Tullamore is still to this day a vibrant and friendly Irish market town which has never lost sight of its commercial heritage. It’s one of the very few Irish towns that still preserves that friendly main street social-commercial atmosphere that I spoke about earlier. Today, The Bridge House is one of the largest town centre hotels in the midlands and it is really great to see the way that the modern owners show their appreciation of the past by maintaining the look and utility of the building facade.
With Egan’s and Tullamore D.E.W.‘s combined influence still so visible in today’s town, surely it is only a matter of time before a whiskey savvy historian develops a Tullamore Town Whiskey Walking Tour. (Stuart McNamara in a recent blog on Egan’s whiskey).
Tullamore has its town guides and an app but, as yet, no whiskey trail. What with over 50,000 visitors to Tullamore DEW Old Bonded Warehouse every year it would be good to assist those visitors to see other parts of Tullamore connected with the story of Tullamore’s whiskey traditions. The commercial heritage of Tullamore is closely linked with the town’s malting, brewing and distilling history.
Much of the early growth of Tullamore was due initially to the barracks built in 1716 and later to the extension of the Grand Canal to the town in 1798, followed by a rail connection to Dublin in 1854 and to Galway in 1859. The growth of the town after the 1850s was due to the expansion in distilling and milling. Tullamore is associated with good food and drink for several centuries past. The town is connected with Tullamore DEW, the famous Irish whiskey of Daniel E. Williams for over 130 years, and a distilling history in excess of 200 years. Now it is home to the Tullamore DEW Visitor Centre situated beside the Grand Canal at Bury Quay in a bonded warehouse erected in 1897. It is also associated with the founding and development of Irish Mist, the world class liqueur, from the late 1940s up to 1985. A third distilling connection is that of Patrick and Henry Egan founded at Bridge Street, Tullamore in 1852 and associated with brewing (from 1866 to the 1920s) and the bottling and blending of Egan’s brands of whiskey for over 100 years. The business commenced at Bridge House under Patrick Egan, senior of Moate, in 1852 was modest and was developed by his sons Patrick and Henry. The firm was incorporated in 1896 with a nominal capital of £80,000 and celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1902. The business went into voluntary liquidation in 1968. In recent years the firm’s whiskey business has been revived.
Patrick Egan and Henry Egan of P.& H. Egan Ltd
Henry Egan, the first chairman of Offaly County Council (1899–1910) was born in 1847 and died on 18 May 1919. His passing was noted in the Offaly History blog on the Egan brothers of 11 May 2019. There are other blogs too on the family’s history. The Egan firm and that of Daniel E. Williams were the main businesses in Tullamore and the midlands for over 100 years.
The old Tullamore DEW distillery, owned by the Williams family, closed in 1954, but the brand was kept alive and a new Tullamore DEW distillery built in 2014 by Grants of Scotland and greatly expanded in 2017.
The firm of P.&H. Egan closed in 1968, but its bars at Bridge House and the Brewery Tap continued in business and are now greatly expanded. Both pubs are hugely aware of their brewing and distilling associations and do much to promote the town’s brewing and distilling heritage, as do many other Tullamore pubs including Hugh Lynch, the Harbour Bar (Michael Waters), William Street, Digan’s, Eugene’s at the Kilbeggan bridge, Spollan’s and the Court Hotel.
When Charles Coote was writing up the first ever County Offaly survey published in 1801 he remarked of Tullamore that ‘A brewery and distillery are worked in this town, and two more breweries are erecting’ He was referring to the distillery of Joseph Flanagan and this was in the vicinity of the old buildings beside the bridge connecting Water Lane/Main Street with the Bridge Centre carpark. A datestone with Flanagan’s name and the year of construction can be seen at the corner of O’Connor Square and High Street. The brewery working in 1801 was off High Street behind the former McGinn’s pub/Copper Pot. The other two breweries mentioned by Coote were on the river at the back of what is now Tullamore Central Library.
By 1830 the High Street brewery of the Deverell family had been moved to the rear of what is now the Brewery Tap while the distillery of Flanagan’s was rebuilt and greatly enlarged by Michael Molloy in 1829. It was a time of expansion for brewing and distilling in the years before the Great Famine (1845–49) and the Temperance Campaign of Fr Theobald Mathew (1837–45). A new distillery had been built in the Market Square in 1822–3 and continued in use until about 1840. Egan brothers acquired the Deverell brewery at High Street about 1866.
Tullamore DEW Old Bonded Warehouse
Tullamore is famous for its whiskey, Tullamore Dew. The Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre recounts the role of distilling in the town’s development and the impact of the Grand Canal transport system. After the visit a courtesy taste of Tullamore Dew is provided. The museum and tourist office are housed in this bonded warehouse once used for the storage of whiskey before the tax needed to be paid on it. Tullamore Dew, founded by Daniel W. Williams in the 1890s, is the second most popular Irish whiskey in the world. In 2010 ownership of the brand passed to Grants as part of a €300m deal. For further information see http://www.tullamoredew.com and http://www.tullamore-dew.org.
Patrick Street is the oldest street in Tullamore. However, there is no evidence of this now, save for the three or four 1750s houses that survived the air balloon fire of 1785 when upwards of 100 thatched houses were destroyed in the first ‘air disaster’. Malt houses survived here until the 1780s fire. The present Garda station (2002) was built on part of the site of the first military barracks in the town of 1716. The two best houses in the street are the D. E. Williams building of the 1750s (now the Academy of Music) and the later Georgian house of c. 1800, now Hanlon’s butchers. The Williams building and some surviving stores to the rear was where Tullamore DEW whiskey was first blended about 1900. Beside this house is the former De Brun’s pub with a 1742 date-stone and opposite is Omiya pub (formerly Bob Smyth’s), once a mill house owned by Michael Molloy who established the Tullamore Distillery in 1829 on the site of the Flanagan distillery. One of the three entrances to the old Tullamore distillery (now largely occupied by the Bridge Shopping Centre) can be seen on the fine gates beside the Tullamore Credit Union building.
Bridge Street/Bridge House and the Brewery Tap
The Tullamore river bridge in Bridge Street neatly divided the old town in half. It was probably as a river crossing the town was established after 1620 and it was 100 years later when the first houses were built in this street. For upwards of 200 years this was the epicentre of all Tullamore trading activity and known from the 1870s as Hayes’ Cross after the name of a hotel proprietor (now the site of Boots Pharmacy). The present-day Bridge House is a fine construction in Tullamore stone dating to 1910. This was the centre of the P.&H. Egan firm in the town from the 1850s until the 1960s. Curiously the Egan empire lasted just three years longer than that of Williams’ at 116 and 113 years respectively.
Near the entrance to Distillery Lane and Bridge Shopping Centre can be seen a 1747 date-stone in the Douglas jewellery shop. The owner in 1770 was complained about for not having a chimney wide enough to admit a boy to clean it. At Distillery Lane is the Bridge Hotel with its Irish and Italian restaurants, sauna, pool and at Bridge Street the Palace nightclub. At the western end of Distillery Lane as one crosses into Water Lane/ Main Street are some remains of the first distillery in Tullamore, including an old ship’s engine used in the distillery. When shopping in the Bridge Centre one is walking on layers of distilling history where malt house men laboured in the Flanagan/Molloy/Daly/ Williams distillery to get the grain and the mash right and still men to keep the stills fired up for the three charges involved in making an Irish pot still whiskey. The first distilling is recorded here from 1782. Beer was made nearby from the 1800s to about 1914 and is recalled today in the formerly Egan-owned Brewery Tap in the Square, now that of Paul and Cathy Anne Bell.
Cormac Street and the town hall of Tullamore Municipal Council
At the junction of O’Moore Street and Cormac Street are a pair of houses with four bays to each street (Adams and Bannon). Beside this large house and in Cormac Street is the birth-place of the architect Benjamin Woodward (he designed the Museum Building, Trinity College). Across from it is the home of the builder of much of Cormac Street, Thomas Acres, and now the offices of the Tullamore Municipal Council. It was here that the Egan family lived from the 1890s to 1970. Patrick Egan (died 1897) was the first to take up residence and after his death his brother Henry Egan (died 1919).
Behind the terrace, but best seen from the town park further up Cormac Street is Acres Folly, erected about 1814 to commemorate the Wellington victories in the Peninsular War. The finest building in Tullamore town is undoubtedly the county courthouse erected in 1835 to a design of J.B. Keane. Both it and the adjoining Gothic-style jail were destroyed in the 1920s during the Civil War. The courthouse was rebuilt, and the façade of the jail retained with its datestone and entrance gates still surviving. One of the last public hangings took place in 1865 and the second-last in Ireland of a woman (Mary Daly) in 1903. It was redeveloped as Salt’s textile mill in the 1930s and was the most important employer in Tullamore up to the 1980s.
The Egan family, especially Henry Egan, made a major contribution to local public life. Henry Egan was associated with the smuggling into Tullamore jail of a suit of ‘Tullamore tweed’ for the Land War MP, William O’Brien, in 1887. O’Brien had been forcibly stripped of his own clothes by the prison regime under the direction of the British government. Egan lost his position as a magistrate for about twenty years for this escapade.
The river walk and mill near the town Park
Passing from High Street to Cormac Street is perhaps the best way to visit the old Tullamore River and the former mill where Daniel E. Williams was born. Across from the courthouse building is Lloyd Town Park which connects with the lower end of Main Street allowing one to turn back at this point and walk directly back to the carpark at the Tullamore DEW Centre. In the town park is the old Kilcruttin graveyard in use from the 1700s to the late 1800s. Some 2,000 Famine victims were buried here, close to where the Burgess mausoleum is located. Nearby are two tombstones of members of the King’s German Legion, a regiment stationed in Tullamore in the period 1803-9 and associated with the 1806 ‘Battle of Tullamore’ – an altercation between members of the Legion and Irish soldiers leading to several deaths including that of Rifleman Koch. Near the old cemetery is a pedestrian access (the roadway between the two schools) to the railway station and sight of Tullamore’s latest public sculpture – a representation of the Phoenix bird, the emblem of Tullamore and recalling the great balloon fire of 1785. Coote writing in 1801 stated that:
Tullamore is a very neat town situate on the river Clodagh, and owes its newly acquired consequence to the present Lord Charleville, from whence his Lordship takes the title of Baron, this town and about 2000 acres adjoining being his estate : about fourteen years ago it was but a very mean village, with scarce any better than thatched cabins, which were almost all destroyed by accidental fire, occasioned by the launching a balloon, and since has risen, Phenix like, from its ashes , to its present pre-eminence : it is certainly the best town in the county, and bids fair to be little inferior to any town in Ireland; the houses are all slated, built mostly two stories in height, and ornamented with window stools and top courses of a fine hewn stone.
Exit the park and walk along the river to get sight of the mill where Daniel E. Williams started work as a boy about 1862 and where he lived in a fine house beside the mill until he built Dew Park on Charleville Road in 1900. Coming close to the junction with the Bridge Centre carpark are old distillery buildings housing a steam engine and the heart of the Tullamore distillery of 1782 and 1829. Distilling ceased in 1954 and the famous Tullamore Dew brand was sold in 1965.
In 2010 the Tullamore DEW business was acquired by the Grant family (owners of Hendrix and Glenfiddich), the visitor centre at Bury Quay completely revamped in 2012 and a new green field distillery opened at Clonminch, Tullamore in 2014.
Market Square, Tullamore
Make your way back to the centre of town and keeping Boots Pharmacy on your left head down Church Street to Henry/O’Carroll Street to see the former distillery opposite Centra (John Leavy). This is the distillery built by Pentlands in 1822–23 and operated by the Manly family until the 1830s when it closed down during the Temperance Campaign of Fr Mathew. It was a temporary Famine hospital and from 1890 was owned by P.&H. Egan and operated as a maltings until 1980.
Now proceed through the square taking in the sculpture recalling Tullamore’s whiskey traditions near the Harbour Bar. Move on to Columcille Street where you can lunch at William Street and stop off at Digan’s and Eugene Kelly’s bar.
Walk along the canal to the Tullamore DEW bonded warehouse for the distillery bar and exhibitions. Both the Williams and Egan firms operated trade barges on the canal. Later you can call to the Offaly History Centre for books on the area and view their holdings of old photographs of Tullamore and Offaly on display. The Society has lately built an archive to include original material on Offaly’s distilling history over 250 years.
Clara visitors centre: email, clarabognaturereserve.ie
Clonmacnoise: email, visitoffaly.ie/placestogo/clonmacnoise
For books on Offaly call to Offaly History Centre, Midland Books or Robbins Ltd – all in Tullamore town or see Offaly History on Facebook/Twitter and http://www.offalyhistoryblog.
Getting to Tullamore and travelling about:
Trains run at frequent intervals from early morning see irishrail.ie; buses see kearns.ie and buseireann.ie. By train is about 70 minutes max and by car about 75 minutes from Dublin with a similar time to Galway. For walking in the Slieve Bloom mountains and villages with an experienced guide see slievebloom.ie and offalytourism.ie for contact details.