Saturday, September 19, 2015
‘Half dead’: a town in rural Ireland
In 1989 ‘The Irish Times’ reported on Kiltimagh, Co Mayo, one of many towns then blighted by emigration. A boom and a bust later, it’s still a typical Irish town, fighting to keep its community spirit in the face of a dwindling youth population and struggling main street
A drive down Main Street, Rural Ireland, in 2015 often takes you past closed shops, vacant houses, and premises for sale, some of them derelict. This is the case in Kiltimagh, in Co Mayo, a small town representative of so many others across the country.
The days when it was the norm for people to live over their shop are gone, as are many of those kinds of businesses. Towns and villages in rural Ireland have been changing slowly for years, adapting to survive. Many of the social spaces that once existed on their main streets are no longer there.
Roads radiate from Kiltimagh in six directions. The town is in the centre of a triangle roughly defined by Castlebar to the west, Swinford and Knock airport to the north, and Claremorris to the south. It recorded a population of 1,127 in the 2011 census. Kiltimagh’s population has been increasing over the past couple of decades. In 2006 it was 1,096. In 2002 it was 1,000.
Kiltimagh retains many services whose absences from other towns have become flashpoint topics in debate about small towns and the survival of rural Ireland. It still has a post office, a Garda station (with limited opening hours), a bank and ATM, a library, a credit union and a beautifully kept playground that would be a fine asset even in a far larger town. It has two hotels and seven pubs, plus the two hotel bars.
It has a big SuperValu and a Londis supermarket, as well as a small bakery, pharmacies, a shoe shop, a flower shop, a solicitors’ office and a high-end hair salon. It also has a small, well-kept public space, Market Square, that celebrates the poet Anthony Raftery, who was born nearby. Examples of community pride include a bright triangle of pansies and wallflowers in a corner of the local churchyard, “tenderly planted by the Kiltimagh scouts in June 2013”, as a notice says. The town is served by Bus Éireann.
Yet Kiltimagh is a town that Cahil Doherty, headmaster of St Louis Community School, says is “half dead”.
In 1989, Caroline Walsh, the late literary editor of this newspaper, who was an Irish Times reporter at the time, visited Kiltimagh and wrote an influential three-part series about emigration in the area, called “The Town They Left Behind”. Kiltimagh’s population was then just under 1,200.
“The GAA has its own disaster story,” she wrote. “Of the senior team that started last spring, half are no longer in the area.” It’s 26 years since that sentence was written, but it that could have appeared in any article about rural Ireland in recent times.
Kiltimagh people refer to their town’s single long street as Main Street; in fact it is broken into Chapel Street, Main Street, Aidan Street and Lower Aidan Street. As in so many towns and villages in rural Ireland, it is the traditional backbone of the community. It’s now a backbone with missing and damaged vertebrae. Several premises, both commercial and domestic, are in varying states of dereliction or closure, or are for sale. At what point does the backbone of a community break?
“The only difference between this place and the Titanic is that they had a band” read a sign, in 1989, by the desk of the chairman of the district community council at the time, Tom Higgins. He listed for Walsh some of the premises that had recently closed in Kiltimagh: “McNicholas’s pub, Corcoran’s pub, O’Dwyer’s. Ruane’s shop, McNamara’s shop . . .”
“We’ve lost a lot more businesses since 1989,” Marty O’Hora, the owner of Teach O’Hora bar, says matter of factly. He hands me a list of the 43 pubs Kiltimagh once had. “The thing is, a lot of those pubs were also little shops. Groceries, drapers, that sort of thing. So when the pub went, the shop went with it.”
His is one of the seven remaining pubs; his father, Aidan, bought it for £1,760 in 1967. Seven pubs plus two hotel bars seem like a lot for fewer than 1,200 people. O’Hora is reluctant to talk down his colleagues, but he suggests that at least some of the other bars do little business. I see this for myself when I walk around the town at night. As in other rural areas, some family-owned businesses here must survive largely because they own their premises, eliminating mortgages or rents.
O’Hora has worked at Teach O’Hora since 1976, the year after he sat his Leaving Certificate. He remembers people in the 1980s writing IOUs for their drinks on the backs of cigarette packets. “The only people who had mortgages back then were businesspeople. Now everyone has a mortgage, young and old, whether it’s for houses or cars or holidays.”
Every person I talk to during almost three days in Kiltimagh stresses how proud they are of their community, but not one is able to say their town is thriving. “Managing” and “surviving” are the words I hear most often. “Kiltimagh is just maintaining itself. Just making enough to survive. We are a dormitory town now. People live here and they work somewhere else. You can now buy cheaply one of the houses that were built in the boom, and then commute to somewhere like Galway, which is very expensive to buy property in,” O’Hora says. “Emigration back in the 1980s was school leavers. Now there are not that many people between 18 and 50 in the town.”
He sees the biggest challenge for Kiltimagh as “getting businesses back into the empty buildings on the main street”.
St Louis Community School, which has 700 students, is one of the town’s biggest employers, with 60 full- and part-time staff. Many of its students travel from other parts of Mayo to attend, such is its reputation, and a high percentage of its Leaving Cert students go on to third level. Doherty, its principal, has worked there for 30 years.
“Education is still a ticket out of the area,” he says. The day I interview Doherty is the day students have returned to collect their Leaving Cert results. “One girl said to me this morning, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing next, but I’m definitely leaving Kiltimagh.’ ”
Doherty is anxious not to offend the people among whom he works. He says several times that “you could not meet nicer people than the people of Kiltimagh” and that “the people here take fierce pride in their town”. But he also says: “Half the main street is derelict. And that’s all there is to the town, the main street.”
How would he define a rural town such as Kiltimagh today? “It’s urban without all the urban infrastructure. There are very few single people here between 18 and 40. There are a lot of people who work elsewhere and live outside the town and environs, but there isn’t the retail and transport that urban areas have. And when people work elsewhere what they want at the weekend is recreation. They don’t have the time to be thinking about the future of the town.”
Several of Doherty’s students have a parent – usually the father – who commutes to England each week, returning at weekends. This year Doherty had inquiries about school places from parents in the US, England and Spain who planned to move back to Mayo but commute, via Knock airport, out of the country to work.
For the past two or three years the airport has laid on additional weekend flights to and from London, for people who want to come home every weekend without having to take half days on Fridays or Mondays. Donal Healy, its spokesman, says that the flights are “90 per cent full, year round, and serve people living within an hour of the airport”. They began because of the volume of requests from people working in England but living in Mayo.
So while at least some of the emigration that Caroline Walsh wrote of in 1989 remains, it’s now largely of a different kind, and, thankfully, it seems to have a less visceral effect. She visited in January, when people were going back to work in England after Christmas, and she watched some of them leave at Knock airport.
“Children saying goodbye to parents, mothers saying goodbye to sons, but worst of all to observe – the wives who were saying goodbye to husbands . . . Some things married couples should not have to do in public, and parting like this is one of them . . . crying uncontrollable tears . . .”
There were no routine weekend visits home for those emigrants. At that time people who worked in England were gone “nine-tenths of the year”, according to the local curate at the time, Fr Padraic Brennan (who has since married and moved away).
In 1989 Walsh spoke to Hugh McTigue, who was vice-principal of St Louis Community School. “What’s at stake is the survival of the community,” he told her, commenting on the emigration from the area.
“The only thing that has really prospered in the town since then is the school,” he says now. “Towns like Kiltimagh are really part of a bigger picture. It has become a satellite village of Castlebar. Its retail trade has practically disappeared. People do their shopping on their way out from work in Castlebar or Ballina. One of the mistakes a small town can make is to think of itself in isolation, but no town is an island, like no man is an island. Communities are organisms.”
The biggest thing to happen in Kiltimagh in recent times was the reopening of the Cill Aodáin Court Hotel, on the main street, in May. It had closed suddenly in November 2012. Given its anchor position in the town, opposite the little public square, its reopening was an important event.
PJ Staide, a local who emigrated 28 years ago, bought the 17-bedroom hotel with bar and restaurant last year, sight unseen, paying about €150,000. He returned from California in March, with his South African-born partner, Jacqui Salome, to run the hotel.
“The place was a mess,” he says, philosophically. “All the copper had been stolen, the lead was gone from the roof, most of the windows at the back were smashed, and people had been partying inside, throwing paint around and walking it into the carpets. The place was full of bottles. It was clear it had been party central.”
Staide employed only locals to work on the refurbishment, 20 of them at any one time. “We thought that was very important; to give local employment.”
He and Salome plan to keep the hotel and its restaurant open year round. “The town needs this hotel. This business isn’t necessarily just about accommodation; it’s also about food and providing a place for local people to come.”
After Walsh’s series appeared the debate it created in Kiltimagh prompted the establishment of a community-development organisation called Integrated Resourced Development (IRD).
An anniversary brochure from 2008 says that the articles “portrayed the town as decimated with no hope. This created a scenario where those who knew of the problem and never admitted it now had to come out of the denial phase. In essence this portrayal worked like an outsider criticising a member of a family. This family member may argue freely with others internally but faced with a threat from outside then they will all band together into an effective combating force.”
The IRD, the force that was created, still exists. A registered charity, it relies mainly on income from its many rental properties. When it was established its funding came mainly from local donations. It has since received support from local and State authorities, Teagasc, Fás, Enterprise Ireland, Leader grants and Bord Fáilte, among others.
The IRD’s many projects over the years have included the development of 34 units of voluntary association housing; the establishment of a sculpture park, sculpture trail and town museum; the refurbishment of Market Square; and the creation of the playground. Its establishment of workspaces around the town also created jobs.
Last year Kiltimagh scored 281 points out of 450 in its Tidy Towns category. Its citation read, “We are delighted to see the high level of local participation on your committee, comprising nine members who are supported by 65 volunteers.”
As with any community-run organisation, not everyone in the community agrees with everything the IRD does. People I talk to in Kiltimagh struggle to explain what the IRD does and who makes its decisions. Some are critical and mention tension between townspeople and the IRD.
But not one wants to go on the record. The IRD website says: “We are happy to receive any feedback, suggestions, offers of help to get involved in making Kiltimagh a better place for all and even constructive criticism so long as it is not anonymous.”
Brian Mooney is a founding member of the IRD, a former long-standing chairman, and a current director. When it’s put to him that some locals seem confused about how the IRD now operates, and that others are critical of it, he says that the agm is open to the public and that the IRD’s records are publicly available.
In fact, he says, the IRD is always looking for local people to get involved, by volunteering to be on its board. “Positive people,” he adds. “Negative people close the shops. If there are some people who are bitching about us, I’d say to them, ‘You’re 20 years in this town: show me what you’ve achieved for the town and bring me to it.’ ”
Mooney is proud of the many things the IRD has done for Kiltimagh. “The challenge we didn’t succeed at was to keep the small shops open on the main street,” he says, regretfully. “We lost that battle with the Aldis and the Lidls.”
What, then, does he mean when he says that negative people close the shops? Surely, no matter how optimistic former shopkeepers might have been, they couldn’t stop competitors setting up elsewhere.
“The community closed the shops,” Mooney says. “They were complaining about the shops disappearing from the town, but they didn’t shop there themselves. That’s why they closed.”
Kiltimagh’s second hotel is the Park, which has 45 bedrooms and opened in 2006. It is located just outside town, on the Swinford road, on an IRD-owned site known as the factory field. “But no factory ever came forward to take it, so we decided to get jobs via tourism instead,” Mooney says.
The IRD gave the site to a developer. “There are 40 jobs there now.” Did the IRD consult townspeople about giving away the site during the Celtic Tiger years? Or ask if they wanted a hotel there? “Of course we didn’t consult with them,” he says. “The IRD are representative of the whole community. Isn’t it obvious that a hotel is good for a town? How would we get anything done if we went round consulting with everyone?”
Like most people I speak to, Mooney is reluctant to admit that the main street gives visitors a strong impression of a community that is struggling. Whenever I ask about this the reply is understandably defensive, usually along the lines of, “Well, the main street of Claremorris” – or Ballinrobe, or Boyle, or Castlebar, or Ballyhaunis – “is just as bad, if not worse. Have you been to that town?”
When I ask Mooney about the main street’s visual impact he says, “The IRD painted up some of the derelict buildings on the street.” It’s true that some of the vacant premises on the street, such as the former Village News and the Raftery Room, look better for being painted, but they remain closed businesses, empty houses or derelict premises: defunct and redundant spaces.
What does Mooney suggest could be done with the main street? “The empty buildings need to bulldozed. I’d like to see them demolished and rebuilt as holiday town houses, built to a high standard.”
The IRD’s biggest investment in recent years has been in Cairn International Trade Centre, essentially a business park, which cost €7 million. It’s opposite the Park Hotel. The first sod for what is now 15 office spaces was turned in 2007. “A small town will not get jobs unless it has the infrastructure to support them. You have to provide the facilities first, and then try to attract them in,” Mooney says.
It was built at the start of the recession; the IRD hoped it would bring 150 jobs. The Cairn’s website describes the campus as offering a “dynamic, progressive and futuristic approach to business development” and being situated “in the vibrant and progressive town of Kiltimagh”.
The complex remains more or less empty. In the middle of one midweek afternoon only one car is parked in the whole car park.
In the time I spend in Kiltimagh I notice that nobody mentions Enda Kenny, the Mayo-born Taoiseach, whose constituency office is nearby, in Castlebar. “He has no interest in rural Ireland, or in Mayo,” is the answer everyone gives, usually accompanied by a snort, when I ask why nobody talks about him.
Nor does anybody mention Kiltimagh’s most famous son, Louis Walsh, creator of boy bands and former X Factor judge. “You’d hear the helicopter the very odd time, and that’d be Louis,” is the general shrugged observation.
Neither man appears to have a public relationship with Kiltimagh, which seems a lost opportunity to raise the town’s profile.
When the topic of employment comes up people talk about two types. One is the formal, visible, accountable, taxpaying job, of which there are few. The other is the black-economy job, of which there appear to be many.
“There is no shortage of work here for them that want it” is a line I hear over and over. Neither employer nor employee will go on the record, but the black-economy jobs appear to be in construction and its associated skills.
According to research published last year by Teagasc’s rural-economy development programme, the unemployment rate in working-age households in small-town rural Ireland was a third, compared with less than a fifth in urban areas. Those figures do not take into account black-economy jobs, which makes the picture of unemployment more complicated, if what’s happening in Kiltimagh is also happening in other towns.
Patricia Meenaghan is chairwoman of Kiltimagh Historical Society. She returned to live here 15 years ago, after some time in Yorkshire. Like others I talk to, she praises the reopening of the Cill Aodáin Court Hotel. “It’s the best thing that’s happened here for a long time. It’s become the focal point of the town again.”
But she says Kiltimagh is in a worse state than it was in 1989. “Because after that series came out we saw how our community could grow and develop, through the IRD, and now it has reversed again, because there are no more grants coming in. I think this town is stifled now.”
Kiltimagh has become a dormitory town, she says. “The majority of people who live here don’t work here. People don’t want to leave, because even though they work elsewhere we come from a rural culture, where people don’t want to leave their roots and their land. And, also, there is no job security any more, so why would anyone move house just for a job?”
How does she see the future for rural Ireland and for towns like Kiltimagh? “If you look at Kiltimagh it’s not really going anywhere. So whatever is happening here must also be happening nationally. I don’t know how politicians can continue to ignore a hinterland as large as rural Ireland. Rural Ireland is like a limb that is slowly being cut off from the rest of the country, and if that keeps happening it’s going to affect the health of the whole country.”
She knows Kiltimagh main street was never Grafton Street, she says, but it used to be vibrant. “Shops and pubs were open and being supported. Nobody wants to open a business here now. I’m not optimistic about its future. I think businesses will continue to close. There’s no footfall at night on the street. The population is gone.”
Yet according to the census the population of the town has been increasing. When I mention this to Meenaghan she is astonished. “So where are these people?”
At night you see how empty and dark Kiltimagh’s main street is. Most of the lit houses are those with satellite dishes on their roofs. The Rath Cluain estate, just behind the main street, is far fuller, judging by the lights and by the cars in the driveways. It’s not that the town’s population has gone, it seems, it’s that they’ve migrated away from the main street.
The Kiltimagh electoral division had a population of 1,510 in the 2011 census. Of its 858 houses, 205 – or almost a quarter – were listed as vacant.
Of the 15 residential properties in Kiltimagh listed as sold on the residential property price register for 2014, the lowest sale price was €10,190. Only two properties sold for more than €100,000. Others fetched €15,000, €35,000 and €70,000. If, as Hugh McTigue, Marty O’Hora and Patricia Meenaghan suggest, Kiltimagh is now a dormitory town, its low house prices would be an attraction for anyone working elsewhere.
Nancy Lavin has been living in the town for 42 years; Chris Glynn has been back for 25. Lavin recently took over from Brian Mooney as chair of the IRD; Glynn is on its board of directors. “The town is slowly picking up. Our quality of life in Kiltimagh has improved greatly since 1989,” Lavin says.
“Thriving is not a word we’d use yet,” Glynn says. “Whatever the Government says about recovery, the recession is not over in rural Ireland.”
Lavin says, “We are similar to all the other small towns in rural Ireland, in that we have to work together and demand more from our government.”
Glynn says, “It should be possible to negotiate lower rates to open businesses in small towns, and to renovate premises on the main street . . . Individuals are not going to fight for these things, which is why Kiltimagh needs the IRD to fight for a voice for its community. Businesses need to be in a town, so that people can spend money in their own town. People do their shopping where they work, and they socialise with the people they work with, so we’re missing out on that. Even though people are living here their money isn’t being reinvested back in the community.”
Monica Browne, Jo Kelly, Patricia McDonagh and Geraldine Gallagher all belong to Kiltimagh Women’s Group, founded 25 years ago to support returning emigrant women. Of the four, three have children abroad. Both of Gallagher’s are in Australia, McDonagh has two in the US, and Kelly has one in Scotland. But they’re not all gone. All three of Browne’s children are still in Mayo, as are three of McDonagh’s and two of Kelly’s.
What do they see as the challenges facing their town? “Employment,” Gallagher says. “The lack of local employment.”
“Isolation and an ageing population,” Browne says. “They should be encouraging people from country areas to move into towns. Safety in their homes is a big issue for people, even if they’re only a few miles from the town.”
McDonagh says, “When businesses close they are not replaced, or else they move their business elsewhere, to a bigger town.”
Kelly says, “When you drive up and down the town you can see it is not thriving. How do you change that?”
Shane Gilmartin employs eight people in his hygiene-supplies business, which he set up in 1993. He has lived in the town most of his life; he recalls playing football as a child on Thomas Street, just off the main street, where two jumpers served as goalposts.
“We’d be there for an hour at a time before a car would come. Now you couldn’t be in the middle of the street for more than a minute without a car coming at you.”
How does he think Kiltimagh has changed as a town? “I see the future of the town as residential, a dormitory town,” he says. “There are buildings on the main street with nothing going on in them, and that doesn’t help matters. The town has changed in that a lot of smaller shops have closed, and people don’t live over the shop any more.
“But there could be niche businesses here, like the flower shop, which is doing very well. The more people that live in a town, the more opportunities for niche businesses. There should be incentives to redevelop the main street and get people living and working there again.”
Like everyone I speak with, Gilmartin talks about the strong community spirit of the town. “Kiltimagh was never a shopping town, but it’s a great place to live. We’re a small town struggling to hold on to business, but there is a very good community spirit here. If you don’t have that you don’t have much. It’s a huge part of any town. And the more people that live in a town the more likely they are to invest emotionally in it.”
What’s clear is that towns such as Kiltimagh are gradually becoming different kinds of rural communities. The era when their people predominantly lived, worked, shopped and socialised in their immediate community is gone.
As Shane Gilmartin says, “In the 1980s people car-pooled, and the few people who had cars usually had old bangers.”
It’s possible to buy a second-hand car – an item that most people now consider an essential part of their lives – cheaply in 2015. So large numbers of people are now more mobile and less dependent on the limitations of rural public transport.
Even with the number of small businesses that Kiltimagh has lost in recent years, and the percentage of its population that now commutes to other towns to work, its residents are certain their town is still a community. So, like other places in rural Ireland, Kiltimagh has two contrasting stories: the visual narrative of what looks like a half-derelict main street, with its defunct social and commercial spaces, and the unseen narrative of the community of people who live in the town, a community they love and are proud of. The narrative of any town is always more complex than it first appears.
More than 1.5 million people live in rural Ireland, and many more who live in cities have our roots there. It is a considerable constituency, and its voice will surely be heard more and more often in the run-up to the next general election, because its communities are facing many challenges, including those of identity and regeneration.
The population of rural Ireland may be more mobile than in the past, and the business dynamics of towns have changed, but community endures. The question of what to do with the unoccupied social spaces of main streets in towns around the country needs to be addressed promptly, imaginatively and with vigour, because everyone agrees that they cannot be left to decline further.
One thing is clear: as long as people continue to live in rural Ireland, it is far from dead. What’s less obvious is that rural Ireland has gradually become a different kind of community, with a new set of challenges to meet.