FEATURE: Mullingar Retail History

by Ruth Illingworth

The town of Mullingar has a history of trade and commerce stretching back over a thousand years.  The discovery of coins in Lough Ennel which had been minted in ninth century Baghdad, Samarkhand, Tashkent and England suggests that the Vikings who settled in the Midlands were trading with the local Irish kings. The Mullingar district may well have been on the western edge of the Silk Roads connecting China with Europe. 
 
The earliest recorded grant of a market to the town of Mullingar was in 1207.The market was held weekly in the area of the present day Market Square, with a meat market or “shambles” taking place on what is now Martins Lane and the north side of Pearse Street. There were a number of grants of fairs to the town during the next 300 years. These fairs usually took place around religious feast days such as the Feast Day of St James (July 25th) or St Martin (November 11th). The fairs took place in the town centre area and in an area outside the town known as the Commons, which was located around the modern day Fair Green. By the late 17th century, the “Great Mullingar Wool Fair” in November was nationally famous, and Mullingar had the second largest horse fair in the country. The tolls at the fairs and at the weekly market helped pay for the defences of the town at a time when Mullingar came under frequent attack from Irish warrior bands. In 1583, for example, Queen Elizabeth I granted Mullingar a fifth fair in order to help pay for a town wall.Tolls were also paid to the town landlords-the Petit family in the Middle Ages; the Earls of Granard from 1661 to 1858, and the Greville family from 1858 until the 1920s.
 
By the eighteenth century, Mullingar was an agricultural town with a large number of shops and inns. The inns included The Black Bull, which stood where Shaws Department Store is now, and The George Inn, which was located around where Swarbriggs shoe store now stands. The town also had a number of small breweries and malthouses, as well as numerous blacksmiths, coopers, coachbuilders and wheelwrights. During the era of the Penal Laws, when Roman Catholics were excluded from the professions and land ownership, a Catholic middle class emerged in Mullingar who made their money in trade, from which they were not excluded. These Catholic business families included the Caseys, the Dowdalls and the Martins. They helped finance the building of a parish church in 1730 and a cathedral in 1836. They also helped fund schools. The Martin family paid for the Presentation convent and school which opened in 1826, while Dominick Street brewer, James Heavey, left money in his will to set up what became St Mary’s CBS school, opened in 1856.
 
The coming of the Royal Canal to the town in 1806 boosted trade and commerce. There was great competition to secure places in the warehouses at the Canal Harbour and at least 17 different types of goods, including, butter, spirits and building materials were being traded between Mullingar and Dublin by 1810.The arrival of the railway in 1848 also boosted trade. Not all local industries survived, however. There had been a linen industry in the town in the 18th century, centred on the Dominick Street area (then known as Linen Street.), but this home-based business could not compete with the new industrial mills and factories of Ulster and Britain and the weavers and spinners emigrated to Canada in the 1820s.
 
When Mullingar Town Commission was founded in 1856, the membership was largely drawn from the business community. The first chairman, Bernard Kerrigan promised to work hard to “keep the rates low.”  The commissioners set up a gas works for the town in 1859, and one of the commissioners awarded himself the contract to build the wall around the gasworks! Commission members in the latter decades of the nineteenth century included hotel owner, John Stafford, shopkeeper, James Doyne, draper Pat Brett, wool merchant, P.J Weymes and pharmacist P.J English. It was during this time that Mullingar’s fine streetscape of shops, hotels and banks took shape. The original 17th century Market House was replaced with the present building in 1867. There were a number of hotels in the town centre area – including the Greville Arms, which was first established around 1750 and is now one of the oldest hotels in Ireland. The fine bank buildings such as Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank and Miller &Cook (formerly the Hibernian Bank ) date from the 1870-1910 period. Days’ Bazaar was set up by Charles Day in 1879 and Canton Casey’s pub has been around since 1825. From the 1870s, the Shaw family dominated Pearse Street, with hardware, drapery and grocery businesses. 
 
Women played an important part in the commercial life of Mullingar from early on. Most of the traders at the weekly market on the Market Square and Oliver Plunkett Street were women. In the 18th and 19th centuries, women, although unable to vote and restricted in their right even to own property, ran hotels, inns and shops. Many women and girls also found paid employment as shop assistants. In 1846, Eliza Clarke was running a grocery business,and Mrs Dibbs a hotel. In 1912, Ellen Mangan was a grocery and spirit merchant on Dominick Street and a Mrs Keating was running a Temperance Hotel on Pearse Street.
 
The fairs and the weekly market continued into the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1970s, the agricultural mart moved from the Fair Green and Dominick Square area to a Mart just off Patrick Street, where it remained until its closure in 2002  brought an end to Mullingar’s 800 year history as an agricultural market town. The breweries and malthouses are also no more, and technology put blacksmiths and coachbuilders out of business. However, new businesses took their place. In 1936 a pencil factory opened  in town at the army barracks. Tailteann Knitwear was established at the end of the 1950s and  a tobacco factory arrived in 1967. Those these industries are now gone, they opened  a new chapter in Mullingar’s commercial history. By the 1980s, new factories were being established in areas such as Lynn and, by the 2010s, the town had four business parks/industrial estates.
 
Small family  owned businesses dominated the retail life of Mullingar for centuries.  The first supermarket/multinational style business to arrive in town was probably Liptons’ in the early 1900s. Woolworths was in town from 1953 to 1984, while the 1960s saw the establishment of McHughs supermarket and later there came Quinnsworths, Dunnes Stores and Penneys. Despite the  arrival of the big brand names, the  local family shops have managed to survive and enrich the streetscape and choice on offer in the town. There are fewer pubs in Mullingar now than there were in the 1970s, but a far greater number of restaurants.Half a century ago there were few opportunities for Mullingar people to sample Indian, Chinese, Thai or African foods. Now the town can supply a  wide range of international culinary delights. Mullingar’s original retailers 800 years ago were mostly immigrants. Now a new wave of immigrants are making their mark on the business and commercial life of the town.
 
– Ruth Illingworth, Mullingar, 2017

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