O’Connor Square has been an open space and at times a crowded place over its 300 years in existence. Described as a market place as early as 1713 it was not until 1789 that the market house (now the Rocket restaurant) was built. For over 250 years the square fulfilled the important market function of any provincial town. A place where town met country and where people came to sell their farm produce and livestock. Trading was carried on in the formal setting of the market house for just thirty years. By 1820 that function in the square was modified with the provision of a new Cornmarket (now the Market Square) off Harbour Street and close to the Grand Canal harbour. The meat shambles behind the market house was also moved to Church Street. The market house at ground level was then transformed into a local lending bank while upstairs probably continued to be used as a courtroom until 1835 when the new courthouse was completed at Cormac Street. From about 1823 the market house at first floor level was adapted for Sunday evening services for the Church of Ireland parishioners. At this time St Catherine’s was considered remote at its new location from 1815 at Hop Hill. No doubt people in the 1820s were looking back with nostalgia to the 90 years when the church was in the centre of town at Church Street. Getting to Hop Hill was difficult in winter. The town of Tullamore had no public lighting until 1860 so all was pitch black on the long winter’s evenings with no more than one lamp in O’Connor Square to guide the town’s 6,000 citizens.
From trading place to car park
The market function of the square continued in varying formats until the 1980s and 1990s. By that time there was little of a food or farming flavour save that one stall sold gardening plants. The other stalls were for tools (that of Sean Barry), clothes and bric-a-brac. The organic food suppliers and ‘Taste of Offaly’ did not have a presence here until after 2000. However, by that stage the parking function in the square had replaced the market function. From 1965 that had been mooted by the Gardaí and by the town council. In those years it was reckoned that 100 cars could be parked in the square if it were not marked out. From the 1900s Goodbody’s and later G.N. Walshe had used the public square to display their own farm machinery. For twenty-five years from the 1960s battle was given between those who wanted the travelling traders and those who did not. The town’s rate-paying resident traders were divided. High Street shops wanted the Fair Day continued and the Tanyard people did not. Finally, as noted in earlier articles, parking won out in the newly marked out square of 1991. Then with about sixty spaces parking charges were introduced in 1995 and for the entire town in 2007. The 2016 €3m proposal now follows on from the £130,000 works of 1990-91. In the intervening 25 years trees were planted, grew and were cut back. The large concrete flower box of 1965 (inspired by Frank Egan who later founded Birr Vintage Week) was replaced by seating in the late 1970s and re-vamped in the 1980s. This was a project of the Tullamore Junior Chamber as was the award-winning proposal to open the old bridge to Church Street and Market Square. Nothing was done on this because it appears to have offended library sensibilities, among others. By 2003 the Chamber of Commerce declared that O’Connor Square ‘was only a car park’ and the Chamber said something would have to be done to integrate the proposed library and arts centre with the square. This would have reduced the parking element.
Weighbridge in O’Connor Square rejected by councillors
Through all of this uncertainty the town council has moved slowly, but at the same time with a degree of responsibility. So too did the former owners of the square, Lady Bury and her son Colonel Bury. Permission was granted for the war memorial in 1926 and, as we saw, this led to the taking away of the ornamental fountain and the original gas lamp. The open space in the square was firmly maintained all thought the 19th and 20th century with the trading function and the important Fair Day on the third Friday of each month. As long ago as 1939 the council was aware of its responsibilities to the square when it refused a departmental suggestion that the weighbridge be located in O’Connor Square instead of Market Square. So from market place to parking place to open space should be resolvable in the best interests of the town. How it will be done may need planning as was done in Tullamore as early as 1786 to 1820 when most of the current configuration of the inner core of the town was built. Was it a decision for the landlord, Lord Charleville, without consultation? Probably not. When the decision on the site of Hop Hill for the new church was made in 1806-08 it was principally that of the rector of the time. An earlier plan was to place it off Market Square where the Granary apartments are now located (adapted from the 1820s distillery).
New openings to square and Tanyard
The good thing about the current O’Connor Square proposals is that it can be piece-meal and reversible. The via media may be to retain the road at the Tanyard exit to the square while the council plans to build a new road from the Tanyard off Church Road or High Street and buy replacement parking south of the old post office. Opening up the library exterior from the Tanyard and from TSB to Church Street should help. Then there is more parking needed for the arts centre that can double up in the daytime for business. It is interesting that the disputes of the 1980s about maintaining trading have now changed to maintaining parking, but then so too has the extent of business in Bridge House, Bridge Centre and the Tanyard. The number of housing units in the Tanyard might be close to forty in 2016 whereas it was only one residence forty years ago. Can we manage without parking in the square and with drop-down for elderly people?
So what about the crowds in the Square
Was the square a meeting place for other than the markets and fairs. We can say yes it had its great meetings around the politics of the time from Home Rule and the Three Fs in 1869 to General O’Duffy in the 1930s and welcoming Brian Cowen as the first Offaly-born Taoiseach in 2008. In addition it has held great sporting occasions such as the 1961 All Ireland team, festivals for adults in the 1970s and for children in the 1980s, and sometimes religious meetings as far back as 1860, but more so in the 1990s. There is no great tradition of demonstrations but Tullamore has had a few. One thinks of the labour demonstrations in the 1918-23 period, the tax take protests in the 1980s and more recently the water charge protests.
- Possibly the first public meeting in Charleville/O’Connor Square was in 1833 to thank Lord Tullamore and his father, the aging earl of Charleville, for their exertions in having Tullamore confirmed as the county town. Two years later the new county courthouse was completed at Cormac Street.
- The jail had preceded the building of the courthouse by five years. The laying of the foundation stone in 1826 was the occasion of the first great street party in Tullamore. The route of the victory procession over the owners of Daingean took the people of Tullamore from Harbour Street to Cormac Street, but there was no stopping in O’Connor Square for speeches.
- The Famine years saw the biggest ever public meeting in Tullamore on the occasion of Daniel O’Connell’s ‘monster meeting’ in the town in 1843. This was held in Market Square with the platform close to Characters pub and with a view of the Catholic church. The platform was crowded with priests and the dinner that evening was in a large room in what was by then the closed distillery nearby. The town had several hotels but none big enough for the occasion.
- The Evangelical movement in Tullamore got a boost in 1860 with a big meeting in the ‘Town House’ and ‘nearly the whole Protestant population of Tullamore’ attended.
- Parnell did not visit Tullamore, coming only to Clara at the invitation of P.J. White. His government opponent. Chief Secretary Forster, did visit the town in 1882, but confined his public address to a window of the Charleville Arms/Hayes’s Hotel where his security detail included the parish priest.
- In 1899 about 1,000 people attended a public meeting to hear of the merits of Captain Bernard Daly and William Adams for the Tullamore seat on the new county council. Adams won well despite Daly charging him that what Adams did was for himself and not the ratepayers.
- The 1916-23 period saw a round of meetings with speakers including Countess Markievicz (twice in 1918); the Patrick McCartan by-election campaign in April 1918; Harry Boland and Countess Plunkett to mark the Sinn Féin victory in the December 1918 General Election; big labour meetings in 1920.
- The Free State years saw visits from, De Valera, Cosgrave, and General O’Duffy and the regular use of the square for Easter Rising Commemorations and Armistice Day.
- The year 1961 saw a huge crowd assemble to welcome home the All Ireland finalists. Perhaps it was a turning point too in that the 1960s had arrived and the dreary 1950s was over.
- The first ever sponsored walk in Tullamore finished in O’Connor Square in 1969. Will we be doing more walking now and not necessarily in a gym?
- In 1973 it was the turn of Jack Lynch as Taoiseach to address an election rally in the square. Three years later Jim Guinan was there as the ‘hospital candidate’ for the 1977 General Election in the ‘Save our hospital campaign’.
- The 1974 Sporting Tullamore Festival was the cause of excitement when the first bomb-alert in the square was timed to coincide with the opening of the festival by Athlone-man and minister for justice, Patrick Cooney.
- In May 2008 Brian Cowen was welcomed in Tullamore as the new Taoiseach with festivities in the square and a song or two.
- In November 2014 about 2,000 anti-water charge protesters walked in procession from Ardan Road to O’Connor Square complete with coffins.
Tullamore as the ‘Kilkenny of the midlands’
During her short stay in Tullamore the former CEO of the county council, Colette Byrne, announced in December 2014 that she wanted to see Tullamore as the ‘Kilkenny of the midlands’ and envisaged the upgrading of O’Connor Square and High St as visitor attractions and the development of Durrow monastic site and the Grand Canal Harbour. Fergal MacCabe, the town planner, had made a similar point in an article contributed to this newspaper in November 2013 about the need to take the parking out of O’Connor Square.
We might ask how does Tullamore now rank now in the hierarchy of midlands towns? Will it hold its place as one of the three towns in the recently announced and revised spatial strategy or will it revert to its ‘mere village’ status when Wesley was a regular visitor for forty years from 1748 to 1789? Planning made Tullamore great over the period from 1786 to 1835. Merchants such as Scally, Egan and Williams built great retail houses in the main street in the early 1900s to put shopping at the cutting edge in Ireland. As the adage goes if we fail to plan etc.
This series is now concluded and one hopes it has been of some use in looking at how we arrived at the well-planned town that is Tullamore and that we should seek to retain.