Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry (from the Irish Éadan Doire meaning ‘hill-brow of the oak wood’) in County Offaly is effectively one long narrow street that dribbles away to an unsatisfactory conclusion at either end. It was ever thus: from the 18th century on visitors to Ireland have commented on the way urban settlements here were rarely planned but developed in a haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion. On occasion an improving landlord would try to impose order, and indeed this happened at Edenderry but not until long after the place had first come into existence. While there is a pre-Christian hill-fort in the area, it was really with the arrival of the Normans that permanent residential structures began to appear around what is now Edenderry. In 1325 John de Bermingham, first Earl of Louth (famous for having killed Edward Bruce – younger brother of Robert, King of Scotland – in 1318) founded a Franciscan Friary at Monasteroris to the immediate west of the town; little of it remains today. Although from the mid-14th century this part of the country was officially under the authority of the Earls of Kildare, in practice it came under the control of the O’Connors. They were likely responsible in the 15th century for what is now known as Blundell Castle, eventually destroyed by Jacobite forces in 1691; the ruins stand on a hill above the town. In the middle of the previous century Offaly was shired as King’s County and its land granted to men loyal to the English crown, among them Sir Henry Colley whose father Walter had served as Principal Solicitor for Ireland and later as the country’s Solicitor-General. The connection with the Colley family meant that for sometime thereafter Edenderry came to be known as Coolestown. Henry Colley’s granddaughter Sarah married Sir George Blundell and so the land passed into the hands of his family, remaining with them until the death in 1756 of Montague, first and last Viscount Blundell. His only daughter Mary inherited the property as in turn did her only daughter, another Mary who in 1786 married Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire.
Thanks to his marriage, the Marquess of Downshire acquired some 14,000 acres of land around Edenderry. He vigorously opposed the 1800 Act of Union and as a result earned the enmity of the London government which exacted retribution by depriving him of governorship of County Down and the colonelcy of the local militia, and dismissing his supporters from official posts. He died the following year; his widow blamed official hostility, but, having inherited an estate in England from a childless uncle, was somewhat consoled in 1802 by being created Baroness Sandys in her own right. Meanwhile her twelve-year old eldest son became heir to the Irish properties. It was he, the third Marquess of Downshire who after coming of age in 1809 left the most lasting visible impact on Edenderry. This was despite the fact that he inherited responsibility for his forbears’ considerable debts and that his mother continued to receive two-thirds of the rent from the Offaly estates until her death in 1836. Among his most notable legacies to the town is the large former Market House, designed by Thomas Duff in 1826 and built at a cost of £5,000. Today used as a courthouse and local authority office, this handsome cut limestone building has a five-bay pedimented facade and presumably once featured an open arcaded groundfloor and assembly room above. Standing in the middle of what is now called O’Connell Square, it is testament to Edenderry’s prosperous past as a market town, a history echoed by other buildings in the town. These include Blundell House, named after the former owners of the estate but erected to his own design in 1813 by James Brownrigg who like his father worked for the Downshires and acted as agent for the County Offaly estate. Of two storeys over half-raised basement, its groundfloor has an exceptionally wide door fanlight and Wyatt windows to either side. Lying to the immediate east is the town’s Quaker meeting house which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced earlier premises on the site.
Lord Downshire’s engagement with Edenderry was not restricted to public buildings like the Market House: he also undertook to better the condition of the rest of the town, replacing mud cabins with slated, two-storey stone houses. Many of them remain and often carry a date from the early 1820s above the entrance
The materials used in the construction of these and other buildings were brought to Edenderry thanks to an initiative undertaken by his father: the creation of a branch of the Grand Canal into the town. Work began in 1797 and was completed with a harbour in 1802 at a total cost of £692 which was financed by the Downshires. The quays still lead right to the main street and conclude in a squared-off section surrounded by limestone wall. For much of the 19th century the canal provided a vital social and commercial link for Edenderry, and helped to bring prosperity to the region. The last barge left the quays here in 1962, around the same time that the railway at the other end of the town also closed. As with the canal, this was a branch line, known in its day as the Nesbitt Junction after a Miss Nesbitt who contributed £10,000 to its cost so that she could convey prize cattle to the Royal Dublin Society. Its buildings, erected in 1877 by the Midland Great Western Railway, remain although the little stone ticket office looks sadly neglected. The third Marquess’ contribution to the town’s development was commemorated a year after his death in 1845 with the erection of a statue to his memory sculpted by Joseph Robinson Kirk, son of Thomas whose figure of Nelson adorned the top of the pillar on Dublin’s O’Connell Street until blown up in 1966.
Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry is in seemingly irreversible decline, as the above photographs make clear. The outskirts, spread randomly and with no apparent forethought, are full of generic housing estates. One is currently being constructed at the immediate west end of the main street and has been given a name every bit as banal as the design of the supposedly ‘exclusive’ houses contained therein: Cedar Lawns. Meanwhile the centre of Edenderry slides ever further into decrepitude with a terrifying number of premises vacant and unkempt. Groups of listless youths – presumably residents of the aforementioned exclusive housing estates – drift along the pavements past properties that might entertain or engage them but instead exhibit empty windows. Even in O’Connell Square, while money has been spent on renovating the old Market House it is surrounded by properties with well-worn signs offering them for sale. For the moment Edenderry still has a post office and branches of the main banks: but for how much longer? The reality is that as the centre decays and householders travel elsewhere to spend their money, those banking businesses will find it no longer viable to maintain an operation here. They will duly close down and the standard outcry will ensue, yet this is the inevitable consequence of failure to maintain a vibrant town centre. The general tattiness and want of adequate maintenance is apparent everywhere, beginning with the ruins of Blundell Castle where the bars of a protective fence have long-since been wrenched off, if the quantity of mouldering empty beer cans discarded inside its walls can be taken as evidence. By failing to take care of Edenderry’s most ancient site, the local authority is sending out a signal of indifference which will noted by all those late-night drinkers, and everyone else as well. The same sense of apathy and disregard is emitted by every other building permitted to suffer neglect. Among the remaining retailers, the word Eden – a none-too-subtle pun on the town’s name – is often deployed. Frankly Eden lies well east, or west or anywhere else. Whatever one might think of absentee landlords and whatever his motivation, at least Lord Downshire tried to improve circumstances in Edenderry. Nobody today seems interested in following his example.