Tullamore on the verge of the War and Home Rule: the image of stability. By Michael Byrne

Change is always about but perhaps more so since ‘Nine Eleven’ 2001 and March 2020 than we care to appreciate. Changes in eating out in Tullamore’s streets in recent days would have come as a shock to our predecessors of 1914. We are not Spain as Brewery Tap owner, Paul Bell, recently remarked but the fine weather and the adoption of coffee over tea are all helping. In the interior things are changing too. The love of banking halls is gone and now it is all doors and screens as new ways of working come in. The new county offices inTullamore (2002), and in many other buildings, may yet have to be reconfigured, and as for nightclubs what are we to do. On top of that some Tullamore municipal councillors are talking of revisiting our list of Protected Structures to remove those buildings that cannot be sold and are falling down.

All this talk of change, inside and out, suggests that we look again at what we had in the way of streetscapes before that period of great turbulence when Ireland was on the verge of Home Rule and Partition was unmentionable. It was ‘The Sunday before the War’ time. Thanks to the work of photographer Robert French (1841–1917) and the Lawrence Studio (1865–1942) we can look back, not in anger or nostalgia, but in awe at what was achieved in our towns over the period from the 1740s to 1914, but more especially in the years of growth and prosperity from 1891 to the First World War.

The Lawrence Collection of some 40,000 photographs are well known. Perhaps less so that the online catalogue from the National Library (nli.ie) is in large format, high resolution, for the Offaly towns, allowing us to dig down/zoom in to see the detail that escapes one looking at the ubiquitous printed photograph in the pub or the tablemat. There are almost 200 Lawrence photographs for the Offaly towns and villages. For Tullamore there are at least 17, for Birr over 70, Banagher 3, Clara 20, Edenderry over 16, Portarlington 18, Kilcormac 12 including four placed in County Cavan, Clonmacnoise at least 33, Kinnitty 3, Mountbolus 1, and perhaps more to be identified.  These figures are estimates and likely to change such as one of the earliest for Tullamore (late 1890s perhaps) that became available in recent years, or at least better known and the subject of this blog.

A very fine book from Kieran Hickey and Allen Lane (1973)

Robert French

Robert French from NLI and Light of Other Days with thanks

It was the work of filmmaker Kieran Hickey (1936–93) in his book, The Light of other Days (1973) and his film of that name, and also Faithful Departed,who first shone light on the collection and its main author, Robert French. French was an ex-policeman, who as an employee of Lawrence, had the enjoyable task from about 1870 until 1914 of going about the country taking pictures many of which were sold as postcards or in small albums by agents such as Morrison in Birr. Most of the Offaly pictures date from about 1912-14, but there a few of early vintage in both Birr and Tullamore.

O’Connor Square High Street, late 1890s. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

The devil is in the detail

We are so used to seeing the Lawrence pictures on the pub wall, or in press or book, that ‘our way of seeing’ has become routinised or even blurred. Part of the problem was the poor quality of the images in the typical local histories of the 1980s and 1990s. We did our best with the technology and budgets then prevailing. The situation was even worse with the local press. The digital age, in earnest since about 2009–10, for local history has brought so much welcome change. Google (another new word) Kieran Hickey, for example, to see the rich vein now available and after that go to nli.ie to look at the Lawrence pictures and other postcard collections. Hickey’s book on the Lawrence Collection is hard to get now and is of exceptional quality (£8 in 1973 – equivalent to full board for a college student in Dublin with money left over for entertainment). The introduction is superb and some of his comments might be shocking to friends in the Decade of Centenaries such as his reference to 1916 and the ‘extremist Irish republican militants on the fringe of Irish politics whose violence has always been rejected in favour of popular constitutional nationalism’, and Pearse ‘having achieved his eager desire for bloodshed’. Plenty to discuss there and, of course, it was in 1973 HIckey was writing and our ‘way of seeing’ had evolved since 1969. But to come back to Tullamore town and what could we see in 1912–14.

French and the Lawrence Studio were there to show off the best of Ireland (much as Paul Moore does for Offaly on social media today). The lanes and hovels were not photographed in Tullamore, but you will see it in the Lawrence views of the entrance to towns such as Portarlington and Clara. The new Scally’s store of 1912 in Tullamore – remarkable for its time – has a photograph to itself, but Egan’s Bridge House (the new front of 1910) was not included, save in the distance. Neither was the head office of D.E. Williams in Patrick Street or the gaol and courthouse in Cormac Street. O’Moore Street, Cormac Street and Bury Quay were also omitted. Other postcard vendors would capture these views of the finer streetscapes thankfully. The first of the local postcards were published about 1902 for the John Digan Stationery shop (later Robbins – beside Cloonan’s shop) and date to about 1902. These are for another day. None of the commercial photographers made it to the ‘Barrack Quarter’ such as Kilbride Street or Tea Lane. One did capture the Canalside at Clontarf Road in about 1910 – you can see it as a ‘banner’ on www.offalyhistory.com. But to get back to nli.ie and its treasure trove and, in particular, O’Connor Square (west) – High Street.

The same view as above but clipped now on the left. Tullamore in the late 1890s.

The photograph of O’Connor Square  and High Street is the earliest in the Lawrence Collection for Tullamore and may be about 1900, or a few years earlier. It is the best view surviving of the Joseph Flanagan house of 1787 from what was Rafter’s Drapery after 1900 for about 30 years. There are no telegraph poles. On the left can be seen the lamp and the gas lamp of Col Crowe’s house of 1750, later Brown’s hotel from the 1870s (later again Colton’s/Sambadino’s). Next, beside the man with the pipe, was the former McMullen house demolished in 1946 for the new Ritz Cinema (demolished 1980). Most interesting is the fine shop front with Doric columns (now Eye Contact) and before Kilroy’s old house. Here the railings have survived unlike Colton’s – removed in 1974). The magnificent Crawford house is followed by Dr Wilson’s (1789,) now Donal and Ann Farrelly. Ray Allan’s can be seen with the newly broken out windows, and the old front to Spollen’s pub. The old house of Dr Moorhead’s (white, now Direct Provision hostel) closes off the view on the left side of High Street. The streets have the stone channels part of which could be seen in O’Connor Square up to the 1970s at least.

Notice the Doric columns on the house before Kilroy’s former dwelling house and from the 1900s A.L. Morris, credit union and now Eye Contact

On the top right is Carragher’s with man standing, McGinn’s and the Bus Bar. So also the shopfronts of the present-day drapery of what was later Gill’s and is now Guy Clothing. Conway & Kearney’s front has delightfully survived while the wonderful doorcase of G.N Walshe (Poole’s) is gone since the 1960s. The shopfront here (the old one) should date to Poole’s time soon after 1900. This house, dating to the 1740s, was fully intact as of this picture and, of course, had its railings, much the same as Conway & Kearney. Next on the extreme left is the bar and brewery of P. & H. Egan. The brewery closed in the 1920s but no bells tooled for the wonderful old pub. So we have it still as we do the Bus Bar and perhaps McGinns/The Copper Pot. No outdoor diners then! And to the extreme left the Carroll pawnbrokers. Long established and one of two Carroll stores in Tullamore.

The survival of the wonderful picture is due to a railway historian, Kevin Murray, getting the National Library to buy the 40,000 photographic plates in 1943 for £300. And as for Lawrence and French so much is owed to them.

 A lot lost in Tullamore but much surviving. Councillors and engineers will need streetscape plans and to preserve these facades is now pressing. The interiors are long gone save with Farrellys and Conway & Kearney. Mr ‘Crawford Price’s’ house presents interesting possibilities and was missed out in the selection of a site for the new arts centre. Fear of the cost of renovation may have been the reason. The restoration of the Mr Price dwelling (as was intended in the context of th3 1960 planning permission) should attract tax relief for renovation works to be carried out by a big taxpayer, who wants a town house (possibly by Richard Castle) and a tax shelter.

Sergeant Ahern at the Bus Bar with Gill’s to the left. This is a later Lawrence picture of about 1912-14. The new shopfront of Poole’s motor factors beside the Brewery Tap can be seen on the extreme right in this picture.

The second view of High Street is included here for the detail. It includes Sergeant Ahern  (‘good cop’) who was wounded in the fracas in Tullamore in 1916 and died in a cycling accident in Banagher in 1918.