The decades before the Great Famine witnessed a growing interest, in both Ireland and Britain, in the problem of Ireland’s endemic poverty. The sheer extent of poverty in the country and the very nature of that impoverishment – the relative lack of capital investment; an over-reliance on small agricultural holdings and a single staple crop; the complex and pervasive culture of mendicancy (begging) – were among the most striking characteristics of pre-Famine Irish society highlighted by foreign travellers and social inquirers. As outlined in a previous post on this blog(https://offalyhistoryblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/05/poverty-in-pre-famine-offaly-kings-county-by-ciaran-mccabe), a Royal Commission for Inquiring into the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland (aka the Poor Inquiry) sat between 1833 and 1836, and examined in considerable detail, the social condition of the poorer classes throughout the island. The resulting published reports, totalling more than 5,000 pages (much of it seemingly-verbatim testimony taken at public inquiries) illuminates more than any other source the experiences of the lower sections of Irish society on the eve of the Famine; fortunately for us, the Poor Inquiry collected evidence from witnesses in King’s County.
All over the world, as maritime trade moves downstream and heavy goods are transported by motorway, redundant docks and harbours have become prime targets for urban redevelopment. In my work as a town planning consultant, I visited renewal schemes from Buenos Aires to Barcelona and from Boston to Bilbao. Some have been very successful – others less so. Two common problems with many schemes is that they are either remote from the centre of the city with consequent costs and difficulties in integrating them seamlessly into the urban fabric or else they have to be developed as stand-alone districts; which can tend to have a rather soulless character- particularly if the dominant use is commercial offices.
With a few notable exceptions (Liverpool and Galway certainly, but even these are on the edge rather than within the centre of the city) the opportunity to integrate a large waterbody into the very heart of an urban area is rare, if not unique. That is why the now mooted redevelopment of Tullamore’s canal harbour is of such significance and offers such extraordinary opportunities.
The Old Harbour
When I was growing up in Tullamore in the 1950s, commercial traffic on the Grand Canal was at its height as barges brought Guinness to Limerick and turf to Dublin. Recreational boating was rare but increasing and the arrival of a visiting cruiser was still an event. Though it was a busy place, my recollection of the harbour is that it was relatively open and accessible and was so public that some of us kids made rafts and sailed or swam around it.
Sometime in the 1960s, the harbour became the central depot for the maintenance and repair of the waterways network in the Midlands. Surrounded on all sides by high walls and rendered virtually invisible, it became an enclosed commercial property and public access or activity was discouraged. Over the years the memory of it as an attractive and vibrant part of the town gradually died.
A New Quarter for the Town
Gladly, change is at last at hand. The redevelopment and reintegration of the harbour into the heart and life of the town has become a priority project for the bodies that matter. Identified by the recently adopted Eastern and Midlands Regional Strategy as a key driver in the renewal of the centre of Tullamore, it will be eligible for renewal funding from the Regeneration and Development Fund. Offaly County Council and the owners of the harbour, Waterways Ireland are combining their skills and powers to deliver the project.
Though it may have to await the next tranche of funding in 2027, it is now possible for the people of Tullamore to begin to imagine the enjoyment of a development of hopefully world class quality. Like any major but worthwhile project, there will inevitably be setbacks and disappointments, but by making it a designated objective in the regional and local plans, the right initial steps have been taken and it is now only a matter of time before things begin to happen. What are the likely next steps?
I was glad to get out of Dublin before Christmas and get down to see my friends in Tullamore, Killoughy and Banagher for a pre-Christmas visit and bask in the mildest winter for many years. Dublin is mad at this time of year and what with one restaurant telling us about steaks at €120 I had to get down to the nice butchers in Tullamore – old Tormey’s is still going strong and now you have Grennan’s, Hanlon’s and a few more I would not know. I miss Paddy Mac’s, Cleary’s and Joe ‘the Butch’ Kearney of course. All old friends gone to the heavenly pastures.
I can remember the desperate cold of December 2010 when it was as low as -20 and I can recall the winters of 1982 and 1962 when we could skate on Charleville Lake near the town of Tullamore and to the east of Colonel Bury’s Charleville Demesne. I have only a hazy memory of the long winter of 1947 when the Grand Canal was frozen over for months and some of the Egan boys of the Tullamore merchant family are said to have made it to Dublin skating on the canal for some lark or wager. All good simple fun it was. I understand that Dr Boediccker who worked at Birr Castle until the First World War kept weather records from about 1872 and was able to state that 1909, 1896, 1893 and 1890 were also very cold. Another very cold year was in 1901 when a young boy drowned at Charleville Lake, trapped by the ice, while up to 200 people looked on and did nothing.
So it’s Heritage Week and Saturday 25 August 2018 was given over to a tour of the West Offaly castles in the company of Kieran Keenaghan and James Scully. It was a full day starting at the lovely Crank House, Banagher at 10. a.m. This house is a tourist facility and a community endeavour from a community co-operative society. Banagher needs all the support it can get in the form of incentives and tax relief schemes to bring the older houses, including the Shannon Hotel, back into use. Continue reading →
The older residents of Tullamore will know where the magazine was and will quickly tell you it was near the old footbridge in Convent View in the townland of Puttaghan. The magazine or arsenal on a site of almost one acre was built by the army in 1808 and the stores were surrounded by a nine-foot high wall, part of which survives at 21/21 Convent View. The high walls were designed to protect the powder magazine, store rooms and guard room. Other such walls surrounded the 1716 barracks and can still be seen near the garda station bordering Marian Place and a little more at Parnell Street (best viewed from the Marian Place off Kilbride Street). Little of the old Wellington Barracks (of c. 1800) survives in Cormac Street.
John A Killaly, surveyor and canal engineer, was born in Ireland. Killaly was a big noise in Tullamore. For his contribution to the building of the Grand Canal alone he deserves to be remembered. Lately Offaly History erected a plaque to his memory on our building at Bury Quay. Continue reading →