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Saturday 16 December 2017

Community spirit is still at the heart of everything in Ireland's tidiest town

Eoghan Flynn (11) and Abigale Bates (10), both from fifth class at Birdhill NS, find a slug at their school’s nature garden. Photo: Frank McGrath
Eoghan Flynn (11) and Abigale Bates (10), both from fifth class at Birdhill NS, find a slug at their school’s nature garden. Photo: Frank McGrath
Breda Heffernan

Breda Heffernan

The rain came down in sheets - Biblical, incessant rain, not of the 'soft' variety - and the leaden clouds hanging low over the Shannon just promised more of the same.

Yet, even in the midst of a miserable day, there is no mistaking just how beautiful Birdhill is. Newly crowned Ireland's Tidiest Town, the tiny hamlet on the Limerick/Tipperary border is more than just picture postcard attractive, with heaving flowerbeds and neatly trimmed lawns. The community is at the beating heart of this village.

"We're a little gem. You can say we're in the middle of nowhere. But we're a big cog in the wheel here," explained Anne Barry, a "blow-in" originally from Kenmare who has made Birdhill her home for the last 40 years.

Anne is a member of the Birdhill Tidy Town committee. In a village with just 45 inhabitants and another 300 in the surrounding area, the committee has no fewer than 17 members, with another 30 or 40 who chip in when needed.

Birdhill is blink-and-you'll-miss-it small, two pubs - The Coopers and Matt The Thresher - and no shop or post office. But it does boast a Barista Training Academy, housed in what was once the Garda station, and its former telephone box has been transformed into an information office and mini-library.

Meanwhile, newcomers get a 'Welcome to Birdhill' card in their letterbox wishing them happiness in their new home and community.

Members of the hard-working Birdhill Tidy Towns committee, Anne and Paddy Barry, with chairman Denis Floyd and Michael Kelly. Photo: Frank McGrath
Members of the hard-working Birdhill Tidy Towns committee, Anne and Paddy Barry, with chairman Denis Floyd and Michael Kelly. Photo: Frank McGrath

Arguably the village's defining moment came in 2010 with the opening of the M7 motorway. While some communities bemoan a bypass, for Birdhill it returned the village to its inhabitants. Where once it could take 10 minutes to find a break in the speeding Limerick to Dublin traffic to cross the road, now it is serene.

Retired school principal Denis Floyd can trace his family's roots in Birdhill back 200 years.

"Most people travel to Limerick, Nenagh or Shannon for work. We used to have heavy traffic years ago but now it is quiet," said Denis who is chairman of the local Tidy Towns committee.

The village railway station, 150 years old, is on the Limerick-Ballybrophy line and has three services a day in each direction and allows for connections to Dublin. However, locals worry that this important service may be axed by Irish Rail in its cost-cutting plans.

But unlike other rural villages, this place is thriving, a key indicator being the steadily rising enrolment in the local primary school. "When I began here in 2004 there was just the principal and two teachers. With every year our numbers have just gone up and up. We now have 160 pupils and there are nine on our staff," said acting principal of Birdhill National School Miriam Kennedy.

"The one thing I'll say about Birdhill is it's all about the community spirit."

Things are also looking up for business in the village, with hopes for a tourism boost thanks to last week's Tidy Towns win.

Nine months ago Charlotte Lyons and her husband Jimmy took over the ownership of Matt The Thresher from her parents Ted and Kay Moynihan, who retired after 32 years running the popular pub. She splits her time between Dublin, where she also owns the Matt The Thresher on Lower Pembroke Street, and Birdhill, two more different locations you cannot find.

The pub has gone through some tough times - the opening of the motorway saw the family lose "50pc of the business overnight".

However, Charlotte is confident about the future and business is up 30pc since the start of the year. "I think this is very nostalgic for me...I adore coming down here and the locals have been amazing," she said.

Irish Independent

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