Inspired by Water: Four Conjectural Views of a Past and Future Tullamore. By Fergal MacCabe


A Village by a Ford

Water created Tullamore and will form its future.

Long, long ago, a rocky outcrop on the bed of the river allowed local farmers to herd their livestock across to graze on the small hill on its southern bank. Over time, longer distance routes began to converge on the ford and a small village grew up to cater for travellers, an inn to change horses perhaps, a blacksmith possibly, but this is all conjectural as no traces or records remain.

In 1609 the soldier/settler John Moore bought a half share in the nearby but now long vanished castle and watermill of the Molloys and began to hold an annual fair. By the late 17th. century, ‘Tullymore’ as the old maps called it, was most likely a rural scene of some thatched cottages, an unpaved track and maybe one or two substantial houses (illus.). 

A conjectural view of Tullamore in the 1620s when it was said to have a castle watermill and ten cabins. The castle was in ruins by the 1630s but the town then had two watermills on the river.

In time the ford was replaced by a bridge. This gave the small village a certain strategic importance, so in 1716, a military outpost was established to guard it. The security this brought and the provisioning needs of its garrison, attracted new settlers whose residences and businesses were facilitated by the ability of the river to receive household and commercial waste and provide a source of raw material and power. Soon, several flour mills, tanneries, breweries, distilleries and a linen industry had been established. Downstream of the bridge, the river channel was diverted into a large semi-circle, creating a mill stream to power even more industries. 

To dispose of their detritus, properties located as close to the river as possible and after a while, it effectively became the town sewer. No houses were built to face it and it ran unseen through backlands for most of its journey. A drainage scheme in the late 1940s improved its water quality but deepened the channel and removed the river even further from public sight.

The Gazebo

The only recognition of the amenity value of the river in those earlier times, was a Gazebo on the edge of the town from which its owner and his friends could enjoy pleasant views of the wooded banks.

Erected by either the developer Edward Crow whose properties on Crow Street leading to the Sallow Grove extended to it, or else by the Revd, Daniel Jackson, the entrance to whose estate it adjoined, the Gazebo comprised a circular four columned structure on top of a small artificial hill. Appearing on the first useful town map of 1838, by 1885 the viewing place and its little hill had vanished into the estate of the expanding distillery.

An interesting civic design initiative visible on the 1838 Map was the laying out of the aptly named Water Lane (now new Main Street), so as to culminate in the vista of the Gazebo, which must have been quite a prominent local landmark (illus.).

The gazebo can be seen on 1838 and was west of the old mill building beside what is now the Central Hotel and Lidl Main Street store. Could Water Lane now Main Street have been called Gazebo Walk?

The Admiral’s Fountain

The arrival in 1895 of piped water from a source ten miles away at the foot of the Slieve Blooms, was a further step in the advancement of Tullamore and a cause for celebration. This important event was marked by the donation by Admiral Coote of a stone public fountain for the centre of Charleville Square (illus.) as well as a handsome water trough for Market Square. An elegant structure of classical design, the fountain was moved to the County Home in 1926 to make way for the War Memorial and has now vanished along with the watering trough. The imposing Tarleton House in the background of the drawing which socially and spatially dominated the eastern side of the Square, was taken down in 1936.

Admiral Coote’s fountain was donated to the town in 1895 and is represented here with the old Tarleton House (1740s), demolished in the 1930s for the vocational school now Tullamore Library, and to the north of it what is now the PTSB on the site of another fine house demolished in the 1980s.

The augmentation of the town water supply in the late 1930s required the erection of a very large ferro concrete water tank on the high land of Garry’s farm at Clonminch. An impressive structure of simple circular design, a public poll in the local newspapers recently nominated it as one of the favourite and most memorable structures in Tullamore. 

A Civic Catalyst

Unlike the river, from the outset the canal was perceived as an amenity which could be exploited for civic design and promotional purposes. A  broad tree lined esplanade, whose  principal adornment was the Grand Canal Hotel, was created alongside its link to the Harbour. Likewise, Lord Charleville encouraged the construction of an elegant terrace of houses at Bury Quay to display the wealth and good taste of his expanding town to the passengers on the passing fly boats.

In later years the Egan family and the Urban District Council capitalised on the canalside setting with fine terraced housing at Convent View and Clontarf Road. More recently, the cantilevered deck at Bury Quay has proved a popular meeting place for waterside coffee and hopefully will be reinstated by new owners.

On foot of a proposal by the noted town planner Frank Gibney, the canal banks were enhanced by the planting in the 1950s of distinctive vertical and elegant trees in the regular French manner. These may now be coming to the end of their natural life and their replanting and even an extension of this feature which is unique to Tullamore, should be considered.

The Harbour of my Dreams

For well over two hundred years, the Harbour has, like the river, been a place apart from the town, hidden and restricted from public view and engagement, but today it holds the potential to transform the centre of Tullamore and even to place it on the European stage.

Tullamore’s town harbour in the near future!

With a few notable exceptions (Liverpool and Galway certainly, but even their docks are on the edge rather than within the centre of their cities), the integration of a large waterbody into the very heart of a town is a rare, if not unique, opportunity. That is why the now mooted redevelopment of the harbour is of such significance.

Identified by the recently adopted Eastern and Midlands Regional Strategy as central to the consolidation of  Tullamore’s role as a ‘Key Town’, the Harbour project will be eligible for regeneration funding from several sources. An economic study is in train to explore viable options, but the process of delivering a worthy project will inevitably be lengthy and tortuous.

It may be at least twenty years before the scheme will be fully complete and though it is impossible to forecast its ultimate shape and form, it is easy to predict its principal features:

  • An active and publicly accessible waterbody available for boating, swimming and fishing and surrounded by shops and restaurants 
  • Its principal use will be residential as national policies increasingly encourage and support town centre living.
  • Some buildings will be high rise-not just to provide the dramatic civic design set pieces which such a large waterbody can absorb and exploit- but to respond to the likely demand for residences with such stunning views over the water, town and countryside.

My conjectural view (illus.) presumes these outcomes, but is little more than a banal and generic illustration. A talented designer, presented with such a unique site, could astonish us with a really innovative response. Striking modern architecture has been the calling card of every successful dockland renewal scheme and the enormous potential which the Harbour presents should not be wasted, however long it takes to get it right. 

A Linking Vision

The Tullamore Urban District Council and its successor the Municipal District Council, recognised the amenity potential of the town’s waterways. The UDC  was amongst  the first Irish public bodies to provide an outdoor swimming pool served by filtered river water. From 1938 to 2002 this wonderful facility was a favourite social and recreational venue of the town.

The MDC has recently built an elegant footbridge over the river at Millenium Square which opens up new views up and down the river, but the real show-stopper will be its unveiling of the old bridge behind the Library. By the time it reopens, another MDC initiative, the Tullamore Living River Project, will have modified the river upstream by altering the bed and the banks to slow the flow, create ripples and increase oxygen and thus encourage new wildlife habitats. The bridge will be a spectacular ornithological viewing point and become a destination in itself.

The River Project will also create a large wetland area beside the western bypass road which will attract a large variety of nesting birds and become a prominent Tullamore landmark visible to passing rail passengers. 

Besides the redevelopment of the Harbour, the Dublin to Shannonbridge Cycling Greenway alongside the Grand Canal has already proved locally popular and in the future will bring a new tourism market. Enticing passing cyclists and sailors to explore the town centre and its attractions by a series of connected routes would be of benefit.

In the longer term, the potential of the extensive floodplains of the river for further recreational uses and for the location of sustainable energy generation projects such as wind turbines or solar farms might be explored. The possibility of creating a new urban forest and providing riverside woodland walks through it to connect to the Charleville Estate is worthy of consideration. An opportunity to provide for the new phenomenon of ‘wild swimming’ might emerge.

Water should be at the centre of a new strategic vision for Tullamore. 

Fergal MacCabe is an architect and town planner. More of his drawings can be seen in Tullamore: a portrait (2010)