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Saturday, 8 June 2013

AUSTIN COOPER (1825-1874) AND THE ROSCOMMON RAILWAY



Here’s another of my many ancestors called Austin Cooper. There are at least twenty-five even in my incomplete Tipperary Cooper notes, all ultimately named after the almost mythical Austin, the settler who brought the Cooper family to Ireland. I’ve written about some of them here – sea captains, tax collectors, artists, surgeons, murder victims. This one led an altogether less dramatic life, as the railway manager at Roscommon.

Roscommon Railway Station

It was then a very modern thing to be, of course. Austin was the eldest of three brothers, all of whom chose careers which simply weren’t available to their grandfather, Austin’s namesake the Irish antiquarian, or to the long line of landed Coopers before him. William was a chemical engineer in London, and John the youngest a telegraph engineer to an Ottoman Sultan. They had rather been forced into the modern world by the circumstances of their father.

Samuel Cooper had financial troubles: some of his Irish tenants (on the family estate at Kinsaley  north of Dublin) were withholding rent, and on top of that he was partly responsible for the debts of his late father. These troubles necessitated his living between 1832 and 1857 beyond the reach of the British legal system – on the Isle of Man at some stage, but chiefly in Brussels. (Brussels seems to have been popular with those on the run – the Rev Allan Macpherson, for example, brought down the Gotch Bank in Kettering from there at exactly the same time that Sam Cooper was an ex-pat resident.)

Matters were cleared up in the courts in 1851 although Sam didn’t return from Brussels until 1857 when his third wife died there. The railway came to Roscommon on 13th February 1860 as part of the Athlone-Westport branchline. I don’t know when Austin got the job as manager there, or even precisely what the position involved – was “railway manager” the same thing as “station master”?

Roscommon Railway Station – the stationmaster’s house is the two-storey building on the left

Was he required to live on-site, or did he live at Kinsaley? Roscommon was then a small village and even now as the county town of County Roscommon it has less than 2000 inhabitants. The station’s main business was not in passenger traffic but as a railhead for the transport of cattle and other agricultural produce. If Austin lived in the stationmaster’s house at Roscommon, there won’t have been much to do there except raise a family. But of his large brood born between 1849 and 1871, only one was definitely born in Roscommon, in 1868.

Austin died relatively young in 1874. He was only 49, and his life at a quiet country railway station can now be measured only in wives (2) and children (15). At least two of his offspring emigrated to New York, and I feel there must be more to tell. Quiet little Roscommon Railway Station only hit the news in 1881, many years after Austin’s death.

Roscommon Railway Station, 130 years after it last hit the news

In 1880 the Land League lead by Charles Stewart Parnell had found considerable success in parliamentary elections. It was waging a land war – boycotting profiteering landlords, withholding rent, and intimidating new tenants of land from which the previous tenants had been evicted for such actions. In October 1881 the British government decided to act, arresting many of the Land League MPs including James O’Kelly, Roscommon’s representative.

Late one night, the graphic illustrator and engraver Aloysius O’Kelly (not I think a  relation of the MP) was asleep in his carriage as it arrived in Roscommon Station. “I was suddenly awakened by the screaming and yelling of the crowd on the platform [and] the frequent cry of “Hurray for Parnell!” I was astonished to find the platform lined with soldiers, two deep, behind whom was the screaming mob. They were shouting, gesticulating and waving hats to several men who had been arrested and who were being put in the train to be sent to Galway Prison.

“It appeared that these men were the leading Land Leaguers of the town of Roscommon, who had been arrested during the day. There had been reason to suppose that unless the assistance of the military had been obtained there would be an attempt to rescue the prisoners on their way to the railway station. The soldiers therefore marched into the town that night just in time to conduct the prisoners to the station. No one was aware that the soldiers were coming, so the people were taken by surprise, and their little plan for a rescue was a failure.”

“The State of Ireland: Arrested under the Coercion Act – A Sketch at Roscommon Railway Station” by Aloysius O’Kelly

There must have been hundreds of such scenes around Ireland that month, and this one would have been much less well remembered had Aloysius’s impression of it not been published in the Illustrated London News on 3rd December 1881. What would Austin have thought?


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