An Architect Revealed
On Monday 16 February 1953, a Banquet was held in Hayes Hotel Tullamore to celebrate two very significant achievements; the completion of the 74-house Pearse Park and the cutting of the sod for a further 106 houses later to be named Marian Place. These two estates, whose very names evoke the atmosphere of the period, would be joined in 1965 by Kearney Park dedicated to the well-known local politician Joe Kearney.The three schemes together represent a high point in local authority housing not just in Offaly, but in Ireland.
The large attendance that day included the Minister for Local Government Paddy Smith, the cream of Tullamore society; the clergy, politicians, administrators, police and solicitors, as well as those involved in the delivery of the estates. Buried at the bottom of the extensive list which appears in an entertaining frontpage account of the event in the Offaly Independent of the following Monday, but unidentified as such, was the designer of the schemes, the architect Donald Arthur ‘Bob’ Tyndall M.R.I.A.I. (d.1975). Tyndall who had spent his early career in Shanghai was also engaged to deliver the Tullamore County Clinic and is credited with several housing schemes in the Offaly area. In 1971 his practice became Tyndall Hogan Hurley and went on to become one of the most successful in Dublin, specialising in office and residential developments.
Tyndall was the latest in the line of designers used by Tullamore Urban District Council to implement an admirable housing programme over the previous fifty years.
An Energetic Council
The growth of Tullamore in the early days of the nineteenth century encouraged an influx of unskilled and consequently poor workers. To accommodate them, ‘cabin suburbs’ grew up on the approach roads of the town and tenements in its back streets; though none of course on its affluent southern side. As the provision of housing for the labouring classes would not deliver commercially viable rents, there was no incentive for developers and so very little building took place in the second half of the century with consequent overcrowding and public health problems.
The Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898 broke the logjam and by 1903 a newly established and energetic Tullamore Urban District Council had taken its first steps to alleviate the problem. In doing so, the town began its expansion into the surrounding countryside which continues to the present day. Tullamore was to differ from many Irish local authorities in using architects to design some of their schemes; most being happy with the skills of engineers. The architectural and civic design qualities of public housing in Tullamore deserve appreciation for this reason.
Bye Law Housing 1903-1940
The Council delivered its first scheme of 12 single-storey semi-detached cottages in 1903 at Emmet Terrace designed by the eminent architect Frederick Hicks (1870-1965), whose other work in Tullamore includes zz ‘The Bungalow’ built in 1915 in the grounds of Dew Park, the Williams family estate on the Charleville Road, and most probably, the delightful 1907 terrace of seven houses on Convent View also.
From 1907 to 1912 the engineer and Town Surveyor Albert Victor Ashe (1873-) designed Council schemes, providing 46 houses in Davitt Street and Tyrrells Road at an average cost of £127 per unit. The Co. Down born Ashe lived in the Round House on High Street until he left to join the Royal Corps of Engineers in 1917, handing over his post as Town Surveyor to the civil engineer William Holohan (1894-1956) who occupied it until the late 1930s.
During Holohan’s tenure, the Council built almost 300 houses. Some may have been designed by Holohan personally or by the County Engineer, Thomas Stanislaus Duggan (1892-1961) as both had modest design skills. However, the Kilbride Street, Healy Street and Dillon Street houses were designed by T.F. McNamara (1867-1947) the architect of Scally’s and the Bridge House.
All of these schemes reflect Public Health Bye Laws and follow the same pattern of straight roads and regular building lines which simplify services.The carriageways are wide enough for two vehicles to pass and with footpaths on either side. No grass verges, street planting, parks or play areas are provided but at the time of building, the sites were then in open countryside.
My personal favourites are Park Avenue and Callary Street built in the late 1930s. With gardens front and back, these single-storey, plastered semi-detached cottages with their tiled roofs are charming. Each block features a central advanced gable with a pierced roundel harking back to the Eucharistic Congress of 1932.
A Golden Age 1940-1965
In 1948 the geographer T.W. Freeman observed:
‘ The industrial and commercial prosperity of Tullamore has brought in its train severe housing problems, which can only be solved by new building on a considerable scale….some of the back streets of Tullamore still have housing conditions that shock any visitors, and the only consolation is that many poor cottages occupied even thirty years ago are already crumbling into dust’.
The Public Housing Programme pursued by the Fianna Fail Government in the twenty years after its coming to power in 1933 has been described by one economist as ‘The Golden Age of Irish Social Housing’. In this period, an extraordinary 55% of all new houses were built by the State or by Local Authorities and at one point 18.6% of the population lived in publicly owned accommodation.
Embarking on an ambitious house building programme in response to the problems described by Freeman and with encouragement from central government, Tullamore UDC engaged the leading architect and town planner, Frank Gibney to draw up its first comprehensive Town Plan and to use it to identify sites for ‘Working Class Housing’-which is ironic considering the high standard ultimately achieved.
Three of these schemes were delivered by Tyndall and one by Gibney himself. They would provide fine houses with generous public and private space and of a refined architectural and civic design quality. Arguably, the density was too low and a waste of serviced land. Within a few years it came to be realised that the money invested might have been better spent on projects which would give a more productive economic return and a new approach to the provision of social housing emerged.
Designed by Gibney, the 82 houses in the Arts and Crafts style fronting onto the Grand Canal at Clontarf Road replaced the picturesque but antiquated thatched cottages of Tinkers Row which were at least a hundred years old.
Broken into terraces of 8 houses each, the new blocks create a rhythmic effect which, reflected in the waters of the Grand Canal, have become an iconic image of Tullamore. Each terrace is dominated by an advanced gable extending above the roof line and continuing to the level of the ground floor windows-a typical feature of Gibney’s schemes, utilised for feature buildings in his well known Bord na Mona schemes also. The gable encompasses the entrances to two dwellings.
The flanking blocks culminate in thrust out gables also but contained within the ridge line. Between both gables are a further two entrances, combined under a semi circular arch. The remaining two entrances are to the side, flanked by battered buttresses, which anchor the overall composition. Roughcast plaster finish and red concrete tiles mix well to give an overall attractive visual composition.
Pearse Park. Marian Place and Kearney Park
Designed by Tyndall, Pearse Park (74 houses) and Marian Place (106 houses), share the same format of terraced housing served by rear lanes and enclose a central landscaped park in the case of the latter and a triangular area in the former. Adherence to regular building lines on irregular sites resulted in rear gardens of varying depth-some as much as 30 m. long. No on site parking is provided.
The two storey terraces display a pleasing proportion of solid and void relationship. A particular feature is the continuous concrete canopy, linking the two front doors, with an intervening, vertically lined nap plaster band.
On a site identified by Gibney, but not constructed until 1965, Kearney Park (60 houses) is in the same architectural style as Pearse Park and Marian Place and consists of two storey terraced houses of which 20 are provided in two terraces fronting onto Puttaghan Road. A central access road leads to two small and attractive parks enclosed by 40 houses in six terraces.This modest scheme is especially notable for its human scale and intimate sense of place and enclosure.
Back to the Banquet
The Banqueters offered toasts to ‘Ireland’,’The Minister’, ‘The Contractor’. The Chairman of Offaly County Council, Mr. O’Connor exuberantly toasted Joe Kearney, the Chairman of the Urban District Council ,saying that ‘though they were on opposing political platforms, he was the best Chairman in Ireland’. Praise was heaped on the County Manager, the County Engineer, the Town Clerk, the building workers, but no one saw fit to laud or even recognise the designer amongst them who had created the excellent schemes of which they were now so proud.
Dr Moran’s Bombshell
Asked to add a few final words, the Parish Priest and noted historian of Tullamore, the Very Rev. Dr. William Moran said that he hadn’t expected to be called on and was at a loss of what to say. He then proceeded to comprehensively dump on the entire project, presumably to the shock and embarrassment of his audience who had attended his blessing of it some hours earlier.
It might be the right thing, he said, but it was in entirely the wrong place. It would contribute to further rural depopulation and the decline of smaller communities, which he felt had gone too far. He was personally aware of overcrowding and poor housing conditions in parts of Tullamore, but schemes like these, particularly in the town centre, were not the answer. He opposed new urban schemes and believed that only rural housing should be built because:
‘A man came into the town and he stayed in the town and eventually got a house. That man is divorced forever from the land’.
If they must build these schemes, he said, they should be at least a mile out the Clara or Kilbeggan Roads-though presumably not on the Charleville Road.
Dr Moran was expressing a sentiment which will still be recognized today- a cri de coeur for the dying vision of de Valera of small self-reliant communities focussed on the land and the parish. It also reflected a suspicion of urban living, prevalent in some Catholic thinking of the time.
Dr Moran was however, confusing cause and effect. The parishes weren’t declining because Tullamore was expanding. In the 1950s, half a million Irish people, mainly from rural areas, saw no hope or future in their lives and if Offaly people couldn’t find a job in Tullamore or Birr, they would find one in Toxteth or Baltimore. It didn’t matter whether the new houses were in the centre of the town or a mile out the road, they were leaving anyway. Those who stuck it out and stayed would have those fine houses which are as impressive today as they were at their launch in 1953, but at what cost?
Recently reading that frontpage of that issue of the Offaly Independent for the first time , I was startled to see several mentions of my late brother, the wing-three quarter Tom ‘Speedy’ McCabe, in the Tullamore Rugby notes. With the closure of the Distillery two years later, he too joined the exodus.
To get out of this ruinous downward economic spiral, the way forward would require not just the rejection of Dev and Dr Moran’s rural vision, but also the reassessment of an expensive housing programme which was draining scarce resources.
Fergal MacCabe is an architect and town planner and author of the Residential Density Guidelines. He designed Whitehall and Hophill estates in Tullamore for James Spollen and ‘Glenfircal’ for John Flanagan as well as many housing schemes in the Dublin area.