arts and crafts. One example was the ‘Ballinalea Industrial Stall’ which contained crochet and embroidery, ornaments, children’s toys, hand-made boots, point lace and tweeds. That stall was managed by ‘Mrs. McKeon’: presumably a reference to Alice Cooney who had married Seán Mac Eoin in June 1922. She was accompanied by a ghost from the recent past. According to newspaper reports, the stall also displayed ‘a magnificent life-size portrait, artistically framed, of the late General Collins, in the uniform worn by him during the 1916 Rising’. The picture, apparently, bore ‘the autograph signature of the dead general’.
Headlines in the Offaly Independent, 8 September 1923. The annual festival drew large crowds from across the midlands.
It is noticeable that contemporary reports made many references to the financial aspects of the carnival, particularly the success enjoyed by the stalls. Not only had the country gone through the War of Independence and Civil War but it was a period when people had, generally, very limited disposable income. Figures compiled by the new Irish government in 1922, show that households spent, on average, around 87 percent of their income on food, clothing, rent, and fuel for heat and light. The bulk of the remaining 13 percent was spent on ‘sundries’: items such as soap, pipe tobacco, cigarettes, medicine and newspapers. Alcohol was not included in the government figures but likely formed a substantial part of sundry spending. The overall cost of living remained largely the same by September 1923, although with slight variations: clothing prices had declined during the previous year, whereas food prices had increased.
Apart from stalls, carnival rides were provided by Toft’s, a Galway-based company who brought their Joy Wheel and Mountain Slide to Athlone. The amusements provided what the Westmeath Independent described as ‘a succession of amusing and thrilling incidents’. One such incident led to a woman named Catherine Hughes breaking her leg on the Mountain Slide. She would later take, and win, a legal action against Crowe and the organising committee. Yet Hughes’s misfortune did not dampen local enthusiasm for the amusements which were thronged with people throughout the week.
The Westmeath Independent was evidently impressed with the carnival, although its report displayed more than a little hyperbole: ‘It required but a visit to the Bazaar grounds on any night during the week to demonstrate how effective has been the transformation from a plain unbecoming building to a place breathing the atmosphere of infinite contentment and happiness.’ Perhaps the Westmeath Independent’s reporter was easily pleased, although it is clear that the town greatly enjoyed its week of festivities. Certainly, Canon Crowe was satisfied with his fundraising efforts. According to Patrick Murray in his illustrated history of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the carnival made a substantial profit in 1923. Yet it would be over a decade before that new church opened amid much controversy related to its financing and development. Built on ground that once formed part of Custume Barracks, the new church would become a landmark in the region.
Report on the Cost of Living in Ireland - June 1922, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Dublin, 1922; Report on the Cost of Living in Ireland – October 1923, Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Dublin, 1922; (see also ‘Percentage expenditure weights used for the 1922 Consumer Price Index’ on the CSO website); interview with Dr Patrick Murray, November 2015; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see John Burke, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Liam Cox, Moate - County Westmeath: a History of Town and District (Alfa Print Ltd, 1981); Patrick Murray, Church of Saints Peter and Paul: an Illustrated History and Guide (Saints Peter and Paul’s Parish Forum/Pastoral Council, 2007); and Gearoid O’Brien’s A Brief History of the Dean Crowe Theatre.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 04/08/2023