Sunday 24 March 2019

'Someone shouted stop!' - How this rural Ireland town underwent a remarkable transformation

Rural Ireland is not dying. Once again it is changing and adapting to a new world, writes Wayne O'Connor

PLACES IN THE HEART: Gerry Healy with writer Wayne O’Connor in
Charlestown. Photo : Keith Heneghan
PLACES IN THE HEART: Gerry Healy with writer Wayne O’Connor in Charlestown. Photo : Keith Heneghan

In his searing polemic on the sad state of his native place published 50 years ago this summer, John Healy bitterly lamented the flight of people from Co Mayo.

"We in Charlestown saw only our own Auschwitz-like trains of dumb emigrants going, but what of the men of Church and State in Dublin who saw a monstrous multiplication of those train-loads pulling in and vomiting their pitiful cargoes into ships at Dun Laoghaire and the North Wall and who stood aside, busily talking about our ancient heritage and our fourth green field."

Healy's cri de coeur No One Shouted Stop! (Death of an Irish Town) was not well received by the people of Charlestown. His brother Gerard, who lived and still lives in the town, didn't venture into the pub for six months, lest he be accosted by someone railing against the "shaming" of Charlestown.

But Healy spoke an essential truth. The emigrants left behind an abandoned Charlestown and it was left to decay. Shops were left empty, the local cinema was forced to shut and the local population plummeted year-on-year. Charlestown became a symbol of what was wrong with Ireland.

Healy originally wanted to name his account of rural decline ''No One Shouted Stop'' but the publishers preferred ''Death of an Irish Village''. Healy requested the 'Village' in the title be changed to ''Town'' for fear he "needn't go home".

It appears someone has shouted stop.

Inside Mahon’s shop, which has been on the same site for 50 years. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Inside Mahon’s shop, which has been on the same site for 50 years. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Since 1968, Charlestown has seen a remarkable transformation. Its population has more than doubled to 1,033, and while the trains no longer pass through the station that carried so many locals on the first leg of a journey to new lives in London and New York, the town has an international airport on its doorstep and a working population.

Crucially, the town is located at an intersection between the N17, linking the Atlantic corridor, and the N5, the main road between Dublin and Westport. It is the crossroads to the west. Both roads bring consistent traffic to the area and a newly constructed bypass has served the town well, helping to improve access to the area. The bypass is named after Healy, the man credited with highlighting the mass emigration and unemployment that previously decimated the region.

Knock, and an impending Papal visit, is 20km to the south and a history associated with WB Yeats lies north of Charlestown. Both offer tourist bounties that could be reaped further in the coming years.

The town that was once a symbol of social and economic decline beyond the pale seems in rude health. It serves as a residential hub for other bigger towns nearby.

Members of the Charlestown Athletic Football Club. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Members of the Charlestown Athletic Football Club. Photo: Keith Heneghan

Castlebar, half an hour away, is home to a general hospital, a Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology campus and major retail outlets. Ballina is an extra 10 minutes away and houses a Department of Rural Community Development offices that provides key jobs. Many choose to do their shopping when going to and from work but still access the services provided in Charlestown.

"You can't get a haircut online or expect to get fresh bread brought to the door daily so people will have a need for local services in small towns if they are provided efficiently," explains economist Jim Power.

Charlestown's streets are dotted with empty retail and residential units but the businesses that are there appeared to be doing well when the Sunday Independent visited last week.

There are eight pubs in the area but the locals bemoan the fact there used to be more than 40. Among them are a smattering of hairdressers, barbers, two pharmacies, a handful of restaurants, a hardware shop and signs of disposable income.

Kitty Walsh and her daughter Ann. Photo : Keith Heneghan
Kitty Walsh and her daughter Ann. Photo : Keith Heneghan

There are petrol stations with sizeable shops on the main approaches to the town and in the town centre is Mahon's Spar.

There was a queue for coffees at a cafe on the Square as local builders tucked into their Irish breakfasts. The shops also have a consistent stream of people passing through.

There is no sign of decline now. The area is also well kept. Shop fronts are painted and considerable community efforts have been made to present the town in a positive light.

Gerard still remembers the local angst that greeted publication of his brother's book in 1968.

"I had a good friend at the time and he refused to talk to me for eight years over it," he said. "I was afraid to go for a pint for six months."

We chat to Gerard in a sunroom inside his front door. His 50-year-old copy of Death of an Irish Town rests on the coffee table and he is surrounded by photographs of his grandchildren and three sons. Two live in Charlestown with one working locally and the other teaching 20km away in Co Roscommon. His third son is in the US. He says this is typical of any family in the area. Among the photographs hanging on the wall is a picture of John, who died in 1991, gazing into the distance.

His eye-line is directed towards the centre of Charlestown, as if he is overlooking the town.

"John would be disappointed," Gerard says of Charlestown's progress since 1968.

Gerard still has the same concerns about Charlestown. He bemoans a lack of a major industry creating employment, spin-off jobs and bringing money into the area, saying the town is too reliant on Knock Airport. It provides employment to 175 locals and supports another 900 jobs in the west.

A staunch Fine Gael supporter, he expected more from fellow Mayoman Enda Kenny when he became Taoiseach in 2011. Kenny famously said Mayo people were All Ireland Champion whingers in the run-up to the last election.

"He's probably right," Gerard admits with a laugh.

"It was fair but Enda let the people of rural Ireland down [Kenny's 2016 campaign bombed with the promise to 'keep the recovery going' rubbished in rural areas outside of Dublin that felt they were playing second-fiddle to the capital]. I was very disappointed with him.

"Now, with Leo [Varadkar], we don't know much about him and I wonder does he know about us at all?"

Mahon's shop has had a presence in the town for more than 70 years. The current shop opened in 1968, the year John Healy lamented Charlestown's demise. It celebrated its 50th year on Main Street last Friday.

Aine Mahon explained; "My husband John used to drive a shop van around the area selling bits and we had a smaller shop as well but it was very different to what we have here today.

"I'm 80 years old now so my son is running the shop with his wife Mary.

"People didn't travel out of town as much then as they do now," she adds.

Daughter-in-law Mary agrees; "The shop could be doing better. People are living here but their lives are somewhere else. They are settled here but they might work in Castlebar or Westport.

"It is progressive in one respect, because people have three cars in the driveway. But people used to be coming into town all the time before and you don't have that anymore. You see it with the older generation but the younger generation coming up wouldn't have the same ties to the community."

Local councillor Gerry Murray recognises the role towns play in modern life is changing and Charlestown will have to adapt too.

"Retail-wise, people are shopping differently. You have the big multiples for a start and then you have online. But in that context places in the UK like Manchester and London are going to lose up to 40pc of their retail space in the next 10 years. It is something everywhere must deal with."

Someone may not have shouted stop before John Healy lamented the death of rural Ireland but people there have since learned how to change and they will adapt again.

Jim Power says a lack of industry in Ireland's rural towns is not necessarily a bad thing in a shrinking world.

"People have to accept the days of having the clothes shop, the shoe shop and the big electrical retailer in every town have gone.

"As a consequence, the future of these towns has to be driven by trying to get people to come back to them to live there. As long as they are doing that there is a certain type of retail offering that will survive with that, the likes of hairdressers, cafes, stuff like that.

"It's not necessarily good or bad but there is an inevitability about it.

"The notion that every small town in Ireland can have an IDA factory employing 200 or 300 people doesn't make sense. What the smaller towns have got to become is commuter towns for regional towns and cities where the employment is.

"People don't see travelling 20 miles on rural roads as a problem now to the nearest big town."

Sunday Independent

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