Tullamore: ‘A good business town’. By Fergal MacCabe

Why has there been so little public interest in the conservation of the architectural heritage of Tullamore?

Sharing a pot of tea in the Brewery Tap in the early 1980s with a well-known local builder, I remarked that demolition and redevelopment rather than conservation and reuse always seemed to be the first choice option. His reply, which I have never forgotten, was that new buildings which responded to modern needs were always preferable because  ‘Tullamore is a good business town’. Change had always brought benefits and the future held more attraction than the past.

I understand that sentiment. Unlike Birr or even Edenderry, Tullamore has always been seen to be go ahead and dynamic; looking forward always and never backwards. That progressive approach was sustained by active business organisations and extended to the areas of arts, culture and local history also. It created a vibrant, attractive and always interesting atmosphere.

Nonetheless, little concern was ever publicly expressed for the protection of the town’s architectural heritage and the role it might play in its advancement. This derived partly, I believe, from a perception that since there were no buildings earlier than the mid 18th century, the fabric of the town was relatively new and was therefore of little or no artistic interest or value. This attitude was reflected in the non-existence, even to the present day, of any local civic group or architectural preservation society or even an Offaly branch of An Taisce. Birr might have its Chapter of the Irish Georgian Society, Tullamore despite its large inventory of 18th c. buildings, didn’t follow.

A hardworking and effective Tidy Towns Association which won the European Entente Florale Award in 2016 and the Tidy Towns Gold Medal in every year between 2014 and 2019 is the only bright spot in this dismal neglect of the built heritage of Tullamore, but its remit cannot extend to the complexities of urban renewal.

Architectural Quality

Up to the 1960s, new development in Tullamore was generally of a conservative character, displaying good urban manners by recognizing context or reflecting classical architectural principles. The poor economic state of the country at that time limited choices anyway so there was a more widespread continued use and refurbishment of existing structures-particularly those within the centre of the town. It was still common for business people to live above their premises-indeed in the case of pub owners and bank managers, it was mandatory.

The former Pentland distillery of 1822

The location of the then busy industries of distilling and cloth spinning at the edges of the centre meant that shopping and pubs thrived. The holding of fairs and markets in the Square added further excitement and vibrancy.  New Council housing was concentrated (in accordance with Frank Gibney’s Plan) around the core of the town. All schools were within walking distance as were sports grounds.

In that era, Tullamore was the epitome of the accessible 15-minute town and a local way of life which is today espoused by go-ahead communities as a radical but worthwhile aspiration.

Clontarf Road completed about 1950 with the bond opposite and canal line to the Shannon of c. 1801-2.

Changing Times and Poor Standards

The arrival of prosperity and the motor car in the 1960s changed Tullamore as it did every other town in Ireland.

Inevitably the suburbs exploded, though their direction of expansion was exclusively to the north and east, thus unbalancing the walkability which had made the town such an attractive environment. The establishment of a large and remote retail park on the bypass anchored by food shopping and free parking, undermined the centre so that today its vacancy rates are well above the national average.

Few if any buildings of original architectural quality were built from 1960 onwards and though the local authority gave the lead, the private sector did not respond. Several proposals for large scale developments that came to An Bord Pleanala for adjudication were criticised by its inspectors for their poor design quality, adverse impact on Protected Structures and disregard of local vernacular architecture. Luckily, a proposal for a large shopping centre on the Texas/Tesco site which had no architectural quality whatsoever, was abandoned as a result of the crash of 2008.

Acres Hall of 1786 and now the town hall since 1992

It is sad to note that apart from the superb County Council offices of 2002 and the excellent Lloyd Town Park, and despite a substantial construction programme, no new building or civic space in the town centre has achieved an award of merit from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland or indeed from any other environmental body. A potentially exciting design by A2 Architects for a new Arts Centre, never got off the ground.

The wonderful Pearse Park of 1952-54 with low density housing

Restoration and Conservation

To balance this gloomy picture, there have been several careful restorations and reusages of individual important buildings. Tullamore Town Council bought and restored Acres Hall. The Bank of Ireland carried out admirable work to conserve the Goodbody Warehouse in O’Connor Square. William Grant and Company converted the former Bonded Warehouse at Bury Quay to a Visitor Centre. The former St Columba’s School was restored as the De Montfort apartments-though its high chimneys should have been retained.

Acres Folly from about 1815.

Other encouraging initiatives include the well executed restorations for residential purposes of historic buildings on High Street and Store Street by enthusiastic householders as well as the sensitive infilling of the site of the Offaly Inn on Harbour Street by five terraced houses. The soon to be opened conversion of the former shop on High Street as a new Arts and Performance Centre, will hopefully act as a catalyst for similar projects and a restored Acres Folly will add to the amenity of the Lloyd Town Park.

However, most of the historic buildings and streets of Tullamore are now more than 200 years old and approaching the critical point at which their structure and fabric is fast deteriorating. Many are on the cusp of irreversible deterioration and without renewal, rebuilding or active conservation, may very well soon be beyond rescue. While Tullamore has always been a vibrant commercial town and cannot be frozen in time, their protection, integration and exploitation must be the bedrock for any new plan for the town centre and for any new comprehensive redevelopments. 

The former Kilroy home dating from 1786 – this view 2000.

The Homes of Tullamore

The restoration by Tanya and George Ross of the 1786 Kilroy House on High Street for their own home has shown the way forward.

The former Kilroy’s in High Street: an interior view. Courtesy of Tanya Ross

Carried out under the supervision of Murray Architectural Services, it is an outstanding example of good practice which shows how many of the historic buildings in the centre of Tullamore which were originally in residential use, can once again fulfil that function and contribute to the vitality of the town centre.

The homes of Tullamore are the bedrock of its architectural heritage. In 1588, Edward Briscoe who had married local girl Elizabeth Kearney, built the first home in Tullamore for himself and his new wife at Srah. Though today we may think of it as a castle, it was simply a fortified house with a banqueting hall attached and was probably the location of many enjoyable feasts. Charleville Castle, though an astonishing confection of architectural grandeur, was also a home to the Bury family.

The Homes of Tullamore by Fergal MacCabe

The grand  townhouses of the 18th c. and the terraces of Church Street, Cormac Street, Bury Quay and Chapel Lane were provided as family homes and happily many still are today. The excellent local authority schemes of Kilbride Street, O’Molloy Street and in particular Pearse and Marian Parks, provided fine family homes in the most convenient location of all.

Regrettably, many former homes have changed to office or medical uses, which may have been prompted by the prestige of their historic architecture and town centre location, but their layouts are entirely unsuited to modern technology, access, heating and ventilation standards. Others now lie vacant because the costs and bureaucracy of modernising are simply prohibitive.

It is today a central part of national spatial policy to revive our town centres by reintroducing residential uses and protecting architectural heritage. The homes of Tullamore offer a valuable resource to fulfilling this goal and their reuse now requires active encouragement.

The Bond of 1897 and soon to reopen.