Small towns on a mission to turn their fortunes around
A week before Christmas, hundreds of people marched through the town of Ferbane to protest against the planned closure of the town’s only bank.
Concerned locals carried a coffin bearing the words ‘West Offaly RIP’ and placed it on the steps of Ferbane’s Ulster Bank branch.
The coffin symbolised the death of rural Ireland, where towns and villages have been decimated since the demise of the Celtic Tiger.
Another nail was driven into that coffin last week with the news that 100 Bus Eireann services are being cut, leaving many towns and villages in the south east, in particular, without a bus link to the capital.
Bus Eireann claim the routes are not viable – and the Government won’t subsidise them. The bus routes will affect towns like Bunclody, Co. Wexford, Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny and Ballyporeen in Co. Tipperary. More cuts are likely, affecting western routes.
One woman in Bunclody likened the cuts to “doing what Cromwell tried to do, driving the people out of the place”.
Along with the banks and bus routes, rural areas have been savaged by post office and Garda station closures, with pubs and shops giving up the ghost too. GAA clubs have been struggling to field teams, a sure barometer that emigration is rife and employment is almost non-existent.
Lack of decent broadband, poor roads, and fear of robberies and attacks in isolated areas add to this miserable picture in the country.
Garda stations have been closed in 100 towns and villages from Abbeydorney in Kerry to Glencolmcille in Donegal and every county in between, heightening fears for personal safety
As many as 1,500 pubs have shut in the last decade, at least 170 banks, and more than 50 post offices.
Towns and villages are pockmarked with boarded-up premises, ‘for sale’ or ‘for rent’ signs, peeling painted walls, deserted houses. Ghost estates that sit empty on the outskirts of villages and bigger towns are lumbered with blocks of apartments that no-one wants.
“You can’t even buy a pair of knickers here now,” says Lorraine Teevan about her native town of Belturbet in Co. Cavan, as we walk past D Usual Place, a closed-down pub in the town’s Bridge Street.
The town boasted four clothing shops when mum-of-three Lorraine was a teenager in the mid 1980s. Back then there were 19 pubs in the town – now there are six.
Bridge Street is typical of many main streets in rural towns, lined with buildings in various states of disrepair. On a street opposite, shop units built during the Celtic Tiger era lie totally vacant and boarded up, compounding the emptiness.
“A white elephant, if ever I saw one,” remarks Tony ‘Big T’ Brady when we meet him on the street.
Belturbet – population 1,200 – lost its only bank last year when the Ulster Bank branch shut up shop after 200 years.
The Emerald Star Line, which ran a major pleasure-cruising operation on the River Erne and River Shannon, also pulled out of the town. Cavan County Council’s office in the town and the social welfare office also closed.
The town was also bypassed recently with a new road and some blame its woes on this.
Local businessman Barry Wilson admits the bank closure was a big blow as it attracted business.
But Barry, owner of rural broadband business Eurona Arden, which employs 12 people, prefers to look at the optimistic side of things.
“It was a big loss, but people are fighting back. You have to move on. We get by with debit cards and credit cards, there are two ATMs slightly out of town, and pubs and other businesses are getting used to ‘cashback’.”
Barry sees the opening of the new Town Hall and the revamped library as major positives and he praises the strength of local community organisations such as the TidyTowns for a great town spirit.
Barry believes investment in broadband is the key to getting more industries to locate in rural areas, though he says that the lack of quality in internet services and speed outside the capital is exaggerated.
“There are people out there with satisfactory broadband and we are in the business of growing it and positive government intervention will help,” says Barry, who has 2,500 customers.
“We are well placed, only a few miles from Cavan town and there are signs that people are coming back into our town to live here.”
And Barry believes people will recognise the bypass as a good thing, clearing the town of massive through traffic and the dirt and noise it brings.
With the Erne flowing through the town, part of Europe’s largest navigable inland waterway and the town’s magnificent marina, Barry also sees tourism as a key employer, attracting boating enthusiasts in ever larger numbers. He’s also confident the ‘lost generation’, forced out after the economic downturn, will return and help rebuild the country.
“They will lift this country. Our obligation is that they will have something decent to return to,” he says.
Across the road in The Widow’s pub, a committee was busily planning the town’s annual Easter Parade.
“We’ll have a couple of thousand on The Diamond on Easter Sunday and we’re the only town with a parade that day,” says publican Brendan Fay, a cousin of American Football star Tom Brady.
The biggest problem for the town was lack of employment, he says.
“You had 15 pubs here four years ago, now there are six. The Emerald Star closing was more devastating than the bank,” he adds. “It was done with the stroke of a pen by someone in Florida.”
Publican, Ray Slaughter took a leap of faith in the town by buying The Castle pub in July, having rented another premises for a number of years.
“It’s mostly weekend trade, but it keeps us going,” he says.
Local auctioneer and undertaker Mark Lawlor says property sales are definitely picking up.
“The last 12 to 18 months there was a good lift. The bank closure has hit us harder than the bypass. Every single person has to leave town now to go to a bank,” says Mark, who is also chairman of the local GAA club Rory O’Moore’s.
He admits that emigration took its toll on the club, but not so much in the last 18 months.
“We lost 15 or 20 players, some real good ones. We were senior and now we’re back to intermediate. We had two teams and now we’ve only one.”
As I walk up the street with Lorraine, we pass another closed pub and a shop window.
“That used to be Raymond Johnston’s butcher shop. When we were kids, his wife Christine used to dress up the window so well, it was our Brown Thomas.”
That butcher’s is now closed too, as Belturbet, like so many small towns, hopes these spring days will send some green shoots to bring back the good times.