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Mullingar


The name Mullingar (An Muileann gCearr) is derived from ‘The wry or left-handed mill’.  According to tradition the rotation of the local mill was said to have been miraculously reversed by St Colman of Lynn in the 7th century, and thus, as claimed by Mullingar historian Ruth Illingworth it is ‘probably the only town in Ireland to be named after a miracle”.

Mullingar is the county town of Westmeath and is located in the centre of the county. It is surrounded by a number of fine limestone lakes including Loughs Ennel, Owel and Derravaragh.  The river Brosna flows through Mullingar.  The town grew up around the monastery of Lynn and came into its own after the Anglo-Norman invasion when the manor of Mullingar was assigned to the Petit family.  There are records of burgesses and grants of fairs going back to the early years of the thirteenth century indicating that it was becoming established as a town by that time.

Both the Canons Regular of St Augustine (The Austin Friars) and the Dominicans established religious houses in Mullingar in the Anglo-Norman period indicating that the town had a sufficient population to support two such friaries.  

The event which most influenced the modern development of the town was the division of the Kingdom of Meath into two separate administrative units with East Meath becoming the modern county of Meath and Westmeath becoming a county (or shire) in its own right.  Mullingar was declared the shire town for the new county in 1542 and has remained as the administrative capital of Westmeath since that time.

The Anglo-Norman and old English families (including Petit, Hope, [de] Lacey and Nugent) continued to hold power in Westmeath as land and property holders and thus the town of Mullingar did not feature in the transplantation schemes of the Tudors or Stuarts.

In the nineteenth century two major infrastructural advances were the arrival of the Royal Canal (1806) and the arrival of the railway in 1848.  The cutting of the Royal Canal begun in the 1790s and by 1806 it had linked Mullingar with Dublin with the cutting of a horseshoe-shaped canal to the north of the town.  In December 1806 the ‘Countess of Granard’ a new packet boat arrived at Mullingar Harbour to the strains of the music of the Band of the Sligo Militia.  In time the Canal was completed to the Shannon at Richmond Harbour, Cloondara.  Initially the journey from Dublin to Mullingar by canal took twelve hours by barge but with the introduction of lighter fly-boats (in the 1830s) the journey time was reduced by four hours.

The coming of the railway to Mullingar was as a result of the work of the Midland Great Western Railway Company.  As part of their plan to service the west of Ireland they brought their railway line as far as Mullingar by 1848 by 1851 this had been extended via Athlone to Galway.  The company also built a branch line connecting Athlone to Longford by 1855 and within less than a decade they had established connection between Mullingar and Cavan as well as Mullingar to Westport, Sligo and Clare.

Mullingar was a garrison town from 1819 until the closure of Columb Barracks in 2012.

In sporting terms Mullingar has been associated with a great variety of sporting activities the histories of which have been well documented by Tom Hunt.  Not surprising, given its location, Mullingar was well known as a centre for fishing and hunting as well as horseracing at its Newbrook Racecourse. Many of the sports which were played in the 1890s in Mullingar are still played here today.  Athletics is ably represented by Mullingar Harriers; cycling by Lakeside Wheelers Club and there is a Cricket Club based at St Finian’s College. Mullingar Tennis and Badminton Club has a long and honourable history as has Mullingar Golf Club.  In terms of the GAA the Westmeath County Team has its home grounds in Cusack Park; while Mullingar Town F.C. has their grounds in Dalton Park and Mullingar Rugby F.C. is based in Cullionbeg. Mullingar Jets is the premier swimming club in the town and snooker is also popular locally. Recently the focus of Mullingar sporting activities was on boxing when the Irish Olympian, John Joe Nevin, a native of Mullingar, was a silver medalist in the London 2012 Olympic Games.

‌In terms of its musical tradition Mullingar has a proud record – it was the venue for Ireland’s first Fleadh Ceoil.  Much earlier Wellington Guernsey musician and composer was born in Mullingar Barracks in the early 19th century and Mullingar Town Band had its origins in a Holy Family Confraternity Band which was founded in the town in 1879.

The Swarbriggs were well-known Mullingar based entertainers, brothers Tommy and Jimmy Swarbrigg represented Ireland in the Eurovision in 1975 with ‘That’s what friends are for’.  The world renowned soprano, Ailish Tynan, is also a native of Mullingar as is Niall Horan the only Irish member of the boy band One Direction.  Mick Foster of Foster & Allen Fame lives near Mullingar while Niall Breslin, better known as ‘Bressie’ the well known Irish musician (and former Westmeath Gaelic footballer) though born in Dublin came to Mullingar at the age of two.

However in terms of his fame and popularity the late great Joe Dolan was a legend.  He has been the subject of a number of books and he is commemorated in Mullingar by a piece of public sculpture in front of the Market House and a bridge named in his honour.

Mullingar has an impressive record in the visual arts also with artists such as the late May Raleigh and Peter McCabe, and in more recent times artists living in Mullingar such as Anne Marie Leavy and Roy Lyndsay making a name for themselves both nationally and internationally.  Mullingar Library has a bronze bust of the writer Leo Daly by Mullingar native Gerard Waldron and throughout the town Mullingar has several fine pieces of public sculpture as well as a flourishing Arts Centre in the County Buildings.

Mullingar has many important literary connections: James Joyce visited the town and drew inspiration from it; Dean Jonathan Swift is said to have got his inspiration for the Lilliputians (in Gulliver’s Travels) from his visits with the Rochforts near Mullingar; William Carelton the novelist taught in Mullingar and in more recent times Josephine Hart, novelist and Leo Daly, broadcaster and author were both natives of Mullingar while J.P. Donleavy the author of many books both fiction and non-fiction, including his famous novel The Ginger Man, has lived near Mullingar for many years.

Suggestions for Further Reading: 

Andrews, J.H. & Davies K.M. Irish Historic Towns Atlas, No 5, Mullingar (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1992).

Clarke, Peter The royal canal: the complete story (Dublin: Elo Publications, 1992).

Daly, Leo Austin Friars (Mullingar: Westmeath Examiner, 1993).

Daly, Leo James Joyce and the Mullingar connection (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1975).

Daly, Leo & Kuno Meyer (eds) The Life of Colman of Lynn (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1999).

Delany, Ruth & Bath, Ian Ireland’s Royal Canal 1789-2009 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2010).

Farrell, Mary (ed) Mullingar: essays on the history of a Midlands town in the 19th Century (Mullingar: Westmeath County Library, 2002).

Farrell, Noel Exploring family origins, Mullingar, Westmeath (Longford: Noel Farrell, 2005).

Hunt, Tom Sport and society in Victorian Ireland (Cork: Cork University Press, 2007).

Illingworth, Ruth Images of Mullingar (Dublin: Nonsuch Publishing, 2008).

Illingworth, Ruth Mullingar history & guide (Dublin: Nonsuch Publishing, 2007).

Illingworth, Ruth (ed) When the train came to Mullingar (Mullingar: Mullingar Railway Anniversary Committee, 1998).

Keaney, Marian Westmeath Authors (Mullingar: Longford Westmeath Joint Library Committee, 1969).

O’Brien, Seamus Famine and community in Mullingar Poor Law Union, 1845-1849 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999).

O’Brien, Seamus (ed) A Town in transition: Post Famine Mullingar (Mullingar: Rathlainne Publications, 2007).

O’Farrell, Padraic The Book of Mullingar (Mullingar: Uisneach Press, 1987).

Tierney, Philip Mullingar in old picture postcards (Zaltbommel: European Library, 1995).