The skyline of Mullingar, County Westmeath is dominated by the twin campaniles of the town’s Roman Catholic cathedral: a testament to religious triumphalism’s predilection for blandness, it officially opened in the same week the Second World War began. The building was designed by Ralph Byrne, a Dublin-based architect who ran one of the busiest practices in the first half of the last century, specializing in churches, convents and diverse clerical premises. Byrne’s hallmark was eclectic classicism, as can likewise be seen in his near-contemporaneous Catholic cathedral in Cavan town and the church of SS. Peter and Paul in Athlone. Like Mullingar cathedral, they do not welcome close attention since a muddle of elements and orders soon becomes apparent. This is a case of never mind the quality, just relish the quantity because Mullingar cathedral is enormous, seemingly capable of holding 5,000 persons. That figure represents approximately a quarter of the town’s present population, testifying to Mullingar’s growth in recent years. Located in the Irish midlands and therefore benefitting from travelers passing from one side of the island to the other, Mullingar was founded around 1186 when the Norman knight William Petit received a grant of land between Lough Owel and Lough Ennell by then Lord of Meath, Hugh de Lacy. Petit built a stone castle on the site where now stand the town’s County Buildings and his brother Ralph Petit erected a church nearby. The Augustinian and Dominican orders later established houses in the area. The earliest grant of a market was given in 1207 and Mullingar subsequently acquired the right to hold four fairs a week as well as a weekly market. When Westmeath was separated from Meath in 1543 Mullingar was designated the county town. It was almost entirely burned by the forces of Hugh O’Neill in 1597 and then a fire, this time accidental, again destroyed the greater part of the town in 1747. Thus Mullingar’s present form and appearance essentially date from the late 18th and 19th centuries.
The Royal Canal reached Mullingar in 1806 and the town therefore became a base for both passenger and freight traffic (some of the original bridges connected with this enterprise survive). The canal grew steadily less important with the arrival of rail, the first train coming to Mullingar in 1848 and soon this became one of the country’s major junctions. In addition the main road from Dublin to both Galway and Sligo passed through the town, further boosting business. Mullingar’s expansion in the 19th century is evident in the number of prominent public buildings erected during this period, not least a neo-Gothic predecessor to the present Roman Catholic cathedral. Then there are the barracks, originally built between 1814 and 1819 to accommodate 1,000 troops. Other vast complexes include the former workhouse – now part of St Mary’s Hospital – designed by Poor Law Commission architect George Wilkinson and built in the Tudor Gothic style in the early 1840s, and the not dissimilar St Loman’s, a psychiatric hospital from the following decade with a three-storey façade that runs to an astonishing forty-one bays arranged in a series of symmetrical gable- and canted-fronted projections. In 1858 the town, which had been owned by the Forbes family, Earls of Granard since the 1660s, was sold to Fulke Greville-Nugent, later first Lord Greville. He instigated the rebuilding of the town’s main hotel, today still called the Greville Arms, and also the old market house, the architect for both these projects being William Caldbeck. Not far away is a fine early 19th century classical courthouse, once part of a larger complex that included a gaol: its site is now in part occupied by the Italianate-style County Hall dating from 1913.
Mullingar’s long-time role as a market and county town is evident in its centre neatly contained within the boundaries of the Royal Canal which encircles it on three sides with only the south unencompassed, although a second canal on this side runs towards Lough Ennell. Widening and narrowing in different sections a main street runs through the town from east to west, the old route from Dublin to the other side of the country: the broader sections were intended to accommodate trade on market and fair days. Much of the main thoroughfare is still occupied by retail premises, although there are vacant properties found intermittently along its length (and, as elsewhere around the country, occupation of the upper storeys appears almost non-existent with inevitable consequences for the building’s well-being). It is on the side streets and laneways that greater dereliction can be found. Here are many boarded-up structures or empty sites where demolition has taken place. And naturally the local authority has not assisted matters by granting permission for a number of shopping centres to be developed outside the old town, thereby taking consumers away from Mullingar’s original commercial district. As so often is the case, the state has likewise shown little concern for the town’s long-term welfare: in 2012 the old barracks, after being in use for almost two centuries, were closed. This meant a loss of trade in the immediate locality, but it has also left a reserve of historic buildings vacant close to the town centre: last September it was reported the barracks might be used to house some of the Syrian refugees expected to come to Ireland but nothing further has been heard on the subject. A large commercial, residential and retail development, Mullingar Central, was announced just before the economic downturn but never took place and this has left a considerable parcel of land in poor condition. Elsewhere while a certain amount of attention is paid to the canal and its facilities, one feels more could be done especially to ensure that buildings close to its banks are better maintained: a block of old warehouses immediately behind Dominick Street, for example, have slid into total disrepair. Mullingar’s story is little different from that seen elsewhere: an inability to think ahead, a reliance on short-term fixes, the lack of an overall masterplan and, above all, a failure to understand properly what successful urban living requires. Like its cathedral, on at superficial glance this town might look well enough, but closer examination indicates otherwise.