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Tullamore - A Town Built On Progress
It is not known for sure how Tullamore came into existence. Like most towns in Ireland during British Rule, the name ‘Tullamore’ was anglicised from the old Irish name Tulach Mhór, or ‘Big Hill’. This probably refers to the upper part of the town that now exists as the highest point from hundreds of years ago between today’s Cormac Street (Charleville Parade) and O’Moore Street.
Today, Tullamore is the capital town of County Offaly, and has a population of around 16,000 inhabitants, making it Offaly’s largest town. This was not always the case. Records seen today from the 1660’s show that Birr was the largest town in Offaly, with over 700 inhabitants – Tullamore had just over 100.
Where did Tullamore originally come from? We must go back over 400 years ago.
From what we know, a man named John Moore, son of an Elizabethan soldier named Thomas Moore, was handed lands at Croghan Hill as part of the first British Plantation of Offaly during the 1570’s. The Moore family let out long-term leases on their lands, which included those that would later be the foundation for Tullamore, well into the 1600’s. The family home was Croghan Castle.
Later, in the early 1700’s, the Moore family decided to leave Croghan Castle, and build a house in Tullamore, near where the harbour and St. Mary’s Youth Centre is today. Unfortunately, there is no trace of this house. In 1716, using their political ties, a barracks house was constructed near today’s Garda Station, to house 100 foot soldiers of the British Army at the time, and in 1720, a Protestant Church was built on today’s Church Street.
These buildings proved to be a turning point for the growth of what was to become a trading town. The soldiers provided security, the Church a place of worship for British immigrant workers, and businesses soon began to arrive. The earliest recorded building lease is recorded in 1713 to that of a Richard Brennan, a tobacco spinner. That premises is now the Brewery Tap bar at O’Connor Square.
By the mid 1760’s, Tullamore town consisted of Patrick Street, Church Street, Bridge Street, O’Connor Square, and High Street. However, development of the town drew a set back with the death of Charles Moore, the first Earl of Charleville, around this time. Charles was a protagonist of seeing Tullamore expand. Upon his death, the titles passed to his sister’s husband John Bury of Shannongrove (Limerick). He died soon after, and the deeds passed to Charles Moore’s nephew, Charles William Bury, then only 6 months old. Due to his age, no new leases were granted until he was 21 years old. Thus, Tullamore remained relatively unchanged during that time. His coming of age coincided with the famous Balloon Fire of 1785.
An air balloon that got into difficulty, in what was only the third attempt to make such an ascent in Ireland, caused the fire. Exact details of the fire are sketchy, but it caused serious damage to about 100 houses in the Patrick Street area, and almost all of Kilbride Street save for The Mallet Tavern (Molloy’s Pub), which still exists today.
Charles William Bury remained as a sort of mayor over Tullamore until his death 50 years later. He oversaw the widening of Patrick Street after the fire, and arranged leases on the new houses that were built in the process. By 1841, Tullamore’s population was just over 6,000 inhabitants.
The Grand Canal arrived in Tullamore in 1798 linking it with Dublin, then with the Shannon in 1804. It was now on a direct trade route with Dublin, being the largest urban area on the route outside of Dublin. This is the same today.
Charleville Castle, one of the towns prominent landmarks, was completed in 1812, taking almost 12 years for the whole estate to be developed. It became the residence for the former owners of the town, the Earls of Charleville. It was designed by Francis Johnston, who also designed the GPO in Dublin.
Tullamore continued to thrive. New streets were laid out and developed as more people came to the town – Offaly Street, Harbour Street, William Street, and Market Square in 1820. The county gaol house was added in 1826, the distillery in 1829, and the county courthouse in 1835. It was granted the title of County Capital in 1833. That process started in a petition to the House of Common by the town residents in 1784 and 1786. Daingean was the then-capital town of Offaly, and remained such by the political influence of the Ponsonby family, owners of Daingean. That stopped in 1833.
With the opening of the Tullamore Distillery by Michael Molloy in 1829, Tullamore would soon be ‘on the map’. The Tullamore Whiskey began production that year. After Molloy’s death in 1887, the distillery passed to the Daly family, with Captain Bernard Daly in charge. Captain Daly was a keen sportsman, so he left the running of the business to his colleague, Daniel E. Williams. Williams had a key role in the expansion and further development of the distillery. Not long after, he lent his initials D.E.W. to the renaming of the whiskey to ‘Tullamore Dew’, and added the slogan ‘Give every man his Dew’.
Building developers were brought in to oversee the expansion of Tullamore. The distillery helped ensure that there was plenty of employment in the town, and this drew more workers to the town. One of the chief developers of the time, Thomas Acres, took up residence in what is now the Urban District Council office at the top of High Street.
However, hard times fell upon the residents when the Great Famine struck the country in 1845. Potato crops failed, and most of the grain Ireland produced was still being exported to England by profit-hungry land owners. The wages in the public works was approximately 1 shilling per day, but an average family needed 2 shillings to stay alive. When conditions got really bad people often had no choice but to go to the poorhouses. The poorhouse in Tullamore was designed for 700 people and was catering for 1700 people by 1850. Birr poorhouse was designed for 800 people and was catering for 1800 people by 1850. Tullamore workhouse had given relief to over 6000 people by the end of the 1840s. There was an average of 5 to 10 deaths per week in Tullamore workhouse at this time.
The post-famine years, and up to the end of the First World War, saw the steady consolidation of Tullamore's position as the leading town in Offaly. Whereas the population of Tullamore and Birr was virtually the same, at 6,300 in 1841, by 1926 the population of Birr had fallen to almost half that figure, and Tullamore to about 5,000 inhabitants. The population of Offaly in 1841 was almost 147,000. By 1926 it was 53,000.
Since then it has hovered around the late 50,000's even though Tullamore appears to be growing all the time. More and more of Offaly's rural population seem to have either moved to Tullamore or left the area altogether. In fact Tullamore has 50% of the business of the entire county and draws from a hinterland of at least 35,000 people.
In December 1921, after many years of fierce struggle for Irish independence and freedom from Britain, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed, and 26 of Ireland's 32 counties became the Republic of Ireland. Kings County, which the British had named it, immediately became County Offaly again. In the late 1930's Tullamore General hospital was built. The building was fronted in local limestone in order to encourage employment in the construction of the hospital.
The main sources of employment up to the 1930s were in malting, distilling, stone quarrying and distribution. In the mid-1930s, Salts (Ireland) established a spinning mill in the old jail, which provided employment for about 1,000 people. That closed in 1982.
After the recession of the 1980’s, Tullamore began to thrive again. Industrial parks were built, and government grants attracted many national and international companies over the years. Expansion continues with new shopping districts and centres open for business, new modern housing projects, and even national festivals and concerts.
Tullamore really has become, the Centre of Ireland.