Dillon House, County Roscommon
When Luke Dillon moved his family to Ballaghaderreen in 1812, there commenced the longest and most interesting chapter of one family’s contribution to Irish history. In all, three generation of the Dillon family contributed to the moulding of the Ireland of our present times.
John Blake Dillon, son of Luke Dillon, was born in Dillon House on the Market Square on the 5th of May 1814. His great mark of distinction is that, along with Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy, he founded “The Nation” newspaper in 1842. The Nation’s print run of 12,000 copies sold out on its first day of publication – 15th. October 1842. John Blake Dillon contributed an estimated 51 articles to The Nation between that and May 1843, when he withdrew to concentrate on his legal career. Thomas Davis visited Dillon House on a regular basis and attempted to learn Irish in some of the local townlands. As a member of the young Irelander’s, John Blake Dillon earnestly tried to gather a large army to mount an insurrection in 1848, but their efforts failed and Dillon had to flee by ship to America disguised as a priest. However, his support continued in America. John Blake Dillon returned to Ireland in 1855 and was elected as an M.P. for Tipperary in 1865. Death from colera in 1866 put an end to what might otherwise have been an illustrious career.
John Dillon, second son of John Blake Dillon, was born in Dublin in 1851. However he regarded Dillon House on the square in Ballaghaderreen as his “home in the West.” He qualified as a surgeon, but soon turned to politics and became one of Charles Stewart Parnell’s most prominent supporters in the Land League. He played a decisive role in paving the way for Charles Stewart Parnell to become leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He served as M.P. for Tipperary and subsequently for East Mayo. Together with William O’Brien M.P., he championed the cause of “Fair Rent” for Irish people during the Land War. Dillon House in Ballaghaderreen was a regular visiting place for Parnell, his sisters Anna and Fanny, Michael Davitt, and William O’Brien.
Another of the many important guests at Dillon House was English MP Wilfred Scawen Blunt, who came to Ireland to see for himself what the situation was like. He became friends with Michael Davitt, John Dillon and the Bishops who were on the side of the tenants during the Land War, Dr. Duggan and Dr. McCormack. He travelled by train to Ballaghaderreen and on the advice of Michael Davitt called to Mrs. Anne Deane. He wrote in his diary April 8th, 1886 ‘A great day was spent at Ballaghaderreen, which we spent wondering how things would be in the House of Commons, for this is the day of Mr. Gladstone’s speech on the Home Rule Bill. I did not go out but enjoyed the comfort of a well ordered house, writing letters and composing notes with Mrs. Deane. She spoke a good deal of Parnell, who had been once or twice to her house. I have enjoyed my talks with Mrs. Deane more than anything yet, and they have been most instructive.’
By 1905, John Dillon was second in command to John Redmond in the Irish Parliamentary Party. When Redmond died John Dillon became Leader of the Irish Party. After the Party’s poor showing in the 1918 election, John Dillon retired from politics and took over the family business in Ballaghaderreen until his death in 1927.
James Matthew Dillon was born on the 26th. September 1902 in Dublin. He was educated at Mount St., Benedicts in Gorey, University College Galway and at Kings Inn. He was called to the bar in 1931. He studied Business Methods in Selfridges of London and at Marshall Fields in Chicago before returning to manage the family business in Ballaghaderreen. Business, law and farming could not completely fill his life and so he gravitated towards politics, he was elected T.D., for West Donegal in 1932 which constituency he represented as an independent until 1937. His political career started by helping Eamonn de Valera to be elected as President of the Executive Council in 1932. He did so in the interests of contributing to a peaceful and democratic change of power only nine years after the end of the Civil war.
He spent the rest of his political life opposing de Valera with vigour. Between 1938 and 1969 James Dillon was T.D., for Monaghan. Shortly after his election in 1938 he was unanimously elected deputy leader of Fine Gael, under William T. Cosgrave T.D. The outbreak of the Second World War and Fine Gaels acceptance of de Valera’s policy of neutrality brought about Dillons resignation from Fine Gael in 1942.
As an independent T.D., he was appointed Minister for Agriculture in the Interparty Government 1948 – 1951. He rejoined Fine Gael in 1953 and was again appointed Minister for Agriculture from 1954 – 1957. In his time as Minister he started the Land Reclamation Programme and he instituted the Inland Fisheries Trust. With regard to the former, he left his mark physically on the landscape of Ireland and particularly on the West, as is evidenced from the many green and productive farmsteads which were reclaimed as part of the Land Reclamation Programme. The Inland Fisheries Trust in time became the Central Fisheries Board. James Dillon’s aim on these issues was to make both resources, Land and Water, productive for the people of Ireland.
On October 21st 1959, James Dillon became Leader of Fine Gael, succeeding General Richard Mulcahy, he was elected Party President in 1960. His rhetoric in the Dáil was in a class of its own, he passionately believed and frequently reminded all other members of the Dáil that they were the servants of Parliament and of the people. He respected the ballot box as the instrument of democracy. He resigned as Leader on April 21st 1965 and retired to the back benches, at which time Liam Cosgrave took over and lead Fine Gael into a new coalition Government with Labour.
James Dillon died on 10th. February 1986. One of his political opponents once wrote of him “He came into Dáil Eireann to revive the oratory…silenced by the gunfire of young men who took over after 1916, at a time when even a mildly colourful phrase was suspect.”
John Healy the late Irish Times journalist and writer described James Dillon as “the last and only orator in Dáil Eireann in my years on the gallery.”
Charles Haughey, former Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fail paid tribute to him at the time of his death as follows “James Dillon was one of the great parliamentarians of our time.. he was an orator in the very best sense of the word and a master of language and parliamentary procedure.”
Liam T. Cosgrave, Dillon’s successor as Taoiseach said of him “James Dillon was a profound orator with a remarkable capacity to address an audience. He had a great knowledge of American and European history and Politics.”
Dr. Garrett Fitzgerald former Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael described James Dillon as “a figure in Irish Politics larger then life none … will forget his oratory, his presence, his style and his wit. There will not be another such man in the public life of our country – so patriotic, so generous, so big-hearted and through his family so deeply embedded in the history of Ireland.
In the early part of 1997, a detailed proposed was drafted by Ballaghaderreen & Districts Development Limited which outlined the advantages of locating the Commission headquarters in Ballaghaderreen and this was submitted to the Government, Roscommon County Council, the Western Development Commission itself and other interested parties. The purpose was twofold; firstly to secure the necessary funding for the refurbishment of Dillon House, a historic building, situate in a strategic position in the town centre, and secondly, to bring additional employment to the town in the form of the Western Development Commission and its staff and thereby place Ballaghaderreen at the centre of the western development process. A number of other western towns were also in the running for designation as the headquarters of the Commission and so considerable effort was requires to advance the cause of Ballaghaderreen. B & DD lobbied intensively in that regard and the local public representatives both at County Council and Oireachtas level, gave considerable assistance. Eventually, on the 27th of February, 1997, the then Taoiseach, Mr. John Bruton T.D. announced that Dillon House was be the headquarters of the Western Development Commission, the body which was established by the Government to contribute to the economic and social development of the west of Ireland in conjunction with existing Stage agencies and Regional and Local authorities. Mr. Bruton attended personally in Ballaghaderreen where he announced at a Press Conference that the Department of the Taoiseach and the Office of Public Works would jointly fund the refurbishment of Dillon house at an estimated cost of £300,000. He also noted that Roscommon County Council planned to convert a part of the property for use as a Branch Library and also intended to establish a Dillon Museum there. Announcing the refurbishment, the then Taoiseach said “Dillon House will be a flagship development for the town of Ballaghaderreen. Its central position in the market square will provide a new focus for the town and will reflect Ballaghaderreen’s pride in its history and optimism in its future. The location of the headquarters of the Western Development Commission will also put County Roscommon at the centre of the western region and will provide a new perspective and focus point in the region. It is a symbol of the future development of Ballaghaderreen and, more generally of the regeneration of the western region”. He also stated that “this project is an excellent example of the benefits of doing things in a partnership way. On this occasion, it is a partnership between my own Department, the Office of Public Works, Roscommon County Council and community interests – notably Ballaghaderreen & Districts Development Limited”. He went on to state that “strategically based in Ballaghaderreen, the new Western Development Commission will promote the economic and social regeneration of the western region and, by developing working relationships with the existing policies have a positive impact on the region”.
Work progressed on the project leading to the official opening of the Western Development Commission headquarters in the newly refurbished Dillon House in May 1999 by Toaiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern T.D. Dillon House is now the home of an important semi-state body.
Monica Duffy and Company Ltd. and the “MONDUFF” label
Not alone did the Dillon Family contribute to the historical moulding of our nation, but also to the commercial infrastructure of 19th and 20th century Rural Ireland.
Thomas Dillon, second son of Luke and older brother of John Blake Dillon took on the task of providing the family with a business income when he set up a small shop on the main street of Ballaghaderreen next to Dillon House. He built up the business gradually and by the late 1830’s it was thriving. By the end of the 1840’s it had grown to twice its size. Before his death, Thomas handed the shop over to his sister Monica Duffy who was a widow. By the year 1866, the year John Blake Dillon died, she had established Monica Duffy and Company as the biggest employer in Ballaghaderreen. She put her name as a brand image to the business. By the 1880’s the MONDUF brand label was on almost every grocery and household product on the market. In turn, Monica Duff passed the business on to her own daughter Anne Deane, who by this time was herself a widow. Anne was a great business woman and a lady of great character.
The business consisted of the large grocery department, a large drapery department; an ironmongers store; a boot, shoe, and leather warehouse; a spacious yard dealing in guano manure, farm seeds, animal feed stuff, fuel and builders supplies; a bakery; and a thriving farm at Kilcolman on the town’s edge. The firm also sold beers, wines, spirits and tobacco for both wholesale and retail. Later a mineral water manufacturing plant would be set up.
Monica Duff & Co., was also the town’s Post Office. This part of the business brought them into contact with Anthony Trollope, a postal surveyor, whose work included the provision of Ireland’s first pillar boxes. Trollope was also a writer and on many of his visits to the Ballaghaderreen area he was a guest of Monica Duff and Anne Deane, and wrote several of his famous Barchester Novels while at Dillon house. The desk he used was still at Dillon House at the time of James Dillons death in 1986.
Monica Duffy and Company thrived under the stewardship of Mrs. Anne Deane and the success of the company in turn brought great prosperity to the town of Ballaghaderreen. She brought great honour to the town and to the Dillon name in the way she treated her workers and all those who were guests at Dillon House, be they lords, authors, MPs, bishops, or just friends of the family. On her death in 1905, she left the business to John Dillon and his family. Then James Mathew Dillon took over the running of the business after the death of his father in 1927.
The business continued to prosper during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Then with the arrival of foreign owned chain stores and supermarkets in the 1960’s and 1970’s the family owned department stores in Ireland began to shut down one by one. Monica Duff and Company gradually shut down the different departments. The ironmongers went first, then the mineral water plant, next the yard, and so on until finally the drapery, household, grocery and bakery closed in 1985. The land was sold to Roscommon County Council. In February 1986 the firm closed its doors shortly before the passing of James Dillon himself on February 10th.
For info on the town of Ballaghderreen click here