For many the habit of reading started with the local library and has never left us. Recollections of the several libraries we have had in Tullamore remind us that so far as reading and comfort goes we have never had it so good. This is the time to recall the first public library in Tullamore started in May 1921, just 100 years ago. For that we have to thank an unsung hero E. J. Delahunty, a native of Clonmel, who was in charge of technical education in the county from 1904 to 1930 and died in 1931. He organized the first ‘students’ union’ in Tullamore and a superb lecture series on the great issues of the day in the 1916–21 period, and with mostly well-known speakers with a national reputation. The Midland Tribune gave the opening of the library an editorial and regretted that the lecture series had to be abandoned that year. Delahunty was shrewd and had the Tribune editor, Seamus Pike, on side. Another unsung hero of the revolutionary decade was Revd John Humphreys, a Tullamore-based Presbyterian minister, and great advocate for technical education. These are three people who need to be included in the Offaly Dictionary of Biography.
The new public library was started during the War of Independence with 250 books housed in the town council’s offices behind what is now Banon’s house in O’Moore Street. The rooms were shared with the Tullamore Technical School and the council, and the new library was intended to support the school and the public in that order. Delahunty was hoping for a new technical school but that was not realized until 1937. So, the town library had modest beginnings reflecting the difficult times. The public library, started in 1921, saw many vicissitudes not least being the burning of the courthouse in 1922 and the pressure that put on space when accommodation had to be found for the council until the new courthouse was completed in 1927.
There had been voices in support of public libraries earlier than 1921. In 1902 Tullamore-based James Rogers, then a law clerk who qualified a solicitor in 1909 (and was the founder of the original Offaly Historical Society in 1937–8), wrote to the press about the Carnegie library start-up grants, and that several towns in Ireland had availed of these grants. It should also be said that the Mercy Sisters in Tullamore provided a small library and it was there that ‘Flann O’Brien’ borrowed some books when he lived in the town in the early 1920s. The Carnegie-funded library movement was getting well established in Ireland, but it was not much availed of in County Offaly until 1925 with the start of a small scheme which formed the basis of the present county scheme and the help of a £2,000 grant. In the same year new local government legislation enabled county councils, via the rates, to support a library scheme. Some of the public representatives on the grounds of economy, together with some bishops in apprehension of upset to public morals, were not in favour of the Carnegie proposal for a lending library in Offaly. Bishop Fogarty of Killaloe (bishop, 1904–55) and then only two-thirds of the way through his episcopal ministry (which included Birr and south Offaly) was colourful in his objection to such profligate expenditure and the Irish Times probably enjoyed reporting his letter to their sophisticated readership:
The Most. Rev. Dr. Fogarty, in the course of his letter to the library committee of the county council (then under the control of Commissioner O’Keeffe), said:- “I will have nothing to do with a Carnegie Library. I have seen some of these institutions. They are storehouses of wretched novels and semi-pagan stuff of the same cultural level as penny-illustrated papers from England, which, I am sorry to say, our people buy and smoke like opium, with the same narcotic effect on their brains and better life. We have enough of that poison without taxing the people to supply more of it. What advantage are the ratepayers, already overburdened, from the mountains of Kinnitty to the bogs of Edenderry, going to get from supplying out of their slender purse lounges and novels to the cigarette-smoking, idle, mooning youths of Tullamore and like towns; for no one else is going to resort to your fanciful treasure houses?”
Dr Foley, bishop of Kildare and Leighlin was another who objected as did Fr O’Reilly of Kilcormac. He was echoing the views of the bishop of Meath. To the credit of Tullamore’s TD, and businessman, Pat Egan, sufficient public support for the scheme was secured with a room in the courthouse and an ex-Free State army officer as librarian. It may come as a surprise that while there was significant opposition from bishops to the 1925 scheme, it proceeded and their opposition was surmounted.
The Irish state was in poor shape in the 1920s and worse off in the 1930s, but nevertheless locally the new vocational school was built in O’Connor Square in 1937 and a new garda station was also completed at Patrick Street (or Barrack Street as it was then called by locals) in the same year. Soon after the library stock was moved from the courthouse to the former garda barrack in Church Street. This was an old building erected as a hospital or infirmary in 1788.
Many Tullamore people remember this building in the 1960s, now rebuilt save for the facade as Library Hall apartments (1995). The genial and ever helpful Paddy Daly (a founder member of Tullamore Credit Union in 1963) was librarian from the mid-1930s and it was he who bought books from a meagre budget to build up the collection. So, in the 1960s one could sit and browse in a window alcove in the old Church Street library or huddle near its pot-bellied stove, full of turf hauled up from the basement. The upper floors of the old building were derelict while other rooms held the great stock, only some of which was on view.
When the old vocational school in O’Connor Square became available after 1974 part of the building was adapted for a new and greatly improved library under the care and management of the new county librarian, Anne Coughlan (county librarian, 1973–2008, d. 17 March 2016). The move to the former vocational school in 1977 (or rather 5,300 ft of it) was seen as a short-term measure, but it was soon after the first oil crisis and the Cosgrave-led government sought to restore the public finances, and so a new library was ruled out.
The greatly expanded services for children and for local studies had to make do with slender budgets in the 1980s and to a lesser extent in the 1990s. However, it was not until the twilight of the Celtic Tiger years that firm plans were considered for a new library and arts centre in Tullamore estimated as costing some €20m. It was to include a 300-seat theatre and new headquarters for the library services. It was anticipated that the arts centre would cost €8.6m, the library €8.2m and the commercial space €3.6m. The shortfall of €6.8m would have to be found and the local contribution would be at least €4m. Other counties had done this so why not County Offaly. The new facility was to be housed in a ‘new flag-ship three-storey building’ on the site then occupied by the VEC and the County Library at O’Connor Square. Not surprisingly as the economic crisis took hold after 2008, the idea of any grand building devoted to education and leisure got the chop. Now the arts centre is proceeding in High Street and plans have been announced to connect Church Street and O’Connor via the old bridge behind the library (another blog perhaps!).
Mary Stuart was appointed as county librarian in 2009 and soon had plans in place to convert the old school to a modern-style building. Phil Hogan who did the opening in 2013 was happy that is had cost only €2.2 million. The new ‘Tullamore Central Library’ serving also as the headquarters of the present-day county system was completed to universal praise and the public library had been increased in size from 388 m2 to 7,333m2 and ‘was designed to create a very visible presence in the square. It will be a library for the community with improved access and an enhanced customer experience’.
My Open Library has been a big innovation in Offaly Libraries since November 2014, when the scheme opened as a national pilot in Tullamore and Banagher libraries. The move would see the libraries open from 8 o’clock each morning until 10 o’clock every evening including Sundays. My Open Library is a major boost for students in particular and seems to be going back to the original idea of a public reading room with less focus on the lending library aspect, as least so far as it relates to borrowing physical books from a lending library. All a long way from the alcoves and pot-bellied stove of the old Tullamore library of the 1960s, and for the students of the new independent Ireland of the 1920s the selection of between 100 and 250 books.
The new Tullamore Library is fast becoming a great people’s university, with lectures, readings, film club and book launches. Tullamore now has a public library to be proud of and it was opened in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. It is ideal for book launches, poetry readings and training in languages and computers. The potential is enormous and is greatly enhanced with the development of a public square for people to relax in. The current County Librarian, Eimear McGinn, was appointed in May 2019, the fifth County Librarian since 1925.
Both library and square have become icons of modernity for Tullamore. In the meantime keep reading and researching. We have never had such great facilities. Let us recall those who soldiered in the literary fields in the past – E.J. Delahunty, Revd John Humphreys, James Rogers, Pat Egan and all those who worked in the library service since 1921 and with thanks to our councillors and management teams who secured the funds so that in this centenary year we have a library we can be proud of.
Offaly Libraries are currently undertaking a survey of their users and would be delighted to receive feedback from its users.
The survey link is here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NRTW6F9
And more information via Facebook is available here: https://www.facebook.com/offalylibraries/posts/4159833284061309