Farm Ireland

Sunday 21 April 2019

After losing five shops, three pubs and the post office, how this rural community is revitalising itself

Ballyhale Shamrocks players celebrate with the cup
Ballyhale Shamrocks players celebrate with the cup
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

"I have seen rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." With these rousing words, the world was introduced to 'The Boss' in 1974.

Recently, I was struck by a similar feeling, regarding the future of rural Ireland, when I visited Billy's Tea Rooms and Shop in Ballyhale, Co Kilkenny.

Driving into the village on a dreary March morning, it looks little different to numerous struggling settlements across the country.

Albeit with one notable exception: the famous white and green bunting of Ballyhale Shamrocks, the most successful club in the history of the All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship.

It is easy to pick out Billy's, because there are lots of cars parked outside, with few elsewhere.

The place is humming with soft country chat and the gentle rattle of mid-morning cutlery and delph. The décor is bright and cheerful. The furniture is not perfectly matched. The staff are wearing their own aprons.

I have visited a number of such ventures but this seems to be an ideal mix of old and new, of rustic and urbane.

On the shop shelves, there's Batchelors mushy peas, Kelloggs Cornflakes, Chef brown sauce and Chivers strawberry jam alongside penne pasta and olive oil. But there are also lots of artisan foods, with emphasis on the local, including several award- winning Mileeven and Highbank Orchards products.

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Home baking is a bridge between the past and the present, with apples tarts and boiled fruit cake alongside chocolate biscuit cake.

The overall affect is one of homeliness. There is a coat stand but it's the kind of place where people tend to hang their coats on the back of their chairs.

Out of respect, or possibly the instruction of a companion, a farmer had dropped his coat, bearing signs of a recent encounter with manure, on a 10kg bag of spuds.

Someone obviously recognised that business might get slack after lunch, so they offer afternoon tea, for €12.50 per person.

As usual for such ventures, prices are reasonable.

The Full Irish is €8, or you could have crepes for €3.50. A tea or coffee with a cake is a fiver. I had the carrot cake and it was delicious. Most of the baking is done on site. Home-made soup with brown bread is €4, with a range of teas and coffees from €2.

Refills cost €1 but, it being International Women's Day, they were free to all female customers. The euro is very fair and the 'free' bit was a nice touch.

There are lots of nice touches. The first lady I called to take my order was momentarily busy. Another appeared instantly. When the first lady returned to check on me, she touched me gently on the arm, as your mammy might.

The building itself dates back to the 19th century and was an estate gatehouse. The last person to live in it was Billy Kiely, hence the name.

In recent years, Ballyhale has lost five shops, three pubs, the post office and numerous other businesses.

In 2015, the community came together to take action to revitalise the area. A committee came up with the proposal of a tea rooms and shop, to be run by the community for the benefit of the community.

Billy's opened last July and has already won a number of community awards, also attracting visitors from afar and many from closer to home who are exploring similar ventures.

If location, location, location is the golden rule of business, I suggest that, in terms of rescuing rural Ireland, the motto has to be Community, Community, Community.

Thus, I would urge government and any relevant agencies to do everything possible, both practically and financially, to help communities who are trying to get such ventures off the ground.

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