The casual observer might consider the Midlands as a largely rural society, without any significant urban base. On closer examination, the same observer might be surprised to see the extent of the towns of Portlaoise, Tullamore, Mullingar, Athlone and Longford.
Tullamore today has a population of 9,500(1994) and is the county town in Offaly with a population twice the size of its nearest rival Birr. If Birr can claim to be the "Umbilicus Hiberniae" or navel of Ireland, and Roscommon, "the heart of Ireland", then Tullamore must be the "taste of Ireland". The town is now famous throughout the world for its “Tullamore Dew” whiskey and “Irish Mist Liqueur”. The whiskey is now made in Midleton, Co. Cork and the liqueur blended in Tullamore.
Tullamore occupies a central position in County Offaly and is the capital town since 1833. The town is situated on the Tullamore river which divides it in half. To the north is the gravel Ridge, the Eiscir Riada, known locally as the Arden Hills. To the south lie the Slieve Bloom mountains while to the east and west are flat boglands relieved only on I the eastern side by the stump of an extinct volcano now known as Croghan Hill.
The name Tullamore or Tulach Mhor, meaning the big mound or hill probably refers to the hilly ground behind the junction of O'Moore Street and Cormac Street once the location of the town's windmills. In the eighteenth century the town was also known as Tullamore, a name introduced by former owners of the town, the Moore family.
Tullamore lies in the ancient district of Fear Ceall that has been translated as men of the woods or men of the churches. Neither would be inaccurate because Fear Ceall was once covered by vast bogs and forests. The area was famous for its monastic centers at Clonmacnois, Durrow, Lynally, Clareen and Birr. The route to Clonmacnois was across the esker while the Durrow to Birr monasteries were on a north-south corridor through the bogs. If holy places such as Durrow and Clonmacnois were once significant population centers, nothing now survives save the monastic remains. What is of interest is the way in which the old monastic north-south corridor continues to impact on the modern road transport system. Much of Tullamore's traffic comes from the Mullingar - Athlone routes heading towards Portlaoise and Birr. The east-west traffic bypasses Tullamore at Kilbeggan seven miles north of the town. The most leisurely way to arrive in Tullamore is by canal or rail.
Coming by canal boat will present an image of a holy place with the town's principal churches in view. The catholic church, somewhat secluded in the back streets of the town center, has a substantial spire to identify its location. This church was erected in 1802, and demolished and rebuilt in 1902. It was destroyed by fire in 1983 and again rebuilt at a cost of over £3 million. The new church has an impressive timber interior and some Harry Clarke Studio windows. St. Catherine's, the Church of Ireland church designed by Francis Johnston and opened in 1815, is placed prominently on a hill to the south-west of the town. Arriving by rail, the first sight to greet the visitor will be the former gothic-style county jail of 1826, and beside it, a substantial neo-classical courthouse of 1835 - the latter still in use and the former now comprised of small industrial units. Either way, the visitor cannot escape civil and religious authority. A brisk walk through the main streets will reinforce the feeling of authority and of some taste because the town is laid out on a gridiron pattern with the principal street running from the Kilbeggan road canal bridge to the north and the Birr road railway bridge to the south and beyond it Charleville Castle, the home of the former owners of the town, the earls of Charleville. This castle, designed by Francis Johnston, is considered one of the finest Gothic style country houses in Ireland and is now open to the public.
The oldest house in Tullamore is another castle, a tower house, known as Sragh Castle observable from the railway line and dating to 1588. Nearby was the original O'Molloy castle, shown on early maps and mentioned in the grant of the district to the Moore family in 1620 in the course of the Stuart plantations. The grant to John Moore of some 20,000 acres, in so far as it related to Tullamore may have been a formality, because Moore had already acquired the lands through a series of mortgages raised by the O'Molloys. John Moore was the son of Thomas Moore, an Elizabethan soldier, who had received lands at Croghan Hill in east Offaly in the 1570's as part of the first Offaly plantation. The Moore family let on long lease their Tullamore lands throughout the seventeenth century, choosing to reside at Croghan Castle instead.
There are no accounts available of Tullamore in the seventeenth century. We know it had a castle, a water mill and a few cottages in the 1620s. The fact that the landlords were not resident in the town in the seventeenth century would have hindered development. Surviving tax collection data of 1660 would suggest that the Tullamore town population was not much more than 100 and in rank order well below Birr, with a population of over 700. Birr was settled by the Parsons family, (later earls of Rosse), in the 1620s and by 1641 was seeking county town status from Daingean or Philipstown, with a population of some 250 Daingean was the county capital, more by historical accident than design. As the location of an English fort inside enemy lines from the 1540s, it acquired county town status in the emerging new county of Offaly (or Kings County as it was known until 1920), under an Act of Queen Mary in 1557, which laid the basis for the Laois-Offaly plantation.
It was not until after 1700 that Tullamore developed as the town we know today. In the population stakes, it outstripped Birr only in the second half of the nineteenth century but had already defeated Daingean by the 1720s. Viscount Molesworth, Daingean's landlord, writing in 1724 from his town to his wife, a letter of complaint regarding his urinary tract infection, said "I am in a place where no herb or drug that I might have occasion for, can be had nearer than Tullamore". The Moore family moved from their home at Croghan Castle in the early 1700s and built a large house in the vicinity of the present Tullamore harbour. No trace of this house now remains. Through political influence, they were able to secure a barrack to house 100 foot soldiers in 1716 (at the same time as that in Castlecomer), and by the late 1720s, a Protestant church was built in what is now Church Street - then known as Church Lane, nothing now remains of this building). The demise of Daingean's county town status, which did not come about until 1833, was signaled as early as 1767 in a special County Infirmaries (Amendment) Act, passed to facilitate the establishing of the County Infirmary at Lifford rather than Letterkenny, and that for Offaly at Tullamore in place of Daingean.
Evidence of industry and house building in Tullamore is available from estate records, the Registry of Deeds and from what survives on the ground and in the street names. The building of the barrack provided an inpetus to business. Entrepreneurial immigrants, such as Huguenots from their settlement at Portarlington and Quakers from Mountmellick and Edenderry, turn up as lessees in the building leases granted by the landlord. The first recorded building lease is one from John Moore to Richard Brennan, a tobacco spinner, in 1713. His premises is now the Brewery Tap in High Street. Part of what is now O'Connor Square was known as the Market Place or New Street in the 1740s.
Notwithstanding the by-passing of Tullamore by the main trade routes to the south, (via Daingean and Birr), and the west, (via Kilbeggan and Moate), it continued to grow in the first half of the eighteenth century. Landlord influence was obviously a factor but so were structural forces such as the need to create a market center east of the isolated Garrycastle barony which comprises much of west Offaly, and west of Daingean surrounded as it was by bog. One geographer has remarked that towns are the essential cog in the machinery of rural society. Tullamore's chief economic function would have been as a market center for the predominantly rural population. The principal trading days were those on which markets and fairs took place. Captain Thomas Johnston, the lessee of Charleville demesne in the 1760s to the mid-1780s, wrote in March 1765 "I am a stout farmer, between 4 and 500 sheep, 50 calves, besides cows and horses, and I want 200 sheep more as soon as the rents come in." At the time, pasturage was still predominant in Offaly with tillage of much less importance.
Although tillage was less significant, it played a major part in the economy of towns such as Tullamore. The Tullamore distilling business, dependent as it was on oats and barely developed rapidly in the 1780s and survived until the 1950’s
Agricultural activity reflected itself in trade with the woolen and tanning industries important. So also was the linen industry. In 1754 Charles Moore, now Lord Tullamore, gave a lease for a factory buildings for the linen business. This premises was in lower Church Street but does not now survive except in the name Pike's Lane - Pike being a linen weaver. In fact by the 1780s Offaly was a leading county for the manufacture of linen outside Ulster.
By the mid 1760s Tullamore would have consisted of Patrick Street, Church Street upper, Bridge Street, part of O'Connor Square and some development in High Street. Town development received a set back in the 1760s following the death of Charles Moore, first Earl of Charleville. He had removed himself from the town of Tullamore to Charleville Demesne in 1740. He had encouraged building development through the provision of cheap sites on the basis of an annual ground rent of a shilling a foot in front with the lease for lives renewable for ever. The procedure was that the tenant nominated three lives, usually young healthy people, and when the three people died the landlord would accept three new lives at a nominal fine so far as town houses were concerned. For town parks the rent could increase substantially. This was the basis of all building in Tullamore until the advent of freehold sales in the 1920s. It provided a cheap site while the landlord enjoyed ongoing revenue and a measure of control of the building development at commencement stage and later by means of covenants in the leases.
On Charles Moore's death the property passed first to his sister's husband, John Bury of Shannongrove, Limerick who died soon after in a bathing accident at Ringsend, Dublin. The Tullamore property, together with Limerick and Dublin estates, then passed to Moore's nephew, Charles William Bury, an infant of six months. During the Bury minority there were no leases of more than 21 years granted and thus no new building activity.
Charles William Bury's coming of age in 1785 coincided with the famous balloon fire in Tullamore. The fire was caused by an air balloon catching fire in what was only the third attempt to make such an ascent in Ireland. This led to the destruction of about 100 houses in the Patrick Street area. The fire had caused no damage in the Bridge Street, High Street, O'Connor Square area of which Arthur Young may have been speaking when he recorded in 1776 that part of Tullamore was well built. Nevertheless, John Wesley in his journal for 1787 felt obliged to remark: "I once more visited my old friends at Tullamore. Have all the balloons in Europe done so much good as can counterbalance the harm which one of them did here a year or two ago?" Wesley's view that most of the town was burnt down was repeated by Charles Coote in his Offaly survey for the Royal Dublin Society, published in 1801. Coote looked on Tullamore as a very neat town that owed its newly acquired consequence to the present Lord Charleville. "About 14 years ago it was," said Coote, "but a neat village, with scarce any better than thatched cabins, which were almost all destroyed by accidental fire ...". The Coote and Wesley comments are partly true only because many of the fine houses in Bridge Street, O'Connor Square and High Street pre-date the fire, as does the William's Head Office in Patrick Street
Charles William Bury, the first Earl of Charleville (of the second creation) presided over the fortunes of Tullamore from his coming of Age in 1785 to his death 50 years later. The burning of Patrick Street gave him an opportunity to let the properties there on new leases and widen the street in the process. During this time the population expanded three fold to over 6,000 in 1841. The new streets, such as Offaly Street, Harbour Street and William Street all followed the grid iron pattern and a second Market square was provided in the 1820s. The Tullamore tenants petitioned the Irish House of Commons in 1784 and in 1786 to designate Tullamore as the county town in place of Daingean, but because of the significant political influence of the Ponsonby family, now owners of Daingean, this was not achieved until 1833. The county jail was built in Tullamore in 1826 and the county courthouse in 1835. The landlord went to considerable trouble about the design of his gothic style jail by the Pain Brothers and the neo-classical court house by JB. Keane.
Lord Charleville did not develop the residential or commercial properties himself save the town hotel, which is still in use. Instead Charleville brought in the middlemen to build and sell or retain, either way at a profit rent. Chief among the developers or building speculators was Thomas Acres. His 1786 house is now the headquarters of Tullamore Urban District Council. Acres and his family were involved in the building of some 140 houses in the town, or some 15 percent of the housing stock in the 1900’s There were other speculators too and between them the town as we know it (excluding the center core and suburbia which emerged after 1900) was completed between 1785 and the eve of the Famine in 1845.
While the town turned its back on the river flowing through its center and surrounded it with mills and industrial buildings, the canal at the northern end is open and an important visual amenity now serving as a linear park and a line to the Shannon for pleasure craft.
The canal marked the northern boundary of the town until the 1900s, as did the railway line from 1858 on the southern side. Some of the poor of the town lived on the northern bank of the canal near the convenient water supply and beside the bog of Puttaghan. It was this area which suffered most during the Famine years. The remaining poor lived in lanes at the back of the big private houses fronting the streets, and paid rents of 6d or Is per week with the 'lease' determinable every Friday. At that time, and until the development of Charleville Road (the road to the landlord's demesne) after 1900 status was not so much having a house in a particular part of ten as having it fronting the street.
The post-Famine years, and up to the end of the First World War, saw the steady consolidation of Tullamore's position as the leading town in Offaly Whereas the population of Tullamore and Birr was virtually the same, at 6,300, in 1841 by 1926 the population of Birr had fallen to almost half that figure, and that of Tullamore to about 5,000. In fact, Clara because of the Goodbody jute business was the only town in Offaly to experience growth in the period 1861 to 1926. The towns had not fared badly by contrast with the rural areas and the county as a whole. The population of Offaly in 1841 was almost 147,000 falling to 53,000 in 1926. It is stuck in the fifties ever since and in the 1991 census was 58,494, down 1,400 on the 1986 figure.
The Charleville influence declined after the 1840s and the earldom was extinguished with the death of the fifth earl in 1874. The merchants and the farmers came to prominence through the advent of public boards such as the Board of Guardians of the Tullamore Poor Law Union (established after 1838), and the Tullamore Town Commissioners, (established in 1860 so as to facilitate the provision of a town gas supply). The commercial role of Tullamore expanded after 1890, with the development of the general merchant business of P.&H. Egan and D. E. Williams. Akin to Liptons and Findlaters, both firms had a system of branch shops throughout the Midlands, connected to an agricultural food processing base in malting, brewing and distilling. The Goodbody tobacco factory provided significant employment until a fire destroyed the factory in 1886 and the entire workforce was transferred to new premises near Harold's Cross, Dublin. The Tullamore distillery business expanded in the 1870s and again after 1900 when D. E. Williams developed the Tullamore Dew brand. The distillery closed in 1954.
The main sources of employment up to the 1930s were in malting, distilling, stone quarrying and distribution. In the mid-1930s, Salts (Ireland) Ltd. established a spinning mill in the old jail which, behind protective tariffs until the mid-1960s, provided employment to upwards of 1,000. This factory closed in 1982 and jobs for men in Tullamore are in short supply since.
The IDA backed foreign industries such as Burlington (now Atlantic Mills), Sherwood Medical, Lowe- Alpine and Snickers between them provide about 800 jobs, and most of these are for women. The Midland Health Board and Offaly County Council employ about 600. The current unemployment figure for the Tullamore district is 2, 100, comprising some 1,500 males and 600 females.(1994)
Shops and services are a significant source of employment for the town. Although Tullamore would have no more than 15%, of the county's population, it has 50% of the business and draws from a hinterland of at least 30,000. The town is now poised for further expansion with the construction of the Bridge Center at Bridge Street which will provide a new road system, over 300 car parking spaces, 44 residential units and 80,000 sq. ft. of shopping space.
Housing after 1900 saw the clearing of the town lanes and the building of over 1,500 houses by the Urban Council in the suburbs. Suburbs in the private sector commenced on Charleville Road after 1900 and got going in earnest after the second World War. There is now a strong demand for town houses, curiously enough, in the very lanes where the "cabin suburbs" were once situated.
Tullamore has managed to preserve much of its original townscape. The major public buildings are well presented, especially in the town square. The emphasis on timber shopfronts with painted lettering is having an effect. Shopping facilities have developed to the extent that the trip to Dublin is not a must. The town is served with three local newspapers and local radio. All sports facilities, including a tartan track, but excepting an indoor swimming pool, are available. All that is lacking are more job opportunities.
Is there a deus ex machina in town growth?, I like to think not. No one influence, from landlord to government to structural economic forces is primary. Growth is a complex organism. Writing of Georgian London, Sir John Summerson remarked that: "a town, like a plant or an anthill, is a product of collective unconscious will, and only to a very small extent of formulated intention". Tullamore, I believe, well fulfills that viewpoint.