Planning for a new central Tullamore. By Fergal MacCabe. Knowledge-based support for creativity and innovation

‘The Beaujolais’

Sometime in the 1830s, the architect William Murray (1789-1849), best known for designing mental hospitals all around Ireland, presented a quick outline of a new public square in Tullamore which would be bounded on three sides by fine houses and dominated on the fourth by the imposing portico of the recently erected County Courthouse. 

The title of his drawing’ Thoughts for a Square at Tullamore, Ireland facing the Courthouse to be called ‘The Beaujolaissuggests that it was not an actual commission but more likely a broad brush and quickly executed response to a remark by Lady Beaujolais Bury the wife of the local grandee, perhaps exchanged at a social gathering. Architects do this a lot to get business and Murray may have been trying to reconnect commercially with the family who had given his cousin Francis Johnston such valuable and prestigious commissions as Charleville Forest and St Catherine’s Church.

Of course Murray’s elegant scheme was never realised and was to be the last proposal for a civic design set piece in Tullamore for some time. In the 1950s, the urban planner Frank Gibney suggested the creation of a parkland setting for the Church of the Assumption but this notion was eventually shelved and for the following seventy years no further interventions which would combine coherent built form with public benefits were to be advanced and the planning of the town remained firmly in the hands of engineers whose principal spatial concern was the accommodation of the motor car.

Thankfully radical change is now imminent. Soon, internationally respected firms of planners and architects will begin to formulate regeneration proposals for the town centre and for the first time since the early 19th century give urban design its rightful place. These professionals will bring their own skills but will invite the views and local knowledge of citizens and stakeholders. Hopefully this will stimulate lots of creative new ideas on what the town might look like twenty years from now. Emulating Murray’s ‘Thoughts for a New Square’ I would like to kick off the debate with my own ‘Thoughts for a New Riverside Park at Tullamore to be called ‘John Wesley Lawn’. My sketch is prompted by the opportunity presented by the combination of a significant site with several new initiatives:

Thoughts for a New Riverside Park at Tullamore to be called ‘John Wesley Lawn’. Many thanks to Fergal MacCabe for this excellent presentation.

A Key Location 

 Located at the very geographical and historical heart of the town, the lands between O’Connor Square and Church Street, presently occupied by an unsightly ruin, the long hidden 18th c.bridge across the Tullamore River and the surface car park of the County Library, will play a critical role. They are bounded by the large open field at the rear of the Methodist Chapel.

While the creation of a link across them has been mooted for thirty-seven years, they would also be an ideal location for responding to some exciting new initiatives recently promoted by the Government and Offaly County Council.

Christmas Market in the original market square, 2012 and not 1712.

Living River Project

Whatever natural character the Tullamore River ever had was lost in the 1950s when on foot of the Brosna Drainage Scheme, it was channelised, deepened and reduced to an almost hidden drain running through the backlands of the town.

In February 2020 Offaly County Council initiated the Living River Project to increase amenity and recreational opportunities along its banks, restore its ecological integrity and improve its biodiversity and water quality.

The first phase comprising a downstream Wetland Park has just opened to acclaim. The Council now plans to raise the bed of the river upstream of the old bridge behind the Library to create greater turbulence in the flow. This will increase edge habitats and benefit wildlife by bringing a greater diversity of fish and plants. The watercourse will be realigned and enhanced by new planting to make it  more natural and sinuous. The eastern bank will be lowered to river level to allow greater access and appreciation. 

A delightful sylvan riverside scene will be created and for the first time ever, the potential for seamlessly integrating the amenity of the river with the daily life of the town will become possible.

Green space to the back of the county library and the Permanent Trustee Bank (GV 7 and 8 O’Connor Square)

Intensive Usage of Central Lands

In February of 2022 the Government launched its radical ‘Town Centres First’ policy.

To respond to our climate change commitments, town centres will be made more attractive places to live, work and play. A more intensive use of the most centrally located sites will be demanded and a mix of uses, particularly residential, encouraged. This should result in the delivery of high-quality public spaces and in particular walking and cycling will be promoted. 

Our Rural Future 2021-2025

Recently issued, this visionary Governmental programme is lyrical regarding locally produced food and is particularly supportive of the role which farmers markets, farm shops and food emporiums can play in the revitalisation of our towns.

Tullamore town park: of the unsung boons to Tullamore of 2008-9 and since

A New Amenity

The opportunity which the combination of these new policies presents is that the lands between O’Connor Square and Church Street, which are actually the most central in Tullamore, should not just end up as a mundane paved walkway but be developed as an intensive multi-use development capitalising on their enhanced river frontage and contributing to the further success of Offaly artisan foods and crafts as a valuable new tourism attraction. They would also be a perfect location for an imaginative children’s playground.

The long held vision of historian Michael Byrne of a new street over the river is worthy of exploration. Such a proposal could mimic and recollect the Old Bridge in Birr which was lined by shops and houses on either side in the manner of the Rialto Bridge in Venice or the Ponte Vecchio of Florence but which was sadly demolished in the 1960s. The residential designs might reference Frank Gibney’s iconic terraces on Clontarf Road.

The link therefore would not just be an uneventful and unsupervised passageway between two busy streets, but a destination and focus in itself and with its river views, a very desirable residential location. A small but well landscaped riverside park could provide a setting for a significant work of public art celebrating the 400th anniversary of the foundation of Tullamore, perhaps based on the column in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. 

Rather than simply removing the ruin on the Church Street frontage and leaving a large hole, the opportunity to provide a fine modern building containing a restaurant/delicatessen which would better close the vista from Market Square might be explored. 

Acres Hall: now the home of the Tullamore Municipal Council and a significant achievement for the former Tullamore Urban District Council

John Wesley Lawn?

The key to the unlocking of this potential is the open field to the rear of the Methodist Chapel which runs down to the river.

The Chapel, which is an enlargement of the original 1814 building and a Protected Structure, is emblematic of the civic commitment of the long established Methodist community in Tullamore and the important role it has played in the history of the town. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791) was a frequent visitor to Tullamore between 1748 and 1789 and preached in the nearby Town Hall soon after it was completed. Today, Methodism has 20 million members worldwide of which 11 million are in America.

If it were possible therefore to incorporate these lands into a new public amenity, the achievements of John Wesley could be acknowledged in its namin.

A regular visitor to Tullamore from almost forty years until 1789

Crazy Ideas Needed

The first phase consultation process of making a plan for central Tullamore will be starting soon and sensible and deliverable schemes will eventually emerge. But in this initial stage -as in the spirit of Murray’s ‘ Thoughts’ – what is really needed are crazy, possibly unfeasible, blue sky notions, however far-fetched, which will stimulate a debate about the creation of a future and very different Tullamore.

Offaly History Heritage Walk in 2014. We can now add Ulster Bank to the changing scene in High Street and welcome the new Esker Arts Centre.

Our thanks to Fergal MacCabe for this thoughtful piece of works. Photos and captions Offaly History. If you would like to contribute an article to our series, email us

A contribution from Offaly History to knowledge-based support for Creativity and Innovation