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Saturday 23 September 2017

Apple harvest: Does forgotten small-town Ireland have a future after all?

The 500-acre state-of-the-art digital orchard announced this week is set to transform the Galway town of Athenry. But is this €850m investment a real sign of a rebirth for struggling rural Ireland, or just a one-off windfall? John Meagher reports

Apple is set to transform Athenry
Apple is set to transform Athenry
Juliette and Stephen Macken from Derrydonnell where Apple are to open a new data centre
Butcher Richard Brady from Athenry
Athenry
Sign on The Claymore on North Gate Street, Athenry
Anne Keary, principal of Lisheenkyle NS, Derrydonnell, Co. Galway
John Meagher

John Meagher

Richard Brady could barely believe his ears on Monday morning when he switched on the radio news. Apple - the world's most profitable company and the maker of the ubiquitous iPhone - would be coming to Athenry.

The butcher was stunned to hear that the California-based firm would be investing some €850m in a data centre to be built on a 500-acre site just outside the town.

"It's all anyone here can talk about," he says, some 24 hours after the news broke. "Nobody saw this coming - it was completely out of the blue. But it's great news - a lot of jobs will be created in construction, maintenance and who knows what?"

A hundred metres up Old Church Street, and Declan Rooney is similarly jubilant. "It's the best thing that could have happened to Athenry," the menswear shop owner says. "The town had suffered badly in the recession and this gives the place a huge boost. I can't see any negative with it, really."

Just around the corner, on North Gate Street with its striking Norman arch (an ancient gateway to the town), the scars of the downturn are writ large. Several shops have lain vacant for years and there's a distinctly shabby feel to what was once one of the jewels in the Athenry crown.

"It's really sad to see the street in such a state," says local Fine Gael councillor Peter Feeney, pointing to an idle building that used to house a popular newsagents. "But towns all over Ireland would have found the recession particularly tough and while we keep hearing about how things have picked up in Dublin, it's a very different story in places like this."

Athenry's proximity to Galway - just 15 minutes away on motorway or rail line - played a part in the town's slow, steady decline. Where once there were 28 pubs in Athenry, now there are eight - young people, especially, eschew the local for the lure of a city famed for its bars and night life.

Just 20 years ago it was a town of 1,600 people with a GAA club that punched way above its weight. Now 4,000 people live there, many of them forced out of Galway city during rapidly rising house prices in the boom. But, as one "born and bred" local puts it, "until they have children, these people don't have any emotional connection to Athenry - it's just a place to live that's close to Galway." The GAA club, incidentally, is experiencing lean times.

"In some ways Athenry has picked up," Richard Brady says, "because people have a bit more money in their pockets but being close to Galway means people will still go there to do some of their shopping and they go there to socialise."

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That Apple will bring 300 construction jobs to this depressed part of east Galway is especially good news for those who had come to rely on the building sector during the boom years.

"A lot of part-time farmers in the area will be very pleased with the news," says Joe Healy, a local dairy farmer and former president of Macra na Feirme. "They'll be hoping there's work there for them. The scale of it is remarkable, so there's a sense that it won't be just a few months of building work, but years."

Even by Apple's gargantuan standards, the data centre at Athenry will be enormous. Roofed buildings will cover an estimated 40 acres alone and construction work will take at least 15 years. The company is promising to plant 100 acres of indigenous trees and there will be nature trails and walkways.

Anne Keary, who has been principal of Lisheenkyle National School for the past 32 years, is enthused about the arrival of the US giant. Her school sits next to the Derrydonnell woods where Apple will build their facility, and it was here that Apple held an information meeting for residents on Monday night. "They are promising a clean, green facility and they say they take their environmental responsibility very seriously," she says. "And we've been promised that our seomra coille (woodland classroom) "at the edge of the woods will be left intact.

"It's the sort of investment," she adds, "that can really revive a town like this and I think the general mood here is one of great excitement." Not everybody is enamoured by the prospect of such a sweeping development, though. A local resident, whose house backs on to the woods, is concerned for the quality of life of herself and her neighbours.

"Of course it's great for Athenry from an economic point of view - how could it not be? - but you would have to wonder just how disruptive all that work will be for those who live out here," she says. "They're talking about year upon year of construction. What about all the lorries they'll need? What about noise levels?"

It's estimated that when the first phase is up and running, some 100 permanent jobs will be created. But Cllr Feeney points out that many more ancillary roles are likely to come on stream. "They'll need maintenance people, security personnel, gardeners - all kinds of workers.

"And the very fact that this will be such a huge operation, covering such a large amount of land, indicates that Apple are here for the long haul. That's very comforting for local people."

Residents in hard-pressed towns up and down the country must have wondered how Athenry could secure such blue-chip investment, and it seems as though there was nothing accidental about its attraction for Apple's decision-makers.

While the town haemorrhaged shops and services to Galway city, especially when the M6 motorway was opened, it was this very motorway that was among the factors to make Athenry such an attractive site, according to Cllr Feeney.

"You can be at Dublin Airport in less than two hours from here - and not have to break the speed limit," he says. "When the Sligo-Limerick motorway, which passes very close to here, is completed, it will mean people will be able to get from Shannon Airport to the Derrydonnell site in just 40 minutes.

"We're close to a vibrant city with two universities and a young, educated population. And then the Derrydonnell site [owned by state forest agency Coillte] was available." It effectively meant the stars were in alignment for Athenry.

With so much direct foreign investment centred around Dublin and its hinterland, Apple to Athenry felt like victory for the Ireland that sits west of the Shannon.

But on the very same day, other Irish towns must have felt that Lady Luck was not smiling on them when Bus Éireann announced that it was axing some of the services it offers places like New Ross, Co Wexford, due to lack of demand.

For Seamus Boland, chairman of the Irish Rural Link lobby, it's yet another example about how parts of the country outside the major urban centres are being allowed to decay. "Bus Éireann is supposed to be a public service company, and this decision flies in the face of that," he says. "The one-size-fits-all model doesn't work - if there isn't demand for a 45-seater coach, offer something smaller."

For Boland, it's part of the decline that's being accelerated by the closure of garda stations, post offices, banks and other essential services. "People understand that Dublin is the engine of the economy and if Ireland is to come out of recession, Dublin has to lead the way. But that doesn't mean that the rest of the country should get neglected."

The notion of a two-tier Ireland was thrown into sharp relief again this week with reports that mortgage arrears are most acute in the ­midlands and the border counties. And St Vincent de Paul's annual poverty research has highlighted the hardship in counties like Donegal since recession.

On Wednesday, the IDA announced an ambitious new strategy, Winning: Foreign Direct Investment, which aims to create 80,000 jobs nationwide over the next five years. It is pledging to boost the level of investment in each region outside Dublin by between 30pc and 40pc.

But such plans have been made before. "There was a lot of talk about investment in my local area - the ATM [Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar]," Seamus Boland says, "but the recession happened and it was put on the back burner.

"There is so much potential in rural Ireland, particularly where there are a cluster of towns, but the infrastructure has to be put in place - especially broadband. At the moment, the broadband capability in many parts of the country is laughably below par and businesses are struggling to function properly."

Ironically, considering the imminent arrival of tech's most garlanded name, broadband in Athenry is notoriously patchy and those using the internet on Apple's flagship products, iPhones and iPads, likely to experience frustrating delays.

Meanwhile, Susan Dooley is optimistic about Athenry's future. A gift shop entrepreneur, she opened for business three months ago in the centre of town and senses that local people are now keen to support local business. "Not everyone wants to go in to Galway to do their shopping," she says.

"With businesses closing here in recent years, there's a realisation that if you want these shops and services to survive, you have to support them.

"I think it's great that Apple are going to put Athenry on the map. Who knows what other company might come here on the back of it too. With so much doom and gloom over the past few years, it's great to wake up one morning to really good news. Long may it continue."

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