‘It will last for centuries’:  St. Joseph’s Convent, Tullamore

Fergal MacCabe

In 1840, the scaffolding began to come down to reveal the new convent and school of the Sisters of Mercy on Bury Quay, today Convent Road.

With the building of the County Gaol in 1830, the County Courthouse in 1835 and the Union Workhouse in 1839-41, Tullamore was rapidly acquiring substantial civic and social buildings which were adding to its prestige and promoting its new role as the capital of King’s County.

But as yet, no buildings of a religious or educational nature which might contribute equally significantly to the architectural character of the town centre had emerged. The Catholic chapel of 1802 on its backland site off Harbour Street was a relatively modest structure without a frontage presence onto a main street. Charleville School built in 1811 at the junction of Henry Street and Church Street exhibited a well-mannered but unassuming appearance. Though a most impressive structure, the siting of Francis Johnston’s St Catherine’s on Hop Hill rendered it remote from the daily life of the town.

Catholic Ascendancy

Thus, the commodious new convent, purpose built on a very prominent site by a recently arrived Order of religious sisters, five storeys high and presented in an assertive architectural style, clearly displayed the increasing confidence and ambition of the post Emancipation Irish Catholic Church and must have been a topic for much public discussion during its construction.

Patrons and Promoters

In her comprehensive and absorbing record of the experience of the Sisters of Mercy in Tullamore ‘Grow where you are Planted’, Sr. Dolores Walsh credits the philanthropist Ms Elizabeth Pentony as being the prime mover in bringing the Sisters to Tullamore. It was Ms Pentony’s hope that by establishing a school and by visiting the poor they would address the lack of education for Catholic children and help to alleviate the problems of unemployment, sickness and malnutrition which were prevalent at that stage of the town’s rapid expansion.

At the outset, two sites for a convent and school were under consideration, one close to the Union Workhouse on the Arden Road and the other between Thomas Street and Bury Quay on lands offered by Ms Pentony. The energetic Parish Priest Dr Rafferty preferred the latter due to its proximity to the nearby Catholic Church. In addition, Bury Quay with its fine terraced houses was the affluent face which Tullamore displayed to passing traffic on the canal and would confer prestige on the new institution.

The construction of the new building was generously financed by the prosperous local distiller Michael Molloy. In the light of the growing temperance movement led by Fr. Mathew, there were some local reservations about accepting funds from such a source, but these were quietly set aside.

Design and Accommodation

As no plans are available, the nature and extent of the first structure to be built must be conjectured from photographs, written records and maps. The 1838 Ordnance map shows the footprint of the works which were under construction at the time of the Survey. From photographs, particularly the Robert French image of 1865, the original structure would appear to have consisted of two directly adjoining buildings quite unlike each other in architectural character-indeed they may have been from different designers. One was a five storey building of four bays, the other a two storey building of three bays, both with separate central entrances but united by a common ridge line and presumably joined together internally.

Both were built in stone but the larger building which stood on the Bury Quay/Store Street corner had a rough hammered limestone finish with dressed quoins, window edgings, frames and mullions of granite, while its neighbour on the Bury Quay frontage had a lightly dressed limestone finish overall. Each had a substantial and imposing character.

Based on the scale and design of the window openings, it is reasonable to surmise that the five storey building contained the great majority of the functions of the Convent, while the two storey building contained the chapel on its upper floor with the refectory below.

 Sr. Dolores describes the accommodation of both together as consisting of kitchens, pantries, meat-stores, dairy and a refectory in the lower ground floor while. the chapel, community room, reception rooms, parlours and main office were on the first floor. The third and fourth floors contained two oratories, the novitiate, bedrooms and bathrooms while the attic functioned as a large dormitory.

In later years a new chapel, novitiate and fourteen bedrooms were provided along the Bury Quay frontage. An intermediate school for secondary school girls was erected in 1910 in an architectural style somewhat similar to the nearby St Columbus Classical School of 1912  and a thrust out staircase building was subsequently added to link them all.

The main entrance to the Convent was originally on the Store Street elevation and consisted of a pedimented and hooded entrance door approached by ten stone steps and flanked by two battlemented towers. Later, possibly at the time of the building of the new chapel, this was taken down and relocated onto the Bury Quay frontage. A battlemented wall with flanker towers was erected on the Store Street frontage and extended as a low boundary wall along the entirety of the Bury Quay frontage. This was quite an elegant structure incised with a repetitive pattern of recessed semi-circular arches. It is possible that it was executed in sandstone in contrast to the limestone of the buildings behind.

All of the buildings were set back from the roadway on lands within the Sisters ownership in order to provide a generous grass verge and planting  which was described in 1855 as ‘a nice area, enclosed by a cut stone boundary wall 220 feet in length, within which are planted shrubs and beauteous flowers, which give an air of agreeable freshness to this very interesting and invaluable institution’.

The Mercy Convent Tullamore about 1910

An Architect Nun

The architect of the original five storey Convent building, whether amateur or professional, is unknown. The work was carried out by local builders with stone from Molloy’s quarries at Ballyduff. The style selected, which was a version of Elizabethan/Tudor Revival, might have been intended to make some historical reference to the two oldest buildings in the Tullamore area, the 16th c. castles of Srah and Ballycowan which display the common features of tall chimneys and hooded window surrounds.

Interestingly, the design bore a very strong resemblance to another convent, Loreto Abbey in Dalkey, Co. Dublin, whose construction had just commenced. Both the Dalkey and Tullamore convents shared a semi-fortified appearance with battlements and towers and Elizabethan/Tudor Revival details. In particular, the feature of a thrust out battlemented entrance porch with flanking towers was common to both.

Today a Protected Structure, the design of  Loreto Abbey is notable for being attributed to Ireland’s first woman architect, Frances Teresa Ball (1794-1861) who was not just a talented designer who went on to deliver the magnificent Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, but was also the foundress of the Loreto Sisters.

Given that the major Irish congregations of female religious, the Sisters of Charity, Mercy, Presentation and Loreto Sisters all came into being around the same time one wonders to what extent there was an awareness of each other’s building ambitions. Certainly as a purpose built convent, the Tullamore project must have been carefully watched by the members of the other Orders. Might Frances Teresa Ball have modelled Dalkey on Tullamore or is it possible that she was a consultant or even the architect of the Tullamore work?

What a fruitful area of study for an architectural historian!

The convent in April 1936 – the centenary

Growth and Change

On her visit in late 1840 to inspect progress on the building of the new convent, the foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, the Venerable Catherine McAuley, was favourably impressed and predicted that  ‘it will last for centuries’. In May 1841 she made her final visit of inspection, dying in November of that year. Sadly, her prediction of the longevity of the new buildings did not come to pass.

The old convent about 1965 with the new school to the right

 In 1960 it was recorded that ‘ the Convent is in a bad way and needs a complete renovation’. But, following consultation with Dr Kyne, Bishop of Meath, the Sisters were advised that instead of renovation, demolition and total rebuilding of all the old convent and school buildings, was the better answer.

Thus, between 1960 and 1964 everything came down to make way for a more modern convent and for St. Philomena’s School. Ms. Pentony’s original house on Store Street known as ‘The Rookery’ and then a National School, was also removed. The Urban District Council used the redevelopment as an opportunity to dig up the grass verge of beauteous flowers and its row of mature trees and replace it with car parking.

It is likely that with the passage of time, the outdated educational facilities would and should have been replaced or modernised and while most of the buildings in which they were contained had a certain architectural merit, they were not irreplaceable.

Except for the 1841 stone built, five storey Convent

St. Joseph’s had a valid claim to have been the first convent to have been built in Ireland since the early thirteenth century. Its designer may well have been our first female architect. For its architectural merit alone, it should have been retained, together with its surrounding walls and canalside planting. Besides contributing positively to the civic character of Tullamore, it had played a leading role in Ireland’s social and educational progress.

And for the Mercy Order, it was their first foundation outside of Dublin and out of which they had spread and grown to become probably the largest Congregation of women in the Catholic Church. The demolition in 1963 of their historic Convent must have evoked mixed emotions from the Sisters. It certainly did for some past pupils of which I was one.  

The new convent and schools about 1979

But timing is everything, and in that peculiar period between the depression and widespread emigration of the 1950s and the boom of the 1960s engendered by the First Programme for Economic Expansion, modernisation at any price was the spirit of the age and many buildings of even greater architectural or historical importance than St Joseph’s Convent fell to the wrecking ball.

Our thanks to Fergal MacCabe. Have you a story to be written. Send your blog article to info@offalyhistory.com. We can, we hope, source the pictures unless you have some ready.