In November 2011, former Labour TD Willie Penrose announced his intention to resign as a Minister of State as a result of the then-government’s decision to close Columb Barracks in Mullingar, County Westmeath the following year. At the time, the buildings were occupied by some 170 troops who were subsequently moved to the barracks in Athlone. Eight years have since passed without proper use being found for the premises.
Standing in the centre of Mullingar town and occupying some 26 acres of land, the main complex in Columb Barracks are over 200 years old, having been constructed in 1814, and first occupied in 1819, when it was called Wellington Barracks (the name was changed in 1922 in memory of Patrick Columb, a member of the National Army who had been killed in the town not long before). Designed to accommodate 1,000 soldiers, the barracks is U-shaped with a large parade ground at its centre. The three-storey blocks with roughcast rendered walls and cut limestone door- and window cases in each section of the building. The ranges are largely unaltered other than the unfortunate and universal insertion of uPVC windows at some relatively recent date and, on the southern range, openings being widened, apparently in 1980 when someone in authority decided to give them the all the flair of a provincial hotel, complete with porticos supported by spindly Corinthian columns. Even more unfortunate is a serious loss on the west side of the complex. Old photographs show that the centre of this featured a three-bay breakfront, its rusticated ground floor incorporating an arch above which was a tripartite window and, on the top level, a Diocletian window below a pediment. The entire section was swept away in 1966 to create a miserable-looking, single-storey concrete brick gateway marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter 1916 Rising. Incidentally, the early photographs (from the French collection in the National Library of Ireland) also show how much better maintained the entire site used to be. Outside the main complex lie a range of other buildings, some in stone (including a chapel dating from 1855), others in brick, constructed over the course of the 19th century to provide facilities for the troops then in residence.
A year ago, thejournal.ie reported that during the previous three years the state had spent over €113,000 paying a private security firm responsible for looking after Columb Barracks in Mullingar. As today’s photographs show, there has been considerable damage to the site, some of the buildings have been badly vandalised while others are suffering from neglect, ultimately adding to the cost of their refurbishment. Almost 20 voluntary organisations – the likes of the local boxing and cycling clubs, a youth café, a men’s shed group and so forth – occupy portions of various premises, presumably on short-term leases and, it would seem, with little security of tenure. But even with their presence, the greater part of the barracks has been allowed to remain in limbo for the past eight years. When the state first embarked on closing down military bases around the country more than two decades ago, it sold a number of them to developers and private organisations. Indeed, some years ago Columb Barracks was placed on the market for sale, but then withdrawn following the establishment by government in September 2018 of a new organization called the Land Development Agency (LDA), the purpose of which is supposed to be the provision of affordable housing. Responsibility for the barracks lay with the Department of Defence, but this now appears to have been transferred to the LDA. A year ago the Department of Housing advised (in finest bureaucratic language) that the LDA was ‘carrying out a technical due diligence process on the Columb Barracks site to determine the development constraints and opportunities, which will take a number of months. Once this process is complete the LDA will determine a delivery strategy for the site.’ The following May then-Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy wrote in response to an enquiry from another TD that the LDA was in the process of advancing agreements with various state bodies in relation to a number of sites including Columb Barracks and furthermore ‘it should be noted that the LDA has commenced preparatory Professional work on each of the eight sites listed above and that the transfer process will not impact the ultimate delivery on those lands. The LDA performs a due diligence process on all sites, which includes an assessment of alternative use potential and development capacity and constraints.’ At the moment on its website (https://lda.ie) the LDA lists the current status of Columb Barracks as ‘Development feasibility study underway.’
Understandably, given its size and location, there has been considerable disquiet in Mullingar about the continuing neglect of Columb Barracks. A local body has been set up, Columb Barracks Restoration & Regeneration Committee (https://columbbarracks.ie) to champion the restoration and refurbishment of the site. It proposes that the former barracks could be transformed into a ‘vibrant community-owned and operated centre, providing education and other community services, based on renewable energy, zero waste and other environmentally sustainable and economically viable activities and practices; and capable of being an agent for the spreading of these practices and ideas, and for the transformation of Mullingar into a twenty-first century transition town.’ As well as the existing voluntary bodies using parts of the place, the committee suggests there could also be both short- and long-term accommodation, a museum, more sports facilities, a concert/theatre space, artists’ workshops, food markets and so forth. Not all of these ideas will necessarily come to fruition, but there are enough of them to give the barracks a real and viable future. Eventually something will be made of the site, but in the meantime eight years have passed during which these buildings, part of the country’s architectural heritage, have been allowed to deteriorate, with the inevitable result that whatever decisions are eventually made about intended purpose, these will cost more to implement because the site will require greater work. In Ireland the wheels of officialdom in Ireland can turn so slowly that they appear not to be moving at all. But surely, before the buildings here fall into further disrepair and suffer further vandalism, the time has come for the relevant state authorities to call a halt to ‘due diligence process’ and ‘assessment of alternative use potential and development capacity and constraints’. After eight years, there can be little left to discuss and analyse and consider and assess. Surely now is the moment instead to initiate action and bring Columb Barracks back into purposeful use?