Kilbeggan, County Westmeath is barely five miles west of Tyrellspass, but the two places couldn’t be more different in character. Both have a crescent but that in Kilbeggan occupies one portion of a bleak traffic roundabout and has suffered badly from neglect and mistreatment. The building dates from c.1830 when constructed in the then-popular Tudor-Gothic style as an hotel, indicating the prosperity of the period and the amount of traffic then passing through the village. The gables on the left-hand portion have been removed, as have the cut-limestone hooded doorcases, replaced by a brutish cement-rendered opening that makes nonsense of the composition. Alas, elsewhere things don’t get much better, with many buildings standing empty and neglected. Typical in this respect is the former Bank of Ireland, dating from c.1890, which closed early in the present century and presents a forlorn face on Market Square.
In Tyrrellspass, County Westmeath the Crescent looks as though it could provide the setting for a novel by the likes of Mrs Gaskell. This part of the village was mostly laid out during the second decade of the 19th century, thanks to the endeavours of Jane, second Countess of Belvedere, whose elderly husband died in 1814, and to whom she erected a monument inside the church of St Sinian (although just a year later she married again). Around the open green are a number of domestic residences as well as a former single storey schoolhouse and a two-storey former courthouse. All are well maintained, although some of the fenestration shows evidence of the insidious uPVC virus (when will local authorities take steps to halt the spread of this blight across our architectural heritage?). On the outskirts of the village is a cluster of buildings constructed in the early 1840s as a girl’s orphanage thanks to a bequest left by the countess on her death the previous decade. In the Tudor-Gothic style, these were restored by the county council some years ago and now serve as housing scheme.
The bungalow-strewn village of Stratford on Slaney, County Wicklow looks as though it could be a modern suburb almost anywhere. However a handful of houses indicate the place has an older pedigree. The name derives from founder Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldborough whose architectural ambitions have been discussed here before (see Splendours and Follies, September 30th 2013, A Thundering Disgrace, January 13th 2014 and A Thundering Disgrace No More?, February 27th 2017). He developed the village during the last quarter of the 18th century, intending it to be a centre for the textile industry, specifically cotton and printing works. At its height in the 1830s, Stratford on Slaney contained 104 houses (and thirteen public houses) with a population of 2,833 people, 1,00o of them employed in the fabric factory. Lord Aldborough built places of worship for Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, a dispensary and several shops. The famine and its attendant woes in the following decade put an end to the business, and so to Stratford where the factory closed and people moved away: in the census of 2016, the village had a population of just 241 persons. These few houses, dating from c.1840 are all that remain of Lord Aldborough’s ambitions.
In 1837 Samuel Lewis described Cloghan, County Offaly as a ‘village and post-town’ containing 84 dwellings and 460 inhabitants. Evidently some of the latter enjoyed prosperity because the dwellings they occupied were substantial, not least one on Hill Street which has this handsome doorcase. The five-bay property is believed to date from around 1820, a time when the country experienced greater affluence than would be the case just a couple of decades later, and which led to something of a building boom. Another house on nearby Castle Street was constructed during the same period and features a similar, albeit slightly plainer, doorcase.
As its name indicates, the little coastal village of Castletownshend, County Cork grew up around a castle occupied from c.1665 onwards by Richard Townsend, and still in the ownership of his descendants. Castletownshend offers an example of how a small urban settlement can retain its character and charm, and thereby attract visitors who during the summer months throng the place. Located on a small side-street rather grandly called The Mall, the mid-18th century house above has retained much of its original appearance, as is the case for the majority of other properties in the village. A number have benefitted from more recent sympathetic owners such as the house below: dating from the 1880s, prior to independence it was occupied by the Royal Irish Constabulary. Castletownshend is a model of how to get it right.
A rare survivor in an Irish country town: an 18th century shopfront in Fethard, County Tipperary. Dating from c.1770, it features handsome fluted columns with Corinthian capitals on either side of the main windows at the centre of which is the shop entrance with double doors. A separate entrance to the right provides access to the upper storeys. Sadly the building is now disused and being permitted to fall into irreparable disrepair, a great loss to the architectural heritage of the town, and indeed the country.
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.
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…
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.
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.