31 May 2019

Tuam Town Hall recalls
four centuries of civic life
and major Tuam figures

The Town Hall in Tuam is a reminder of 400 years of civic life (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Town Hall on the Market Square in Tuam, at the corner of Vicar Street and High Street, stands in the heart of the mediaeval Galway town and is a reminder of more than four centuries of civic life.

The Market Square marks the east end of the monastic settlement at Temple Jarlath, associated with Saint Jarlath, and markets were held here in mediaeval times at the Market Cross.

King James I granted Tuam a royal charter on 30 March 1613. The charter gave Tuam borough status and established a town council with an elected mayor or sovereign and 12 burgesses.

The charter enabled the burgesses or senior citizens of Tuam to begin building a new town on the ruins of a decaying Gaelic settlement, and as a reminder of that connection the sovereign of Tuam was sworn into office at the site of the Chair of Tuam, believed to be situated within the remaining tower of Rory O’Connor’s castle.

The royal charter also made Tuam a parliamentary constituency that elected two MPs to the Irish House of Commons until the constituency was abolished in 1801 with the Act of Union. One of the best-known MPs for Tuam was Sir Jonah Barrington (1756-1834), who sat for Tuam in 1790-1798. He was known for his amusing and popular memoirs of life in late 18th-century Ireland, his opposition to the Act of Union, and his removal from the judiciary by Parliament.

The corporation laid out Tuam as a market town on its present plan, with the streets converging on the central square. A market house was built in the Square in 1700. This was a small, two-storey building, and the corporation met upstairs while food and produce was sold on the ground floor.

The town hall was built in 1857 and rebuilt after a fire in 1884 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A board of commissioners replaced the town council in 1843, and the town commissioners demolished the old market and built a new town hall in 1857. The new town hall was built on land leased from John Stratford Handcock, and the foundation stone was laid by Mrs Handcock on 24 September 1857.

The architect James J Boylan worked as an engineer and architect in the 1850s and 1860s and was an assistant engineer in the Board of Works.

An accidental fire destroyed the town hall in 1884, and it was rebuilt by Andrew Egan.

The town hall is a complex building and a good example of how municipal affairs developed in importance in Ireland in the late 19th century. It is located in the centre of the town as an expression of a vibrant local democracy.

The tower of the town hall has a clock face on each main façade (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The main section of the town hall has a pitched slate roof with a four-stage tower at corner. The central section of the façade has five bays and two storeys. There are wide windows with transoms and two mullions in each in the early 17th-century style. The main entrance is in a single-bay section and it has a pedimented panel that sits on top of a parapet, with a commemorative plaque, cross and crossed swords in the tympanum.

To the south are two further bays with a carriage arch with a segmental head and a keystone and transomed and mullioned windows.

The tower of the town hall has a clock face on each main façade, and there are cornices, a parapet and urns. On top is an octagonal, louvered lantern.

The High Street façade is of two bays with narrow windows with transoms in the first floor windows, and doorcase with a chamfered dressing.

The town hall was gutted in another fire when the Black and Tans rioted in Tuam in 1920, but the building was restored in 1926.

Bobby Burke was a radical Christian Socialist, a senator and an Anglican mission and development worker (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

There are four plaques on the town hall. One recalls John J Waldron, a member of the Old Tuam Society who was responsible for installing many of the monuments and plaques on historic sites around the town.

A second plaque commemorates people from Tuam who died in all wars.

A third plaque remembers Bobby Burke (1907-1998). Robert Malachy Burke (1907-1998) was a Christian Socialist and philanthropist, a Labour member of Galway County Council, and a Senator from 1948 to 1950.

When Bobby Burke came to live on the family estate in the 1930s, he established an innovative co-operative farm there. Later, he made a gift of Toghermore to the health authorities for use in the struggle against tuberculosis.

Bobby, his wife Ann (Grattan) and their daughter Patricia went to Nigeria in 1951 to work as development workers with an Anglican mission agency. The Church Mission Society (CMS) sent them to Kenya in 1970. Later, they worked with Concern in Yemen. The couple retired to Belfast, and he died in 1998.

The fourth plaque is to Major Richard W (Dick) Dowling (1837-1867), who was born near Tuam. When his family was evicted from their home in 1845, they moved to New Orleans. He was a Confederate army officer in the American Civil War, when he repulsed two attacks on Houston, Texas. After that war, he started the first oil company in Texas, and he died of Yellow Fever at the age of 30 in 1867.

The plaque was placed on the town hall in 1998. But following the racist rallies in Charlottesville, an independent local councillor, Shaun Cunniffe, recently told the Connacht Tribune in 2017 that he wants this memorial removed from the Town Hall. ‘The whole point of the Confederate war was to support slavery in the South,’ he said.

The plaque commemorating Major Dick Dowling was placed on the town hall in 1998, but is not without controversy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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