OUR TOWN C. 1850-2000


Laid out sometime before 17771 to replace the old coach road over the Downs (see entry for Nos 7 & 8 Bridge Street in Part Three of this project), this was originally and officially known as the New Road. Griffith's Valuation and the 1901 and 1911 Censuses call it the Well Road, but nowadays it is usually referred to by its original name. The eponymous well - situated about a mile out - was once known as both a place of pilgrimage, and a favourite haunt of robbers2. What actually took place there is long forgotten but, in more modern times, a few things are certain. Known colloquially as the Well of Marbra (Maryborough), it served as an auxillary reservoir for the town's water supply. Towards the end of the Civil War, the supply was severely disrupted after the reservoir's pumping engine was destroyed3. In the 1960's, we used it as a swimming pool. In fact, the New Road had two unofficial leisure centres: the former reservoir and the nearby Sandybottoms of the Triogue.

In the 1850's the Well Road had only fifteen houses; half a century later, there were more than five times that number and, as recently as the 1930's, the road was still one of the most densely populated areas of the town. As recounted by local journalist Seamus Dunne4, most of the houses comprised just one room and a kitchen, and many of the men were ex-soldiers who, in Seamus's words, often went marching again.... marching into Hume's and Ramsbottom's. He goes on to mention battles fought at Hume's corner and how the Well Road once boasted pugilists of renown.

It has been suggested to me that the section of the road nearest Main Street was once known as 'The Flags'. This is, presumably, a reference to its original cobblestone? The grey International Screenprint building on the left was the Electric Cinema (1932-1969) which replaced the town's first (1914) silent movie cinema also on this site. I've already discussed the cinemas on the page dealing with the Delany family in the Lower square, so just a few quick addenda here: One of my oldest interviewees recalled how, during the Silent Era, John Lynch used to patrol 'the gods' "with a big stick" and woe betide those, who today we would call 'messers'. He also remembered the comments hurled at the musician if what she was playing wasn't music to their ears!

In May 1933, the cinema showed Sweet Inniscarra, believed to be the first Irish made 'talkie'. Shot in Cashel and Portarlington, it featured members of the latter town's Dramatic Class with a musical score by the No. 1 Free State Army Band. I'm sure that was a quieter occasion than the night in the 1940's when there was a fire in the cinema. As recounted to me by Paul Delany, it started in the operating box - during the screening of a film starring future US president Ronald Reagan - and, thankfully the only casualties were "fourteen or fifteen reels burnt to a cinder".

In 1968, Helga - No, not the ship involved in the 1916 Rising - was shown in 'Paul's' and caused a bit of a stir in the town. I never saw what was widely derided as soft porn disguised as sex education5 but, recently, I did see a trailer online: asked her opinion of the contraceptive pill, a young woman working in a cocktail bar utters the immortal words: "The greatest thing since popcorn".

In 1911, Mrs Eliza Brock - her house stood where JFL Avenue now meets the New Road on the right of the picture above - kept boarders, one of whom was William Carroll from Tipperary. He advertised in the local paper as a building contractor and undertaker, and part of his legacy to the town are the classrooms in the Christian Brothers school which were officially opened in January 19076. He later worked for Farmer Brothers, the Dublin building contractors, and was their foremen during the construction of the new (red brick) wing of St Fintan's Hospital in 1937. Where his workshop once stood - roughly where the New Road entrance to the Bridge Street Centre is today - was later known as Carroll's Field and was often used as a stopover for travelling shows: one of my informants recalled amusements owned by Billy Grant, a diminutive showman who had "a magnificent steam organ".


1 According to A History of Laois by Seán O'Dooley (1888-1963) which began life as a series of lectures - part of an Adult Education Social Science Course - in Portlaoise Vocational School in the early 1950's. The lectures were subsequently published in the Leinster Express. The series was updated in the 1970's by his daughter Johanna and reprinted in the same paper. The article referred to here appeared on February 16, 1974.

2 In the first context, the waters of the well were said to cure scurvey; in the second, it was associated by some with 'Captain' Grant (who we've already met in the entry on the courthouse) and known as Tobar an Gadaí, the Thief's Well.

3 It was later established that it had been attacked with sledgehammers. Report in The Irish Times, March 1, 1923.

4 In one of his many fascinating pieces in the Leinster Express.

5 Over the years, the lads I've spoken to who did see the complete intimate story of a young girl with its scenes never before shown, outnumber those who claim to have been with Pearse in the GPO.

6 A quick digression: The CBS monastery - and, incidentally, the new wing of the prison (1900) - were both the work of J. K. Bracken, a builder and monumental mason from Templemore. He was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and one of the founding members of the GAA. The Templemore GAA club is named after him. He was the father of Brendan (1901-1958) who, following 'colourful' teenage years, settled in England, denied his Irish heritage, and assumed the demeanour of a public school 'gent'. He eventualy became an MP - during World War II, he was Minister for Information in Churchill's government - and, in 1952, was given the title 1st Viscount Bracken. In December 2010, RTÉ One broadcast a documentary entitled Brendan Bracken - Churchill's Irishman.