A look back at Tullamore town on key dates since 1622: Tullamore in 1804. By Michael Byrne

This short article is the first in a series designed to look at the growth of Tullamore over the period from 1622 and to take key dates in the development of the town. Suggested dates will include 1622, 1716, 1764, 1785, 1804, 1835, 1900, 1923, 1948, 1966 and 2000. These dates coincide with particular events, or the availability of documentary sources that may allow us to draw some conclusions about the state of Tullamore at varying times over the last four centuries. Rather than take matters in chronological order we are going to look for some key moments in the stages of growth. One such was the completion of the canal to Tullamore in 1798 and its extension to Shannon Harbour in 1804. During that six years Tullamore had served as the depot and terminus for the new waterway to the west and south. The opening to Shannon Harbour and the link to the Shannon may have been seen by some as marking the end of the new canal hotel and harbour in Tullamore with business moving further west and travellers no longer having to stop over in the town. That was not the case. The hotel client base weakened to almost nothing by the 1840s and so did passenger traffic. Commercial traffic was continued on until 1960.

1622, civic status and the markets and fairs

Tullamore today has a population of almost 15,000 and is the county town in Offaly and the fourth largest town in the midlands with a population two-thirds that of each of the towns of Athlone, Mullingar and Portlaoise. The year 2022 is the 400th anniversary of the grant of the lands of Tullamore to the Elizabethan soldier-settler family of Moore with the usual rights to hold markets and fairs and a manor court. The 1620 Stuart plantation grant of Tullamore (enrolled in 1622) included the castle, town, and lands and one water mill together with the grant of a weekly market, a two-day fair and the right to hold a manor court. The Moore family were among the new soldier settlers in King’s County securing plantation grants near Croghan Hill in the earlier Tudor plantation and acquiring more by purchase from the O’Molloys in the vicinity of Tullamore after 1600. The year 2022 could be said to mark the beginning of the forms of local government and formality around market functions in Tullamore. The number of fairs would increase to twelve by the 1890s and formed an important part of the local economy up to the 1960s.  

There is little surviving evidence of the growth of Tullamore in the seventeenth century. A long lease of eighty-one years granted by the Moore family to a Forth in-law in 1633 was detrimental to the growth of Tullamore and it was not until c.1700 that the first of the Moore family moved from Croghan and erected a house in the vicinity of the present O’Carroll Street where the canal harbour is now located.

The canal harbour and the former canal hotel from the 5ft scale map, surveyed in 1885, published 1890.

The landowner and the entrepreneurs

Clearly, the midland towns such as Athlone, Mullingar, Birr, Tullamore and Edenderry all developed strong market functions in the first half of the eighteenth century. Over the period 1700 to 1841 Tullamore’s town centre was developed and has largely survived. During that period agricultural output increased; communications improved as did distribution and market functions; mostly resident landlords encouraged development from c.1700; security considerations led to the building of a barracks in Tullamore in 1716 and Tullamore’s status was considerably enhanced with the development of the canal from 1798; the build-up of military during the Napoleonic wars led to more house building, a second barracks and an ordnance magazine. In what was a largely a Protestant township it was the immigrant population, especially Quakers, who provided the entrepreneurial skills for development.

The period from the 1780s to the 1840s was crucial for Tullamore, as for many Irish towns, but there was an earlier progressive period from the late 1720s to the early 1760s when the town was owned and managed by Charles, Lord Tullamore who became earl of Charleville in 1758. In 1740 Lord Tullamore bought the old Forth mansion (built in1641) at Redwood and renamed it Charleville. He improved the house and demesne and gave three-lives forever leases of town plots. His early death in 1764 (childless) and the long minority of his grand-nephew Charles William Bury stifled development until 1785. Bury had plans for the demesne from his coming of age in 1785 and substantial work was undertaken including demesne enlargement, a new lake, farmyard and his new house Charleville Castle. Work started on the mansion in 1800 and was not finished until 1812. Charles William Bury presided over the fortunes of Tullamore from his coming of age in 1785 to his death in 1835. That fifty-year period from 1785 can be identified as the great growth phase for Tullamore (the same is true for many Irish towns) and it continued until the end of the Napoleonic Wars of 1815. The darkness that fell over the world in 1816, ‘the year without a summer’ was manifest in many Irish towns from 1816 to 1819 with growing typhoid outbreaks due to poverty and recurrences of fever with cholera in 1832. The Famine period of the 1840s and the emigration that followed destroyed the building process in many Irish towns until the 1890s.

Tullamore town, Killeigh, Philipstown and Ballinagar from Taylor and Skinner, 1777-83

The new canal link to Dublin and the Shannon – the spur to economic progress

The factors for the successful growth of Tullamore from the mid-1780s, as with other towns,  were: a period of sustained economic activity to bring about a pattern of demand; a planning process (landlord controlled or at least initiated) which created a well-ordered environment and provided for the public utilities and amenities such as church, school, courthouse, jail and hotel. What was exceptional for Tullamore was the construction of the Grand Canal to the town in 1798 and its completion to Shannon Harbour in 1804, providing a direct link with Dublin. The hundreds who worked on the construction of the canal, the new harbour, the canal hotel, and the passengers arriving in the town for transfer to other parts of Ireland greatly improved the local economy. Tullamore was the canal terminus for six years. Building speculators took on leases in new streets close to the canal and new areas were opened up for development. Even the parish priest was able to secure some funding from the Grand Canal Company directors for a new church in what ten years earlier, in 1794, was a back street. Tullamore’s isolated position, distant from the main route to the west and the south, was no longer an issue. The new canal provided a direct link with Dublin for the transport of goods at a cost which seems to have been relatively low. Turf, building materials and manure were carried at a lower rate. It was probably from this time onwards that the Tullamore limestone quarries began to be worked with vigour. An extensive trade was also carried on in bricks which were manufactured along the line of the canal west of Tullamore. In the 1840s up to 40,000 tons were carried but rising labour costs led to the introduction of a larger brick produced nearer Dublin. That said the canal hotels were built to a lavish a scale and were a costly failure. The two King’s County canal hotels at Tullamore and Shannon Harbour ceased to operate in the 1830s while all passenger boat services terminated in 1852 as they were unable to compete with Bianconi coaches and the developing railways.

Charles William Bury’s coming of age in 1785 coincided with the famous balloon fire in Tullamore.  He came into possession of his estate in the same year having inherited it from his maternal grand uncle Charles Moore first earl of Charleville, died 1764. The fire was caused by an air balloon catching fire in what was only the third attempt to make such an ascent in Ireland.  This led to the destruction of about one hundred houses in the Patrick Street area. The fire had caused no damage in the Bridge Street, High Street, O’Connor Square area of which Arthur Young may have been speaking when he recorded in 1776 that part of Tullamore was well built.  Nevertheless, John Wesley in his journal for 1787 felt obliged to remark: ‘I once more visited my old friends at Tullamore.  Have all the balloons in Europe done so much good as can counterbalance the harm which one of them did here a year or two ago?’  [McDonald (ed.) Wesley Journals] Wesley’s view that most of the town was burnt down was repeated by Charles Coote in his King’s County survey for the Dublin Society, published in 1801 (pp 176–7). Coote looked on Tullamore as a very neat town, which owed its newly acquired consequence to the present Lord Charleville. 

about fourteen years ago it was but a very mean village, with scarce any better than thatched cabins, which were almost all destroyed by accidental fire, occasioned by the launching a balloon, and since has risen, Phenix like, from its ashes , to its present pre-eminence : it is certainly the best town in the county, and bids fair to be little inferior to any town in Ireland; the houses are all slated, built mostly two stories in height, and ornamented with window stools and top courses of a fine hewn stone. The linen manufacture has been introduced here, and is likely to be pursued  with spirit; . .  A brewery and distillery are worked in this town, and two more breweries are erecting; here is also a bolting mill of inconsiderable powers on account of the lackage of water.  This indeed is the only obstacle to its becoming a great manufacturing town; over the river Clodagh is a neat bridge, and stream nearly divides the town into two equal parts.  The barracks are spacious and very handsome, the market is well supplied with provisions, and a neat market house has been built at his Lordship’s expense.

The Coote and Wesley comments are partly true only as many of the fine houses in Bridge Street, O’Connor Square and High Street pre-date the fire, as does the former Williams head office/Music Academy in Patrick Street.

Charles William Bury, the first earl of Charleville (of the second creation) presided over the fortunes of Tullamore from his coming of age in 1785 to his death fifty years later.  The burning of Patrick Street gave him an opportunity to let the properties there on new leases and widen the street in the process.  During this time the population expanded three-fold to over 6,000 in 1841.  The new streets, such as Offaly Street, Harbour Street and William Street all followed the grid iron pattern and a second market square known as the Cornmarket was provided in the 1820s.  The Tullamore tenants petitioned the Irish House of Commons in 1784 and in 1786 to designate Tullamore as the county town in place of Daingean, but because of the significant political influence of the Ponsonby family, now owners of Daingean, this was not achieved until 1832-35.

Tullamore town c. 1809 from Larkin’s map. Courtesy of Arnold Horner and NAI. Published in Mapping Offaly.

Lord Charleville did not develop the residential or commercial properties himself, save the civic buildings, four houses in Patrick Street and the town’s main hotel (the Bury Arms, now the location of Boots Pharmacy) and in use until the late 1990s.  Instead, Charleville brought in the middlemen to build and sell or retain, either way at a profit rent.  Chief among the developers or building speculators was Thomas Acres.  His 1786 house is since 1992, the headquarters of Tullamore Urban District Council, now the municipal council. 

The lands sold by Bury to the Grand Canal Company. The old road from Philipstown to the Pound is shown. The terminus of the canal until 1804 was close to Store Street.

This house was built at the junction of O’Moore Street and High Street on a handsome site known as Kilcruttin Hill.  Acres, apparently a close friend or in the employ of Bury, erected a house similar in s building materials to the Wilson house in High Street (1789, and now Donal Farrelly and Co.).  Acres and his family were involved in the building of some 140 houses in the town, or some 15 percent of the housing stock in the 1900s.  There were other speculators too and between them the town as we know it (excluding the centre core, which is pre-1785 and suburbia, which emerged after 1900) was completed between 1785 and the eve of the Famine in 1845.

Tullamore town from the Grand Canal Company atlas 1804 by John Killaly. Courtesy of the Waterways Ireland Archive. The atlas was first on display in Tullamore in 1976 for a canal exhibition organised by Offaly History and Inland Waterways Tullamore branch.

All the older buildings of note in Tullamore were erected (or replaced) at this time, including:

  1. The church of 1726 in Church Avenue was replaced over the period 1808 to 1815 by St Catherine’s church at Hop Hill. St. Catherine’s Church of Ireland with its Bachelors Walk, which was designed partly to give the landlord access to the church from Charleville while avoiding the town while providing an attractive walk for local people. The church was designed by Francis Johnston.
  2. After the balloon fire of May1785 it may be that Patrick Street (south) was widened and the Bury Arms Hotel was completed by November of that year.
  3. Thomas Acres erected Acres Hall in 1786 and began work on Cormac Street, O’Moore Street (south) and William Street after 1790.
  4. In 1788 a new county infirmary was built in the creation of a new Church Street instead of Church Avenue and a site provided for a new Methodist church. Work did not start on the terrace until 1805.
  5. In the same year of 1788 a new preaching house was completed on the site of the present Methodist church to replace that destroyed in the balloon fire of 1785 at Swaddling Lane (behind what is now Mezzo).
  6. The following year the construction of the market house saw the completion of the town’s first market square which had been in progress since at least 1713. The former town hall or Market House in O’Connor Square was erected possibly to a design of John Pentland, the architect. Pentland had been responsible for a street-plan for building plots in William Street (now Colum Cille Street) constructed by Acres after 1790. The original open arches to ground level of the Market House were closed in, possibly as early as 1820 when trading activity was removed to the Shambles and Cornmarket (now Market Square).
  7. From 1798 with the arrival of the canal there followed the construction of three new bridges from 1800 to 1809. A warehouse at Bury Quay/Convent Road still standing), collector’s house, canal hotel with extensive stores and new streets at Bury Quay, St Brigid’s Place, Store Street and Harbour Street.
  8. The war with France led to the building of an ordnance magazine in 1808 at what is now Convent View/ Tyrrell’s Road. Only an outer wall at G. Scully’s survives.
  9. Charleville castle – erected between 1800 and 1812 to a design of the landlord’s architect, Francis Johnston, with assistance or intervention from the patron, Charles William Bury and his wife Maria Catherine (married in 1798). This house is considered to be among the finest of Johnston’s gothic-style houses in Ireland. The park in which it is set substantially survives and now provides a spacious green belt between Tullamore town and the growing suburb of Mucklagh.
  10. The old Catholic church in Tullamore town was erected in 1802, on a site provided by Bury in 1794 in what would have been a backward area of the town. This church was demolished in 1902 and a neo-gothic style church to a design of William Hague completed by 1906. This church was destroyed by fire in 1983 and entirely reconstructed by 1986 save only for the spire, which had survived the fire.
  11. In 1811 new schools were provided close to the infirmary. In all of this can be seen the careful attention to town planning much as Bury had lavished on the creation of the enlarged demesne in the 1785–1815 period.
  12. Bury’s last contribution was to oversee the creation of a new square closer to the harbour for the sale of livestock and the weekly market. It was close to the ample stores at the canal harbour. The shambles, initially located at the back of the market house, were relocated to the new market square by 1820 on the site of the old Protestant church. More about this in a later article.

The John Killaly maps of Tullamore in 1804–7

The 1807 map of Tullamore courtesy of the Waterways Ireland Archives In the same Killalys series.

The canal engineer John Killaly (see the blog by Professor Ron Cox in this series) knew Tullamore well and to him and the Grand Canal Company we owe important maps of Tullamore. Very little by way of maps for the pre-1800 period are known to survive. One atlas of Charleville (Bury) estate of 1786 was last seen in 1958 but not since.

The 1804 Killaly map together with other lease maps show that the main roads to the town from Dublin were via Tyrrellspass and Philipstown (Daingean). Before the completion of the line of the canal to Shannon Harbour the Philipstown Road joined Connaught Street and passed to the south of what is now the Kilbeggan bridge at what was the pound. It intersected with the Puttaghan Road to Tyrrellspass, the bog road known as Thornburgh Lane and the road to Kilbeggan. The road to Clara was via Barrack/Patrick Street and cutting through what is now Kilbride Park to connect in with Clara Road. The old road to Srah was via O’Dempsey Street and joined Srah Road where Pearse Park is now located. This is best seen on the 1838 OS six-inch map. Kilbride Street was developed after 1800 with the new street from Clara Bridge to what is now Dolan’s shop. The barracks of 1716 and the original town mill are marked very clearly on the 1807 map by Killaly. The Protestant church of 1726 and the old linen factory of the 1750s were both off Church Avenue/ Street. The inn is dated to late 1785 and remained a major bonus to the town until the 1990s. The infirmary and the meeting house were built on the extended Church Street in 1788. The new bridge at Church Road near where Lidl is now located, and dating to 1795, opened up access from Geashill. The access from the Tanyard may predate this bridge by ten years. The Catholic chapel was not completed until about 1802 on a site provided by Bury about 1794.

Tullamore from the six-inch 1838 OS map. The old roads to Srah and Clara can be picked up on closer inspection.

The fire of 1785 provided an impetus to development, but it was the canal, the planning for it and the implementation of the works that provided justification for Coote and others to remark on how Tullamore had risen from the ashes.

  • Was there a road from Daingean to the old bridge behind the library? We can find no evidence for it. Killaly’s map of 1807 shows a bridge or building and a mill race off the river, then called the Maiden River. It was deepened in the 1840s and again about 1950.
  • Was there a military barrack on the site of the later harbour? Where is the evidence? It was the location of Lord Tullamore’s house until Charles Moore moved to Charleville in 1740.
  • The same can be said as to the canal stores at Store Street (until the fire of 1960) predating the harbour and forming part of an old barracks.
  • Was Tullamore ‘a mean village’ before 1785. Read a later instalment.

Michael Byrne