Wednesday 21 August 2019

In Focus: Closures 'nearly destroyed the town' but locals are fighting back


Help: Catherine Greig, the Job Club Coordinator in Birr. Photo: Ger Rogers Photography
Help: Catherine Greig, the Job Club Coordinator in Birr. Photo: Ger Rogers Photography

Nicola Anderson in Birr

Hot air balloons are scheduled to take off from Birr, Co Offaly - but strong winds and rain have put a spanner in the works.

The drizzle has descended on the town, and on the main streets the shop fronts of the elegant Georgian buildings tell a tale of hardship and struggle.

Birr has been hit by a succession of financial blows. Just last year, Nanoclean, an industrial cleaning service based in the Syngefield Industrial Estate in the town, closed with the loss of 36 jobs. The year before that, bookmaker Hacketts shut its doors.

In 2013, Cavanagh Foundry, now called EJ, shed 32 jobs - but has since gone on to re-expand in better times. But going back even further, the town was badly hit when cable manufacturer Leoni Ireland closed its factory with the loss of 55 jobs.

"That was the big one," says Catherine Grieg. "That nearly destroyed the town."

Co-ordinator of the local Job Club run by Offaly Local Development Company and funded by Government agencies, Catherine says 10 to 15 people attend their workshops at any one time.

They help people with training to look for jobs themselves, teaching them interview skills, CV preparation and give them access to printing, stamps and envelopes.

They also train them in CPR and first-aid skills so workers are instantly more employable. They also sometimes give food safety training - "if we can access funding", adds Catherine.

"It's a lot about confidence-building - a lot of people are very highly skilled and had jobs in the past and never thought they would need a service like this," she says.

"They're sitting up straighter after a week and saying 'I can do this'."

Of those who lost employment in the high-profile closures, she says most have retrained and have found jobs.

Some went back to retrain in health care, working in nursing homes and in the home as carers.

Others have set up their own businesses, she says, revealing that one former construction worker who used to train dogs on the side as a hobby went on to open his own kennels.

"He absolutely loves it and he's doing it in his own home," she says.

Slightly outside the town square is the most elegant 'men's shed' that ever graced a town. Built in cut stone in memory of a son of the Second Earl of Rosse who passed away in the 1800s, and subsequently used as a district court, it is currently used as a workshop for various crafty projects.

Frank Gallagher is inside, painting a picture of the Brendan Voyage which, he explains, is for the Tidy Towns. "I like to keep busy," he says. The town has several new additions bringing employment - with Supermacs opening up just a month ago, while 140-year-old Cork company Atkins Farm Machinery, which has a dealership for premium German Fendt tractors and machinery, opened up a year ago. "The business is tough but good," says branch manager Trevor Richardson. "I haven't come across anyone in 12 months who was at their wits' end financially."

But butcher Paul Boyd, at John Dwyer on the main street, admits that he has concerns. "When the recession hit, people were eating at home more and so they were buying more meat. Now they're eating out more," he says. And the summer heatwave saw increased sales because of barbecues - but then it went on so long that people got fed up of grilled meats.

"It's been a funny year," he says.

Irish Independent

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