In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Nenagh, County Tipperary is described as being ‘a market and post town’ and so it remains today. The second largest urban centre in the county, Nenagh owes its origins to the family which for centuries dominated this part of Ireland: the Butlers. This territory was originally under the control of the O’Kennedys but it was granted to Theobald Walter after he accompanied Prince John (subsequently King John) to the country in 1185. Walter was also appointed Chief Butler of Ireland (his father had held the same office in England) from whence his descendants’ name derives. Theobald Walter began to build a circular stone keep here, completed by his son (also called Theobald). With walls five metres thick at its base and a diameter of 17.5 metres, it rises some thirty metres although the crenellations and windows beneath were added in the 19th century when a Roman Catholic cleric entertained notions of turning the keep into the bell tower of a never-built cathedral. The Butlers remained in occupation of the keep – once part of a larger castle with a ring of walls and large gatehouse – until the end of the 14th century when they moved first to Gowran and then to Kilkenny Castle which remained their base thereafter. During the 16th and 17th centuries the keep, and rest of the castle, changed hands many times but while other parts of the complex were lost it somehow survived: the keep even continued to stand in 1760 when a farmer detonated gunpowder at the base in order to get rid of sparrows ruining the local crops.
Nenagh’s keep is by no means the only evidence of the town’s distinguished past. There are also the ruins of a couple of ancient religious settlements within the town, their presence inevitable once the Butlers had established a base there. The most significant of these was the Franciscan friary, possibly founded by Theobald Butler but more certainly associated with Donal O’Kennedy, Bishop of Killaloe. It became the chief house of the Irish custody within the province, with a provincial synod held on the site in 1344. A work known as the Annals of Nenagh, principally concerned with obituaries of notable families in the district, was compiled here over the period 1336 to 1528. At the time of the Reformation, it was ostensibly shut but a more serious assault came in 1548 when the O’Carrolls burnt Nenagh, including the friary. Despite later efforts to remove them, the Franciscans pluckily lingered on, the last only dying in 1817. Today the main evidence of this important foundation are the walls of the former church, some forty-three metres in length and ten in width with a triple lancet window at the east end and a run of fifteen windows along the north wall. Nearby are other ecclesiastical ruins, this time of an Anglican church built c.1720: its square bell tower and adjacent lobby are another of Nenagh’s landmarks. Then there is the remarkable complex of judicial buildings designed around 1840 by John Benjamin Keane and including the courthouse, gaol, governor’s house (now a local heritage centre and museum) and gatehouse. The penitential element of this must have been especially fine when first completed: entering through the rusticated stone triumphal arch gatehouse, visitors advanced towards the three-storey governor’s house from which radiated a series of prison blocks. Unfortunately only one of these remains and it has been permitted to fall into a state of dereliction.
The name Nenagh derives from the Irish words ‘an’ (meaning the) and ‘aenagh’ (meaning fair), a reference to the ancient Fair of Ormond which was held here. Lewis’ description of the place as a market town remains true, and it continues to act as a commercial centre for the surrounding agricultural hinterland. When compared with many other similar Irish towns it seems to be performing well, not least thanks to the presence of several high-quality specialist shops. The food outlet Country Choice, run by Peter and Mary Ward since 1982, offers an inspirational example of what can be done by retailers with the right mix of imagination and industry. As a result of their persistence, other similar premises have emerged and all of them help to attract custom to Nenagh. The layout of the town centre reflects its reconstruction from the late 17th century onwards, with wide streets faced with substantial properties, the majority of which are still in place (aside from a few recent interventions such as the irredeemably ugly Allied Irish Bank building on a key site at the junction of Pearse and Kickham Streets). And the town has retained many of its old shop fronts, of The kind sadly lost elsewhere. Their retention raises the notion that perhaps Nenagh could establish itself as a national centre for traditional retail design, and thereby encourage more visitors, not least tourists. One has only to reflect on what a draw the village at Bunratty has proven to recognize the charms of our retail heritage should not be underestimated. Nenagh is situated on the main route from Dublin to Limerick/Shannon and could easily capitalize on its assets to lure some of that traffic into the town. Well-designed shop exteriors and interiors can be a powerful magnet (just look at the success of the ersatz traditional Kildare Village closer to the capital). Nenagh still has much of the real thing, ripe for discovery by a broader public.
Of course, there are problems here. The usual empty buildings can be found mouldering into ruin. There is a disgracefully decaying shopping centre right at the entry point coming from Roscrea (the old warehouse opposite also badly needs attention) and in the very centre a major site on the corner of Pearse and Mitchel Streets (its groundfloor poorly refaced some years ago) lies vacant, along with a neighbour: both appear to be suffering potentially lethal water damage due to unattended gutters. On almost every street businesses have closed (although, again, fewer than is the case in equivalent centres elsewhere). The appearance of a town always has repercussions on how it is perceived by locals and visitors alike: who wants to spend time in a run-down location?
At least some of the problems could be resolved by action on the part of the local authority. For example, why has the remaining block of Nenagh Gaol been allowed to fall into such a poor state? There exists a widespread interest in the nation’s penal history and here is a building which offers testimony to that aspect of our past. Yet instead of being utilized for educational purposes, it is sitting unused and neglected, and right next to the Courthouse. To the east of the town, official negligence is exemplified by the fate of the old military barracks. The complex was built in 1832 and occupied by members of the British army for the next ninety years, after which it was handed over to the new Irish state. Seemingly the property continued to be used for various purposes until some thirty years ago, since when it has sat empty and steadily sliding into the present parlous condition. A report in the local Tipperary Star newspaper in March 2010 commented ‘There have since 1981 been numerous reports and proposals geared towards preserving the barracks but no physical works have ever been carried out, leading to concerns that parts of the building are now irredeemable and that the structure will be allowed to succumb to the ravages of time.’ The following year then-Minister for Justice and Defence Alan Shatter, in response to a parliamentary question, advised that the site ‘vested in the Minister for Finance but in the administration of the Department of Defence’ had been offered to the local authority in 2009 but this proposal was turned down. Mr Shatter added that the barracks would be ‘disposed of taking account of market conditions.’ That was four years ago, and in the interim the property has further deteriorated, making it proportionately less valuable to any potential purchaser. The state seems indifferent to the protection and maintenance of our collective patrimony, or the consequences of its blatant neglect. Many of Nenagh’s residents display admirable engagement with their town and its well-being; what a shame local and national authorities cannot do likewise.