The landed estate and the “big house” was the centre of the rural economy in Ireland in the 18th and early 19th century based on the agrarian rental system between landlords and tenant farmers. This changed in the late 19th century when after the famine declining rents resulted in many estates being massively encumbered with debts due to the cost of maintaining the estate and the attendant lifestyle of the owners.
There was a clear shift in economic focus to the regional towns in the late 19th century. Bank branch expansion increased dramatically throughout the regional towns of the country during an era of bank branch development between 1858 and 1879. This is explained in “Bank Architecture in Dublin – A History to 1940” by Michael O’Neill insofar as following the legislation allowing joint- stock banking and the removal of the Bank of Ireland’s fifty-mile monopoly zone around Dublin in 1845. Prior to the mid-19th century, there were few purpose built banks and their development is a particular feature of the late 19th century. They were typically built in expressive architectural styles of the Victorian era including the Venetian Gothic style promoted by John Ruskin which was promoted in Ireland by Deane & Woodward Architects. The style expressed prestige, security and permanence and stability, finely executed with a degree of competition evident between the banks.
The banks were typically clustered in prime central sites within the towns which typically were located within the historic core. They are a key feature of the 19th century development of towns that often is not documented in the same manner as religious and other town institutions. The image below illustrates the clustering of 19th century banks in Naas town centre along South Main Street.
Above: Cluster of historic bank structures on east side of South Main Street, Naas
A similar pattern exists in Mullingar where the former Hibernian Bank occupies a prime location in the former market square with other contemporary banks featuring around The Square to the west (see table below). The Hibernian Bank was originally known as the “Hibernian Joint-Stock and Annuity Company”. It was founded in 1825 by Daniel O’Connell among others, for Catholics and Quakers who were excluded from the direction of the Bank of Ireland. Many current Bank of Ireland branches were set up by other smaller banks including the Hibernian Bank, which it absorbed during the 1960s.
Above: Mullingar’s 19th & early 20th century banks