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.
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).
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.
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.
Seen on Wolfe Tone Street in Mountmellick, County Laois: this cut limestone doorcase. From the 1650s onwards many Quakers settled in the town and in the 18th century developed it into a successful centre for textile production, which is why so many handsome houses from the period remain. However these buildings tend to be closer to the centre whereas Wolfe Tone Street is on the outskirts of Mountmellick and none of the other houses in the vicinity have anything as fine as this doorcase. Might it have come from another property – perhaps a country house – and been inserted into the present façade?
Bank Holiday Monday morning and a coach pulls into the main square of Macroom, County Cork. The passengers step gingerly down, a few of them take photographs outside the former castle’s entrance but most wander about for a few minutes looking bewildered. Then they all climb aboard again and the bus departs. It doesn’t help that in the middle of a town which promotes itself as the tourism gateway to West Cork and South Kerry not a single premises is open for the visitors. No chance of getting a cup of coffee, or buying a postcard, or bringing home a souvenir of Macroom. Nothing to look at but shuttered shops and the residue of Sunday night’s revelry on the streets. No wonder the bus didn’t linger.
Deriving its name from the Irish Maigh Chromtha, believed to refer to a crooked oak that once stood in what is now the main square, Macroom was of some significance in pre-Christian Ireland. However, its modern history really begins with the construction of a castle above the river Sullane, probably first begun in the 12th century by the O’Flynns who then controlled this part of what was the Kingdom of Muskerry. The McCarthys subsequently became the dominant family and at various dates they both enlarged and improved Macroom Castle. The building suffered a series of assaults in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1602 Cormac McDermot Carthy, Lord of Muscry was arrested by the government authorities and the castle besieged, during which time it caught fire. Then in 1650 Boetius MacEgan, Bishop of Ross who was a leading figure in the Confederate camp (and clearly not a pacifist) assembled a force at the castle which was set on fire rather than allow it fall into the hands of the approaching English Commonwealth army led by Roger Boyle Lord Broghill. In an ensuing battle the bishop was captured but promised his freedom if he persuaded the garrison of Carrigadrohid Castle to surrender: instead he exhorted those inside the castle to ‘Hold out to the last’ and was accordingly hanged from a nearby tree. Seemingly Macroom Castle was then burnt again by the New Model Army’s General Henry Ireton, presumably prior to his death after the Siege of Limerick in 1651. Macroom next passed briefly into the hands of Admiral Sir William Penn of whose son, the Quaker convert William Penn, would found the state of Pennsylvania in America in the 1680s. Meanwhile following the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Macroom had been restored to the McCarthys who renovated the castle before losing it again in 1691 owing to their allegiance to James II. The need for the English government to pay troops who had fought in Ireland led to the castle being sold at auction in 1703 when it was bought by that speculative entity the Hollow Sword Blade Company. In turn this organization resold it to lawyer and politician Francis Bernard (popularly known as Judge Bernard after he became a Judge on the Irish Court of Common Pleas). By the middle of the 18th century Macroom Castle was occupied by the Hedges Eyre family who acquired the building outright in the 19th century. When Robert Hedges Eyre died childless in 1840, Macroom was inherited by his cousin, the Hon William Henry Hare Hedges-White who, following the death of his elder brother twenty-eight years later, became third Earl of Bantry. In 1850 his eldest daughter, Lady Olivia Hedges-White was born in Macroom Castle which she eventually inherited.
The town of Macroom effectively grew up around, and in order to service the needs of, the castle at its centre. However the advantageous location at a river crossing on the main route from east to west also helped to encourage development as a centre for commerce: seemingly the original market house was erected here by the McCarthys in 1620 (its sandstone successor, now the Town Hall, dates from two centuries later). Writing in 1837 Samuel Lewis described Macroom as consisting ‘of one principal street, nearly a mile in length, and towards the western extremity having a wider space, in which is the newly erected market-house, forming one side of a square, of which the opposite side is occupied by the hotel and the castle gateway: the inhabitants are supplied with water from springs and public pumps recently erected by subscription…There are no fixed sources of public amusement, but the town is frequently enlivened by the lovers of field sports and steeple chases, for which the neighbourhood is celebrated. There are two flour-mills and two tanyards at present in operation; and there were formerly a distillery and saltworks, which have been discontinued. The principal trade is in corn, which is brought into the town daily by the farmers, and purchased on account of the Cork merchants; the quantity sold during the year 1835 exceeded 39,000 barrels. The market is on Saturday, and is abundantly supplied with butchers’ meat, vegetables, and provisions at a moderate price; and from January till May there is a weekly market for pigs, many of which are slaughtered here and afterwards sent to Cork. From May till the end of the year, cattle fairs are held on the 12th of every month alternately in the town and at the village of Masseys-town, the property of Massey Hutchinson Massey, Esq., a little to the southwest.’
Masseytown mentioned above is a district to the immediate west of the Sullane that includes a particularly charming terrace of houses dating from the early 1860s; these are overlooked by the fine limestone courthouse with central Venetian window. The building probably dates from the 1820s, as does the Church of Ireland across the river which was designed by George Pain. Most of the houses in the immediate vicinity likewise were erected in the first half of the 19th century when the mud cabins hitherto occupied by many of Macroom’s residents were replaced by the present structures.
Nothing better represents Macroom’s current state than the condition of its castle remains. The building which had already survived so much damage over the previous centuries, was burnt one last time by Anti-Treaty forces in 1922 and two years later the castle and demesne were sold by the widowed Lady Ardilaun (previously Lady Olivia Hedges-White) to a group of local businessmen. The structure survived until the 1960s but so poorly supported that the greater part of it then had to be demolished. What remains is a section of the western wall with a three-stage square tower at its north-west corner, the whole perched above the river and providing a dramatic view from the other side of the bridge, not dissimilar to that at Lismore with the castle above the Blackwater. But unlike Lismore what remains of Macroom Castle appears as insufficiently maintained, and as vulnerable to demolition, as what has already been lost. So too do the buildings directly below it, several of which are now vacant (a not uncommon condition throughout the town). Likewise the early 19th century Church of Ireland directly across the road to the castle: this is now boarded up and its stained glass windows in perilous condition (several have already been broken). Two years ago the National Roads Authority controversially tacked a pedestrian crossing onto the old stone bridge: while such a facility was obviously necessary, its siting and design (or want of same) took no account of the historical context. The same is true elsewhere in the town. Visitors passing through the old castle gates on the square will not find open parkland but a series of ugly buildings developed from the 1930s onwards as a secondary school: again no doubt an important facility for the townspeople but the location is ill-chosen, particularly when in the background can be seen the remnants of the castle falling into irreparable decrepitude. An opportunity to exploit the castle’s significant history, not least to American visitors thanks to a link with William Penn, remains grossly unexploited. But this is the case throughout Macroom, a town that markets itself as a tourism destination and then does little to encourage tourists to linger. No wonder those bus passengers soon climbed back onboard and drove away.
It is impossible to miss the castle in Cahir, County Tipperary, and nor should it be missed. Most likely the town – the name of which derives from the Irish ‘an Chathair’ meaning stone ringfort – would not exist but for the castle. Occupying a rocky island in the river Suir the present building’s core dates from the 13th century when it was constructed by Conor O’Brien, Prince of Thomond most probably on the site of an earlier native fortification. In 1375 as a reward for his loyalty to the English crown the castle was granted to James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond and remained in possession of branches of this family for almost six centuries. Henry VIII created Thomas Butler Baron Cahir in 1543. It was during the lifetime of his great-nephew Thomas Butler, second Lord Cahir (of the second creation) that the castle was besieged and then captured in 1599 by a force of 18,000 under the command of the Earl of Essex. However since Lord Cahir surrendered, he received a pardon and was able to hold onto his lands. Cahir Castle was once more threatened with a siege in 1647, this time by Murrough O’Brien, sixth Baron Inchiquin but its occupants quickly surrendered, as they did also in 1650 when Oliver Cromwell advised ‘If I be necessitated to use my cannon upon you, you must expect the extremities usual in such cases.’ Capitulation thereby saved the castle from a potentially ruinous assault. It remained in use, although not always by its owners, until the 19th century: in the second half of the 18th century the Butlers built for themselves a classical residence in the town (today the Cahir House Hotel). But they maintained the old castle and even carried out some restoration on the property in the 1840s. Following the death of the last member of the family in 1961 Cahir Castle was acquired by the state and is now open to the public.
The town of Cahir largely owes its present appearance to two men, Richard Butler, tenth Lord Cahir who was created first Earl of Glengall in 1816, and his son also called Richard, the second earl. To the first of these Cahir is indebted for such charms as the Swiss Cottage (of which more on another occasion) and the Anglican St Paul’s Church, the former attributed to John Nash, the latter certainly designed by him 1816-18. It replaced an older church, the ruins of which can still be seen, as can those of an Augustinian priory founded in the 13th century. The former Erasmus Smith School adjacent to St Paul’s and now used as local authority offices is likely by Nash also. In Samuel Lewis’ Topographical Dictionary of Ireland published in 1837, the author notes that Cahir ‘owes its rise to the late earl of Glengall, and has been enlarged and greatly improved by the present earl whose seat is within its limits; it is pleasantly situated on the river Suir, is well built and of handsome appearance, and now consists of 588 houses.’ His words were echoed by other visitors to the town during this period, and especially after 1843 when, the majority of leases issued in the previous century coming to term, the second earl embarked on an extensive programme of rebuilding which saw Castle Street and the Square, as well as various approach roads, assume their present form. The architect responsible was the Clonmel-based William Tinsley who gave the place a coherence rarely found in this country. As G.H. Bassett commented in his 1888 publication County Tipperary: A Guide and Directory, ‘The houses of Cahir devoted to business as well as residential purposes, are superior to those found in most country towns in lreland.’ Remodelling Cahir was estimated to have cost Lord Glengall in the region of £75,000. Unfortunately as a consequence of this and other expenditure on the eve the Great Famine, and despite marriage to an heiress, Cahir’s owner found himself heavily indebted and the family’s fortunes never recovered from his expenditure on Cahir. In 1853 the town was sold on the instructions of the Encumbered Estates Court.
From the 18th century on Cahir thrived thanks to lying at the centre of a prosperous agricultural region, witnessed by a large market house erected in the 1770s on the north side of the square facing Cahir House. The town’s prosperity was further increased by the establishment of a number of large mills on the banks of the Suir, including the Manor Mills on the Bridge of Cahir, the Suir Mills (Cahir Bakery), and the Cahir Abbey Mills. These buildings still exist and are a dominant presence in the town, although redundant and badly in need of alternative use. When Henry D Inglis travelled through Ireland in 1834 he visited the town and after remarking on the beauty of its situation he observed that ‘Cahir is rather an improving place. The flour trade is pretty extensively carried on, both in grinding, and in carrying to Clonmel. Very extensive cornmills have recently been erected; and they are in full employment.’ The mills were mostly run by the town’s substantial Quaker population, their significance evident by the fine Meeting House in the town, dating from the early 1830s. Almost directly opposite is a terrace of exceptionally large houses erected during the same period, another testament to Cahir’s former importance in the area, as is a similar terrace of four, three-storey over basement residences called the Mall close by the castle. In the 1820s the second earl leased the land on which they stand to a Dr Thomas Beale specifically for the purpose of building an hotel and a row of townhouses, the first three of which were completed by 1830, two of them serving as the Cahir Castle Hotel. The advent of famine in the 1840s put paid to the completion of this scheme and others similar planned for the town.
Cahir now suffers from the same problems as so many other Irish towns, not least the disappearance of the industries that once provided employment. Today it gives the impression of existing because it did so in the past. Those substantial mills, in their shabby vacancy, are witness to changing circumstances that have not been to the advantage of the town and testify to the departure of former prosperity. On the other hand, Cahir enjoys benefits not enjoyed by many other Irish towns, having a splendid castle and attractively laid-out streets. In other words, Cahir has an opportunity to exploit its potential as a tourist magnet, and to some extent already does so. The castle clearly attracts tourists and has an attractive and well-maintained park to one side. But on the other, close to the centre of the town, is a vast car and bus park. One understands the importance of offering visitors somewhere to leave their vehicles, but to create a desolate expanse of tarmac right beside the castle seems self-defeating: why not conceal it behind buildings that follow the original line of the street, or engage in extensive planting that would soften the prospect and avoid conflict with Cahir’s principal attraction? The same failure better to exploit opportunities is found throughout the town. In the main square, for example, far too many properties are vacant, an inevitable consequence of planning authorities permitting supermarkets to be constructed on the outskirts. But the square’s appearance is not helped by the former Butler residence, the 18th century Cahir House Hotel with its fine first-floor Venetian window, being disfigured by the insertion of uPVC windows, as are so many other properties in the area: does nobody see what damage this does to the perception among visitors of Cahir as a supposed heritage town? On the other side of the square, another significant building, the 18th century former Market House, underwent a grotesque ‘renovation’ in the 1980s when original arched openings were replaced with over-sized plate-glass windows, thereby destroying the integrity of the design. Visiting Cahir one is conscious of missed opportunity and a failure to exploit potential, with inevitable consequences for the town and surrounding region. Not very different to anywhere else in the country so.
Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry (from the Irish Éadan Doire meaning ‘hill-brow of the oak wood’) in County Offaly is effectively one long narrow street that dribbles away to an unsatisfactory conclusion at either end. It was ever thus: from the 18th century on visitors to Ireland have commented on the way urban settlements here were rarely planned but developed in a haphazard, higgledy-piggledy fashion. On occasion an improving landlord would try to impose order, and indeed this happened at Edenderry but not until long after the place had first come into existence. While there is a pre-Christian hill-fort in the area, it was really with the arrival of the Normans that permanent residential structures began to appear around what is now Edenderry. In 1325 John de Bermingham, first Earl of Louth (famous for having killed Edward Bruce – younger brother of Robert, King of Scotland – in 1318) founded a Franciscan Friary at Monasteroris to the immediate west of the town; little of it remains today. Although from the mid-14th century this part of the country was officially under the authority of the Earls of Kildare, in practice it came under the control of the O’Connors. They were likely responsible in the 15th century for what is now known as Blundell Castle, eventually destroyed by Jacobite forces in 1691; the ruins stand on a hill above the town. In the middle of the previous century Offaly was shired as King’s County and its land granted to men loyal to the English crown, among them Sir Henry Colley whose father Walter had served as Principal Solicitor for Ireland and later as the country’s Solicitor-General. The connection with the Colley family meant that for sometime thereafter Edenderry came to be known as Coolestown. Henry Colley’s granddaughter Sarah married Sir George Blundell and so the land passed into the hands of his family, remaining with them until the death in 1756 of Montague, first and last Viscount Blundell. His only daughter Mary inherited the property as in turn did her only daughter, another Mary who in 1786 married Arthur Hill, second Marquess of Downshire.
Thanks to his marriage, the Marquess of Downshire acquired some 14,000 acres of land around Edenderry. He vigorously opposed the 1800 Act of Union and as a result earned the enmity of the London government which exacted retribution by depriving him of governorship of County Down and the colonelcy of the local militia, and dismissing his supporters from official posts. He died the following year; his widow blamed official hostility, but, having inherited an estate in England from a childless uncle, was somewhat consoled in 1802 by being created Baroness Sandys in her own right. Meanwhile her twelve-year old eldest son became heir to the Irish properties. It was he, the third Marquess of Downshire who after coming of age in 1809 left the most lasting visible impact on Edenderry. This was despite the fact that he inherited responsibility for his forbears’ considerable debts and that his mother continued to receive two-thirds of the rent from the Offaly estates until her death in 1836. Among his most notable legacies to the town is the large former Market House, designed by Thomas Duff in 1826 and built at a cost of £5,000. Today used as a courthouse and local authority office, this handsome cut limestone building has a five-bay pedimented facade and presumably once featured an open arcaded groundfloor and assembly room above. Standing in the middle of what is now called O’Connell Square, it is testament to Edenderry’s prosperous past as a market town, a history echoed by other buildings in the town. These include Blundell House, named after the former owners of the estate but erected to his own design in 1813 by James Brownrigg who like his father worked for the Downshires and acted as agent for the County Offaly estate. Of two storeys over half-raised basement, its groundfloor has an exceptionally wide door fanlight and Wyatt windows to either side. Lying to the immediate east is the town’s Quaker meeting house which dates from the first decade of the 19th century and replaced earlier premises on the site.
Lord Downshire’s engagement with Edenderry was not restricted to public buildings like the Market House: he also undertook to better the condition of the rest of the town, replacing mud cabins with slated, two-storey stone houses. Many of them remain and often carry a date from the early 1820s above the entrance
The materials used in the construction of these and other buildings were brought to Edenderry thanks to an initiative undertaken by his father: the creation of a branch of the Grand Canal into the town. Work began in 1797 and was completed with a harbour in 1802 at a total cost of £692 which was financed by the Downshires. The quays still lead right to the main street and conclude in a squared-off section surrounded by limestone wall. For much of the 19th century the canal provided a vital social and commercial link for Edenderry, and helped to bring prosperity to the region. The last barge left the quays here in 1962, around the same time that the railway at the other end of the town also closed. As with the canal, this was a branch line, known in its day as the Nesbitt Junction after a Miss Nesbitt who contributed £10,000 to its cost so that she could convey prize cattle to the Royal Dublin Society. Its buildings, erected in 1877 by the Midland Great Western Railway, remain although the little stone ticket office looks sadly neglected. The third Marquess’ contribution to the town’s development was commemorated a year after his death in 1845 with the erection of a statue to his memory sculpted by Joseph Robinson Kirk, son of Thomas whose figure of Nelson adorned the top of the pillar on Dublin’s O’Connell Street until blown up in 1966.
Like so many Irish towns, Edenderry is in seemingly irreversible decline, as the above photographs make clear. The outskirts, spread randomly and with no apparent forethought, are full of generic housing estates. One is currently being constructed at the immediate west end of the main street and has been given a name every bit as banal as the design of the supposedly ‘exclusive’ houses contained therein: Cedar Lawns. Meanwhile the centre of Edenderry slides ever further into decrepitude with a terrifying number of premises vacant and unkempt. Groups of listless youths – presumably residents of the aforementioned exclusive housing estates – drift along the pavements past properties that might entertain or engage them but instead exhibit empty windows. Even in O’Connell Square, while money has been spent on renovating the old Market House it is surrounded by properties with well-worn signs offering them for sale. For the moment Edenderry still has a post office and branches of the main banks: but for how much longer? The reality is that as the centre decays and householders travel elsewhere to spend their money, those banking businesses will find it no longer viable to maintain an operation here. They will duly close down and the standard outcry will ensue, yet this is the inevitable consequence of failure to maintain a vibrant town centre. The general tattiness and want of adequate maintenance is apparent everywhere, beginning with the ruins of Blundell Castle where the bars of a protective fence have long-since been wrenched off, if the quantity of mouldering empty beer cans discarded inside its walls can be taken as evidence. By failing to take care of Edenderry’s most ancient site, the local authority is sending out a signal of indifference which will noted by all those late-night drinkers, and everyone else as well. The same sense of apathy and disregard is emitted by every other building permitted to suffer neglect. Among the remaining retailers, the word Eden – a none-too-subtle pun on the town’s name – is often deployed. Frankly Eden lies well east, or west or anywhere else. Whatever one might think of absentee landlords and whatever his motivation, at least Lord Downshire tried to improve circumstances in Edenderry. Nobody today seems interested in following his example.