Chapel Lane, Tullamore, County Offaly. A distinguishing 1800s feature of urban living in the provincial towns throughout Ireland were the lanes. The houses along these lanes were generally of poor quality, all of them thatched with mud and daub walls. They faced the narrow lane in terraces and in many instances housing upwards of 140 people along a length no greater than three hundred feet. The midlands town of Tullamore was no different, there was: Tea Lane, Water Lane, Chapel Lane, Meath Lane, Distillery Lane, Gas House Lane, Ballalley Lane, Market Lane, Brides Lane and so on.1
Fig 1. Chapel Lane, today Chapel Street, Tullamore. Roche’s house number 2, with five windows and arched doorcase before the gateway.
At the beginning of the 1900s some housing improvement had occurred and by 1911 there remained few houses with thatched roofs. However, these densely populated houses along these lanes were ripe for the major killer of the time: tuberculosis. The spread of this disease was rampant, yet little was known as to both its cause and its spread. In fact, much pain, suffering and death continued for families living in these conditions until the provision of the towns first public social housing (Pensioners Row, today’s O’Molloy Street) around the mid-1930s. The first reported medicinal cure was in 1949. Living in the lanes of Ireland was brought to the fore by Irish American author Frank McCourt, in his 1996 memoir: Angela’s Ashes’.2
Fig 2. Pensioners Row, later in the 1930s rebuilt and renamed O’Molloy Street. Courtesy Offaly History.
Chapel Lane, today’s Chapel Street was typical of the lanes inhabited by the townspeople around Tullamore. The 1901 census recorded Chapel Lane having 35 dwellings, accommodating 32 families and one hundred and forty-eight people.3 Most were labourers employed locally. The Heffernans were the carpenters, the Linneys the blacksmiths, the Prendergasts were shoemakers, the Martins the distillery blenders, the Pikes the postmen, the Davis’ were the harbourmen, the Duggans were the church sacristans and the Cronlys, the Longs and the Roches were the heralded boatmen of the Grand Canal.
Life as a boatman on the Grand Canal was not an easy one. When a commission to transport cargo was obtained, it was ‘all hands-on deck’ twenty- four hours per day, manually loading, shipping to Dublin or Limerick, unloading, loading and returning to Tullamore harbour. ‘Tullamore man, Jack Roche of Clontarf Road was one of its first bargemen. Fifty tons of cargo would be loaded over the weekend at the Tullamore harbour for departure Monday morning. Arriving into Dublin early Wednesday morning, the barge was loaded and turned around Wednesday evening for return, arriving into Tullamore late Friday afternoon.’4 Living conditions on board were cramped and uncomfortable.
The King’s County coroner and county registrar Dr George A. Moorhead recorded the births, marriages and deaths of the Roches. Since the early 1890s he was spelling their surname Roache, until in 1911 it appears James Roche snr settled on the spelling Roche.5 The surname was also spelled the same by the unrelated cattle dealing Roche family of Clara.
The Roche and Long family lived together on Chapel Street. John Long (b.1839 d.15 Aug 1916) in the 1901 census is recorded as a widower (his wife was Teresa Todd whose father Samuel was a blacksmith at Ballycommon) retired boatman and lock keeper, originally from Phillipstown (Daingean). His daughter Mary (17) married Dublin born, James Roche (23) (b. circa 10 Jan 1876) on 12 May 1895. James like his father Thomas (b. Dublin county 1842, d. 19 Jan 1912) before him was a boatowner. There were eleven occupants of their four-roomed house in 1911. They lived at the southern end of Chapel Street opposite the Church of the Assumption. From what we know five generations of Roches worked the Grand Canal. James and Mary Roche had twelve children, six of them tragically succumbed to tuberculosis while living at Chapel Street between the years 1902 and 1940. Teresa Bridget (b. 16 Oct 1896, went to the USA), Margaret called Maggie (b. 1 Oct 1898 d. 12 June 1902, TB), John Joseph called Jack (b. 23 Feb 1901), Mary called Molly (b. 10 May 1903, went to the USA returned in 1952), Bridget (b. 14 Sept 1905, d. 17 April 1927, TB), Annie (b. 4 Nov 1907, went to England), Thomas (b. 1 Aug 1909), Alice (b. 3 Feb 1911, d. 23 Apr 1930, TB), James (b. 3 June 1913), Bernard (b. 28 Oct 1915, d. 24 Jan 1934, TB), Angela (b. 28 June 1918, d. 11March 1940, TB), Joan (b. 1921, d. 19 July 1934, TB).6
Jack Roche (d. 19 August 1980) a fourth-generation Grand Canal boatman married Bridget Russell (d. 27 May 1987) from Rathcobican, Rhode, County Offaly on 25 Nov 1936. They too lived at Chapel Street with widow Mary Roche. In 1952 they moved to live at Clontarf Road (known as Tinkers Row up to the early 1900s). They had seven children. Their eldest Seamus (Jim) was the last Roche to work the Grand Canal, he worked the barges with his father Jack in the 1950s.
__________________________________________________________________________________________Footnote: Agatha (Aggie) Roche married well known Tullamore bread baker Oliver McGlinchey.
Fig 3. ‘Maid of Erin’, Grand Canal 1928. Left to right: Jim Roche, Tom Roche, Bernard Roche, lock keepers’ son, James Roche barge owner, Jack Roche, lock keeper. Courtesy Sean Roche.
Fig 4. Sean Roche, second from left and Marie Roche Fig 5. Marie and her younger
sister Nuala Roche, outside the Church on Chapel Street, Tullamore c.1957, courtesy Roche family.
The Roches of Chapel Street and Clontarf Road were Seamus (1937 went to the USA), Marie Donoghue (1942), Sean (1945 went to the USA), Bernard (1948 d. 6 Sept 2008), Tomas (1949), Nuala Howlett (1951 went to the USA, later settled in Canada), Patsy (1953 went to the UK).
From the 1960s, the author recalls his nanny: ‘I have fond memories of Mrs Roche, my ‘Roachie’, who was the kindest, most hardworking person I have ever known. I remember her house on Clontarf Road, exciting for me as an only child was the noisy hustle and bustle and the comings and goings of all the Roches through that front and back room. Eating the dinner of potatoes, bacon and cabbage, in shifts, at the table up against the front window. Sitting chatting to your retired dad, bargeman Jack, who always seemed to sit in his chair with his sockless feet left of, and next to the open fire, puffing on his beloved pipe, and spitting into the smouldering sour smelling turf. Regaling tales of loading the canal barges down the harbour with young Ned Davis, readying the 42B for Dublin. In summer, kicking the ball with Patsy up against the pebble dash wall, and Jack doing his head in as the wall fell apart. At other times Missus Clooney next door chasing us out from her front garden, as we stared at her son heading off dressed in white with a thing under his arm, what we later found out was a tennis racket. Tough times too, I recall with sadness, Nuala who emigrated to Boston and then Canada, seemed so far away. With Roachie, visiting Bernard, who with his young family was starting out and living in a small, terraced house down Chapel Street. Tomas too, with his set of carpenter tools, upstairs constantly fixing the staircase railings.’
Footnote: The local firm P. & H. Egan Limited were one of the first private firms to build social housing in Tullamore. They built a terraced row of five houses with red face brick dressing on Convent View that exist today. The row of terraced houses on Chapel Street, seen in the background in Fig 4 are believed to have also been built by the Egan firm. The eight of them were put up for sale by owner and director Kevin Egan in April 1920.
1 Ordnance Survey Ireland, Historic Map 25 inch 1888-1913. Available at: http://map.geohive.ie/mapviewer.html (Accessed: 25 January 2021)
2 McCourt, F. (1996) ‘Angela’s Ashes’, Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angela%27s_Ashes (Accessed: 25 January 2021)
3 ‘Census of Ireland 1901’, The National Archives of Ireland, [online]. Available at: http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/ (Accessed: 15 January 2021)
4 Egan, M. G. (2020) ‘The Egans of Moate and Tullamore: Business and Politics’, Esker Press.
5 Census of Ireland 1911’, The National Archives of Ireland, [online]. Available at: http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/ (Accessed: 14 January 2021)
6Irish Genealogy, [online]. Available at: https://civilrecords.irishgenealogy.ie/churchrecords/civil-perform-search.jsp?
(Accessed 10 December 2020)