The Harbour of my Dreams – Tullamore’s very grand canal dock by Fergal MacCabe

Aerial View Canal Harbour 2002

All over the world, as maritime trade moves downstream and heavy goods are transported by motorway, redundant docks and harbours have become prime targets for urban redevelopment. In my work as a town planning consultant, I visited renewal schemes from Buenos Aires to Barcelona and from Boston to Bilbao. Some have been very successful – others less so. Two common problems with many schemes is that they are either remote from the centre of the city with consequent costs and difficulties in integrating them seamlessly into the urban fabric or else they have to be developed as stand-alone districts; which can tend to have a rather soulless character- particularly if the dominant use is commercial offices.

With a few notable exceptions (Liverpool and Galway certainly, but even these are on the edge rather than within the centre of the city) the opportunity to integrate a large waterbody into the very heart of an urban area is rare, if not unique. That is why the now mooted redevelopment of Tullamore’s canal harbour is of such significance and offers such extraordinary opportunities.

Tullamore Habour 1950s
The Old Harbour
When I was growing up in Tullamore in the 1950s, commercial traffic on the Grand Canal was at its height as barges brought Guinness to Limerick and turf to Dublin. Recreational boating was rare but increasing and the arrival of a visiting cruiser was still an event. Though it was a busy place, my recollection of the harbour is that it was relatively open and accessible and was so public that some of us kids made rafts and sailed or swam around it.

Sometime in the 1960s, the harbour became the central depot for the maintenance and repair of the waterways network in the Midlands. Surrounded on all sides by high walls and rendered virtually invisible, it became an enclosed commercial property and public access or activity was discouraged. Over the years the memory of it as an attractive and vibrant part of the town gradually died.

Whithall Bridge July 1994

A New Quarter for the Town
Gladly, change is at last at hand. The redevelopment and reintegration of the harbour into the heart and life of the town has become a priority project for the bodies that matter. Identified by the recently adopted Eastern and Midlands Regional Strategy as a key driver in the renewal of the centre of Tullamore, it will be eligible for renewal funding from the Regeneration and Development Fund. Offaly County Council and the owners of the harbour, Waterways Ireland are combining their skills and powers to deliver the project.

Convent View, spring

Though it may have to await the next tranche of funding in 2027, it is now possible for the people of Tullamore to begin to imagine the enjoyment of a development of hopefully world class quality. Like any major but worthwhile project, there will inevitably be setbacks and disappointments, but by making it a designated objective in the regional and local plans, the right initial steps have been taken and it is now only a matter of time before things begin to happen. What are the likely next steps?

Over the years I worked on several waterside regeneration projects-Dublin and Limerick Docks, Dun Laoghaire and Greystones Harbours- and though the ingredients were similar in all cases, the outcomes were not. In each case however, five essential questions had to be answered and these can be applied to Tullamore also:

Round Lock, 26th lock
Who is going to deliver the project?
Brownfield regeneration projects on publicly owned land tend to take a long time to accomplish and a continuity of administration is essential. Very large schemes such as Dublin Docklands, initially required a stand-alone authority with its own staff and planning powers. That model has now been superseded in Dublin and Dun Laoghaire by the setting up of an independent technical and administrative section within the local authority itself. That seems a sensible model and a Tullamore Harbour Development Board composed of members of the Municipal Council, Waterways Ireland and local interests drawn from the areas of business, tourism and heritage could provide guidance and oversight. The project might be accorded Special Development Zone status which would give it fast track planning powers.

Tullamore Habour 3
So What will be its extent?
An essential first step is the assemblage of a unified site without restrictions so that a comprehensive redevelopment can be accomplished. The key component is of course the land in the ownership of Waterways Ireland which comprises most of the harbour and the spur from Bury Bridge. Offaly County Council own the property on the Store Street frontage and there are several other private landowners who will need to be brought aboard as active partners. There may be an argument for including some of the adjoining streets into the package in order to create a unified design character.

Who is going to pay for it?
The first step in major infrastructural projects like this is always the preparation of a soundly based economic study which quantifies the scale of future development and likely infrastructural costs – particularly those of site clearance, preparation and possibly decontamination. The second step is the identification of the available development opportunities which reflect local and international economic conditions.

Some schemes have had a speculative basis (‘build it and they will come’), while others respond more realistically to actual local economic demand. While banking and high tech might be the driver in Dublin, the bio sciences in Limerick and maritime tourism in Dun Laoghaire, the predominant use tends to be higher density residential – particularly apartments. At this moment, I find it hard to predict what Tullamore’s unique offer might be.

Harbour MacCabe
Finally, the potential funding sources, whether public or private need to be identified and quantified. This may require selling off individual sites to developers to raise cash, but as a regionally important project, Government subvention will be a significant contributor also.

What will it look like?
I haven’t a clue, because it should be designed by the best available designer which means that ultimately it will be her or his vision. Galway Docks is probably a good example in terms of scale and character as to the final outcome, but Tullamore should aim higher. One way or the other, the production, approval,marketing and delivery of a high quality Master Plan in which all design issues are resolved, is the key to success or failure.

There are certain off-site opportunities such as the incorporation of the nearby Church of the Assumption into the design and the making of fine new frontages on Store Street and Harbour Street which should be recognised. National policy, which encourages the location of higher buildings overlooking water bodies, would be a consideration also.

What is in it for us?
Large infrastructural projects like this gobble up money in their early and middle stages. However, if the proper groundwork has been laid, then towards the end of the process, they can not only repay the initial public investment but turn a profit and create longer term assets, whether in enhanced land values (both on and off site), rents or cultural goods. In respect of cultural facilities, many successful dockland renewal schemes (Bilbao, Rio de Janeiro, Hamburg) have used early stage buildings of outstanding architectural quality to create an exciting image and to enhance the civic life of the area generally.

In Tullamore, this could be a new County or Waterways Museum or an enlarged Library and exhibition space. It could be an open air swimming area or a landscaped park or plaza.It might be a new Whiskey Visitor Centre.

Footbridge 1
The Future
Missing out on the most recent tranche of Urban Renewal funding now gives space to begin to get all the ducks in a row on this project which has the potential to create an entirely new and dynamic quarter for Tullamore. It will be exciting to watch its evolution in the years ahead.

Fergal MacCabe July 2019