The Founding of the Presentation Brothers’ Schools at Birr in 1877; recollections of 1927 from J. Deering.
[Birr Historical Society meets again on Monday 4 December 2023 after a break of three…
The growth of middle-class housing after 1900 may be said to have begun with the building of four ‘villas’ at Clonminch in 1909 by Charles P. Kingston, the then county secretary to King’s County Council. It was preceded earlier by the substantial house of Daniel E. Williams completed at Dew Park in 1900. Were it not for the war and the scarcity of materials we might have seen more housing in the 1916–23 period. However, there was a further scarcity of building materials and high prices in the early 1920s and it was not until about 1930 that middle-class housing began to grow again and almost entirely on Charleville Road and Clonminch the period prior to the Second World War. After a slow start in the late 1920s council housing was constructed in earnest from 1933–4 and up to 1940, resuming again in the late 1940s (see my earlier blog).
The Flight from the Centre
At the end of the 18th century Tullamore was still a small and walkable town. Being a rapidly expanding manufacturing hub it was dirty and noisy, somewhat smelly and smoky and occasionally a bit dangerous.
It was also a very socially mixed milieu in which rich and poor lived side by side.
The wealthy merchant George Ross, in his fine stone-built mansion on Barrack Street, had as his neighbours the crowded tenements of Ruddock’s Lane and from his rear window could glimpse the thatched hovels of Tea Lane. Though clustered mostly around the military barracks, congested and malodorous terraced cabins were to be found in every quarter of the town and the better off could not have been unaware of the living conditions of their less fortunate townsfolk.
Paradoxically both rich and poor shared one common condition in that they probably didn’t fully own their own dwelling, regardless of how comfortable or how squalid it might be. It has been estimated that up to the end of the 19th century, ninety percent of housing in Ireland was rented or on long leases and it is unlikely that Tullamore was much different.
Nevertheless, whatever the nature of their tenures, by the beginning of the twentieth century, fuelled by an expanding economy and the arrival of genuine local government, two social changes were underway. The deeply unsanitary housing conditions of the workers could no longer be tolerated and would have to be alleviated. At the same time, the new and upwardly mobile businessmen and professionals could now afford to own their own houses and were hoping to get away from the increasingly noisy and crowded commercial centre.
Thus, by the beginning of the twentieth century, while a dynamic Tullamore Urban District Council was clearing out the worst slums and providing housing for workers in grouped estates close to the centre, enterprising landowners and speculators began to offer generous freehold sites on the outskirts of the town to upper and middle-class families.
The emerging suburb of choice was southwards along the road leading to the demesne of the local aristocrat and which combined social cachet with a sylvan setting. By the beginning of the twentieth century Colonel Bury’s agent was beginning to sell off individual plots on the periphery of its demesne, though thankfully maintaining the integrity of the historic woodlands.
So, for those who could afford it, the ideal was a site on Charleville Road, but should that be out of reach, one on Clonminch Road, the next road to the east, would just have to do.
One of the four houses built by Charles P. Kingston, as a pair of semi-detached villas on Clonminch Road in 1909. This one Kingston sold in 1918 to Jack Williams, newly married and returned from the War. He was one of three sons of Daniel E. Williams.
A middle-class home
While the wealthier business families, particularly the Egans and Williams, could purchase generous sites and provide their own commodious detached dwellings, entrepreneurs with surplus capital were beginning to build houses to standard designs to sell to less well-off but ambitious purchasers.
The most popular model all over Ireland at this time was the two-storey, bay windowed semi-detached house. While saving on building costs, the semi-d could not only create a certain architectural presence but also provide independent access to a substantial rear garden; a feature longed for by those who lived in the elegant but restricted terraces of Store Street or Church Street.
The best examples in Tullamore of this housing type are the four, built between 1906 and 1909, as a speculative development by the County Secretary Charles Kingston, on the eastern side of Clonminch Road, just beyond its junction with the New Road. The first three were bought by the Grimes family, owners of a thriving public house in Church Street, by the Munster and Leinster Bank who used it as a residence for their branch manager and by Thomas Holohan, a senior clerk in the office of the county court. Kingston lived in the fourth house until 1918 when he sold it to Captain Jack Williams of the prominent local business family.
The last two, originally named ‘Innisfree’ and ‘Auburn’ reflecting the literary tastes of the owners, are now called ‘Loughmore Lodge’ and ‘Kingston House’. All stood on sites of approximately an acre, though Williams later bought further lands to the south and extended his house substantially.
‘Innisfree’ was my grandfather’s home and is today a Protected Structure. It displays the features of the typical bourgeois dwelling of this time with four main bedrooms, a maid’s bedroom, a sitting room and a dining room, a substantial kitchen, a separate bathroom and toilet and generous hot press, a pantry, scullery and a ‘glory-hole’ for general storage. There was access at the rear to an enclosed drying yard, a general storage room and an outside plumbed toilet. An extensive open shed was provided for the storage of turf or a vehicle and beyond that a wash house and a chicken coop and a piggery whose inhabitant, affectionately nicknamed ‘Curly Wee’, lived on slops and waste, until to the surprise and distress of this writer he was dispatched as raw material for the newly built bacon factory.
A pedestrian entrance through a formal front garden served the recessed front porch with its glazed tiles while a separate vehicle entrance led past a grove of trees to the rear of the site. The garden was divided in half by a hedge into an orchard and a vegetable garden. Mains water was available for the house but the garden was served by a rooftop rainwater collection system, while a septic tank sat at the lowest point of the site and remote from the house. The original gas system was converted to electricity in the 1930s but the telephone never arrived until installed by new owners in the 1970s.
In contrast to their Victorian predecessors, such Edwardian models placed more emphasis on practicality, airiness, convenience and modern facilities. Apart from elaborately carved marble chimney pieces, there was less fussy detail and decoration. However, the problem with the standard semi-d, even on a relatively large site, was the need to adhere to a setback building line. This often meant that the orientation of some rooms might be unsuitable with those least used receiving the most sunlight and vice versa.
Digan’s House at Clonminch set a new standard
The house built by the Digan family about 1910. Drawing by Fergal MacCabe
The more affluent could overcome this disadvantage by purchasing sites large enough to contain a single detached dwelling. If, by virtue of its location, the new home could make a civic design statement, so much the better. In this respect possibly the most prestigious site in Tullamore lay on the southern end of Bachelors Walk, today known as The New Road, at its junction with Clonminch Road.
Laid out by the noted landscape architect John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) to provide a bypass for the town for Lord Charleville and his family when visiting their Francis Johnston designed church on Hop Hill, this broad landscaped avenue was aligned so as to give a distant vista of Croghan Hill, the family seat of the Moore ancestors of the Lord’s family, twelve miles away to the northeast. It is likely that, given their interest in the civic improvement of the town, that in the fullness of time the Lord and his family would have built an imposing structure to close the vista on the higher ground at its southeastern end, but their fortunes declined and at the beginning of the twentieth century the site lay undeveloped.
In 1900 it came into the possession of the merchant family of Digan, who in a statement symbolising the social advancement of the Catholic middle classes, provided a worthy vista closer in the form of an elegant two storied bay windowed brick and stone house (illus.) which by virtue of its design and location has become almost emblematic of the era in which it was built. Regrettably, its accomplished architect is as yet unknown.
Three other notable examples of fine architect designed detached houses are located on the stretch of Charleville Road between Spollenstown Road and Adams Villas/Spade Avenue, possibly the most prestigious stretch of road in the town.
In the opinion of the author, one of the most satisfying designs of all the suburban villas of Tullamore in common with the five aforementioned houses on the Clonminch Road, is the house formerly owned by the late Dr Soden who came to Tullamore about 1960. It utilises the three bay, two storey form which imparts quiet dignity and a satisfying sense of visual repose. Built c. 1940, it is well set back from the western side of the road by a fine garden.
Distinguished by an elegant recessed three arched porch supported by two Tuscan Doric pillars, the bays to either side of the entrance bay are perfect squares and with centrally placed elegantly proportioned casement windows. Its architect is also as yet unknown.
While all of the above houses are in a classical two-storied form, the next two utilise a single storey asymmetrical form with differing roof heights, which though architecturally more difficult to resolve into a coherent visual ensemble, are nonetheless superb compositions. Both were designed by well-known and skilful architects.
Another fine house is that known as the Bungalow which was built by solicitor Henry Brenan about 1915. Red-brick and tiled, this quirky but elegant and spacious single storey house with its matching garden is the work of Frederick Hicks (1870-1965) one of the most successful architects of the era, and was built for Brenan’s marriage to Madeleine Williams, a daughter of Daniel E. Williams of nearby Dew Park.
Its architectural style is that of the Edwardian colonial bungalow familiar all over the British Empire from the Burnaby Estate in Greystones to the hill town of Shimla in India and it boasts an octagonal thrust out bay window which is a particular feature of the genre. The front facade is broken down into several separate blocks and anchored by a central timber entrance porch.
A Michael Scott designed house was probably built for Florence Williams in 1951 at Charleville Road. Drawing by Fergal MacCabe
Built in the 1950s for another member of the Williams family, and designed by Michael Scott (1906-1979) who reverted to the palette and style used in his 1940 DEW Head Office in Patrick Street of Clonaslee sandstone laid horizontally and enclosed within a strong white plaster surround (illus.).
This use of rustic stone and a low ground hugging style was also the choice of Frank Gibney (1905-1978) and Andrew Devane (1917-2000) in their own Howth houses and by the Tipperary born Sean Kenny (1929-1973) architect and stage designer in the O’Doherty family on Victoria Road on the southern slopes of the River Foyle in Derry/Londonderry. All bear a certain affinity to the Taliesin houses of Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona with whom Devane and Kenny had studied.
Though he carried out work all over the county,‘ Ashleigh’ is the only remaining entirely intact building in Offaly by Scott, the most renowned Irish architect of his generation.
Dispersal and Consolidation
Apart from the members of the Egan family who seemed content to continue living in the town at Acres Hall. Patrick Egan, while remaining the managing director of the firm, had taken up farming at Annaghmore in 1919. Some members of the business and professional classes sought even more rural settings, again largely to the south of the town proximate to the Golf Club and Charleville Forest, in the districts of Ross and St O’Hara’s, though Michael Williams became a distinctive outlier in his purchase and conservation of the ancient estate of Durrow Abbey to the north in the early 1960s.
The most architecturally distinguished of the southerly exodus was the originally thatched ‘Shepherds Wood’ located on high ground near Mucklagh with a wonderful view of the Slieve Bloom and designed by Michael Scott in 1942 as a wedding present for Desmond and Brenda Williams.
The home of the Mahon family at Charleville Road from about 1911. He was finance director of Offaly County Council and from 1921 county secretary in succession to Kingston who was fired by the new Sinn Féin dominated county council. Beside Mahon from 1912 was Mr Lavan, the headmaster of St Brigid’s School.
Around this time, individual houses were springing up within the town itself as sites became available on New Road, Spollanstown and the Clara and Rahan roads. Yet, the approach roads from the south were still highly prized locations and the ‘ribboning’ along these accelerated from the 1940s onward.
The home of 1916 veteran Peadar Bracken from the 1940s. He generally referred to Charleville Road as Cormac Road.
In response, Frank Gibney in his imaginative 1950 plan for the town, suggested how the extensive southern lands beyond the railway line and within walking distance of the centre could be opened up to create an attractive new suburb. Regrettably, his plan was disregarded and little by little, the frontages on the eastern side of Charleville Road and western side of Clonminch road were sold off, effectively sterilising the lands between.
In a resurrection of Gibney’s vision, the recently adopted County Offaly Development Plan supports the comprehensive development of these lands but suggests that the necessary vehicular access may require the demolition of two or even more fine dwellings.
As this is unlikely to happen in the near future, the historic scarcity and exclusivity which is the hallmark of the Charleville Road area is likely to continue for some time yet.
Sheena, Charleville Road, was built in 1930 for James Rogers, solicitor, and founder of the Offaly Historical Society in 1937-8. He represented Irish Volunteers such as Peadar Bracken in the courts over the period 1914-21 and took the Free State side in the civil war. Rogers was appointed state solicitor in 1923 and first county registrar in 1926.
Back to the Future
Whilst there are several pockets of vacancy or underuse, today the housing stock of Tullamore, both public and private, is of a high quality and mainly composed of individual dwellings with rear gardens. As the new development plan seeks to curtail the edge sprawl and to fill in the bypassed gaps, the historic terraces of the town are increasingly sought after as prestigious residences. The recent skilful refurbishment of older properties on High Street and Store Street is admirable and proposals are now being made for infill developments on well located sites such as O’Neill’s Place.
New national policies which stress compactness, pedestrianisation and diversity of residential accommodation are slowly making their impact and over time these may even reproduce the kind of vibrant and living town centre with which George Ross and his contemporaries might have been familiar- though certainly without the slums and poverty.
Notice for the sale of Sheena in 1976. It was purchased by Offaly Teagasc for £45,000. The title in those days was typically a 99-year lease. What with five acres adjoining the garden was exceptional except in the case of Dew Park of c. 1898-1900.
Surprisingly, the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same.
Text Fergal MacCabe. Pics Offaly History unless otherwise stated. We welcome articles of Offaly historical, architectural and archaeological interest. For over 400 previous articles see http://www.offalyhistory.com or offalyhistoryblog. Circulation about 2,000 each week.