It’s six months now since William Grant announced the closing of the old Bonded Warehouse Visitor Centre at Bury Quay, Tullamore. The company that makes the world-famous and second largest selling Irish whiskey, Tullamore DEW is going to concentrate its energies on a new visitor centre at the 2014-17 purpose-built Tullamore DEW distillery at Clonminch and understandably so.
The idea of a visitor centre at Bury Quay was conceived in the early1990s as a way of attracting visitors to Tullamore town. Tullamore had been designated an industrial heritage town in 1990 and EC tourism funds were available. The idea that a new distillery would open in Tullamore was not on the radar. Thanks to the work of Irish Mist (Bill Jaffray), Cantrell & Cochrane (owners of the DEW brand from 1993 to 2010), Tullamore Town Council and Offaly History the idea came to fruition in the year 2000 and the visitor centre was opened. C & C had put in about £500,000 plus the building (the late Frank McGovern and Tony O’Brien being the captains here), Bord Failte £300,000 and the council the balance with the total costs at £1.2m. This included a liquor licence for £90,000. Two County Managers and a Town Clerk played great developmental roles to ensure it was successfully completed as did the staff and franchisees subsequently.
The centre was based on three themes: the Grand Canal story, Tullamore town story, and the Irish Mist/ Tullamore DEW story. Things went well. The council took a keen interest and was a guarantor for losses, but none arose so far as I know. All the partners on the no fees board took a great interest and the centre went well even with traffic rumbling outside the door. A number of people took the restaurant franchise and the place acquired a good reputation for food.
Following on the purchase of the Tullamore DEW brand (and for a while the Irish Mist brand) by William Grant the centre was closed for a major refurbishment, the rat run on the quay was also closed and in 2012 the centre reopened to a great welcome. The old themes and most of the associated museum items and exhibits were dropped and a more high-quality themed bar was developed with the emphasis on food and drink. The centre was a warm taste-filled exhibit rather than a museum of whiskey. Fast forward to September 2020 and the shock announcement of its closing. For Offaly History it was a huge disappointment. We had great and always kind near neighbours who were proud of their flagship project. Every Tullamore publican was and is proud to be associated with our historic legacy built on the smartness of our Gaelic ancestors, the O Molloys and opened as a distillery in the year 1829 when Catholics were allowed into the House of Commons. Something which the same O Molloys had worked for. The closing of the Bond was a death in our history family. Offaly History had been talking of opening on to Bury Quay with a book barrow and awnings and looking forward to more engagement with visitors and sales (of course). At one time we were dubbed the cultural quarter with a new arts centre coming (2013), the Comhaltas Centre, Tullamore DEW and Offaly History with a bridge and ‘board walk’ to link all.
Great work was done in that nine years from 2012 but now after a €4 million spend on upgrading the building and the towpath it is back to the drawing board for the centre. It must be said immediately that it was money well spent and helped to bring the distillery to Tullamore with its c.€75 million spend and 80 jobs.
What can we do with the Old Bond created by Daniel E. Williams in 1897 and who will be 100 years dead this year? What would he have done? A few readers of this article in draft have helped with suggestions:
- Williams would have been generous as William Grant are today. What matters to that successful entrepreneur is to find a suitable use for the building that will promote Tullamore.
- A sustainable enterprise in the Old Bond may still be a restaurant, bar and gift shop allied to attractions in that building in the form of the ‘Tullamore Story’ and from time to time contemporary exhibitions.
- Would there be room for a Grand Canal Museum at a time when canalways (as much as greenways in Tullamore) are the focus. The Bond was built beside the canal because it used the canal barges to get product in and out. Tullamore was the lead town on the Grand Canal for its 160 years of trade. The resolution of the Bond can be cast with the plans for the harbour. There is synergy there.
- Could we link the Bond with Patrick Street and shopping when the old Williams/Quinnsworth buildings and yard are redeveloped?
- Could part of it be used as a hub? So much talk of it now. Perhaps Transition Fund money could be found to get this idea working.
- What about display and storage on upper floors of the material culture of Offaly – the things that were made here and that we are not saving and displaying. The Little Museum of Dublin is a great success because it is innovative and not stuffy. Many is the good display we had of real things in the old pre-2010 Old Bond.
- OR we can do nothing and pass up an opportunity. It is watershed time for Tullamore. A new Arts Centre is coming on stream at significant costs. It will need voluntary effort to stay open. It will be the same with the Old Bond. It will not be about profit, but it must be sustainable. Our collective effort can add real value and improve our community. We cannot expect William Grant or Offaly County Council to do things for us, but they will help.
- For now we need time to develop ideas, to see how the harbour plan and the canalways will work out and how the Old Bond can integrate into this and the new enhancements planned for Tullamore which have and will cost a great deal of money.
- The Bond must also be seen as part of the bigger picture for Tullamore. ‘There have been lots of ideas bandied about some good some not so good. Like most county towns Tullamore is rapidly falling behind but some midland towns are breaking the mould (Athlone , Portlaoise & Kilkenny ) and will thrive at the cost to other midland towns. So what will lift Tullamore again? One comment was …. “not any one thing but the sum of many”. Take our tourism potential: Charleville Castle, Charleville Estate, Durrow Abbey, Grand Canal Greenway, Grand Canal Harbour (West), TDEW, Irish Mist, Egan Whiskey, Kilbeggan Whiskey (our own whiskey trail), history of Bord na Mona, our historic monastic sites plus all the other fantastic sites/ attractions outside the town but still within the county which other towns outside the county seem to promote more than we do! So is the Old Bond one of these “sums of many”?
- ‘With the development of the town greenway imminent and plans a foot for the harbour getting the redevelopment of the Bond right is critically important. An application should be made to Offaly Local Development Company for research funding to develop a scoping /business plan. If successful, this should pave a path for further funding and could also trigger the stimulus for a greater tourist plan incorporating the other sites as mentioned above.’
- Plans are under consideration for Tullamore as we read recently in the press. The totality of these plans could be presented in a Zoom meeting which can hold several hundred muted viewers who can make comments via Chat. Fergal MacCabe has been assiduous in his attention to a plan for Tullamore and has a 2017 study Improve the Centre-Expand to the South- Suggestions for a New Plan for Tullamore which proposed that the future of the Bond Store and our own OHAS premises lay in a total comprehensive development of the north west quarter of the town. The Chamber of Commerce have had proposals. So too did the Rotary Club with its ‘Tullamentary’ idea some years ago to bring people from the city back to this town. All more relevant today with home working and the creation of better open spaces and arts facilities in Tullamore. The Bond has a place here.
- Key buildings in Tullamore (some of which have already been missed unfortunately) need to be examined and ambitious plans chartered and evaluated. Look at Temple Bar now and before 1985 when there was nothing but one vegetarian restaurant.
- The Bond is the immediate issue of concern but must be seen as part of the bigger picture for progress in Tullamore.
- Comments coming in included the following:
- a role for Durrow Abbey and Charleville.
- In the Church Street O’Connor Square link is there a role for the Methodist church?
- In the development of the town park and Acres Folly could new links be opened via Bridge Centre and the town hall?
- What of the Mr Price ‘Crawford Building’? Might tax incentives be available to restore the façade and make it a residence again.
Finally, one councillor remarked that effective local government can be greatly enhanced in this new era where online presentations can be made to a large and interested audience. It seems that a discussion which started about The Bond has ‘morphed’ into bigger issues. That can only be healthy as planning for a vibrant town is the key.
In the words of the Grand Canal Company directors when they chose to build the “Grand Extension” from Tullamore to Shannon Harbour via “The Vale of the Brusna”, in March1801, it is time for the “Maturest Deliberation!”.
Views expressed here, as in all our blogs, are those of the author and may or may not be shared by Offaly History