Mullingar (An Muileann gCearr – ‘The Lefthandwise Mill”) (pop. 21,000) is a prosperous town, vying with Athlone as the largest in the Midlands. Long known for its army barracks and cattle market, it is nowadays a major regional centre for engineering / high-tech companies, retail outlets and a wide range of services.
The town is situated on the River Brosna, partly encircled by the Royal Canal and close to Lough Ennell, Lough Owel, Lough Derravaragh and Lough Lene. The surrounding countryside is green and lush, ideal for cattle rearing.
It is probably best known in Ireland for its bachelors and the charming expression commonly used to refer to large women: “beef to the ankle, like a Mullingar heifer“. While it is probably unfair, or at least out of date, to call Mullingar “a smug provincial dullsville“, the town cannot really be described as very exciting. However, it does have good leisure amenities and accommodation, eating and drinking facilities.
There has been human settlement in the Mullingar area since at least the late Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago. What is now Mullingar’s main street was part of an east-west roadway known to have existed since early Christian times, when Saint Colmán and Saint Loman established monastic settlements nearby. The oldest surviving stone building in the district is a souterrain dating back to the C7th.
Anciently known as Maelblatha, the district is said to have changed its name due to a miraculous mill mentioned in the legend of Saint Colman. Coins found in Lough Ennell indicate a Viking presence in the area 1,000 years ago. Malachi II, High King of Ireland 1014-1022, had a fort built in the vicinity.
Mullingar was granted by Hugh Lacy, Lord of Meath, as a Palatinate Manor and Borough to the Petit family in the last decades of the C12th. The first inhabitants were a mixture of English, Welsh, French, Breton and Flemish immigrants. The settlement soon had a castle, a parish church, an Augustinian Friary, a Dominican Priory, a hospital and a Frankhouse / hostel run by the Knights Hospitaller.
Mullingar became an important medieval trading post and resting place for travellers. Artefacts unearthed in the recently rediscovered Augustinian graveyard show that some of those buried there had been on pilgrimages to Santiago De Compostela in northwestern Spain.
The monasteries were dissolved and a Protestant community was established around the same time King Henry VIII made Westmeath a County in 1542, when Mullingar became the County Town. In 1575 the population was decimated by plague, and the town was burned to the ground by the O’Neills in 1597.
The Cromwellian land redistribution replaced dispossessed local landowners with new English and Scottish settlers. In 1661, the Manor of Mullingar was granted to Lieut-General Sir Arthur Forbes, Marshal of the Army in Ireland after King Charles II‘s Restoration, later Lord Justice of Ireland and 1st Viscount & Earl of Granard, whose descendants controlled the town for 200 years. In 1690, the Williamite army occupied Mullingar and stockpiled it with weapons and provisions for their campaign against the Jacobites.
By the C18th, Mullingar was a major centre for the sale of wool, and the local livestock fairs attracted buyers and sellers from all over Ireland and beyond. The town was rebuilt following a disastrous fire in 1747 . The majority of the population were Roman Catholic and in 1755, despite the Penal Laws, they erected a slate roofed parish chapel. There was also a substantial Church of Ireland community, and by the early 1800s, there were some Presbyterians and Methodists too.
Already a major coach stop, Mullingar’s importance as a transport hub increased with the 1806 construction of the Royal Canal.
The various British army regiments stationed in the new Wellington Barracks (1814) were a source of employment, and men from Mullingar served all over the British Empire, while soldiers from elsewhere in the UK married and settled in the district.
C19th Mullingar also had a police barracks, a jail and a courthouse. The town’s first Roman Catholic Cathedral was built in 1836.
Mullingar’s prosperity was unevenly distributed, with much poor housing and periodic outbreaks of cholera and other diseases. The Great Famine and widespread unemployment led to a massive upsurge in emigration.
Mullingar was purchased in 1858 by Fulke Southwell Greville, Liberal MP for Longford, who assumed the additional surname of Nugent in 1866 and was later made Baron Greville of Clonyn. In 1868, he granted a Right of Way to the War Minister for 10,000,000 years – the longest lease in the world.
Changing agricultural practices, recession and unjust land laws led to many evictions and notable acts of violence in the rural hinterland, especially during the 1860s and 1870s.
The early C2oth saw the arrival of electric light and the first motorcars in Mullingar. The town was was the second largest British Army recruitment centre in the UK before WWI and a major military training depot for Kitchener’s Volunteer Army during the war.
During the 1916-1922 Troubles, many Nationalist sympathisers from Mullingar took part in the Independence movement. IRA leader Sean McEoin was shot and wounded by British forces while trying to evade arrest in Mullingar in 1921.
The Irish Army took over the barracks early in 1922, and the first Gardaí arrived at the end of that year. Mullingar escaped the worst of the Civil War, although several serious incidents included the arrest and subsequent spectacular escape from prison of Annie MP Smithson, a nurse of Anglo-Irish roots who became a popular writer and Sinn Fein campaigner.
Mullingar was long a major centre for the cattle trade and the beef and dairy industries, but as its importance as an agricultural market town waned in the second half of the C2oth, it developed a strong new technology base, with several industrial estates springing up on the outskirts to provide employment for the region.
The Celtic Tiger years saw the local population almost treble, and the town expanded dramatically in all directions, with improved transport links making it almost a suburb of DUBLIN.
The former County Infirmary to the east of the town, built c.1770, is probably the earliest public building still extant in Mullingar. Used over the years by both military and civil authorities for offices and more recently as the local Library, it is now the Westmeath County Library HQ.
All Saints church (CoI), constructed in 1816, appears to be Mullingar’s oldest public building still used for its original purpose
Mullingar’s Presbyterian church, erected in the 1820s on Castle Street, has been outgrown by the congregation, which currently meets on rented school premises while awaiting construction of a splendid new place of worship.
The Cathedral of Christ the King (RC), undoubtedly Mullingar’s most striking structure, was built between 1932 and 1936 to replace the 1836 Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception as the See of the Diocese of Meath.
The imposing Renaissance style edifice can seat 5000. The two 42.6m high towers are surmounted by gilt bronze crosses; over the main door there is some fine carved stonework by Albert Power, RHA.
The interior features beautiful mosaics by the prominent London-based Russian artist Boris Anrep (1883 – 1969) of Saint Patrick and Saint Anne (said to resemble the poet Anna Akhmatova, with whom he had an affair during WWI). There is also an interesting ecclesiastical museum.
The Roman Catholic parish of Mullingar has four other churches, most notably the modern fan-shaped St Paul’s church (1987) on the Delvin Road.
Mullingar also has a Baptist church in Bishopsgate Street.
Mullingar courthouse was designed by John Hargrave and built between 1824 and 1828 on the site of monastic land formerly belonging to the Augustinian Order. The court building was linked to Mullingar Jail by an underground passageway so that prisoners could be transferred securely.This tunnel is still there but is now blocked up. Executions took place outside the jail until 1868. (Photo – www.buildingsofireland.ie)
The former County Council buildings and County Hall, built between 1910 and 1913 on the site of the old Jail, have been converted into a modern Arts Centre with a splendid theatre and facilities for multi-disciplinary workshops etc.
Mullingar’s Market House, designed by William Caldbeck and erected c. 1867 by the newly ennobled Lord Greville to replace an earlier edifice (1730), is now used as the local museum and exhibition gallery for the adjacent Art Centre.
The spectacular modern County Buildings / Civic Offices complex, also on the site of the old Jail, houses an excellent modern library.
A statue of the popular showband singer Joe Dolan (1939 – 2007) was erected in the square in 2008.
Mullingar Barracks (1814), renamed in 1922 in honour of Captain Patrick Columb, a Free State officer killed on Patrick Street that year, and shortly afterwards was the site of the last executions in Mullingar’s history, when two men were shot for armed robbery at the height of the Civil War. The complex includes St Colman’s military chapel (RC) and rectory, both built as Church of Ireland edifices in 1855. Long the only Artillery barracks in the Republic, it was officially closed in March 2012.
St Mary’s Geriatric Hospital is housed in the former Mullingar Union Workhouse, the best surviving example of five such edifices built c. 1840 in County Westmeath to a standard design by George Wilkinson, and may be the most intact such complex in the country.
St. Loman’s Psychiatric Hospital, built c.1855 to designs by J.S Mulvany as the Meath District Lunatic Asylum, is a monumental edifice in a Tudor Gothic style. The original hospital building is now surrounded by later structures, which illustrate changing theories and practice in hospital design over a 100 year period.
The Midland Regional Hospital (formerly the Longford-Westmeath Regional Hospital) is a very busy public hospital providing acute-care hospital services, including a 24-hour emergency department.
The first Mullingar Railway Station was a temporary structure opened in 1848, when the Midland Great Western Railway reached town; the present building, designed by JS Mulvany, dates from 1855. It is uniquely sited on the fork of the Dublin-Sligo and Mullingar-Athlone lines and faces the trains arriving from Dublin. Nowadays it is used for a Commuter service to DUBLIN and the Sligo – Dublin Intercity trains, while the old line to Athlone is no longer open. A turntable for steam locomotives is used by a couple of times a year at the behest of the local branch of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland.
(Newbrook Racecourse, a popular venue for horse races from 1852 to 1961, had its own railway station, bizarrely unique in that its two platforms were both on the down track of the Athlone line).
Coláiste Mhuire is Mullingar’s oldest post primary school, founded in 1856 with the proceeds of a 1835 bequest by James Hevey “for the ….. education of poor children of the parish”. The Hevey Institute, with its fine classical limestone structure surmounted by an Italianate campanile, remains one of Mullingar’s most aesthetically pleasing buildings. The school was long run by the Christian Brothers. It is still primarily a boys’ school, but the repeat Leaving Certificate class is co-educational.
Mullingar’s Loreto Convent, established in 1881 and enlarged several times, is the principal girls’ secondary school in the town.
St Finian’s College moved to Mullingar at the beginning of the C20th from Navan, County Meath, where it had been founded as the Meath Diocesan College in 1802. The present College building, originally designed as a seminary by JJ O’Callaghan, was opened in 1905. St Finian’s was an all-boys boarding school until 2003, which saw the admission of girls as pupils and the phasing out of boarding over four years.
The Schola Cantorum, an ecclesiastical Music school / conservatoire, has been located at St Finian’s since 1970, when it was selected as the best location by the Irish Roman Catholic Hierarchy. It teaches a wide range of instruments and has produced a number of successful musical directors, conductors and performers, especially organists.
Mullingar Community College, founded in 1933 as Mullingar Technical School, has occupied its current premises since 1969. It operates as a non-denominational co-educational Secondary & Vocational School and also runs Adult Education Programmes, including night classes.
Mullingar has a good range of public and private primary schools, including one for children with special needs, an Irish language Gaelscoil and a non-denominational Educate Together school.
Mullingar has more than its fair share of ugly functional structures and uninspiring housing estates, but a closer looks reveals some elegant old private houses, traditional shop fronts, attractive pubs and imposing banks, plus several striking items of good modern architecture.
Mullingar Town Park is a large pleasantly landscaped green space with an attractive pond and a popular indoor swimming pool.
Lacy’s Canal, named after Hugh de Lacy, was constructed in the late C18th to link Mullingar and Lough Ennell. Crossed by both the quaint Butlers Bridge and the boring modern Joe Dolan Bridge.
The Royal Canal reached Mullingar in 1806, terminating at the Piper’s Boreen harbour, but this soon proved inadequate, so a larger one was built closer to the town centre c.1808.
By 1826 the ‘new’ harbour was complete with additional infrastructure such as store houses (now almost all long gone), walled and gates (partially surviving), and two large dry docks for barge repairs complete with lock gates (one dry docks has been restored but the other was filled in years ago).
The western section of the harbour has been prepared for the reception of touring boats & barges by building new toilets and a water point within the adjacent park as well as placing iron railings around the harbour edge.
Scanlan’s bridge is still taking the full brunt of road traffic after more than 200 years. (Photo by JP)
The Lough Owel Feeder historically provided the Royal Canal with water from the lake north of Mullingar. There is now a proposal that a supply be taken from Lough Ennell, to the south of the town.
The River Brosna also connects the town to Lough Ennell.
Mullingar’s shopping facilities range from traditional and modern shops to large retail centres on the in and around the town. Sadly, one of the most interesting of these, the Brosna Market, was forced to close early in 2012, but hopes are high for its reopening in a new location.
Mullingar Farmers’ Market is held every Sunday. Fresh produce is sold on a seasonal basis and includes fish, meat, free range eggs, homemade bread and cakes, organic cheese, yoghurt, fruit & veg. herbs, flowers, honey etc.
Three newspapers are published locally: The Mullingar Advertiser, The Westmeath Topic, and The Westmeath Examiner.
The Greville Arms Hotel***, opened in 1884, was named (like its Granard counterpart) in honour of a family of landlord politicians descended from the C18th Longford poetess Frances Greville (née MacCartney), wife of a minor English aristocrat, and allied by marriage to the powerful Nugent Marquesses of Westmeath.
Notable guests have included James Joyce, who as a boy accompanied his civil servant father, John, as he compiled an electoral register of Mullingar and the surrounding townlands in the summers of 1900 and 1901. The author later recorded his impressions in his novels Stephen Hero and Ulysses.
Centrally located, the rather bland hotel features hideous furniture, but provides reasonably priced accommodation and has friendly staff serving good food and drink in the James Joyce Restaurant and the Ulysses Pub (dominated by a life size wax statue of the writer). Nowadays it advertises itself as Mullingar’s “entertainment hotspot“.
The Newbury Hotel***, a friendly family-run facility centrally situated near the Railway Station, is particularly well-reviewed on the Internet for its cosy bar and basement Chinese restaurant.
The Austin Friar Hotel***, named after the street commemorating Mullingar’s lost medieval Augustinian Friary, is a modern boutique hotel with a good restaurant and a Spanish Tapas Bar.
Annebrook House Hotel**** comprises an elegant Georgian house almost dwarfed by two ugly modern wings overlooking the Town Park. The house, built c.1810 as a residence for the County Surgeon, was still a family home until recently; the author Maria Edgeworth is said to have stayed here in the early C19th. Impressive public rooms include the atmospheric Brook Restaurant, Berty’s Bar, and very pleasant reading room. The River Brosna runs through the grounds, featuring attractive formal gardens that make this a popular wedding venue.
The Mullingar Park Hotel **** is a well-equipped modern complex on the outskirts of the town.
Mullingar offers a choice of over 30 eateries, from hotel dining facilities to takeaways. Georgina Campbell recommends Oscar’s , evidently a local favourite, and also praises Gallery 29 Café and Ilia A Coffee Experience.
The Stables has been Mullingar’s main original live music venue since 1989.
Danny Byrne’s is a popular place to hear cover bands and DJs.
The Mullingar Town Band was founded in 1879 as a Holy Family Confraternity Band. The local Military Barracks supplied many of the early members who themselves were serving members of the British Regimental bands stationed in Mullingar. Renamed in the 1940s and again in 1957, the band has won numerous awards in Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands. It now has a dual role of marching band – The Celtic Crusaders – and a concert band.
The Mullingar Choral Society, founded as a concert choir in 1968, has become one of the town’s longest established cultural institutions, and has performed around Ireland and abroad.
Mullingar Student Players is a dramatic society made up entirely of secondary school students from the area. Recent productions have included Les Miserables, West Side Story, Return to the Forbidden Planet and Godspell.
Mullingar also has a popular Pantomime group that performs every Christmas.
Lynn Greyhound Track hosts regular races, usually on Thursday and Saturday evenings.
Mullingar’s sporting activities include GAA, soccer, rugby, Australian Rules football, basketball, hockey, tennis, badminton, cricket, athletics, boxing, martial arts, snooker, cycling, equestrian, adventure and water sports clubs. The town has produced several fine international athletes.
John Joe Nevin, two-time Olympian boxer, is from Mullingar. He won a silver medal in the bantamweight competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Joseph Murphy from Mullingar postponed his wedding to compete for Ireland in the Individual equestrian eventing at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Niall Horan, born and raised in Mullingar, is the only Irish member of the popular British boy band One Direction and was the first Irish citizen to sing at the Olympics games when they performed in London 2012.
Michael O’Leary, the outspoken CEO of Ryanair, was born in Mullingar in 1961 and lives nearby.
Pat of Mullingar is an traditional “Irish rebel” song.
Mullingar’s tourism industry is largely based on its neighbouring lakes and C18th ‘Big Houses’, especially Belvedere House & Gardens and Bloomfield House, now a hotel.
Mullingar’s main tourist attractions are its neighbouring lakes – Lough Ennell, Lough Owel, Lough Derravaragh and Lough Lene. However, there are several other places of interest near the town.
Mullingar Equestrian Centre, an international riding venue, regularly hosts competitions and summer courses for students from all over the world; well-equipped self-catering accommodation is available. Website here… Showjumping Ireland
Other horse riding centres in the area include Ladestown Riding School and Catherinestown Riding School.
Local stud farms include Tally Ho Stud, Cleaboy Stud, and Charlestown Stud.
Rathconnell & Knockdrin (Co. Westmeath / East)
Rathconnell, historically aka Turin, was once known as the Pass of Rochonnell, supposedly in reference to the rout of an ancient chieftain called O’Connell Carnagh in a long forgotten battle.
The district is recorded in the Annals as the location of fighting in 798 AD and again in 1159, when lands were captured from Dermot O’Melaghlin by Murtagh O’Loughlin, who later gave the Kingdom of Meath to his brother Donnagh.
Rochonnell / Rathconnell Castle is known to have stood at the time of the 1641 Rebellion, but no trace of the stronghold remains.
The Battle of Rochonnell Pass / Rathconnell in February 1642 saw some 4000 irregular troops under the Kilkenny Confederates’ General of Leinster, Thomas Preston, 1st Viscount Tara unexpectedly defeated by a daring cavalry manouvre led by Sir Richard Grenville, the Royalist governor of Trim (immortalised in Daphne du Maurier‘s 1948 novel The King’s General).
Rathconnell Court was the residence of the wealthy landlord descendants of the Rev. Randolph Adams from Lincolnshire, who had served on the Commission of Inquiry into damage done during the 1641 Rebellion. Both the house and a neighbouring Anglican church (1798), noted for its tall bell tower, were derelict by 1900, and are now atmospheric ruins.
Gunning’s pub in Rathconnell is rather special and well worth a visit
Knockdrin Castle is a neo-Gothic castellated mansion, built in the late C18th by Sir Richard Levinge, Lord Lieutenant of Westmeath, after a fire destroyed the original Norman castle acquired a century earlier by his namesake ancestor from the Tuite family. The estate was called “High Park” until the mid-C19th, when it was renamed after a local hill.
The present estate of about 1,000 acres was laid out as a hunting ground around a small lake called Lough Drin. Visitors included Lord Randolph and Lady Churchill, and Winston Churchill himself privately visited the castle during the War of Independence.
The Irish Army took over Knockdrin for troop accommodation during WWII, and handed the castle back to the last Sir Richard Levinge (later a Director of Guinness) in 1946. In that year the estate was sold to Paddy Dunne-Cullinan, who lived there for 15 years.
In 1961 the estate was acquired by Hans and Irene von Prondzynski from Germany. The arable land is now leased, but the family continues to live in the castle. Ferdinand von Prondzynski is the current President of Dublin City University.
Knockdrin is home to the Westmeath Hunt.
The Downs (Co. Westmeath / East)
The Downs is a community with a proud GAA tradition.
Mullingar Pewter produces artistic pewterware using traditional methods, and features the Mullingar Bronze & Pewter Museum.
The Downs Inn is a pleasant and reasonably priced pub / restaurant, with regular weekend live music sessions at which manager Owen Ryan occasionally contributes a 1950s-style skiffle element on his tea-chest bass.
The Downs is close to Coralstown on ByRoute 13.