Former Glories


Handsome doorcases such as this testify to the prosperity of Clones, County Monaghan in the 18th century when it became a market town benefitting from the growth of the linen industry. A series of large properties were built around The Diamond, a triangular open area to the immediate south of the monastery said to have been founded here in the early sixth century by St Tigernach and while some have been refaced, and others demolished, enough survive to give an idea of how Clones might have looked prior to suffering the same, more recent decline as so many other regional urban centres in Ireland.

 

Not so Dapper

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Looking distinctly down-at-heel, the once-dapper Naper Arms Hotel which occupies a prominent site on The Square in Oldcastle, County Meath. Built in the mid-19th century when the town enjoyed commercial prosperity, the building now offers vivid evidence of the way in which Ireland’s smaller urban centres are embarked on what seems to be irreversible decline. If national and local government are serious about attempting to halt the phenomenon – a new €60 million initiative called ‘Action Plan for Rural Ireland’ was announced on Monday – a good place to start would be obliging owners to give them purpose, on the premise of ‘use it or lose it.’ Otherwise one suspects little will change…

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An Evocation

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The stone doorcases of Tullamore, County Offaly, an evocation of the prosperity once enjoyed by this Midlands town. The first belongs to a house dating from c.1730 and is the centrepiece of a full-height bow with conical roof on the projecting bow. The second can be seen on a very substantial property, of five bays and three storeys over basement built in 1789. Like the door, the window surrounds are of tooled stone but these features would look still handsomer were the facade’s render to be restored.

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On the Town XI

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Well Janey Mac

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On the upper section of Main Street, Kinsale, County Cork can be found this house dating from c.1780. Of two storeys and three bays, it retains sash windows, that at the centre of the first floor being tripartite. Evidently at a relatively early date part of the building was converted into retail premises which required the insertion of a second entrance as well as adjacent shop window and fascia, all achieved with unusual sensitivity. The property now houses a café and bakery called Janey Mac (an old Irish expression used to denote surprise).

Two Centuries Later

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On a road lined with mature beech trees and coming from the south into Borrisokane, County Tipperary can be seen a line of five houses, two pairs semi-detached and one free-standing. Whereas the former are three-bay, the latter is four but all are two storey over basement, with rendered fronts and reached by a flight of limestone steps. They all also share the same wide doorcases with fan- and sidelights. Undoubtedly the handsomest domestic buildings in the town and collectively known as the Terrace, they date from 1815 and testify to the prosperity of this part of the country exactly two centuries ago: in 1837 Samuel Lewis gave the population of Borrisokane as being 2,635, whereas today it is less than half that figure.

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On the Town IX

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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