Tullamore is the best town in the county and ‘Little inferior to any town in Ireland’

 

Some of the options around the €3m Enhancement Plans for Tullamore town envisage O’Connor Square as a tree-lined open space with perhaps a band stand and from time to time one assumes the holding of local markets including a Christmas market. The market function goes back over 300 years and survived intact for the first 100 years up to the 1820s. By that time the town had expanded and a new market function, near the commercial harbour (an inland port) was developed in a rectangular area perhaps twice the size of O’Connor Square. Even so the main square continued to be used for the sale of light goods on the big trading days or Fair Days. That custom pertained until the 1980s when it came under fire from a pincer movement of some traders and the town council. After almost ten years of debating and litigation over casual trading the bugbear of insurance appears to have provided the killer blow to trading on the third Friday in O’Connor Square. The Christmas market stalls appeared for the first time in the square in 2012. It was clear from experience in Kilbride Street in the 1990s and the Market Square more recently than only a central place will work. O’Connor Square has retained this acceptance as a central place, but with parking for over sixty cars and the passageway to Tanyard Lane how will everyone be accommodated. This is the €3m question.

 

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A view of O’Connor Square west about 1960 – 1, 2, 3 High Street – no demand for parking then

A certain Charles Coote was able to write of Tullamore in 1801 that it ‘is certainly the best town in the county, and bids fair to be little inferior to any town in Ireland. So from a ‘mean village’ in 1785, Tullamore had progressed rapidly in the fifteen years before Coote arrived to do his survey. This was the period of greatest planning in Tullamore and the town was advanced by the undeniably generous policy of the town’s landlord, Charles William Bury, combined with the speculative building skills of one of his chief tenants in Tullamore, Thomas Acres. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and a great diarist was on hand to see the progress in the town over the forty years of his visiting Tullamore in the eighteenth century.

John Wesley preaches to rich and poor in the new ‘court house’ in O’Connor Square

Wesley was no stranger to Ireland and visited the country on twenty-one separate occasions between 1747 and 1789. Wesley was first in Tullamore in 1748 and on many occasions thereafter up to his last visit to the town in 1789. In 1767 he visited the Van Nost memorial to the first earl of Charleville (died 1764) then in the old church in Church Street. Twenty years later, in 1787, he was able to comment first hand on the effects of the air balloon fire. He stopped off in O’Connor Square and preached in the parlour of Mathew Moore’s (now Gray Cunniffe insurance) and he wrote:

‘Wednesday 25 April 1787, ‘I once more visited my old friends at Tullamore. Have all the balloons in Europe done so much good as can counterbalance the harm which one of them did here a year or two age? It took fire in its flight and dropped it down on one and another of the thatched houses so fast that it was not possible to quench it, till most of the town was burnt down.’

In 1789 he was again in O’Connor Square and this time he was in the building now serving as Eddie Rocket’s restaurant. He was not stopping for coffee but to preach in ‘the beautiful new court-house, at Tullamore.  Deep attention sat on the rich as well as the poor’. The new market house also served as a court house on the upper floor.

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The printing office (n. 3) on O’Connor Square, 1830-1900 (the former Mathew Moore’s house of 1743 and the oldest documented house in Tullamore)

O’Connor Square as a market place

That important public building, the Tullamore Market House marked the completion of the building phase in O’Connor Square. Behind the market house was the Shamble market until it was removed to the new Cornmarket, now Market Square, about 1820. Also transferred were the market functions of the market house and probably the market day activities on two days each week. The market house was from 1820s, as to the ground floor, used as the Loan Fund Bank while the upper floor served as a chapel of ease for the Church of Ireland. These uses largely continued well into the twentieth century until the market house was sold by Charleville Estate about 1960. Soon after it became the Morris Capri Café and later Devaney’s before acquisition by the Northern Bank in 1978-9. Public meetings were sometimes held there as in 1833 to thank the earl of Charleville and his son Lord Tullamore, for their efforts in securing county town status for Tullamore. Another big meeting was that of the golf club in 1927 to debate the question of a liquor licence for the club with some anti-alcohol resignations following. In the 1950s and 1960s the market house was used for occasional exhibitions under the aegis of Mrs Mary ‘Bonny’ Kennedy. By the late 1960s it was a meeting place for the students of the town with chips and beans at 1s. 9d and a juke box. Now it is back to that after thirty years as a banking hall.

Another visitor to the town before 1815 wrote of the uses of the town square before the new Cornmarket was opened after 1820. Barrack/Patrick Street was then the principal trading street in the town centre and it continued to be but perhaps peaking in the 1980s when Dunnes and Quinnsworth supermarkets were located in the same street. The visitor of about 1812 noted that:

‘The main street extends from the bridge to the foot barrack [now site of Garda station], about the space of one furlong: here, and in the market [now O’Connor] square, are the principal shops: both of these streets are roomy and well calculated for trade – The square, serves not only to accommodate the people who bring their corn and merchandize to market, but it furnishes the military with a commodious parading place.  There are few inland towns, in the province of Leinster, better supplied with provisions, than Tullamore – it has two markets in the week, and several fairs in the year, and these are in general well supplied with the products of the country.’

As noted the markets were moved in about 1820, but the Fair Day was another matter and by the time the day of the month of the twelve Fair Days was settled after the 1860s the fair was held throughout the town and for townspeople was a mucky business. By the 1890s some residents of the town houses were clamouring to have the fairs moved to the Cornmarket but merchants and traders wanted the fair to stay in the main streets because it was good for business. The same argument was being made in the 1980s by those traders supporting casual trading in O’Connor Square. But on that occasion grants from the Department of Local Government changed the minds of the unhappy councillors and the fair day role of the town square ceased by about 1991. Of course by then it was a hurdy gurdy fair and not one for farm animals. That function had moved to the livestock marts in Tullamore from the late 1950s. The banning of the live animal fairs in the streets came into effect in 1966.

  1. Pyke’s shop in O’Connor Sq about 1897. From the 1970s Barry Keegan’s
  2. Barry Keegan at his grocery shop in O’Connor Square in the 1980s.

Change of use in O’Connor Square over time

By 2016 the square itself had few residential properties save perhaps a flat on one of the upper floors of some of the larger houses. The changeover to commercial began in the 1860s with the construction of the Hibernian Bank at the corner with Bridge Street. About five years later (1871-2) the adjoining house (no. 11) was rebuilt, in the brick fashionable at the time, for T.P. & R. Goodbody, who already had extensive premises across the road at 1 High Street both no 11 and 12 Bridge Street are now part of Bank of Ireland). In 1909 the new post office was completed on the site of a 1740s house and in 1936 the former Pim/Wilson/Tarleton house (no. 7) was demolished and the new Tullamore Vocational School opened the following year. In the late 1970s the Bank of Ireland acquired the Goodbody Warehouse (Kelly’s Sunshine Café, no 11) and retained only the façade. In late 1986 the Longworth/Mooney guest house was demolished to provide a site for the Cork Trustee Bank. The former Treacy butchers at no 2 High Street was demolished and no 1 a few years earlier, both as part of the Bridge Centre. The trend towards ‘restoration’ in Tullamore began with the Bank of Ireland building and was continued in 1979-81 with the improvements to the market house (no. 10) for the Northern Bank. Change of use to commercial came in the 1970s to the Kelly family home for Farrell & Partners, Solicitors (no. 10). The adjoining premises (no. 9) was used by Bowmaker and is now a medical practice for Dr John Fahey. The 1980s saw the sale of Keeley’s house (no. 5) and change of use to commercial. The back yard of this house had been used as a furniture store for many years. There was also change of use to Miss Colton’s (no. 3) in 1985 with the insertion of a new shopfront, but now facing west. The building had been used as a Printing Office for Willis and others from about 1830 up the 1900s when it reverted to residential. The Printing Office shopfront of Richard Willis (no. 3) was almost certainly the oldest in the square with a design of c. 1830 surviving. Photographs also survive of the original shopfront of 1900s facing south. The improvement trend of the northern side with the two banks was followed on the southern side with house numbers 3, 5 and 6. The latter was for Hibernian Insurance and was tastefully restored as to the exterior. The same could not be said for houses 1 and 2 (Ginnelly, Corcoran and Keegan) which were altered much earlier, but especially in the 1970s. No. 1 O’Connor Square had a shopfront before 1900 and likely no. 2 also. The treatment of the Tullamore Central Library (the former vocational School) is now thoroughly modern with only the roofline respecting, to an extent, the original building. Shop fronts have been avoided in numbers 5, 6 (now Bake), 8 and 9.

Demolition Rate in the square

Demolition rate of the original 1740s to 1800s houses in the square 30% or 6 houses,: 1, 2 High Street, 4, 7, 8, 11 in the square. Not a great record but 4 (the post office and 11 the brick building were rebuilt respectful of scale and massing in 1871 and 1909. It could have been worse but the big loss was the big house on the site of Tullamore Central Library.

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