Tullamore (Tulach Mhór – “The Big Mound”) (pop. 15,000), a major regional commercial and industrial centre and lively cultural hub, is on the Tullamore River and served by the Grand Canal. (above Photo by Kman999)
Tullamore is a fine example of late C18th provincial town planning at its best, with spacious streets and well finished public, commercial and residential buildings, most notably around O’Connor Square. There are several good pubs, eateries and accommodation options available in the town and attractive rural surroundings.
Tullamore’s name derives from an ancient tumulus razed many years ago. It was first settled in the mid-C16th during the Tudor Plantation, when Queen Mary created King’s County.
It was for a time also called Tullamoore in honour of the descendants of Thomas Moore, an Elizabethan soldier who settled in Croghan in the C16th.
John Moore, created 1st Baron Moore in 1715, died in 1725; his son Charles was made Earl of Charleville in 1758, but both titles died with him in 1764. His property was inherited by his infant grandnephew Charles William Bury, and development slowed until he reached the age of majority.
A hot air balloon crashed on Tullamore on 10th May 1785, burning down about 100 houses and making it the site of the world’s first aviation disaster, only two years after the first ascent in Paris.
Fortunately, the advent of the Grand Canal led to a boom in the local milling and distilling industries, and the town expanded rapidly. The municipal coat-of-arms aptly depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Charles William Bury, (1764 – 1835), an amiable antiquarian and sometime president of the RHA, with a penchant for French erotica, was the landlord largely responsible for the construction of modern Tullamore. He was was made Lord Tullamoore in 1797, Viscount Charleville in 1800 and Earl of Charleville (2nd creation) in 1806.
Although still smaller than Birr, Tullamore was larger than Philipstown (Daingean) and replaced the latter as County Town in 1833, overcoming resistance from the influential Ponsonby family.
Tullamore Town Hall (1786), a handsome edifice originally named Acres Hall after Thomas Acres, a developer who constructed a large number of local houses before 1810, is now the headquarters of the Urban District Council.
Tullamore’s former Market House, designed by John Pentland and completed in 1789, still bears the Charleville escutcheon on the pediment; it is unfortunate that the original open arcade has been filled in.
St Catherine’s church (CoI), designed by Francis Johnston, was inaugurated in 1815.
The gothic style gaolhouse (1826), designed bythe Pain Brothers, was where the last public execution in Ireland took place in 1865 and the second last woman to be hanged in this country went to her death in 1903. The prison facility was closed in 1924, and is now the Kilcruttin Centre, housing small industrial units.
The neo-classical County Courthouse (1833), designed by JB Keane, retains one of its two semicircular courtrooms still intact.
The Tullamore Dew Heritage Centre, on Bury Quay beside the Grand Canal, celebrates Tullamore Dew, a whiskey distilled from 1829 to 1953 by Tullamore Distillery, now closed, and still produced by Irish Distillers Ltd in Midleton (Co. Cork), while Irish Mist liqueur continued to be blended locally. The centre focuses on the distilling, canal and urban history of the town. (Photo by Joe Butler)
The Offaly Exhibition & Research Centre, a refurbished wine warehouse also situated on Bury Quay, is the home of the Offaly Historical & Archaeological Society and Irish Midlands Ancestry. Look out for publications by local historians Michael Byrne and Fergal McCabe.
Tullamore Railway Station, founded in 1854, is on the Intercity line linking Westport (Co. Mayo) with Ireland’s capital. It has won several awards in recent years.
Tullamore’s Presbyterian church founded in 1856, is still in use.
The church of the Assumption (RC) was consecrated in 1906, replacing a smaller edifice (1802) of which nothing remains. Rebuilt at vast expense after a fire in 1983, the church features some fine Harry Clarke stained glass windows.
O’Connor Park (1934) is an important regional GAA stadium, with capacity for 20,000 spectators.
Lloyd Town Park is a recent development with a spectacular Water Feature, landscaped paths and a dedicated skateboarding area.
Aras an Chontae, the modern headquarters of Offaly County Council on the Charleville Road, has an atrium used for interesting art exhibitions.
Charleville Forest Castle
Charleville Forest Castle is a spectacular Gothic mansion designed by Francis Johnston for Charles William Bury, Earl of Charleville, and built between 1800 and 1812, with a massive dining room added by Sir William Morris. (Photo by debill72)
The 5th and last Earl of Charleville, Alfred Bury, died in 1875. The property was inherited by his grandniece’s husband, Capt Kenneth Howard, who assumed the additional surname Bury. Their son, the renowned botanist and Himalayan explorer Col. Charles Kenneth Howard Bury (1883 – 1963), unwitting originator of the Abominable Snowman myth (due to a mistranslation of a Sherpa term by a journalist) and leader of the 1921 Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, had the house stripped of its contents at a notorious 1948 auction.
The estate, situated on the edge of Tullamore, features beautiful parkland with oak woods of botanically important primeval stock.
The famous Charleville / King’s Oak, one of the biggest and oldest trees of its kind in the country, is believed to have stood for some 900 years. The Bury family believed that if a branch fell one of them would die, so they supported the great boughs with wooden props. In May 1963 a thunderbolt splintered the main trunk from top to bottom. The tree survived, but Col. Bury dropped dead a few weeks later at nearby Belvedere House near Mullingar (Co. Westmeath).
The mansion and demesne passed to his cousin, Major William Bacon Hutton, who assumed the surname Bury in 1964, and whose son David Hutton Bury is the current owner of Charleville Forest.
Castle Palooza is a 2-day boutique music & arts festival held in the grounds every August Bank Holiday weekend.
The Tullamore Agricultural & Livestock Show, one of the most important annual events of it kind in Ireland, held every August, used to take place in the grounds of Charleville Forest Castle, but has moved in recent years to a better drained venue south of the town, near Blue Ball.
The Phoenix Festival, held every summer since 2000, features a fire parade, street entertainment, live concerts, fireworks, sky diving and, appropriately, hot air balloons.
The Queen of the Land Festival is a popular annual Macra na Feirme feminine beauty / personality contest that takes place in Tullamore on the third weekend of every November.
The national Fleadh Ceoil (traditional music competition) has been regularly held in Tullamore in recent years.
A prominent former resident of Tullamore was Gerald Gardner (1922 – 2009), a geophysicist social analyst responsible for the statistical evidence that led the US Supreme Court to ban classified advertising segregated by gender in 1973.
The Sea Dew Guesthouse, purpose-built by chatty and welcoming hosts Frank and Claire Gilsenan, has lovely gardens with mature trees.
Annaharvey Farm, just outside the town, is a top class equestrian centre with excellent B&B accommodation facilities.
Tullamore also has three well-reviewed modern hotels.
Tullamore is close to Killeigh, Killurin and Blue Ball on ByRoute 12.
Durrow (Co. Offaly / North)
Durrow (Daru – “plain of the oaks“) (p0p. 120), north of Tullamore, is the location of some of the only remaining pre-mediaeval oak woods in Ireland, surrounded by a mainly coniferous plantation with 5km of forest walks.
Durrow Abbey is an early historic and medieval monastic site containing a complex of archaeological monuments, ecclesiastical and secular, visible and sub-surface, in the care of the OPW.
Durrow Abbey High Cross, the oldest visible object on the site, dates from the C10th and is magnificently carved with Biblical subjects, possibly by the artist responsible for the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnois and Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice.
The original monastic settlement at Durrow was founded in 553 AD on lands granted by Aed MacBreanainn, chieftain of Tethba, to Saint Colmcille / Columba (521 – 597 AD), who had already founded some 26 similar communities. On his departure he handed responsibility to Cormac Ua Liathain, who found it impossible to remain in office due to rivalries between the northern and the southern clans, and so fled from the monastery, ceding control to Laisrén, a first cousin of Columba’s who was acceptable to both sides.
Durrow became a famous centre of learning, referred to as Monasterium nobile in Hiberniâ by the Venerable Bede, and later as of the Universities of the West, together with Armagh. It engaged in a notorious war about royal burial rights with the monks of Clonmacnoise in 764 AD, and was plundered and burned several times by the Vikings.
By the late C12th it had become an Augustinian establishment, but was desecrated in 1186 by Hugh de Lacy, who destroyed part of the complex to construct a motte & bailey (long vanished) and was murdered on site by one of the workers.
Beside the famous High Cross are five early cross-inscribed gravestones, and a fragment of another cross stands nearby. The ancient graveyard, long used by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, closed amid controversy in 1913.
The old Protestant church was built in c.1725 on the site of a medieval church, which may have itself been constructed on the footprint of a former C12th century abbey church. High on the western gable is a small flat stone mask which may have come from one of the earlier edifices. Deconsecrated in the 1880s, the building is currently undergoing restoration as a Visitor Centre.
The Roman Catholic church, erected in 1831, is a splendid gothic edifice with a tall tower, battlements, pinnacles with crockets and an impressive vaulted interior.
A second Anglican church, constructed c.188o, is now a private residence.
A path leads to a Holy Well on St Colmcille’s Island, a dry area surrounded by marshy bog, venerated as a place of pilgrimage since time immemorial.
Durrow Abbey House, constructed c.1832 on the site of Castle Durrow, long the seat of the increasingly impoverished Stepney family, was a splendid mansion commissioned by Hector John Graham-Toler, 2nd Earl of Norbury, who despite his infamous Hanging Judge father was not personally disliked; an unpopular land agent is thought to have been the reason for his sensational murder in the demesne in January 1839. Over 150 “gentlemen of property” attended his funeral, at which family members defied a tradition that tenants should carry the coffin.
Rebuilt in the 1920s as an edifice of significant quality, it has recently been leased to the Arts for Peace Foundation as a respite centre for children from conflict zones.
The Durrow Crozier, a C6th artefact handed down through generations of the McGeoghegan family, is now preserved in the NMI
The Book of Durrow, an ancient illuminated manuscript, possibly originated locally, where it was found in the hands of a dairy farmer who used to dip it in the water trough to prevent bovine ailments. Known to have been studied by James Ussher when he was Anglican bishop of Meath in the early C17th, it was presented together with the Book of Kells by his successor Henry Jones some fifty years later to the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, where it is on display.
Probably dating from the mid-C7th and thus the earliest surviving fully decorated insular Gospel manuscript, the Book of Durrow is thought by scholars to have been written and illuminated at the monastery on Iona. It contains the earliest examples of figurative art in the British Isles in the form of double cross wreathed with interlace and symbols representing the Four Evangelists. Fascinatingly, the inspiration for these illustrations is believed to have come from a manuscript of the Diatasseron, a synthesis of the life of Christ from the Gospels, penned in an eastern Anatolian monastery in the C4th AD, which arrived by a circuitious route to the Scottish island some 350 years later.
The oak trees lining the fields beside Durrow Abbey mark the route of the ancient Slighe Mór highway.
Durrow is close to Kilbeggan (Co. Westmeath) on ByRoute 13.
Rahan (Co. Offaly / West)
Rahan (Raithean) is a village on the Grand Canal.
The Rahan churches
Medieval ecclesiastical ruins in various states of decay stand on the site of a monastic settement reputedly founded c.580 AD.
One of the first monks was Costetynn / Constantine, a former king of Dunmonia (Cornwall) doing penance for his spectacularly sinful career of murders and adulteries. He joined Saint Colmcille / Columba in his mission to convert the Picts, had his his right arm cut off by pirates in 598 AD, and bled to death; he is considered Scotland’s first martyr. (Not to be confused with the Saint Constantine revered in the Greek Orthodox Church, a later king of Strathclyde, who also spent time as a monk in Rahan after 635 AD and subsequently founded several churches in Scotland).
The monastery was developed by Saint Carthach / Carthage / Mochuda. It is recorded that he and as many as 800 of his followers were expelled by the Meathian chieftain Blathmaic in 635 AD, and went on to found the monastery at Lismore (Co. Waterford), but has long been venerated as the patron saint of Rahan.
The Rahan monastery appears to have been refounded in the C8th by two brothers, Fidhairle and Fidhmuine Ua Suanaigh, with at least some elements of a hermitage – Fidhmuine was an anchorite.
The Ui Chonnaill and their allies slaughtered “700 foreigners” (presumably Norsemen) here in 917 AD.
Another church on the site was burnt down on top of chieftain Mortagh O’Molloy and his wife in 1131, who had “polluted” it by sleeping togeher there the night before.
The most intact church, used until recently for occasional Anglican services, has circular windows carved in low relief, unique in Ireland.
Cistercian monks chanted at a 2008 ceremony by local politicians to launch a restoration plan for the Rahan monastic site.
Tullabeg, a former seminary / school / retreat house (1818 – 1991), was the second Jesuit foundation in Ireland after Clongowes Wood College (1814). The building contains a chapel (c.1869) with very fine stained glass windows by Evie Hone.
Rahan Lodge in Killina was built in 1745 by Henry Petty as a hunting lodge, and became part of the Lansdowne estate. Still known locally as “Sherlock’s” after former owner David Sherlock QC, MP and something of an inventor, it was the first house to be heated and lit by a generator using gas extracted from the bog (c. 1885). Long a “home from home” for visiting judges and senior clerics, it was restored in 1987 by Carole and Paddy McDermott, who provide elegant B&B accommodation.
The Thatch, a pub established in 1902, is a well-known music venue, and also has B&B accommodation facilities.
Rahan is not far from Clara and Ballycumber on ByRoute 13.