O’Mara Online Exhibition

Welcome to the O’Mara Online Exhibition

The O’Mara Papers at UL relate to the business and personal records of Stephen O’Mara Junior (1884-1959). The O’Maras were a prominent Limerick family, and ran the famous O’Mara’s Bacon Company. Stephen O’Mara’s personal records cover his political career, including his three terms as Mayor of Limerick from 1921 to 1923, and his role as a founding director of The Irish Press. The collection also includes extensive correspondence between O’Mara and his sister-in-law, Limerick author, Kate O’Brien.

The O'Maras of Strand House

The O’Mara family originally came from Toomevara, County Tipperary, where James O’Meara was born in 1817. Having worked for some years in the woollen mills in Clonmel, he moved to Limerick, where he got a job as a clerk in Matterson’s Bacon Factory. In 1839, he founded his own business, naming it O’Mara’s Bacon Company. He is said to have dropped the ‘e’ from his surname as he felt that O’Meara was too long for commercial purposes.

Influential in local politics, James acted as town councillor for Limerick Corporation at least from 1888 to 1898. A devoted nationalist, he was one of the early supporters of Isaac Butt’s Home Rule movement. He married Honora Fowley and had thirteen children. One of them was Joseph O’Mara (1864–1927), who reaped international fame as an operatic tenor.

James O’Mara’s third son, Stephen O’Mara (1844–1926), was director of O’Mara’s Bacon Company from 1919 until 1923. Also a strong supporter of the Home Rule movement, he served on the committee which secured Butt’s election for Limerick city in 1871. O’Mara was elected MP for Upper Ossory in Kilkenny South for the Irish Parliamentary Party in February 1886, and took the Parnellite side following the split of the Irish National League from the Irish Parliamentary Party in December 1890. He later became radicalised under the influence of his sons James (1873–1948) and Stephen Junior (1884–1959) and supported Sinn Féin in the 1918 General Election. Stephen O’Mara was also a prominent figure in local politics as town councillor for Limerick Corporation in the 1880s and as Mayor of Limerick in 1885.

Strand House

Strand House, the home of the O’Mara family, was built between 1760 and 1770 by George Vandeleur. Originally named Stonetown House, its later occupants included Edmund Gabbett (1816–1865), who was elected Mayor of Limerick in 1858. Stephen O’Mara Senior purchased the house in around 1909, by which time it had become known as Strand House.

A regular visitor to Strand House was Éamon de Valera. It was here on 6 December 1921 that he received the news from the Irish delegation led by Michael Collins of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. De Valera maintained a strong friendship with Stephen O’Mara Junior, who shared his political views, but fell out with his brother James O’Mara who supported the Treaty.

In 1943, Stephen O’Mara Junior transferred Strand House and 3½ acres to the joint ownership of Limerick Corporation and Limerick County Council for use as the city and county offices and amenities. He built a new dwelling, also called Strand House, on an adjoining site. The old Strand House was demolished in 1959 to make way for a hotel.

In 1958, the new Strand House was also demolished, and Stephen and his wife moved to Ivy Bank House on Ennis Road. Patrick Sheahan was again invited to prepare drawings for alterations and extensions. However, Stephen died before these had been fully executed, and the task of finishing the building fell upon his widow.

O'Mara's Bacon Company

O’Mara’s Bacon Company was founded in 1839 by James O’Mara in his house on Mungret Street. As his business grew, he acquired dedicated premises for the purpose near the top of Roche’s Street.

When James O’Mara retired from business his son John (Jack) O’Mara (1856–1919) took over its management. In the late 1880s, Jack was invited to Russia by Tsar Alexander III to provide instruction on bacon curing, and stayed in St Petersburg to supervise the construction of a bacon factory. In 1891, his father bought the rights of the Russian Bacon Company and the family imported bacon from Russia into London until 1903.

When Jack O’Mara died in 1919, his younger brother Stephen O’Mara (1844–1926) became managing director and retained that role until 1923. His great business acumen established O’Mara’s Bacon Factory as one of the most prominent commercial enterprises in Limerick city. He also purchased a bacon factory in Palmerston, Ontario, Canada, which was managed by his son Joseph (Joe) O’Mara (1878–1950) until the business was wound up in the 1940s.

Stephen O’Mara Junior learnt the skills of the bacon curing trade in Canada under the tutelage of his brother Joe. He became managing director of O’Mara Limited in 1923 and established bacon factories in Claremorris, County Mayo and Letterkenny, County Donegal in the 1930s. The three companies were amalgamated in 1938 and formed into the Bacon Company of Ireland. O’Mara remained the company’s chairman until his death in 1959.

In 1987, the Bacon Company of Ireland merged with Hanley of Rooskey and Benesford UK (Castlebar) to form Irish Country Bacon. The old O’Mara factory in Limerick was closed down and later demolished to make way for a multi-storey car park.

Stephen O'Mara Mayor of Limerick

Stephen O’Mara Junior was elected Mayor of Limerick on 22 March 1921 in dramatic circumstances following the murder of the sitting Mayor George Clancy and his predecessor Michael O’Callaghan by the Black and Tans in the early hours of 7 March 1921. Their deaths were part of a protracted campaign of reprisals between the Irish Volunteers and the Crown Forces which dominated Irish politics in the early 1920s.

O’Mara’s three Mayoral terms coincided with one of the most turbulent periods of Irish history, bridging as they did the end of the War of Independence and the start of the Civil War. A crisis point in Limerick was reached in March 1922, when a stand-off developed between the Free State (pro-Treaty) and Irregular (anti-Treaty) forces while the British Army was withdrawing from its bases in the city. O’Mara in his role as Mayor offered to act as mediator between the hostile sides and diffused the situation by successfully negotiating a resolution. He was not as lucky in early July 1922, when violence erupted and Free State Forces opened fire against the anti-Treaty troops. All O’Mara could do was to advise people residing near military barracks to evacuate their homes.

The difficult situation was further exacerbated by the fact that the withdrawal of the Royal Irish Constabulary had left the city without a police force. To overcome the problem, O’Mara created a municipal police force by organizing a troop of dependable men to patrol the city.

O’Mara resigned as Mayor during his third term on 4 October 1923, after the Civil War ended in defeat for the anti-Treaty side.

 

Stephen O'Mara and the fight for the Free State

Throughout his life, Stephen O’Mara played a prominent role in both local and national affairs. Unlike his father and elder brother James, Stephen was opposed to the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He was prominently identified with the Sinn Féin movement after the Easter Rising. He was one of Éamon de Valera’s strongest supporters and a member of his Fianna Fáil Party since its formation in 1926.

In 1921, O’Mara travelled to the United States with Harry Boland to oversee one of the country’s biggest fundraising drives to finance the first Dáil, and was made trustee of the funds. The funds-drive was terminated following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Considering himself as the exchequer to the Irish 32-county Free State, O’Mara refused to hand over the collected funds to the pro-Treaty administration, which resulted in his imprisonment in December 1922. During his imprisonment, his family were not permitted to visit him. However, his wife Anne travelled to Dublin at regular intervals to stand in a street corner visible from Stephen’s prison cell so that he could look at her and comfort himself with the knowledge that all was well at home.

Stephen O’Mara was released on parole in April 1923, and freed from his prison sentence in July 1923.

The Foundation of the Irish Free Press

The bulk of the money collected during the US Bond Drive in 1921 remained untouched in various banks in New York for a number of years. In 1927, following legal action between the Irish Government and Éamon de Valera, a court in New York ordered that money outstanding to bond holders must be paid back. Having anticipated such a ruling, de Valera’s legal team invited bond holders to sign over their bonds to de Valera, for which they were paid 58 cents to the dollar. The monies accumulated were used to launch the national daily newspaper the Irish Press.

The purpose of the newspaper was to act as a counter–balance to the pro-Treaty Irish Independent and to the Irish Times with its predominantly Protestant readership. Loyal to its nationalistic outlook, the Irish Press covered topics previously untouched by newspapers such as GAA games and the Irish language. The paper’s initial aim was to achieve a circulation of 100,000 issues, which it attained almost at once. The first issue of the paper was published on 5 September 1931 and in a solemn ceremony Pádraig Pearse’s mother Margaret Pearse was invited to press the button to start the printing presses. The paper’s first editor was Frank Gallagher (1893–1962).

Stephen O’Mara was one of the co–founders of the Irish Press and served on the paper’s Board of Directors until his resignation in 1935.

Kate O'Brien

In 1918, Stephen O’Mara married Anne ‘Nance’ O’Brien, whose sister Kathleen ‘Kate’ O’Brien (1897–1974) was to become one of Ireland’s best known writers. Kate began her career as a journalist and playwright and attained considerable success with her first play, ‘Distinguished Villa’ (1926). Encouraged by this, she became a full-time writer. Her debut novel ‘Without My Cloak’ achieved critical acclaim and was awarded the James Tait Prize and the Hawthornden Prize in 1931. One of the most influential authors of her time, Kate O’Brien challenged cultural restrictions and patriarchal mores, which led to the banning in Ireland of two her novels, ‘Mary Lavelle’ (1936) and ‘The Land of Spices’ (1941).

Stephen O’Mara was keenly interested in and supportive of his sister-in-law’s writing career. Many a sparkling letter was exchanged between the pair, Stephen critiquing Kate’s novels and Kate vigorously defending them.

ESSEM

In his spare time, Stephen O’Mara Junior was a field sports enthusiast. He had a passion for fishing, especially fly fishing. Not a holiday went by that Stephen was not found trying his luck at catching trout in some corner of the country, or even abroad.

Stephen’s extensive knowledge and experience found an outlet in ‘The Fishing Gazette’, to which he contributed humorous articles on fishing under the pseudonym ‘Essem’. He also contributed articles on shooting to ‘Game and Gun’ and the ‘Angler’s Monthly’.

In 1928, Stephen had his ‘Fishing Gazette’ articles published in a small bound volume entitled ‘The Passionate Angler’, a copy of which he gave to his wife, a fellow fishing enthusiast, as a tenth anniversary wedding present.

The couple’s son Peter shared the family’s love of the sport, catching his first fish when not yet six years old.

Stephen O'Mara's later life and legacy

In 1932, Stephen O’Mara was sent to America on a mission involving the various consular and diplomatic offices maintained in the country by the Irish Government. Two years later, he was appointed a member of the Commission on Vocational Organisation, on which he served until 1943. In September 1959, he was created a member of the Council of State following de Valera’s inauguration as President of Ireland. He died less than two months after this appointment, on 11 November 1959. His funeral at Mount St Lawrence Cemetery was attended by President Éamon de Valera, Taoiseach Seán Lemass, Tánaiste Seán McEntee, members of the Government and Oireachtas, and representatives of the country’s professional and business life.

Stephen O’Mara’s legacy cannot be underestimated. A man of courage and deep patriotism, he played a seminal role in the Irish freedom movement. He gave full public support to the Sinn Féin resistance after 1916, cutting an exceptional figure as a young director of a famous and prominent industry among the young leaders, few of whom held any important status. He accepted the role of mayor at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so, and stuck to his patriotic principles even when it meant facing a prison sentence.

As one of the leading industrial figures in Munster, Stephen O’Mara was keenly aware how large companies like his could strengthen the national revival. His bacon company was one of the mainstays of the Munster economy, and he demonstrated his wider sympathies by establishing new bacon curing factories in Claremorris and Donegal to provide employment in remote parts of the country in need of a financial lift. Limerick can be duly proud of its remarkable son.

The O’Mara Papers comprise predominantly business and personal records created and generated by Stephen O’Mara Junior (1884-1959) in the course of his life. The business records cover mainly correspondence in O’Mara’s capacity as director of O’Mara’s Bacon Company and later as director of the Bacon Company of Ireland and do not encompass all operational aspects of the business. However the material provides an interesting view of the bacon industry in early 20th-century Ireland and its gradual decline from the 1930s onwards.

The personal records cover O’Mara’s political career, including his three terms as Mayor of Limerick from 1921 to 1923; the second Bond Drive to the United States, his subsequent imprisonment in 1922-1923 and the ensuing court case of 1927; and his later political involvement, particularly his role as a founding director of The Irish Press.

Other material of note includes extensive correspondence and architectural drawings relating to Strand House, New Strand House and Ivy Bank House, homes of the O’Mara family.

One of the most significant aspects of the collection is material relating to the O’Brien family of Boru House, particularly the private correspondence of the novelist Kate O’Brien with her sisters, brother-in-law and nephew. The letters illuminate O’Brien’s method of writing, the creative process behind each of her novels and the ups and downs of her career as author.

The material also comprises an extensive photographic record of the O’Mara and O’Brien families particularly in the 1920s and 1930s.

The collection was generously donated to the University of Limerick by Stephen O’Mara’s granddaughter Clare Hannigan née O’Mara.

For more information and access to the collection, contact:
Special Collections and Archives, Glucksman Library, University of Limerick
Tel: (061) 202690
Email: specoll@ul.ie
Twitter: @UL_SpecColl

Design: Array Graphics
Printing: Alphaset