10 °CSat, 15

'Ripping-up' of New Road trees a 'wake-up call'

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ger.scully@tullamoretribune.ie

In 1815, the Earl of Charleville decided to create a new road by which he and his family could bypass the town centre of Tullamore to attend services at the fine new Chapel of St. Catherine’s which he had built on Hop Hill.

St Catherine’s had been designed by the foremost architect of the time, Francis Johnston and it is very likely that it was he who laid out the broad new avenue to be known as Bachelors Walk also. Symbolically, Johnston aligned it towards the distant peak of Croghan Hill, the territory from which the Earls family had originally sprung. It was then and still is, one of the few examples in Offaly of early 19th century axial civic design and its formal character was reinforced in 1900 by the construction of a substantial villa which closed the vista on its southern end.

From the middle of the 20th century onwards, the avenue became lined with commodious detached houses, well set back from the road to maintain its spacious character. However, its development into a grand promenade was never fully realised. Important avenues such as this, usually have matching and generous footpaths on either side together with substantial tree planting whose height and scale relates to the broadness of the overall space. Order, grandeur and regularity should be the overwhelming impression.

Bachelors Walk did not fully realise these ambitions. Over the years, a footpath was provided on one side separated from the carriageway by a broad grass verge. Cherry trees of varying ages and sizes were planted on either side, not in a regular pattern but randomly between the entrances to each house. These were never large enough to dominate or even match, the width of the avenue, but as time went by, they matured and every Spring brought an inspirational burst of colour which made them much admired, loved and photographed by locals and visitors. Thus, New Road, as it came to be called, was always distinguishable as a feature of Tullamore because of this unique juxtaposition of historical and symmetrical layout and attractive mature planting.

Then, on the 30th October 2018, Tullamore Municipal Council dug up and carted away twenty of the mature cherry trees on one side of the road in order to lay a concrete path directly adjoining the carriageway. At a stroke, the visual balance and character of the avenue was destroyed and half of its most attractive visual feature eliminated. The work was not carried out on foot of any published plan or vision for the future of the avenue and there was no formal tree survey to justify the felling as would be required in the case of a private development. The action would appear to have been an ad hoc response to the need to provide a necessary footpath on that side but to avoid disturbing some ESB poles. This, understandably, has caused a lot of distress, not just to those who live along the road, but to all those who care about the preservation of the heritage and amenities of Tullamore. Coming in the week when mindless vandals attacked St. Catherine’s Church, a heightened sense of the fragility of the built environment of the town is now abroad while the memory of the recent attempt by the Executive of the Council to remove the War Memorial from O’Connor Square is still fresh.

So- what is to be done? The cherry trees are gone and the Council are unlikely to remove a newly constructed path. In the historic words of a former Taoiseach ‘We are where we are’. However, in every crisis there are opportunities. Rather than simply replacing each lost tree (and the Town Development Plan decrees that non native species such as cherry trees are no longer acceptable), the original vision for the avenue could yet be reinstated. I believe that a skilled and qualified landscape architect could compose a plan that would mitigate the harm done and even begin to recreate Bachelors Walk as an important civic space. This would require an intelligent and objective survey of the existing situation both visual and horticultural, followed by the generation of some options for replanting and other landscaping works which would win the approval of local residents. A reconfigured Bachelors Walk could, after several years, become once again, a prime amenity of the town and a reminder of its history. Such an exercise would take time and detailed consideration as well as a new budget and the payment of professional fees which the Council did not anticipate when they blithely signed off on what they thought would be little more than the construction of a simple footpath.

Nevertheless, it should be done, because the Council and its Executive need to demonstrate that they have a genuine interest in the protection and enhancement of the town’s amenities. In making their 2010 Tullamore Development Plan, the Councillors included worthy objectives, such as TTEO 13-16 which commits to the protection of ...stands of trees which are of significant amenity value’ and TTEO-09-07 which declares that it is an objective of the Council to ’protect and enhance the architectural heritage of the town and streetscapes’. By taking down a significant group of trees and compromising an architectural set piece of historic interest, the Executive have failed to honour those legally binding commitments and now need to reassert their amenity credentials.

In recent years, for whatever reason, Tullamore has fallen far behind its competitor towns in relation to matters of architecture, civic design and the protection of amenities. Unlike, Mullingar, Athlone and Portlaoise, the town has no Local Area Plans, no Architectural Conservation Areas, no Urban Framework Plans and no sites entered on its Vacant Sites Register. No Tree Preservation Orders have been made. No analysis of what constitutes the visual and civic character of the town has been formulated and this has been adversely commented upon on several occasions by the inspectors of An Bord Pleanala. An attempt to produce a public realm strategy was abandoned. It will be another three years before a new plan is made and these deficiencies addressed, but in the meantime other towns which have taken aboard such initiatives, are well out in front in the race for regeneration funding.

This ripping up of a much loved amenity should be a wake up call for the Councillors and the Executive and for all those who have an interest in the future of the town but particularly for those who cherish the buildings, streets and landscapes which are part of its history and which up to now, have made Tullamore a pleasant place to live in.

Fergal MacCabe, a native of tullamore, is a respected architect, town planner, author and historian.

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