The new Esker Arts Centre at no. 13 High Street, Tullamore. A contribution to the Living in Towns series by Offaly History.

So we are soon reaching the day when the new Esker Arts Centre building will open in Tullamore. Is it the first public building since 2013 and the new bridges on the canal. Before that we had the town library (2011), the regional hospital, the town park, bypass, courthouse and the swimming pool. When Revd Dean Craig performed the opening ceremony for the newly built courthouse in June 1927 (after its burning in 1922) he could not remember when such an opening had taken place of a public building and that stretched back to his father’s coming to Tullamore in 1869. So these openings are important and give rise to a good deal of pleasure, pride in our place and hope for the future.

The arts in Tullamore was never a strong point when compared with towns like Birr and Athlone. That is in the past and we now look forward to a programme of events for 2023 and beyond. The arts centre project in Tullamore has gone through vicissitudes since it was first planned in the 2000s and dropped as late as 2014 when the budget was too high but less than it is today. . Now the new building is in the former Kilroy’s store in High Street and not in Kilbride Park as was once intended. Before that the library district was considered in a €20 million plan that was dropped after 2007. In its style, as to the exterior, the new arts center bears more resemblance to the Wexford opera house (2010). Unlike the great local public buildings, such as the courthouse (1835-1922-1927-2007) or the jail of 1830 (destroyed in 1922 by the retreating Republicans during a disastrous civil war) the new arts centre is built on the site of a shopping precinct since the 1880s and earlier.

The pavements were not great but the buildings were so fine. Bank of Ireland front of 1870 (now Hoey & Denning) and Ulster Bank (1890s). The Kilroy front was c. 1880.

The now arts building occupied three generations of the Kilroy family in the years 1908-2007. It was a great hardware store and early made a reputation that was consolidated under the young Dermot Kilroy whose coming into full management of the business coincided with the start-up of RTE Television. He and his father, James A. and son Derry Kilroy were all master marketeers – something that will not be lost on the news arts administration whose job it will be to make the new Esker Arts Centre a viable and attractive proposition. And no doubt it can be.

The new arts centre is in Tullamore central with a strong location in the High Street where so much business was done in the past and good parking in public and private carparks nearby. No doubt it will have coffee and liquor facilities. It would make sense to secure the adjoining Ulster Bank building if the bank would be disposed to sell at a reasonable price in recognition of its contribution to Tullamore since 1893. We say this because the bank and Kilroy’s (now the arts centre) were part of one property from the 1800s and had a common landlord in the Crofton family, long associated with Tullamore. Their main home was at Merryfield – a lost demesne on the site of what is now Charleville Lake (1809-12), but they also had 29 High Street (from the 1930s the Roberts garage).

The old shop front was considered the finest in Tullamore in the 1880s. This picture possibly about 1957 with J.A. Kilroy at the shop entrance. The Carragher pharmacy appears to be under renovation.

GV (Griffith Valuation 1854) 13 and 14 High Street, Esker Arts Centre (formerly Kilroy’s hardware store and Ulster Bank)

The combined Kilroy and Ulster Bank property can be described as two three-storey, four-bay houses with ground floor shopfront, and the Ulster Bank erected early 1970s, on the site of a house similar in style to the Kilroy store. It is difficult to date the houses because when Charleville, as the ground landlords, leased to Mrs Elizabeth Crofton in 1801 there were already two dwelling houses on the site. The site for these two houses was large at 85 feet in front, whereas Cuddehy’s [the former Conway’s coffee and adjoining shop] was 37.5 ft and the George Slator leasehold (now Hoey & Denning was 67 ft. in front). The houses on the Crofton site were probably built in the late 1790s but one cannot be sure about this. Perhaps the earlier houses were rebuilt but always was in situ by 1801.[1]  House property more so than today were investment vehicles with often multiple layers of ownership in the days before public investment funds.

Kilroy’s about 1916 following extensive renovation

GV 13 High Street, Esker Arts Centre (formerly Kilroy’s hardware store)

In 1802 Elizabeth Crofton, widow assigned to A.T. Crofton, attorney-at-law, the house in High Street measuring to the gateway on the south side 85 ft and 210 ft from front to rere containing in the whole 23 perches. There were then two dwelling houses on the demised premises, one belonging to –Bennett, widow and another enjoyed by the Reps of Charles Molloy. The Bennett house was assigned for a sum of £136 for ever. The current lives were Thomas C. Crofton, the lessee, Elizabeth Crofton (otherwise Blackburn, his wife) and Walter Crofton, then a lieutenant in the Leitrim Militia, subject to payment of half the yearly rent.[2]

In 1802 the house was owned by Elizabeth Bennett, a widow (subject to the head lease). In that year Elizabeth Bennett had family with her comprised of: William 22, George 20, John 18, Elizabeth 17, Eleanor 16, Anne 12, Taylor 10, Charles 9, Joseph 7.[3] Thomas Collins carried on a drapery business there in 1843 and Michael Moynan the same business in 1854. Collins was said to have improved the premises in the 1840s. In the meantime the entitlement to the annual rent under the occupational lease passed from George Bennett, of Tullamore, a carpenter to Samuel Greene, late of Dublin and now of Tullamore, at a rent of £34. 2s. 6d. Greene had the right to surrender the lease every three years.[4] Wilder and Collins transferred an interest in the property to Whiteside, merchants, in May 1836.[5] The Whiteside family were connected with the Bridge House until Patrick Egan took over in 1852).

13. (31)      Thomas Collins – Woollen draper [Crofton] Collins improved this concern, also No. 30 – there is a lock up yard and the garden containing 0.0.11.

                   F.38.0, H.20.0, Q.L.1B+ L.R. 20.0

As noted above Michael Moynan moved out of GV 12 in the late 1850s and having already occupied GV 13 took a lease of no. 14. This he improved and his total valuation on the two properties was £33. Both were held from Anthony Crofton.

The shop post the renovations after the fire of 1915. In those days the motor car hire came with a driver.

Richard Hannagen, late of Morris & Co Carlow, took over a business at premises lately occupied by Miss Henshall next door to Ulster Bank in High Street in 1893. At the same time C. H. Pyke purchased the E. C. Williams of Birr interest in a hardware business at GV 2 Charleville Square.[6]  Hannagan was one of the promotes of the town’s agricultural show until his death in the early 1920s.

James A. Kilroy acquired the hardware store of Richard Hannagan about 1907–8 and expanded by 1912 with furniture and a cycle showroom.[7] A native of Westmeath, his wife was from County Wexford. He refurbished in 1916 following a major fire in 1915 and continued to expand with the inclusion of the old Kenny ballroom and the Crawford house across the street (GV 44) in 1960. In a puff for Christmas 1917 the local press reported of his shop:

In the cycle and also in the house furnishing trade Mr J.A. Kilroy holds the field. Since his advent to Tullamore about six years ago, he has by close attention to business developed an enormous house furnishing trade, and an inspection of the large wareroom at the rear of the shop will show some splendid and costly articles of furniture. There is a fine show of hardware and everything imaginable in ironmongery. Mr Kilroy carries on a very extensive cycle and motorcycle trade, being the sole agent for the Premier Royal Enfield, Centaur and Rudge Whitworth machines. Motor cars are kept for hire at any hour of the day or night and there are some new Ford cars for sale at present. In connection with the furniture department Mr Kilroy carries on upholstering and furniture renovating, an experienced cabinet maker and upholsterer being specially retained on the premises.[8]

The private house (GV 45, now called no. 6 High Street) was acquired in 1956 by his son Dermot. The founder, James Arthur Kilroy, died in 1960, aged 83, survived by his wife Lucy (Gorey) and six sons -Noel, Percy, Frank, George, Dermot and Desmond The business in High Street closed in 2007 and was moved to Cloncollog under the new Expert chain soon after. The closure was a major blow to retailing in High Street given that the great store was a landmark in retailing in the midlands, specialising in electrical goods and the hire and sale of televisions.[9]  The property comprising 1,502 sq. meters or 0.6 of an acre was offered for sale for €7m in 2008.[10] The shop was acquired for an arts centre in Tullamore in 2016 at a cost of €405,000 and is expected to open to the public in April 2023.[11] The total cost may be of the order of €8 million including site acquisition and extras. It already looks great value given building inflation in the past three years.

The television era had not arrived when J.A. K. was admiring his window in the 1950s. He died in 1960.

So who was living in the now Arts Centre in 1901?

1901 Census – No 8, GV 13, High Street was a Hardware store, 1st class, twelve rooms occupied by the Hyland family. The house had twelve windows to the front. 

HylandJohnHead of FamilyRC49R.I.C. PensionerMKings Co
HylandJaneWifeRC25MCo Galway
HylandJohnSonRC12ScholarNMCo Galway
HylandFrancisSonRC10ScholarNMCo Galway
HylandJosephineDaughterRC8ScholarNMCo Galway
HylandLizzieDaughterRC7ScholarNMCo Galway
HylandCeceliaDaughterRC2NMCo Tipperary
HylandAgnesDaughterRC NMKings Co

The picture in 1911: The Kilroy Family had come from Wexford and now lived in a 1st class private dwelling in a house/Shop made of brick and slate roof from c. 1908 to the 1950s. The house had 8 windows to the front. Kilroy Family had occupied 6 rooms. The house had 2 out-offices which were 1 was workshop and 1 shed. Husband, wife, 2 sons and three servants (one male ironmonger assistant, one female Nurse and one female Domestic servant)

KilroyJames ArthurHead of FamilyCOI32IronmongerMCo Westmeath
KilroyLucyWifeCOI26MCo Wexford
KilroyNoel James JSonCOI1SKings Co
KilroyFrank Arthur MSonCOI SKings Co
CruisePeterServantRC35Ironmonger AssistantSKings Co
CumbertonMary KateServantRC21General Domestic ServantSKings Co
MooneyKateServantRC19Nurse Domestic ServantSKings Co

1911 census High Street (no.53) –unoccupied- part of the building was used as a commercial club.

Ushering in the 1960s

The television arrived in 1960-61 and in 1994 Jack Charlton

The petrol pump was still extant as was Wills’ Handy Cut signage in Tom Tutty’s formerly Daly’s sweets and lending library. The CBS boys bought their cigarettes here one at a time in the early 1960s.

So Kilroy’s became a household name over the years from 1907-8. The disastrous fire of 1915 was overcome. It finally let to the setting up of the town fire brigade So James A. Kilroy had cars, bicycles and petrol for sale. Robbed during the 1920-23 period these problems were overcome. Old James A. K. died in 1960 a few months before the advent of Telefís Éireann and the growth of a transformative influence in Irish society. His son Dermot had already acquired the famous old Kenny ballroom and expanded the shop in the late 1950s and 1960s. Across the street the old Charleville Estate Office was acquired in 1959 and for the opening of the shop-showrooms he had the Andy Hennessy twelve-piece orchestra play in the front windows. Later, under his son Derry, it would be Jack Charlton doing the honours (1994). The great store closed in 2007 with nothing but memories of a great family and staff where reliability was the touch-stone of a great service in the days before flat-screens and IKEA. The new building will be redolent of fond memories. By the way renting a television in the early 1960s was 9s. per week, or to buy with aerial erected almost £50. By contrast a Prinz car was just over £500. Kilroy’s store was a major influence for the arts and modernisation as CCO’B was early to recognise.

Meath or Brewery Lane beside Kilroy’s with the Hickey house to the rear on the right. No waste from J.A. K. or Dermot recalling his verb sap. ‘It’s not what you make, it’s what you save’.

Text: Michael Byrne with thanks to Tommy McKeigue, Breda Kenny and Brian Cleary.

Next week: the arts in Tullamore since the 1750s, 1850s or 1950s? Now which century was it?

[1] Registry of Deeds, 17 March 1802, Crofton to Crofton, memorial no., 542/499/358946; 3 April 1809, Bennett to Greene, memorial no., 615/72/419974/ 21 May 1828, Newtown to Crennan, memorial no., 836/139/561674; 17 July 1799, Crofton to Crofton, memorial no. 522/575/343130.

[2] Registry of Deeds, 17 Mar 1802, 542/499/358946.

[3] C.C. Ellison (ed.), ‘Early 19th century lists of Protestant parishioners in the diocese of Meath’ in Irish Ancestor, vol. V, no. 2 (1973), pp 113-26

[4] Registry of Deeds, 3 Apr. 1809, 615/72/419974.

[5] Registry of Deeds, May 1836, 1842/9/232.

[6] King’s County Chronicle, 7 Sept. 1893.

[7] Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 3 Dec. 1912; obit J.A. Kilroy, Offaly Independent, 12 Mar. 1960.

[8] Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 22 Dec. 1917.

[9] Tullamore and King’s County Independent, 27 Feb. 1915; King’s County Chronicle, 4 Mar. 1915, 11 Mar. 1916.

[10] Tullamore Tribune, 12 Jan. 2008.

[11] Tullamore Tribune, 21 Apr. 2016.