Eat, heat and drink: piped water for Tullamore 125 years ago. A contribution to Tullamore 400th from Offaly History

Piped water for Tullamore town was first provided in 1895. In these blogs we have already looked at listings of shops since 1824, the provision of piped gas lighting in 1860 and electricity in 1921. The provision of piped water to a home is a wonderful facility and yet many homes were without it even as recently as fifty years ago. It took a while for the Irish country towns to procure the service largely because the local ratepayers were directly concerned in footing the bill. Tullamore had town commissioners from 1860 and an urban council with more sanitary powers from 1900. The waterworks was undertaken by the board of guardians with the help of loans from the Local Government Board.

Join us on Friday 30th in Millennium Square, Main Street, to see #OffalyHistory blogs presented in a picturesque timeline to celebrate #Tullamore400. We have entertainment from 2pm to 6pm in association with Up Close & Personal Promotions with thanks to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media for their #LocalLivePerformance support.

A ready supply of water and of turf for the people of Puttaghan and Clontarf Road. All that was needed was the tea. Pic about 1910.

In an effort to keep the town rate low the Tullamore commissioners had not been vested with any powers in regard to sanitation when established in 1860. A proper system of sanitation was the great goal of all those who sought improvement in urban living conditions in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first important public health reform measure was passed in 1874 as the Public Health (Ireland) Act. Under this act for towns with a population of less than 6,000, such as Birr and Tullamore, the board of guardians of the poor law union in which the town was situated became the rural sanitary authority.[1]  Another and more important act, the Public Health (Ireland) Act, was passed in 1878. This dealt with the provision of water supplies and sewerage works and also placed certain prohibitions on the sale of food. For the rest of the United Kingdom similar legislation had been passed in 1871-5.[2]

High Street junction with Acres Hall in the background. On the street was the last surviving pump dating back to the 1840s. The new and familiar pump can be seen to the left. About 1900

The poor law guardians were notoriously reluctant to spend money. In unions such as Tullamore many of the guardians were farmers and naturally disinclined to put an extra charge on the union rates for the benefit of Tullamore town. So far as Tullamore was concerned the 1890s saw the beginning of an interest in several areas of sanitary reform, especially housing. The Tullamore water scheme was installed over the period 1891 to 1895. Concern about the sanitary condition of Tullamore manifested itself at a meeting of the ratepayers in the Tullamore electoral division held at the Tullamore market house in March 1891. Constantine Quirke, chairman of the Tullamore Town Commissioners, took the chair.  Dr G.A. Moorhead declared to the meeting that ‘the town was a receptacle for disease’. What pumps the town had were probably contaminated by sewage; wells in the poorest areas and congested streets were particularly dangerous and a number of people had died from typhoid fever.  What they wanted said Dr Moorhead was good household drinking water which could only be produced by a waterworks.[3]

In 1891 Tullamore was served by six public pumps while some of the big business concerns had their own wells. Dr Moorhead lived in High Street in a house that from 1955 to 2015 served as part of the hostel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Moorhead had to draw what drinking water he required from the Tanyard pump some 200 yards away and must have been unhappy with the pump in High Street close to Acres Hall and the Presbyterian church.  But besides being unhealthy these wells were inadequate and the example of Nenagh where a waterworks was about to be completed was brought to the attention of the meeting.  Before the meeting concluded a resolution was carried requesting the Tullamore sanitary authority to invite tenders to supply Tullamore with pure water 

William Adams chair of the Tullamore guardians with E.J. Graham, clerk of the union. In 1914 Graham defeated Adams’s son in the December parliamentary by-election by just 79 votes and went on to represent North Offaly at Westminster. He died in early 1918, unloved by his old colleagues in the Irish Parliamentary Party as he had not been adopted as the official candidate.

The board of guardians was reluctant to do anything, but the local newspaper reports of several deaths from typhoid fever and, also, an epidemic in the Tullamore prison which resulted in the thirty-five prisoners having to be unconditionally discharged, may have forced them to take action.[4]  In July of the same year the guardians accepted the report of a Nenagh engineer who proposed that a waterworks be erected in Tullamore at a cost of £5,200. It was decided to bring the water from Clonaslee about six miles from the town.[5]  Sir Charles Cameron the public analyst had reported that the Clodiagh river was an excellent source.

The scheme was completed about 1895, but the entire cost at £10,000 was double the original estimate.[6]  Of course, the scheme made only a marginal difference to the poor of the town who could not afford the cost of connecting to the water main. The poor now had fresh water in the public pumps in place of an uncertain and sometimes putrid supply.

Waste not or pay the fine. Courtesy of Offaly History

An Inestimable Boon to Tullamore

The scheme was completed in early 1895.  One of the recently established local newspapers reported in January 1895 that the Tullamore waterworks had been completed after years of weary waiting. ‘On Saturday night the water was turned into pipes from reservoirs at Clonaslee, and on Sunday evening had travelled the intervening six miles.  In several places the pipes burst and the water sprouted with great force through the soil.[7] At Clonminch especially there was a great outburst, so much so that the lands of a Mrs Coghlan were flooded.  On the whole, however, the pipes stood a great pressure of water admirable, and the few leakages that did occur were promptly stopped.  The entire laying of the pipes in the various parts of the town is not yet completed, but in a few more days will be finished.  The water is pure and clear as crystal, though the taste is as yet anything but pleasant.  This however, will pass away after a couple of months, use of the pipes.  “Everything comes to him who waits,” and the Tullamore Waterworks are the proof of the truth conveyed in the old proverb.  For years the works have been in course of construction.  Difficulties of the most extraordinary nature, and mistakes of the peculiar type, have kept them from completion. 

The great mistake, of course, was the construction of the first reservoir (at Gurteen) which was laid in a boggy soil and when half made showed signs of collapsing’. The failure of the reservoir at Gurteen resulted in the line of pipe having to be extended a further three miles up to Brittas demesne and involved an additional cost of £1,200.  The cost of the scheme was now in the region of £8,000 with the project being financed by a loan from the Local Government Board.  In April 1895 the board of guardians received a report from an engineer, J.H.H. Swiney, on the work of Gill and the contractor, Michael Walsh of Foynes, Co. Limerick.  The Tullamore waterworks was described as consisting of (1) a weir across the river above Clonaslee, (2) two filter beds, (3) a main line consisting of seven-inch and six-inch cast iron pipes, 16,540 yards in length, (4) a distribution system of four-inch and three-inch pipes.  The distribution system began at the top of High Street but Swiney commented that a six-inch pipe should have been taken down High Street and across the bridge and not a four-inch as laid.  The pinch would be felt immediately a fire occurs.  He also remarked that it was a bad principle to have so many dead ends as it would lead to stagnating water.

Tullamore suffered again in 1899 due to heavy rains

‘that have fallen in the past few days, have given rise to unpleasantness in the town of Tullamore. On Saturday night last, the water main that supplies the town with water burst, and up to Tuesday, practically left the town without any water, especially in the higher parts. Mr. Eustace, the gas manager, accompanied by a body of men, went at once to the place, and were busily engaged up to Monday night repairing the damage. . .

All these problems were solved in the next few years.  When the town of Athy contemplated supplying itself with a waterworks in 1900 the Tullamore town clerk was asked to advise.  E.J. Graham, the then town clerk, who later represented the northern division of the county in the Westminster parliament from 1914 to 1918 wrote:

The Tullamore water supply is admitted on all sides to be an inestimable boon to the inhabitants of the town.  The total cost was about £10,000.  Its advantages are a never-failing supply of water for domestic flushing and manufacturing purposes and an efficient safeguard against the destruction of property in case of fire.  The revenue is about £200 a year.  The average rate so far is about 8d. in the pound.  The only extra information I could give you is to secure a sufficient head pressure from the intake, have proper filtering apparatus, a reservoir of sufficient capacity to store clear water in the event of a flood, and to provide a town service tank if possible.

A 1930 notice of fines courtesy of Offaly History

The Tullamore water supply was extended in 1908 to the main roads into the town.  To the poorer classes in the town living in the lanes off the main streets the new water supply would have made only a little difference.  Commenting on the need for the 1908 extension to the scheme Dr Moorhead stated that the people in the Quarry (formerly O’Connell Street and Kevin Street, and now Kilbride Park) had only one pump as their supply and that it was putrid.  Before the erection of a fountain between Kilbeggan and Clara bridges there had been typhoid outbreaks owing to the use of canal water for drinking.  The occupants of the lanes now had a supply of fresh water available at the nearest fountain but they still had to face the problem of overcrowding, lack of sanitary facilities, etc.  The provision of local authority housing from 1903 onwards had more or less solved the problem. The provision of drainage and housing was a constant balancing act for the town council with housing generally winning out much to the disgruntlement of the Local Government Board. Egan adverted to this in his poem as did County Court Judge Curran later.

The Poet Egan on the waterworks

Two amusing poems concerning the Tullamore waterworks appeared in the King’s County Chronicle in 1891 and both were by the Poet Egan of the Meelaghans, Tullamore. This one showed that it was hard to get the ratepayers to stump up.

Local lines

In Tullamore some pigs are ‘quare’

We’re roving donkeys here and there:

For weeks we cry out ‘Water, Water’-

Enough to float ‘Lirs lonely daughter.’

Brought down by some mysterious fountain,

From distant tow’ring Slievebloom mountain.

Our plans are bold, and great and grand,

And yet we’re still in thirsty land.

The ‘City Fathers’, careful men,

Will not ‘fork out’ the guineas ten:

And Joe so cautious at the Board,

The needful ‘tin’ will not afford:

And thus our glorious water scheme,

Is left a dim and empty dream.

The decorative fountain erected in O’Connor Square to mark the provision of piped water. Courtesy of Fergal MacCabe


The pictures are c. 1900, are courtesy of Offaly History. Have you a story to contribute of Offaly interest. Sit down and email it to

[1] John J. Webb, Municipal government in Ireland: medieval and modern (Dublin, 1918), pp 257-9. zzzz

[2] Michael Flannery, Sanitation, conservation and recreation services in Ireland (Dublin, 1918), pp 8-18.

[3] King’s County Chronicle, 12 March, 1891.

[4] Ibid., 14 May 1891.

[5] Ibid., 23 July 1891.

[6] Ibid., 11 April 1895 and 12 July 1900; see also Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 26 January 1895.


[Offaly Heritage Office writes on 24 9 2022]Offaly Heritage identifies the wonderful engaging blogs by Offaly History outlining how the town of #Tullamore has developed.Join us on Friday 30th in Millennium Square, Main Street, to see #OffalyHistory blogs presented in a picturesque timeline to celebrate #Tullamore400. We have entertainment from 2pm to 6pm in association with Up Close & Personal Promotions with thanks to the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media for their #LocalLivePerformance support.

Visit Offaly Tullamore Chamber

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