Built on the River Brosna and encircled by the Royal Canal, Mullingar is a thriving commercial centre. The town takes its name from the Gaelic “An Muileann gCearr” meaning the left hand mill and is associated with a miracle that occurred at the mill.The town of Mullingar was founded by the Normans over 800 years ago.
The Norman settlement was a Manor and Borough with a castle, a parish church, Augustinian and Dominican monasteries, a hospital and a Frankhouse. The population of the borough was a mixture of Gaelic Irish and French, English, Welsh, Flemish and Breton immigrants. Mullingar became an important resting point for travellers and traders, and the recently discovered Augustinian graveyard provides evidence that Mullingar people undertook pilgrimages to Santiago De Compostela in Spain, some 600 years ago.
1n 1542, Mullingar became the county town under the reign of King Henry VIII. In 1575, Plague decimated the population and, in 1597, the town was completely burned by the O’Neills.
During the seventeenth century, the Cromwellian Land Settlement dispossessed many of the old English landowning families of the area and they were replaced by new English and Scottish settlers. Mullingar families were among the thousands of Irish Roman Catholics who emigrated to mainland Europe. In 1661, the Manor of Mullingar was granted to Sir Arthur Forbes, Earl of Granard, whose family would own the town for 200 years. In 1690, the Williamite army occupied Mullingar and stockpiled it with weapons and provisions for the campaign against the Jacobites.
By the eighteenth century, 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 and seems to have had a degree of prosperity. The majority of the population were Roman Catholic and by the 1760s, despite the Penal Laws, they had built a fine 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.
The nineteenth century brought a transport revolution to the town with the arrival of the Royal Canal in 1806 and the railway in 1848. Mullingar was also an important coach stop.
The rise of a Roman Catholic middle class and an active Clergy led to the building of a Cathedral in 1836 and the founding of schools by the Presentation and Loreto Sisters and the Christian Brothers. There was also a Church of Ireland National School.
Nineteenth century Mullingar was an important military centre and many British army regiments were stationed in the town. Many of the soldiers married local women and settled in town. The army also supplied a source of employment for locals and men from Mullingar served all over the British Empire.
In 1858, Lord Greville purchased the town and his family remained Landlords until the 1920s. In 1868, Lord Greville leased a Right of Way to the War Minister for 10,000,000 years – the longest lease in the world.
As well as a Cathedral, a military barracks, a railway station and the canal, Mullingar in the 1800s also had an infirmary, a workhouse, a jail, a courthouse, a market house, a post office and a police barracks. There was also a racecourse. The town was lit by gas from 1859 and a telegraph office opened in 1853. Mullingar Town Commissioners were founded in 1856. A District Dispensary opened in the 1850s,as did St. Loman’s Mental Hospital. Sports played in the town included Rugby, Cricket and Gaelic games. Confraternities, Temperance Clubs, Freemasonry and the Foresters provided a social life and welfare.
Poverty was also a feature of 19th century Mullingar. There was much poor housing and periodic outbreaks of Cholera and other disease. A lack of sufficient employment and the ravages of the Great Famine led to an upsurge of emigration to Britain, America, Australia, Canada and Argentina. Changing agricultural practices, recession and unjust land laws led to many evictions and much violence in parts of the rural hinterland during the 1860s and 1870s.
The twentieth century began with the arrival of the first motorcars and electric light in Mullingar. James Joyce visited the town in 1900 and recorded his impressions of Mullingar in his novels, ‘Stephen Hero’, and ‘Ulysses’.
During the First World War, scores of Mullingar men served in the armed forces and many were killed or injured. The town was also a major military training depot.
During the ‘troubled times’ of 1916-1921, many people from Mullingar, a largely Nationalist town, took part in the struggle for Irish Self Government. Sean McEoin was shot and wounded while trying to escape arrest in Mullingar in 1921.
Early in 1922, the British Army left Mullingar and the Irish Army took over the barracks. Mullingar would remain an important garrison for the rest of the century. The first Gardaí arrived at the end of 1922. Mullingar escaped the worst of the Civil War, although there were a number of deaths and other serious incidents.
Mullingar man Ger O’Connor has written a book on the history of Medals of the Irish Defence Forces. All of these medals are described in detail in this valuable and well produced booklet, the brainchild of RDF member and medal collector Battery Quartermaster Sergeant Ger O’ Connor, 54 Filed Artillery Regiment.
Two copies of the book “MEDALS of THE IRISH DEFENCE FORCES” are available from Westmeath County Library Council Buildings Mullingar,which is the first ever colour produced book published in the history of the Irish Defence Force since the foundation of the State.
A number of historically significant buildings were erected in Mullingar during the first half of the twentieth century. Most notable was the Cathedral of Christ the King, built between 1932 and 1936 which now dominates the Mullingar skyline. The imposing Renaissance style Roman Catholic cathedral which was completed in 1936. Wonderful mosaics by Russian artist, Boris Anrep are on display. The Ecclesiastical Museum within the cathedral contains vestments worn by St. Oliver Plunkett and a ring once worn by Marie Antoinette.
The County Hall (now Arts Centre) and County Council buildings were built between 1910 and 1913 on the site of the old jail. St. Finian’s College opened in 1908 and the County Hospital in 1936.
The second half of the century witnessed Mullingar’s increasing prosperity. The town remained an important market town, but it also acquired a strong industrial and technology base for the first time. New schools, churches and businesses were built and the town expanded dramatically in all directions. The last two decades of the twentieth century saw Mullingar’s population almost treble and improved transport links made it almost a suburb of greater Dublin.
As Mullingar saw out the old Millennium and welcomed in the new, the town was more prosperous than at any time in its history.