Saturday 24 March 2018

Creative approach to putting a provincial town back on its feet

An innovative scheme seeks the help of local people to restore the pride in beleaguered Carlow, writes John Masterson

Niamh McCann's 'Just Left of Copernicus' exhibition at the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow. Photo: Aisling McCoy
Niamh McCann's 'Just Left of Copernicus' exhibition at the Visual Centre for Contemporary Art, Carlow. Photo: Aisling McCoy

John Masterson

Think of Carlow and a few images come to my mind. One of the best inland golf courses in the country with that great view from the eighth tee. There is the Potato Market where I enjoyed the Taste of Carlow. There is a great cinema complex and it is only 25 minutes from Kilkenny. And I was over in Visual Carlow twice recently... once to see Mikel Murfi doing his magical I Hear you and Rejoice and also to see John McKenna's wonderful Leonard Cohen night.

Carlow IT is flourishing and on the way to becoming a technological university.

Lots of positive vibes there. But I don't live there I am told by Carlovians.

Carlow, like many provincial towns, has been hammered in recent years. Braun went. The Sugar factory left a huge gap. I have nothing against charity shops but when you see too many of them in the streets, you know retail is in trouble.

Carlow is far from unique among Irish towns in having a look of the better days being behind it.

What does a provincial town need to be to get back on its feet?

"It needs to be innovative," say Anne Mulrooney, of Visual Carlow, who is heading up a team aiming to put the pride back in Carlow as it struggles back from the blows it has suffered. "We want to create a new vision of Carlow as a place to live and work, and we want it to have a unique Carlow feel given to us by Carlow people. That is why we have brought in Studio Weave for Heritage Week beginning on August 19th."

Studio Weave is a London architecture practice with a difference. A multi-national, multi-talented team work around the world and develop methods to engage local communities in participative planning. Some years back in Bridge Street in Callan, Co Kilkenny, they used a mixture of theatre, painting, furniture making and closing the street in the evenings to involve the locals in completely transforming what was once the main commercial street in Callan.

"My Carlow" has been adopted as one of Carlow's key Creative Ireland projects this year. From bitter experience many town planners have found that when you ask people what they would like to see in their town you do not get very helpful answers. Efforts at consultation do not have a great track record. People are, however, only too happy to complain and say that they were not consulted when they see change they do not like. Hence the creative approach of Studio Weave.

"Studio Weave work by arranging events that attract people. There will be workshops, games, theatre, pop up shops, storytelling and story making sessions and many other activities. A timeline of 6,000 years of history will be compiled. Carlow was the capital of Ireland in the 14th century apparently," says Anne Mulrooney

"And while people are engaged in these activities the Story Weave team are probing and listening to find out how people see their town and what they would like to see. As a way of enabling people to have their say, and ensuring that they do participate and have their say, it has worked all over the world."

This imaginative project, funded by the Heritage Council, is being enthusiastically supported by Carlow County Council, IT Carlow, Carlow Chamber of Commerce and Carlow PPN, all of whom are want to take part in this plan to properly engage Carlovians from Carlow and wherever they happen to be to make their views known.

So what Carlow people need to do is simple. Take part. Make their views known before, instead of after, changes are made in the town. Don't say you weren't asked !

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