Tullamore from the Famine to 1916: the recollections of Thomas Prittie (1833-1916), by Michael Byrne

Thomas Prittie’s recollections of Tullamore from the Famine to the Easter Rising serve to confirm how much the town had improved both physically and in civility in that narrator’s own time. Thomas Prittie died on 29 April 1916 just at the close of Easter Week and was described by the Tullamore and King’s County Independent as ‘one of the oldest inhabitants of the town’ who helped in ‘our historical sketch of Tullamore published some months ago’. He was aged 83 according to his death certificate, but the reporter put him at ninety.[1] He lived, unmarried, in Henry/O’Carroll Street, Tullamore and, said the local press, left considerable house property. The following weekend of 6 May 1916 he shared the obituary columns locally with Mrs Lavan of Charleville Road, wife of the principal of the boys’ national school and with James Kennedy, a son of William Kennedy, the 1867 Fenian who was before his death in 1910 the leading IRB or ‘Centre’ in Tullamore and the inspiration for 1916 man Peadar Bracken, among others.[2]

The Prittie/Pretty family were in Tullamore from the 1820s and some of them were in the building business as slaters. Thomas Prittie was a slater too and also a plasterer, living in one of the twelve terraced houses built on the east side of Henry Street/O’Carroll Street in the 1830s. It is likely the family had some involvement in the building of these houses and possibly also some in Harbour Street. By the 1850s the family home was in the middle of Henry Street (on the Centra shop side) and this is where Thomas lived in 1911 with his sixty-year old widowed servant, Mary Kenna. We know he was baptised in St Catherine’s Tullamore, in 1833 and he gave his correct age in the census, but the journalist, or whoever wrote the 1915 article, surmised otherwise and put him at ninety years old and thus added to his authority as a keeper of the town’s historical memory.

201a Henry St-3
Henry St/O’Carroll St, Tullamore 

Prittie’s recollections were said to include the Famine at a time when he was, in fact, 12 to 16 years old during its course from 1845 to 1849. If he saw whiskey flowing in the Pentland distillery (now the location of the Granary apartments) he must have been only seven or eight because it closed as a distillery by 1841-42. Rapparee Alley (the Puttaghan/Ballydaly Road), mentioned by Prittie, was near his house although separated by the canal and many of the cabins here disappeared after the 1850s in the aftermath of the Famine. As a boy of ten Prittie could recall the largest public meeting ever held in Tullamore when Daniel O’Connell spoke in 1843 at one of his ‘monster meetings’ held in the Market Square with a dinner held afterwards in the largest room in the town which was in the then empty Pentland distillery, near when young Prittie lived.

Church Street was largely built-up by the late 1830s and in Earl Street (now O’Moore Street) Victoria Terrace opposite Moore Hall was the last major building project in the street and completed in the late 1830s. Of course, Prittie may have been recalling what his family had told him. As builders they would have known of the extensive building works in Tullamore from the 1780s to the 1830s. In fact the terrace in Henry Street where Prittie lived was also one the last building schemes completed in Tullamore until Emmet Terrace was finished in 1903. There were a few schemes such as Jail Lawn, Charleville Parade and a few in O’Moore Street. Prittie must have been pleasantly surprised at the sight of the eighty new council houses built in the town since 1900. To this could be added the twenty-five private houses of the same period. Across the street from his own house was the old distillery that Goodbody’s had adapted as a bonded warehouse for their tobacco business and later sold to Egan’s for a maltings. Prittie was right about the only public light in Tullamore in 1854 being the light of a tallow candle in Charleville/now O’Connor Square. That changed in 1860 with the introduction by the new gas company of forty gas lamps, a figure that was doubled by 1915.

RM 45122 (17) Henry Street-3

Public hangings were still carried on in Tullamore until the late 1860s and thereafter in private with the last hanging that of Mary Daly in 1903. Prittie recalled the public execution of Jubey in 1844. For lesser offences there were the stocks in Charleville/ O’Connor Square up to the 1800s. The prison was opened in 1830 and there was talk of closing it in 1915 at about the time Prittie gave his interview.

Prittie’s near neighbours were the O’Brennan family of 29 Church Street who were prominent in the affray of 20 March 1916. Prittie’s demise on 29 April spared any concerns about the constant police searches of O’Brennans and Mrs Wyer’s in the 1916-21 period. He was also spared the shooting of Sergeant Cronin outside of what is now part of the Centra Shop on 31 October 1920 and the burning of the Foresters Hall by the Black and Tans soon after. The hall was on the corner of Harbour Street and Henry Street.

Housing was bad in all those years from the Famine until the 1900s and industry on the decline save distilling, malting and the tobacco factory. The latter was destroyed in a fire in 1886. A big change in his time was the end of passenger traffic on the canal by the 1850s and the opening of the railway in Tullamore, from Dublin in 1854 and to Galway in 1859. The holding of the street fairs and markets continued until the 1960s with one of the last families to keep cattle in the town being the Heavey’s of Harbour Street with the help of their farmhand Eddie Costello.

The story of Tullamore Prittie told to the Independent reporter in 1915 was as follows:

The Famine

In the years preceding the famine the people of Tullamore and district were, according to an old inhabitant who remembers the period well, and who, though approaching his ninetieth birthday is still hale and hearty, were fairly comfortable. During the last seventy years the town has undergone many improvements, most of which have been effected during the latter years of the nineteenth century, and the beginning of the present century. A place of some importance in Tullamore 70 years ago was Rapparee Alley, on the northern bank of the Grand Canal, and opposite the Whitehall Bridge. This place was densely populated, the population of the town at that period being in or about the same as it is to-day [5,000]. In those days there was plenty of employment, the chief industry in 1838 was carried on by a gentleman named Pentleton [Pentland]. Mr Tom Pretty [sic], of Henry Street, the oldest resident of the town has a distinct recollection of Tullamore 70 years ago. He saw the whiskey being made in Pentleton’s [Pentland’s] distillery. It was very cheap at the time, and was sold for about three-half-pence a naggin. In Mr Pretty’s younger days there were bad houses in Tullamore; they were not much of an improvement on those which had existed at the time of the great fire [1785]. Church Street was a vacant space in 1830, and so was Earl Street, where there was a plantation. The streets were rough and difficult to traverse, as were also the footpaths, which were not at all like what are to be seen at present, in some of the worst parts of the town.

Only one public light in Tullamore

There was no such thing as public lighting; there was one lamp in a central part of the town, the illuminant being the poor light of a tallow candle. In those days, as now, there was a splendid market in Tullamore, there being two market days in the week – Tuesday and Saturday. There were 7 fair-days in the year, namely, 26th January, the 19th March, the 10th May, the 10th July, the 13th September, the 21st October, and there was a big fair or margamore in or about Christmas.

Previous to the famine, the people of the town and district were very industrious. A great many of the townspeople kept cows, and the farmers of the district utilised oxen for the conveyance of hay and corn to the market. The townspeople also used them for drawing turf from the neighbouring bogs. The affairs of the township were managed by the police authorities, the Town Commissioners not having been established until 1860. In the beginning of the last century the town house, having previously undergone the punishment of the stocks, which were erected in Charleville Square. Persons found intoxicated on the streets were placed in the stocks where they were kept until they became sober. They were brought before the local magistrate, a Mr. Wallace, who dealt with them. The police barrack at that time was a building at the rere of the Charleville Estate Office [where Mr Price is now located and opposite Kilroy’s first shop, re-opened in 1916 after a fire in February 1915. Soon to be opened as an arts centre].

The first train to Tullamore was in 1854

It was not until about the year 1853 [1854] the railway reached Tullamore, the stationhouse building at Clonminch, was a considerable distance from the town. The first appearance of the train was on a Sunday, and its arrival was witnessed by a large concourse of the people of the town and district. Tullamore suffered severely during the years of the famine; hundreds of its inhabitants succumbed to the pestilence which followed in its train, and the old graveyard of Kilcruttin was the scene of many a sad spectacle. The effects of the potato failure which was first noticed in ’44 were keenly felt, and in ’45 and ’46 the wave of sickness came. The people who had no food, left their homes in the town to go in search of it, and very little were they able to find. The workhouse, which was completed in 1841, and which like all the other similar institutions, seemed to have been built in anticipation of the famine, was soon filled, and the houses of the poor everywhere in the town were deserted and closed. When cholera broke out the situation was dreadful. The present fever hospital in the workhouse grounds, was filled with patients, while an auxiliary hospital at the place known as the Magazine, once an old military barracks, was improvised. Cholera patients were brought there, where they only lingered an hour or so, after being stricken with the disease. It was not an uncommon thing, according to Mr. Pretty, to see as many as a dozen corpses at several intervals of the day, being carted to Kilcruttin for interment. The dead were buried in a deep trench at the back of boundary wall on the western side of the entrance gate, where a slab marks the resting-place of a well-known Tullamore family named Gunning, some members of which succumbed to the disease. In this trench the coffins were piled on top of each other daily for months. Men were kept busily engaged making coffins and digging trenches to receive the dead.

Distillery becomes a workhouse

The large building in which Messrs. P. and H. Egan carry on the malting business at Henry Street [now the Granary apartments], was used as a kind of auxiliary workhouse, where the unfortunate people, men, women, and children, who were so fortunate as to escape death, slept. The disease was not finally checked until 1850, and from 1846 until that year it was very prevalent during the summer months, rich and poor, without exception, being visited by it.

RM 45788 (12) Henry Street-3

The hanging of Jubey in Tullamore

There were several public executions in Tullamore in the ‘thirties and ‘forties. The scaffold was erected in front of the prison over the entrance door. In 1844 a soldier named George Jubey, belonging to the Fifth Regiment of Fusiliers, which were stationed in Birr, was hanged for the murder of his adjutant, Captain Robertson Mackay, who was shot while on parade by Jubey on the 11th August, 1843. A great crowd witnessed the execution, many of whom had travelled all the way from Birr. Mr. Pretty [sic], the old Tullamore resident to whom reference has been made, was one of those who witnessed the soldier’s tragic ending. Jubey came out on the scaffold with a firm step, and scanned the crowd, which thronged the road and crowded on the railings in front of the jail lawn. The hangman, a peculiar-looking individual, Mr. Pretty says, pinioned the condemned man on the scaffold, then adjusted the noose of the rope, and pulled a white cap down over his head. Then he pulled a lever and the unfortunate man disappeared through the trap-door, and the body was seen to dangle from the rope underneath the platform or gallows. A peculiar incident in connection with the tragic affair was caused by a crowd of chimney-sweeps who had assembled and who set up an unearthly wailing as Jubey was launched into eternity. The same morning a man named Watt Whelehan was executed for the murder of his wife. The last person executed in Tullamore jail was Mrs. Mary Daly, who suffered the extreme penalty of the law for the death of her husband, whom, it was alleged, was the victim of a conspiracy in which she was the principal participator.

 

[1] Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 25 Sept., 2 Oct, 10 Oct., 1915; death certificate for Thomas Prittie.

[2] Midland Tribune, 6 May 1916; Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 6 May 1916.

Advertisements