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Offaly History (short for Offaly Historical & Archaeological) was first formed in 1938 and re-established in 1969 and is located at Bury Quay, Tullamore, Co. Offaly since 1993(next to the new Tullamore D.E.W Visitor Centre).

We are about collecting and sharing memories. We do this in an organised way though exhibitions, supporting the publication of local interest books, our website , Facebook, open evenings, our library and offices at Bury Quay.

Our Mission
To promote Offaly History including community and family history

What we do:

  • Promote all aspects of history in Co. Offaly.
  • Genealogy service for counties Laois and Offaly.
  • Co. Offaly photographic records for study and sale in addition to a limited number of publications on Laois and Irish general historical interest.
  • Purchase and sale of Offaly interest books though the Society’s book store and website.
  • Publication of books under the Society’s publishing arm Esker Press.
  • The Society subscribes to almost all the premier historical journals in Ireland.

Our Society covers a diverse range of Offaly Heritage:

  • Architectural heritage, historic monuments such as monastic and castle buildings.
  • Industrial and urban development of towns and villages.
  • Archaeological objects and artifacts.
  • Flora, fauna and bogs, wildlife habitats, geology and Natural History.
  • Landscapes, heritage gardens and parks, farming and inland waterways.
  • Local literary, social, economic, military, political, scientific and sports history.

Offaly History is a non-profit community group with a growing membership of some 150 individuals.

The Society focuses on enhancing educational opportunities, understanding and knowledge of the county heritage while fostering an inclusive approach and civic pride in local identity. We promote these objectives through:

  • The holding of monthly lectures, occasional seminars, exhibitions and film screenings.
    Organising tours during the summer months to places of shared historical interest.
  • The publication of an annual journal Offaly Heritage – to date nine issues.
  • We play a unique role collecting and digitising original primary source materials especially photographs and oral history recordings
  • Offaly History is  the centre for  Family History research in Counties Laois and Offaly.
  • The Society is linked to the renowned Irish Family Foundation website and Roots Ireland where some 900,000 records of Offaly/Laois interest can be accessed on a pay-per-view basis worldwide. Currently these websites have an estimated 20 million records of all Ireland interest.
  • A burgeoning library of books, CD-ROMs, videos, DVDs, oral and folklore recordings, manuscripts, newspapers and journals, maps, photographs and various artifacts.
  • OHAS Collections
  • OHAS Centre Facilities

The financial activities of the Society are operated under the aegis of Offaly Heritage Centre Limited, a charitable company whose directors also serve on the Society’s elected committee. None of the Society’s directors receive remuneration or any kind. All the company’s assets are held in trust to promote the voluntary activities of the Society. Our facilities are largely free to the public or run purely on a costs-recovery basis.

Acting as a policy advisory body –  Offaly History endeavors to ensure all government departments, local authorities, tourism agencies and key opinion formers prioritise heritage matters.

Meet the current committee:

Our Committee represents a broad range of backgrounds and interests. All share a common interest in collecting and promoting the heritage of the county and making it available to the wider community.

2017 Committee

  • Helen Bracken (President)
  • Pat Wynne (Vice President and Joint Treasurer)
  • Niall Sweeney (Vice President)
  • Michael Byrne (Secretary)
  • Lisa Shortall (Deputy Secretary)
  • Dorothee Bibby (Record Secretary)
  • Charlie Finlay (Joint Treasurer)
  • Darrell Hooper
  • Brian Pey
  • Fred Geoghegan
  • Noel Guerin
  • Henry Edgill
  • Peter Burke
  • Angella Kelly
  • Rory Masterson
  • Shaun Wrafter
  • Ronnie Matthews
  • Oliver Dunne
  • Ciara Molloy
  • Stephen Callaghan (Heritage Items)

If you would like to help with the work of the Society by coming on a sub-committee or in some other way please email us or let an existing member know.

+353-5793-21421 [email protected] Open 9am-4.30pm Mon-Fri

Tullamore and the £1 million housing scheme of 1922. The new houses at John Dillon Street. By Peter Connell

This is the story of eight new houses built by Tullamore Urban District Council in 1923 in what is now John Dillon Street. Turning into the street from Charleville Road, the first eight houses on the right were built as part of the Provisional Government’s £1 million scheme launch in 1922 in the midst of the Civil War. Opposite them are houses built by the Irish Soldiers and Sailors Land Trust for veterans of World War I.  The eight houses may only have made a small dent in Tullamore’s chronically bad housing conditions in the early 20th century, but the circumstances surrounding when and how they were built provide some valuable insights into the history of the town and the country in these turbulent years.

Map showing John Dillon Street, off Charleville Road in Tullamore ©Ordnance Survey Ireland

The spring of 1922, in many senses, can be described as the lull before the storm. The sharp divisions over the Treaty expressed in the Dáil between 14 December 1921, and the vote on 7 January accepting its provisions, found tragic expression in the Civil War some six months later. In the interim, the new Provisional government grappled with the transfer of power from the British administration to new government departments, the creation of a new police service and courts system and, at the local level, the reorganisation of health and welfare services. The handing over of Dublin Castle on 16 January 1922 to the new regime represented a very public expression of the complex business of establishing the administrative machinery for a new state. All of this took place in the context of simmering and growing divisions between pro and anti-Treaty sides and widespread lawlessness across the country in the absence of an effective police force as the RIC withdrew to barracks and recruitment to the new civic guards had just commenced. Alongside this was the huge damage to infrastructure caused by the war of independence.

All of this emphasises the seemingly remarkable nature of an announcement made by W. T. Cosgrave, the new Minister for Local Government. At a meeting of Dublin Corporation in late January, Cosgrave, a long-standing alderman on the Corporation, stated that ‘he had received sympathetic consideration for a suggestion he made to the Provisional Government to spend a million in housing’.[1] At one level, the scale of what was being proposed appeared quite radical. The financial position of the new administration was weak with multiple demands on its limited resources.  However, addressing poor housing conditions in Dublin and across the cities and towns of the country had become a critical political issue in the years since the end of World War I.

At a meeting of Tullamore Urban Council in August 1919, ambitious plans were discussed for new public housing in the town. These included three sites on the Charleville Road (over 30 houses), three sites on Spollenstown (30 houses), 20 houses on the Killeigh Road, three sites on the Tyrellspass Road (80 houses), 20 houses on the Clara Road and 110 houses at Kilbride St. The chairman concluded that ‘we should push the scheme on with every means we can’.[2] The context for these plans was the Housing (Ireland) Act of 1919 passed at Westminster. The Local Government Board (LGB) in Dublin asked municipal authorities, like Tullamore UDC, to submit their housing plans, resulting in over 63,000 dwellings being identified as required. The Act made provision for the building of 50,000 urban dwellings over three years and was, in part, an attempt by the British to draw support away from an insurgent Sinn Féin. Regarding financial subsidies, it was proposed to pay urban councils 25s. for every 20s. collected in rents. If rents were set at 10s. per week this would add up to about £550,000 per year for three years – applied across the whole island.

As evidenced by the plans drawn up by Tullamore Urban Council, expectations had been raised through 1919 that urban councils were about to receive substantial funding for housing and that scores – or perhaps hundreds – of houses would be built in each town. During the campaign for the local council elections in January 1920, housing featured prominently amongst the issues raised by Labour and labour-affiliated candidates. At a campaign meeting in the Trade and Labour Hall in the town, Labour candidate, Philip Cunningham, claimed ‘the town landlords were trying to hold on to the Council seats because they had their slums … These landlords were receiving a pile of money every week for these slums, and when these men get on the Council they will wink at one another and say ‘We did that well; do these fools think we are going to build new houses and do without our slum rents?’’[3]

Housing conditions were particularly poor in Tullamore. Much of the western part of the town, including Pensioners Row, Barrack St, Tea Lane and Tinker’s Row consisted of small two-roomed cabins with no running water or sanitation. The 1926 census showed that almost a third of the town’s population were living in over-crowded conditions of more than two persons per room.

As in other towns, Labour and labour-affiliated candidates fared very well in the 1920 municipal elections. In Tullamore, Labour candidates won six seats, Ratepayers six and Sinn Féin three. However, the prospect of this new Council obtaining funding from the British Treasury for housing disappeared when, in the summer of 1920, the Dáil insisted that municipal authorities and county councils pledge allegiance to it and break off relations with the LGB in the Customs House. Eighteen months later, with the signing of the Treaty and the establishment of the Provisional Government, the expectations raised in 1919 of an extensive urban housing programme remained entirely unfulfilled.

Following Cosgrave’s announcement in January 1922 of plans to make £1 million available in subsidies for urban housing, a deputation from the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland met with officials from the Department of Local Government and the impression given was that ‘under the new Government local authorities would be granted more generous financial terms than they got by the Act of 1919’.[4] In March Cosgrave wrote to all urban councils setting out the terms under which subsidies would be made available and his memo was first discussed by Tullamore UDC.

Memo to urban councils from the Department of Local Government, dated 16 March 1922, introducing the £1 million scheme (©Louth County Archive Services, Dundalk)

Offaly Independent, 1 April 1922

In formulating the £1 million scheme, Cosgrave rejected the form of subsidy available in the 1919 Act, which pegged levels of funding to levels of rent. This, he argued, would encourage local authorities to build houses attracting high rents in an attempt to maximise levels of subsidy. Instead, the scheme offered a two-thirds subsidy on the capital cost of construction. One quarter was to be raised by councils through commercial loans and the remaining twelfth through a special housing rate. These details were accompanied by a memorandum whose apparent intent was to dampen expectations that the scheme would be a recurring one. At the same time councils were encouraged to proceed with due haste and, where relevant, utilise plans that had been submitted under the 1919 Act. Owners of sites were encouraged ‘to recognise their responsibility for facilitating in every way this attempt to grapple with the housing problem, the solution of which has been so much delayed’.[5] House types and designs published and circulated by the LGB in 1919 in connection with the Housing Act of that year were simply adopted by the new Department of Local Government. These set down minimum space requirements for bedroom, kitchens and parlours and recommended the provision of running hot and cold water.

Two issues became clear to the Tullamore councillors right away. The first was that the houses would cost up to £750 each to build. This compared to less than £150 each for the houses built by the Council in Davitt St fifteen years earlier. These high building costs meant that rents would be set at 10s. per week, well above the level that working class families in the town could afford. Councillor Duffy argued that ‘there was no use in expecting a working man to pay more than 4s. a week’.[6] Sinn Féin Councillor Jim Clarke stated that ‘it was the working man that wanted the houses and that unless he got them there would be trouble’.[7] At the May meeting of the Council, Councillor Kearney suggested they build more houses but he would ‘not agree to £750 a house’.[8]

The second problem was that the scale of what could be achieved under the scheme would be of a completely different order compared to what had been planned in 1919. The total amount of funding available for building was determined by how much the Council could raise by striking a special housing rate, capped at 2s. in the pound by the Department. Chairman, P. J. Egan proposed a rate of 1s. 6d. and this raised £430. Combined with a bank loan for £1,450 and the government subsidy of £3,480, the Council had a total of £5,365 to complete the scheme. Initially only six houses were in the plans but this was later extended to eight. The Council quickly identified the most suitable site as being on the Charleville Road and purchased a five-acre plot from Lady E. H. Bury for £100 per acre.

Offaly Independent, 18 Nov. 1922

In November 1922 tenders were invited for the erection of six houses on the site off Charleville Road. T.F. McNamara had been appointed architect. His work was well known in Tullamore as he had been architect in the building of the Church of the Assumption (1906), the proposed Town Hall (1911) and St Columba’s School (1911-12).[9] He was also appointed architect to the new Irish National Foresters Hall in Church St in 1922. McNamara, however, was not closely involved in the design of the houses as these were taken from a set of approved plans made available by the LGB in connection with the 1919 Housing Act.

Messrs James Beckett Ltd., Dublin£3,990Messrs Jas. Allen and Co., Dublin£3,228John O’Connell, Dublin£3,540Murphy Bros., Rathmines, Dublin£4,000Kinlan and Co., Dublin£4,170P. and H. Egan, Tullamore£3,570W. and E. Roberts, Dublin£5,190Michael Cleary, Tullamore (two houses)£1,488

Builders who tendered to build houses at John Dillon St.[10]

Eight building contractors tendered to build with the lowest tender being that of James Allen & Co from Dublin. When the tenders were discussed at the December meeting of the Council, some councillors expressed concern that Mr Allen would bring workers with him from Dublin and not employ local men. Allen told the Council that his three brothers, who were carpenters, would be working on the houses. The Labour councillors were particularly opposed to this and argued that the local builders, P & H Egan, should be approached and asked to reduce his tender so that they could be given the contract and exclusively local men could be employed. Councillor Whelan remarked that ‘it was in the interests of the workers that the housing scheme was started at all’.[11] It is certainly true that part of W. T. Cosgrave’s initial rationale for promoting the scheme was to address the chronic employment that existed in most Irish towns in the aftermath of the War of Independence. In February a joint deputation of Tullamore UDC and the local branch of the ITGWU had sent a deputation to the Department of Local Government seeking funding for road schemes to address serious unemployment in the town. When Egans were not agreeable to reduce their tender Allen was confirmed as builder of the scheme. The issue rumbled on into early 1923 when work began on building the houses. A re-calculation of the finances available led to the Council extending the scheme to eight rather than six houses.

In common with many other urban councils in Ireland when they came to build housing under the £1 million scheme, Tullamore UDC was faced with the problem that neither the town’s water or sewerage systems extended to the site. In December 1922, Dr George Moorehead, the town’s Medical Officer of Health wrote to the Council emphasising the importance of providing piped water to any new housing scheme and describing dry closets as a ‘deadly anachronism’.[12] This posed a dilemma for the councillors as there was neither piped water nor sewerage pipes in the Charleville Road area. Given the relatively expensive cost of the houses prospective, tenants or buyers could reasonably expect that they would have proper sanitary facilities. The town engineer, Mr Holohan, pointed out that there was a public water supply at a fountain nearby but Councillor Adams stated ‘you can’t expect people to go for water to the fountain at Joe Dix’s’.[13] Plans were put in place to bring piped water to the site but the Council proceed to install dry toilets at the back of the houses. Problems became evident soon after the houses were occupied in early 1924. A deputation to the Council in March stated:

At present there is no possible way of having the arrangements sanitary and if the Council leaves matters as they are serious developments may ensue. If things continue into the warm weather I think it will be utterly impossible to prevent an epidemic of sickness from setting in.[14]

The Council indicated that all available finance had been spent on the scheme with some councillors arguing that there were far more insanitary houses in the town. Eventually, in June 1924, the Council sought a loan from the Department of Local Government to have proper sanitation installed.

Houses at John Dillon St built as part of the £1 million scheme

Houses at John Dillon St built as part of the £1 million scheme

By October 1923 the first two of the eight houses were built and the Council was overwhelmed with the numbers applying to be tenants – up to a hundred according to one of the councillors.[15] At this point rents hadn’t been fixed for the houses but the Labour councillors complained that they were likely to be far too high for ‘ordinary working men’ in the town. Soon, Tullamore UDC was confronted with another issue that arose in other provincial towns regarding £1 million scheme houses. The Department of Local Government insisted that the houses be sold while councillors favoured letting them to tenants. The Council pre-empted the Department’s position and advertised the houses for rent at 7s. per week plus rates in early November.

Offaly Independent, 3 Nov. 1923

Houses at John Dillon St built as part of the £1 million scheme

The Department stipulated that any offers of £450 or more should be accepted. There was also some resentment amongst councillors that purchasers would receive a substantial subsidy as each house cost £671 to build. The department indicated that cash received through sales could be retained for further housing schemes rather than applied to paying off housing loans that the Council had taken on. The Council followed the Department’s instructions and advertised the houses for sale in December but only one offer was received. In these circumstances, at its meeting on 2 January 1924 the Council appointed eight tenants to the houses as a rent of 10s. per week:

Patrick Hogan

Michael Dempsey

James Lloyd

James Forde

Martin Cosgrave

Patrick Briscoe

Philip O’Reilly

William Dowd

In July 1925, James Lloyd wrote to the Council enquiring whether it was open to selling the houses to the tenants. Arising from this, four of the houses were sold and four remained in the Council’s ownership through the 1920s.[16]

In the 1930s, Tullamore UDC undertook several major public housing schemes, including O’Molloy St, Callary St, Healy St and Park Avenue. However, the eight houses in John Dillon St have a particular significance. They were built during the first months of the State’s existence at a time of considerable political and civil unrest. As the Decade of Centenaries programme as evolved since 2012 new themes have emerged relating to the role of women, working class agitation and the importance of the land question. Alongside these, poor housing conditions in many Irish cities and towns is an issue that national politicians grappled with in different ways from the 1890s through to the 1930s, from John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party to Eamonn de Valera’s Fianna Fáil. Cosgrave’s £1 million scheme came at a critical point in the history of the period, attempting to show that the levers of the fledging state could deliver for its citizens. A century later, the John Dillon St houses stand as a symbol of the new state’s achievement. The story behind the building of the scheme reminds us of the enormous challenges of unemployment, poverty and poor housing that remained to be addressed.

Our thanks to Dr Peter Connell for this first contribution to our blog series. He gave a lecture to Offaly History in April 2024 on housing in Tullamore.

Peter Connell received a grant from the Royal Irish Academy Decade of Centenaries Bursary scheme to conduct this research.

[1] Irish Times, 26 Jan. 1922.

[2] Westmeath Independent, 9 Aug. 1919.

[3] Offaly Independent, 17 Jan. 1920.

[4] Irish Times, 3 Feb. 1922.

[5] Circular March 1922 Miscellaneous, (LCA, DBC/HSG/001/001/001).

[6] Offaly Independent, 15 Jul. 1922.

[7] Offaly Independent, 15 Jul 1922.

[8] Offaly Independent, 27 May 1922.

[9] Dictionary of Irish Architects, T.F. McNamara, (accessed 4 May 2024).

[10] Offaly Independent, 18 Nov. 1922.

[11] Offaly Independent, 9 Dec. 1922.

[12] Offaly Independent, 9 Dec. 1922.

[13] Offaly Independent, 9 Dec. 1922.

[14] Offaly Independent, 15 Mar. 1924.

[15] Offaly Independent, 6 Oct. 1923.

[16] Tullamore UDC minutes, 15 July 1925 (Offaly Archives, TUDC11/2/).

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