Recently nominated by the Irish Times as amongst the twenty best places to live in Ireland, Tullamore earned the accolade because of its central location and its excellent recreational amenities and services. However, neither its built or natural environment figured as deciding factors in the survey.
Regrettably, my home town lacks the physical drama of Kilkenny and Lismore dominated by fortresses standing on cliffs, the waterside charms of Kinsale and Carrick on Shannon, the mystery of the mediaeval alleyways of Galway and Carlingford or the suave urban quality of Westport, Clonakilty and Birr. Nevertheless, it’s qualities, modest as they are, have always inspired me and I have often tried to capture them in drawings. Tullamore’s few architectural setpieces were my first introduction to the notion that a town or a village could be a beautiful artefact as much as a painting or a piece of sculpture.
Some years ago, I began to use the device of the ‘capriccio’ to explore and celebrate the work of Irish architects including James Gandon and Francis Johnston and the urban character of our towns and cities. By placing well known buildings or features into an exotic or unfamiliar setting, a capriccio allows their quality to be reassessed or better appreciated.
My capriccio, which is obviously inspired by Tullamore, is composed of its more prominent buildings and spaces while omitting its more mundane features. This is the idealised town of my imagination and as I wished it to be, rather than as it is. The composition is based on the ‘Tulach Mor’ or ‘Big Hill’ and conjures up a small fortress nestling at the foot of a rocky outcrop on an island in a river meandering on its way through fields, woods and bogland to a great lake- possibly Lough Derg – with a low range of hills reminiscent of the Slieve Blooms on the distant horizon.
This drawing was one of the works which represented Ireland in the European Confederation of Watercolour Societies exhibition in Haapsalu in Estonia in 2020 and is now hanging in Colaiste Choilm in Tullamore.
My mythical settlement is dominated by the Gothic extravaganza of Charleville Castle sitting on the peak of the hill in a manner reminiscent of Salzburg or Cesky Krumlov, or closer to home, Cashel or Dunamaise. The layout of the walled town at its foot is based on the ancient Graeco- Roman grid pattern of two cross axial streets meeting to form a public square. As in towns such as Aigues-Mortes or Derry/Londonderry, it is enclosed by a high wall pierced by gates which can be closed at night for security.
The entrances and watchtowers of this fortress are composed of Srah Castle, the old Gaol, the Mucklagh Gate, Camden Tower and Acres Folly and the entry to the Pentland Distillery in Market Square.
There are three public squares. The largest piazza with its cafes and stalls is of course O’Connor Square, dominated on one side by the County Courthouse and on the other by the Market House, formerly the Town Hall and the yellow brick Goodbody Warehouse. The two War Memorials of Tullamore stand harmoniously side by side at its centre. At the intersection of the two cross axial streets, is a minor square dominated by the well-known commercial buildings of the town including Scally’s great drapery shop, P&H Egan’s general emporium and the former head office of D. E. Williams. A third square is based on O’Carroll Street whose vista is closed by the County Infirmary. Behind that is a smaller space, formed by the warehouse which is on the eastern side of Market Square and off it, the Presbyterian Chapel and St. Columba’s Classical College.
Along the main streets are many of the other commercial and public buildings of the town, such as the Methodist Chapel , Williams’s grocery shop on Patrick Street, the Round House, the offices of Hoey and Denning and the oldest pub in Tullamore, the Mallet Tavern. The secondary street ascends the hill past Moore Hall, the Grand Central Cinema and Acres Hall and gives access to the kilns and drying lofts of the breweries and distilleries of the town. A transverse street is closed at either end by the principal churches of the town, St. Catherine’s to the east and the Church of the Assumption to the west which has a private access to the river via a watergate built out of the remains of the previous 19th century church.
The warehouses of the Grand Canal harbour and the DEW bond store are located on a busy dockland on the western bank of the river, while on the eastern bank, across the Kilbeggan Bridge, the villas of the Charleville Estate office designed by Richard Castle and the long demolished Grand Canal Hotel focus on the Baron Oldershausen memorial in Kilcruttin Cemetery which is the centrepiece of a formally landscaped square.
Along the road to the east, is the 26th Lock House, Convent View Terrace and the villas of Clonminch Road as well as the Clontarf Road housing and canal side planting of the architect and town planner Frank Gibney. The housing area in the southeast is based on the Arts and Crafts style proposed by Gibney’s in 1950 for the expansion of the town and is grouped around a small park with the King Oak of Charleville at its centre.
As the river flows on its way to Lough Derg, Croghan (or possibly Endrim) Hill punctuates the horizon. The old Swimming Pool and Ballycowan Castle lie on the eastern bank of the river and the remains of 6c.Tihilly monastery on the western bank.
The work celebrates and concentrates the architectural features of Tullamore and its hinterland and imagines a day when these will be united together into a coherent and integrated scheme for their conservation and enhancement.
It is unlikely that this vision may ever come to pass, as ominously in the far distance, a hot air balloon approaches for the second time.