There is a popular saying in politics sometimes attributed to Ronald Reagan ‘When you’re explaining,…
The abolition of Tullamore Town Council in 2014 evoked many memories for me of my years covering that body and its predecessor, Tullamore Urban District Council (UDC) from 1988 to 2007 for the Offaly Express, and for a year and a half before that for the Offaly Independent. I also covered a number of meetings as a freelancer for the Express following my ill-fated return from England.
When I first covered the council, I had the advantage of knowing all the councillors. Six of those early councillors are now deceased – Ernie McGuire and Lar Byrne of Labour, Billy Bracken of Fine Gael (FG), Ann Fox of Fianna Fáil (FF) and independent representatives May Keeley (who, in 1974, was the first woman ever elected as a councillor in Tullamore) and Anne O’Toole.
FG’s Tommy McKeigue retired from public life in 2019, having been elected as a county councillor in 1991, along with the urban seat to which he was elected eight years previously.
FF’s Johnny Flanagan stepped down in 2009 and Miriam O’Callaghan five years before that.
In those days, council meetings were held in the V.E.C. boardroom in O’Connor Square. I felt a sense of privilege that, among the photos on the wall of former CEOs was one of my father, who was still alive at the time. Following his death in 1990, the V.E.C. added a bust of him, presented by the family.
The year 1992 saw the long-awaited transfer of the council to the Town Hall in the old Acres Hall and I well recall the opening ceremony being performed by the then Minister for Labour, a certain Brian Cowen.
A picture of over 30 years ago that includes May Keeley, Larry Dunne, Tommy McKeigure, Anne O’Toole and Sean P. McCarthty
There was immense pride locally that an Offaly man had made it to the Cabinet and it was clear he was destined for higher things. I recall that among the attendance at the opening ceremony were two councillors from Derry, who had been invited as a result of links forged with the Maiden City following a visit of Derry councillors to Tullamore’s halting site, which was seen as a prototype. I can recall putting my foot in it with the Derry men, as I was praising the work of John Hume on the peace process, not realising both men were of the unionist persuasion!
Journalists covering council meetings will recall that we frequently had to wait ages outside the chamber while councillors discussed matters in committee, in the process gaining familiarity with the copy of the Easter Proclamation on the wall, as well as Dolores McGuire’s painting of the town hall, and the list of successive chairmen hanging over the chamber door. However, we were well looked after by the excellent caretaker, Pat O’Connell, whose ample supply of tea and biscuits kept us going!
From time to time, vacancies arose on the council and new members were co-opted. Thus, following the death of Billy Bracken towards the end of 1989, the late Larry Dunne (who had been a councillor in 1979-85) was co-opted and remained a member until municipal elections were held in 1994.
Lar Byrne (centre), Tommy McKeigue, John Flangan, the late Fr Willie Cleary and members of the Christmas tree and crib committee. Early 1990s.
He was replaced by Molly Buckley, who began her long career as a councillor in that year (she had already run for the Dáil two years previously, following a request by FG’s then leader, John Bruton), while 1994 also saw the election of Labour’s Pat Gallagher, then also a TD for Laois-Offaly (the dual mandate of Oireachtas members being on local authorities was not abolished until many years later). He was elected at the expense of May Keeley, and I vividly recall her at the count saying, in my presence, to Larry Dunne that he had done the right thing in stepping down.
December 1995 was to see the death of Lar Byrne, long a legend on the streets of Tullamore as he sold his raffle tickets. I recall many times accompanying Lar and Ernie on trips to V.E.C. meetings in other parts of Offaly, and we always had great jokes on our journeys. Lar had a great sense of humour and once played a practical joke on me.
John Flanagan at his firm’s offices in Tanyard Lane.
Knowing my fondness for sausages after V.E.C. meetings, he took some sausages and planted them in my satchel, and I did not discover them till I got home. The next day, I received a phone call from my editor, John Whelan, stating that there had been a complaint about my stealing sausages!
I was in a state of shock when he suggested this had come from the then CEO, Sean MacCartain, and I said to John there must have been some mistake and I’d contact him. He then told me of the practical joke, but I did not know the full details until years later, when he told me that Lar had asked my colleague, the late Eddie Rogers, to arrange the trick with John! The latter remarked to my colleague, Charlie Quinn, that he had never heard such relief in anyone’s voice as in mine when told it was a joke!
Home of the Tullamore town council from 1992 and now that of the wider Tullamore Municipal Council
Lar was replaced on the Council by Sean O’Brien. In 1999, the system of five-yearly elections was introduced, as a result of a constitutional amendment. That year saw significant changes, with Labour winning four seats – Ernie McGuire stepped down and I recall his being pictured on the front page of the Offaly Express with the four Labour councillors – Pat Gallagher, Sean O’Brien, Joe Feery and Lar Byrne Jnr.
The year 1999 also saw the end of Ann Fox’s political career; sadly, she died a few years later at a relatively young age. The year also saw Sinn Féin (SF) win a seat for the first time since the 1920s, in the person of Jody Coughlan, who was always conscious that I was the first journalist to reckon that his election was a possibility.
Jody resigned from the party the following year but stayed on as an independent, and was re-elected in 2004, stepping down in 2009. As a resident of Arden View, his election gave that area a higher profile in local authority affairs, but he represented all parts of the town to the best of his ability.
Later in 1999, there was a political bombshell when it emerged that Pat Gallagher, who was then also a senator (after losing his Dáil seat in 1997) was quitting politics for a career in public administration. After an initial post with Westmeath County Council, he later became County Manager for Galway, before returning to Offaly in that capacity in 2007, and becoming Westmeath County Manager in 2014. His political departure was followed by the co-option of Anne Starling, but Labour halved its representation in 2004 after she lost her seat and Joe Feery stepped down after moving to Cork.
Paddy Rowland presents the ‘freedom of the city’ at a civic reception for Fr Michael Kelly
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael gained a seat each – with the retirement of Miriam O’Callaghan, Johnny Flanagan was joined by Paddy Rowland and Sinéad Dooley, while Richard Egan, a past pupil of, and teacher in, my old school, Coláiste Choilm, was elected for Fine Gael. Richard was to step down in 2009, due to the difficulty of combining teaching and being a councillor, but I recall covering visits to the school (both before and after 2004) by some leading FG figures, including John Bruton and Enda Kenny, as well as former Laois-Offaly TD Olwyn Enright and former MEP Alan Gillis.
I recall the late Pat Carty, the school’s deputy principal (and my old English teacher) hosting Messrs Bruton and Gillis, and giving me a nod when it was time for me to leave the classroom and give Mr Bruton the chance to debate with the boys in private.
The year 2009 was, of course, to see further changes, with the retirement of Johnny Flanagan after 24 years as a councillor, as well as that of Jody Coughlan. Sinéad Dooley and Paddy Rowland were joined on the FF benches by Tony McCormack and Declan Harvey, while SF returned, with the election of Brendan Killeavy.
The 2019 county Council included Tony McCormack, Delcan Harvey and Sean O’Brien
Sean O’Brien, of course, was to leave the Labour Party in 2011 to become an independent, following his opposition to the selection of John Whelan as the party’s Dáil candidate.
Of course, when I recall covering the meetings down the years, I cannot omit reference to the various officials. In addition to the aforementioned Pat O’Connell, I must recall the two successive County Managers who presided during my time with Offaly Express. Seán P. MacCarthy was always a no-nonsense individual, but I can testify he was a man of great personal kindness, as was his successor, Niall Sweeney. Niall stepped down around the same time I left Offaly Express, so I was gone just before Pat Gallagher’s return.
The various town clerks must not be forgotten – Seán Nolan was the first I knew, followed by the late Jim Stone, Seán Ryan and Eoin Doyle. Various engineers came and went, but the longest-serving was the legendary Patsy Rouse, a great GAA man. I was to work with his son Paul for a time in Offaly Express, until Paul went back to UCD to do a PhD in History, and he is now a lecturer in our mutual alma mater, who has graced the national airwaves on such occasions as the visit of Queen Elizabeth II to the Republic in 2011.
I must also recall the helpfulness of James Hogan and Alo Scully, as well as all the members of the office staff. I must say that I found the officials to be very kind and polite. Of course, covering the affairs of the town council was not confined to the council chamber, and there were many occasions when I found myself covering various events which the council hosted, such as opening of new housing estates e.g. in 1997, when the then environment minister, Brendan Howlin, opened Cloncollog housing scheme, complete with a blessing from the then PP, the late Fr Willie Cleary, and the then Rector, the late Rev Alistair Grimason.
Civic receptions for visiting dignitaries and distinguished local people were frequent, but as time went on, less so due to financial constraints. The town council often co-operated with the county council when it came to hosting, for example, Presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, but I also recall less well-known visitors. For example, on one occasion in the mid-1990s, the then Russian ambassador visited Tullamore on a Saturday. I was the only reporter present for the event, which I recall as being quite light-hearted, with some banter between Anne O’Toole and the ambassador.
Each year in the lead-up to Christmas, the town hall was the scene for the unveiling of the Christmas tree, complete with singing by the Gospel Choir. It is worth recalling that the town council was always keen to be inclusive – when there were major projects being unveiled, it made sure that all blessings were ecumenical, with the parish priest or curate being joined by clergy from the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches.
The council members were always conscious of being next-door neighbours to the Presbyterian Church, and I recall, in 2006, covering an event hosted by the council to honour the Presbyterian contribution to the town. It’s also worth mentioning that when Pastor Victor Sodimu was pastor of the local Christ Apostolic Church, he was also invited to take part in blessing the Christmas tree and similar events.
Overall, the abolition of the town council, after its 154-year history, is a blow to local democracy; one must hope the day can come when its complete history can be written.