Mullingar & Environs (Co. Westmeath)
Mullingar (An Muileann gCearr – ‘The Lefthandwise Mill”) (pop. 18,600) 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.
Mullingar’s Dominick Place, where the Famine Memorial Fountain (1997) incorporates a somewhat lavatorial millstone, recalling the origin of the town’s name. (Photo by CGorman).
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 While it is probably unfair, or at least out of date, to call Mullingar “a smug provincial dullsville“, the town cannot really be described as very exciting.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. (Photo – www.buildingsofireland.ie)
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. (Photo - Gavigan)
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. (Photo - www.buildingsofireland.ie)
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.