Clonmel (Cluain Meala – “Meadow of the Honey”) (pop.24,000), the administrative capital of South Tipperary, straddles the River Suir on the northern border of Co. Waterford. It is the largest inland town in the Republic, and in the opinion of many, one of the most attractive in all of Ireland.
The West Gate, an 1831 reconstruction of one of the four entry points through Clonmel’s medieval town wall, opens onto O’Connell St (formerly High St), one of the four main shopping streets, the others being Parnell St. (formerly Bagwell St), Gladstone St and Mitchell St.
Despite being a bustling commercial centre, Clonmel retains an oddly genteel air, as though not fully of our times. It has had a colourful history, with interesting landmarks in both the town and surrounding countryside, plus several good pubs / eateries and accommodation options.
Clonmel is believed to have been founded by William de Burgo in the late C12th. In 1205 he was granted the lordship of the Manors of Clonmel, Kilsheelan and Kilfeakle. His son Richard obtained authority from King Henry III to hold an annual fair in Clonmel in 1225.
In 1263 the administration of Clonmel was vested in Otho de Grandison, who became Sheriff of Tipperary in 1265, and in 1269 invited the Franciscans to establish a friary (unusually, within the defensive town walls, which he had commenced, but which remained incomplete for some 50 years).
James Butler, son of the Earl of Carrick, was created Earl of Ormond in 1328 and was granted a Palatinate in Tipperary, headquartered in Clonmel. Despite the efforts of their Geraldine rivals, his descendants retained control of the town with only occasional breaks for several centuries.
In 1516 Clonmel was successfully besieged by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Garrett Óg FitzGerald, 8th Earl of Kildare.
In 1539 Archbishop George Browne of Dublin preached to a Clonmel congregation that included the then Lord Chancellor of Ireland, two other Archbishops and eight bishops, who all took an oath of loyalty to King Henry VIII as Head of the Church of Ireland.
Oliver Cromwell laid siege to Clonmel for three weeks in May 1650. The walls were eventually breached, but Hugh Dubh O’Neill, the commander of the town’s garrison, inflicted heavy losses on Cromwell’s troops when they tried to storm the breach. However, the garrison surrendered the following day, as O’Neill’s men had run out of gunpowder. The story goes that Cromwell only realised this when a silver bullet was discharged at his troops outside the walls.
The 2nd Duke of Ormonde’s Jacobite sympathies led to the extinction of the Butlers’ Palatinate jurisdiction in 1715. It was around this time that the descendants of a Cromwellian soldier, Capt John Bagwell, came to prominence as the leading landlords in the town and surrounding area.
The C18th saw a large number of members of the Society of Friends settled in the area, and Clonmel became known as the Quaker City of the South. These families were mostly involved in milling, and at one stage there were 23 mills in the vicinity. Other industries included tobacco, tanning, wool and brewing.
Clonmel’s heyday was between 1775 and 1840, when economic development, an agricultural boom and use of the River Suir for cheap transport helped make it one of the most important commercial and industrial inland towns in Ireland. The military garrison, permanently in place since 1650, was increased and rehoused in 1780, and a larger barracks was built in 1805.
Carlo / Charles Bianconi (1786-1875), brought to Ireland as a child, initiated a coach business from Clonmel in 1815, which went on to become the most successful and extensive transport system in the country; Bianconi twice served as Mayor of Clonmel. Operational HQ was a premises subsequently converted by his faithful assistant into Hearn’s Hotel.
The formation of the River Suir Navigation Company between 1836 and 1841, and the deepening of the river between Clonmel and Carrick-On-Suir, meant that vessels of up to 200 tons could dock in Clonmel.
In common with most of South Tipperary, Clonmel was relatively unaffected by the Great Famine. However, the area had a very high crime rate in the C19th, with many “outrages” committed against Anglo-Irish landlords and their servants. There is some evidence that another set of victims may have been unemployed and starving “spalpeens” from other blight-struck parts of the country, whom locals feared would undercut their wages.
Clonmel had no less than three gaols operating in the C19th, and two places of execution in regular use. Many of the hangings that took place on Fair Days are recorded in the contemporary press, and also in popular folk songs. There can be no doubt that some were little more than judicial murders.
WWI saw approximately 150 Clonmel men killed among the hundreds of locals who fought in France, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia between 1914 and 1918.
During the Civil War, Clonmel was captured by Free State troops from Anti-Treaty Republican forces who burned the Army and Police barracks as they withdrew from the town in 1922. The government soldiers briefly occupied the premises of Clonmel’s Borstal institution in the old town gaol.
Old St. Mary’s Church (CoI) was founded in 1204, and survived Cromwell’s 1650 siege, but has been altered so often over the centuries that virtually none of the original building remains above ground. Mailed skeletons have been found beneath the nave. The present edifice, designed by Joseph Welland, dates from 1857. There is a splendid pulpit (1903) by MJC Buckley and some fine stained glass by Catherine O’Brien.
A section of the medieval town wall remains in place with three towers adjacent to the churchyard.
The C13th Franciscan Friary was rebuilt several times, and only the C14th tower still stands. The old building survived King Henry VIII‘s 1540 Dissolution of the Monasteries, and was later used by Jesuits and Unitarians.
Simon Fitzsimons / FitzSimmons, aka Symon Semeonis, a C14th Franciscan friar, undertook a pilgrimage from Clonmel to Jerusalem with his companion Hugo Illuminator in 1323. He received a special reduced fee Mendicants’ passport, authenticated by Sultan Al-Nasir Muhammad’s fingerprints. His m/s account of the journey, now held in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, includes one of the earliest written reports in the British Isles of what is now Albania, and also relates an encounter in Crete with a migrant group he called “the descendants of Cain“, probably the earliest surviving description by a Western chronicler of the Romani people in Europe.
The Franciscan presence was re-established in the early C19th and only ended recently due to a lack of vocations. The present church, completed in 1884, was designed byWalter J Doolin. The interior has some fine modern stained glass windows and contains the splendidly carved 1533 tomb ofSir Thomas and Ellen Buttyler, containing the remains of seven members of the Butler family of Cahir.
The Main Guard was built by James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, as a courthouse for the Palatinate of the Liberty of Tipperary, and it bears two panels showing coats of arms dated 1675. Based on a design by Sir Christopher Wren, the building has had its open arcade of sandstone columns restored by the OPW and is open to the public.
The County Courthouse, designed by Richard Morrison in 1802 and recently refurbished, was where the Young Irelander rebels of 1848, including William Smith O’Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher, were tried and convicted for their roles in the Cabbage-Patch Revolt and sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered; after a public campaign raised over 70,000 signatures, Queen Victoria commuted these sentences to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
St Mary’s church (RC) in the Irishtown district outside the walls, took over twenty years to build; architect John B Keane died during construction, and the edifice was completed by John Bourke in 1867. The portico is by George Ashlin. The interior with its ornate plasterwork and imposing high altar was designed by George Goldie.
The Town Hall, originally a private C18th mansion, and for a time known as the Global Inn, was rebuilt in 1881, and is still the headquarters of the local authority. On display is a copy of the town’s 1608 Charter, lost and reproduced in 1697, and municipal regalia, including two silver maces and two swords, one allegedly presented by Oliver Cromwell in 1650 as a mark of respect for the people’s fortitude in defending their town, and the other, donated by Sir Thomas Stanley in 1656, made of Toledo steel bearing the Arms and motto of Clonmel.
The ’98 Man, a statue commemorating the 1798 Rebellion (which had relatively little direct impact on Clonmel) was unveiled in front of the Town Hall in 1904. The sculptor was James K Bracken of Templemore, a founder of the GAA and father of Brendan Bracken, Minister for Information in Winston Churchill‘s War Cabinet.
The White Memorial Theatre was established in 1975 in the Old Wesleyan Chapel, designed and constructed in 1843 by William Tinsley, Clonmel’s most renowned Victorian architect and builder. In addition to two annual concerts by St Mary’s Choral Society, the venue is used for performances by Stage Craft Youth Theatre and visiting players.
The County Museum, housed in a fine Victorian townhouse with a porch designed by William Tinsley, is well worth visiting for its permanent collection, including a model of Clonmel c.1300 and paintings by Charles Lamb, William Leech, Jack B Yeats and others; it also hosts interesting temporary exhibitions.
South Tipperary Arts Centre, founded in 1996 in an old bus station, organises interesting cultural courses and holds regular exhibitions of paintings and sculpture, plus programmes of films, plays and classical music.