A Call to Arms



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?


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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