Recalling old Bridge Street, Tullamore. By Michael Byrne. Part of the Tullamore 400th series, no. 7. A further contribution to the Heritage Council programme on living in towns.

Bridge Street, that narrow street that we rush through so many times each week, but have to stop at lights whether on foot or by car (or bike), is as old as the town itself. Here is the river that divides the town, was a source of water and power for milling and, because of this, a base for settlement. The bridge may date back to the 1720s and was in use from that time. The township of Tullamore dates back to the 1620s at least, but it was another 100 years before we learn of the first leases granted by Lord Tullamoore for buildings where the Bridge House now stands. Further on can be seen a date-stone in Douglas Jewellers giving a date of 1747. It was also at this time that the Tormey and Flynn shop properties were built by Edward Briscoe. The site of the Bank of Ireland may have been occupied by cabins, but it was in the 1780s that the houses here were built and later on that it got its Portland stone façade. Bridge Street had only six leaseholders from Lord Tullamoore/ later the earls of Charleville. The sites were generous with a large frontage. That of the Bridge House was 55 ft, followed by that of Tyrrell (now Douglas and the Foxy Bean restaurant) followed by the Vaughan leasehold (where now is the vehicular and pedestrian entrance to the Bridge Centre). Across the street was the Ridley, Acres and Briscoe leaseholds.

This article is part of our contribution to the Heritage Council’s historic towns initiative and to quote:

Many of our city, town and village centres are historic places with their own distinct identities. Sustaining these is a complex process that in many cases involves the conservation and re-use of existing buildings, the care of public spaces and the provision of community facilities. The conservation and interpretation of this heritage makes our towns interesting, unique and attractive to residents and visitors. In support of the Town Centres First policy set out in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future (2020), the Historic Towns Initiative (HTI) is a joint undertaking by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Heritage Council which aims to promote the heritage-led regeneration of Ireland’s historic towns.

Boot’s Pharmacy is of recent vintage (2001). The old hotel stood here from no later than the autumn of 1785, and perhaps as early as the 1740s, until 2000. Few may know that Bridge Street was even narrower for all of 200 years from the 1740s until 1938 when part of what is now the Tormey and Flynn building had more of an L-plan shape and the front projecting rooms were demolished. The place was then known as Dann’s tea rooms after a family who had a grain business in the lane now known as Bridge Lane (better known as Danns’ Lane where Tommy Ghee has his printing works up to recent years). History is repeating itself with Flynn’s Tea Rooms now pulling together perhaps all of the Briscoe building of the 1740s. The other lane off the street is gone since 1992 with the road widened when the Bridge Centre was built in 1995 and in 1998 the Bridge Hotel.

Bridge Street with the pre-1910 Egan Bridge House front and the Dann’s Tea Rooms jutting out.

So much has changed since the 1960s when the famous Egan’s grocery and hardware store occupied the Bridge House and where the family business had its head office for over 100 years until 1968. Beside it one recalls the small bar and next was the Offaly Pharmacy (Purcell’s) and an Egan farm shop. At the entrance to the present-day Bridge Centre was the firm of Hoey & Denning, Solicitors and across the street the Hibernian Bank (since 1864). Wakefield’s old grocery was modernised in the 1960s by Dick Abraham. It was incorporated in the Bank of Ireland building in the 1970s. North of Bridge Lane (Dann’s Lane) was Kearney’s butchers (Joe the Butch to distinguish him from Joe the Sol – late of Conway & Kearney, Solicitors) and next was Adams Pharmacy, now Flynn’s Tea Rooms.

The new Bridge House front of 1910

Hayes’ Hotel (later rebuilt as # 1, Menary’s and now Boot’s Pharmacy) was a famous landmark in Tullamore with Hayes’ Cross the centre of trade and activity in the town.  The hotel was small but met the needs of the town at the time. Students worked their Christmas holidays there in the late 1960s at the grand sum of 2s. and 6d. per hour when the late Gerry Moynihan was manager. Later it was modernised and as students in the 1970s some used to call it ‘The Plywood Arms’, instead of its newer name, The Phoenix Arms. Every building on the street has its history and its lore with Hayes’ Hotel and Egan’s Bridge House having more than most. The Chief Secretary for Ireland, W.E. Forster, stood on the balcony of the hotel in 1882, to give a rare public speech, such was the fear for his life at the time of the Land War.

Nonetheless what is remarkable is the continuity here. The bridge was widened in 1938 after fifty years of discussion. Bridge House got its wonderful Tullamore-stone front in 1910 and Boot’s was built as a bar and restaurant in 2001. The Hoey and Denning house of 1756 was demolished in 1992 for the new Bridge Centre entrance. The Bridge House grocery shop is gone but the bar and restaurant replaced it in 1971 and is now the oldest restaurant establishment in Tullamore. There was until recently still a pharmacy here, albeit beside Tormey’s. That on the opposite side of the street closed in the early 1970s. The bank is here since 1864 and in expanding premises over the years from the 1930s to the 1970s.  Tormey’s wonderful butcher shop has a long history back to the 1890s when the meat was hung out on the street and it was more of an open stall than a shop.

Bridge Street in the 1940s

What we have held for so long we should celebrate. When passing the street or dancing in the Palace night club again think of the shop boys who worked long hours and lived over the shop in Egan’s Bridge House and girls who worked as maids from a young age in this and other streets of the town. Looking down the river is to go back in time and recall memories of years past.

Bridge Street is a short street linking the wider spaces of O’Connor Square and Columcille Street and dates from the 1720s. The view of the river has been improved in recent years. The significant changes here were the deepening of the river in the 1850s (and again in the late 1940s) the new Bridge House front of 1910 and the widening of the street in 1938 with the removal of the front rooms of the L-plan Dann’s tea rooms. The street has always had significant buildings of good quality and a good trading position. All the buildings here were slated probably from before 1800 and almost all were three-storey reflecting pre-1780s development for the most part. Some have large basements as with Bridge House and so too did the old hotel.

Bridge Street in the early 1960s with the Egan bar and Offaly Pharmacy on the left and Wakefield’s buiding of the 1790s on the right. The old shambles was to the rear behind the market house.

Bridge Street is one of the older streets of the town along with the upper half of Church Street. Building work in Bridge Street can be dated to 1748 (Tormey’s and Douglas-Foxy Bean buildings), but it seems likely that the buildings on the site of the present Bridge House were erected in the 1720s. The name Bridge Street came into use in the early nineteenth century. Prior to that time it was regarded as part of High Street.[1]

[1] The name probably came into use in the 1830s. It is not mentioned in Pigot’s directory of 1824. It is noted on the town plan of 1838.