There’s no shortage of very ordinary towns in Ireland but Tullamore certainly isn’t one of them. How could it be? After all it has its proud legacy as one of the original trading and transport hubs on the Grand canal from its arrival in the town in 1798. That early advantage over competing centres like Birr and Daingean was reinforced with the coming of the railway in 1854, allowing Tullamore to build on its status as an important transport hub and retail, administrative and merchant centre. On this basis, the town maintained at least the appearance of prosperity up to the present era. This early pre-eminence is reflected in the town’s exceptionally fine architectural legacy including an assemblage of late Georgian town houses, the civic space at O’Connor Square and individual gems such as the Tullamore Dew Whiskey Heritage Centre along with J.B. Keane’s Neo-Classical Courthouse.
So, while future prospects are certainly influenced by the legacy of the past, for urban centres like Tullamore factors such as economic performance and civic leadership will figure as the more immediate drivers.
In the economic arena, as a substitute for a full-blown economic analysis, we can consider basic population metrics – where the demographic trend for Tullamore and Offaly is far from reassuring. Firstly, Tullamore supports a population of around 15,000 – the same as Maynooth, another not-too-distant waterways community. But between 2011 and 2016, Maynooth’s population grew by just over 3.0%, compared to a paltry 0.3% in the case of Tullamore. And Birr, another important urban centre in Offaly, actually saw its population decline by a substantial 5.0% during the same period. Overall, at a time when the population of Ireland as a whole increased by 4.0%, the population of Offaly grew by less than 0.5%.
Furthermore, of the main population centres in the County, only Edenderry showed meaningful growth in terms of population, recording an increase of just over 1%.
Sadly, underperformance is also reflected in commercial property vacancy rates. And while, for this particular metric, the coverage is for counties rather than towns, it’s very likely that the high vacancy rate of just under 16% for Offaly as a whole (compared to 12% for greater Dublin) is broadly reflective of the position in Tullamore, being the main commercial centre. And in terms of the ultimate fate of urban centres, vacancy rates for commercial property have a markedly chilling impact as precursors, if unarrested, for a downward spiral towards blight and dereliction.
And for real world observers, as opposed to data trackers, evidence for this unwelcome tendency is available in the pattern of vacant and derelict buildings at the core of the town, a pattern that is magnified by outright neglect of Grand Canal harbour, the regional maintenance base for Waterways Ireland.
Not surprisingly, this long-term dereliction has attracted the attention of local critics, including eminent Town Planner, Fergal McCabe who happens to be a native of the town.
Speaking at a recent online seminar on the Future of the Irish Town, MacCabe was highly critical of previous development efforts in Tullamore, describing the 2010 Tullamore Town plan as an exemplar for ‘how not to make a town plan’ and an effort which he criticised as over-reliant on residential sites remote from the town centre and with little regard for expansion in public realm.
On a more positive note, MacCabe spoke with great enthusiasm about the potential for Tullamore Harbour as an iconic site reflecting the town’s waterways heritage – views he had elaborated previously in a 2019 blog post on the Offaly History website.
Hopefully, we can now see indications of improved prospects for Tullamore and other underperforming centres with the activation of the government’s Urban Regeneration and Renewal Fund with a total of €2Bn allocated over the next 5 years.
Recently under this scheme, ministers announced a total of €25m for four regional projects in the Midlands, including an additional €2.25m for the Tullamore Regeneration Framework. Included in the Framework is a proposed local authority review of development options for Tullamore Harbour in conjunction with Waterways Ireland.
A regenerated Tullamore Harbour has the potential to become “a major destination hub in the midlands”.
That’s according to a media statement last year from Waterways Ireland, which referenced plans to redevelop the three-acre harbour into a waterfront development including office space, an enterprise hub, residential developments and leisure facilities. The regeneration plans also include the rebranding of the harbour as “Grand Canal Dock Tullamore”.
Currently, Waterways Ireland’s depot operates from the harbour, behind high walls and dilapidated buildings. The organisation has now been granted planning permission for relocation of the depot to a greenfield site at Boland’s lock which will allow the harbour area redevelopment to proceed.
The reinvention of the historic harbour will undoubtedly be welcomed by IWAI members, though perhaps with reservations. IWAI Dublin Branch will question the absence of a similar joint approach to the capital’s original GCD which languishes in a state of advanced dereliction. And IWAI generally will surely lament the omission (so far) from the Tullamore vision of a marina and maintenance dry dock as serious oversights and a missed opportunity.
Reg McCabe, a retired business executive, has family roots in Geashill. As PRO for the Dublin Inland Waterways Association he describes himself as a canals historian and enthusiast.