Saturday 16 November 2019

The End of Austerity: Ireland's boom towns

Irish towns like Clifden, Tralee, Carlingford, and Kilkenny city, are thriving

MARBLE CITY: Traders say business has picked up in the farmers’ market in Kilkenny recently. Photo: Tony Gavin
MARBLE CITY: Traders say business has picked up in the farmers’ market in Kilkenny recently. Photo: Tony Gavin
Aisling Ni Cheallaigh, Fidget Feet performing at the opening of the 37th Clifden Arts Festival. Photo: Andrew Downes

Irish towns like Clifden, Tralee, Carlingford, and Kilkenny city, are thriving. Here's how:

Case study: Carlingford

Bumper Easter leads to worst traffic jam in years, says Elaine Keogh.

Nestled between Slieve Foy mountain and Carlingford Lough, the medieval village of Carlingford in County Louth has managed to weather the recession well and is now cashing in on recovery.

The secret is a year-round tourism offering that is not dependent on the sun shining .

"When I opened here 30 years ago, I was the only restaurant, now there are 17," said Harry Jordan, proprietor of the Oystercatcher Bistro, and yes, the menu features seafood including oysters from Carlingford Lough.

The village has retained its 'small village' feel and ambiance, despite the construction of many holiday homes during the property boom.

While not everyone is happy at its popularity in recent years as a destination for hen and stag parties, the village has a strong tourism industry.

It is estimated that 350 locals have tourism-related work all year round and that could be increased after the opening of the world's first underground leprechaun cave.

The cavern is used by 236 'little people' to travel, unseen, to and from their home on nearby Slieve Foy mountain.

The cave and two adjoining tunnels were discovered by Carlingford native and self-proclaimed leprechaun whisperer Kevin Woods after acting on information given to him by the leprechauns.

The annual leprechaun hunt on Slieve Foy mountain attracted some 1,900 people last month and the attraction is regularly listed as the most popular place to visit on the TripAdvisor page for Louth.

The council recently completed a 9km cycle and walkway from Carlingford to Omeath, another village further north on the coast road to Newry. 'The Greenway' runs along the old railway track between the villages. Council staff suggested we create it while we were laying a new water main," a council spokesman said.

Carlingford's charm seems to ensure that every visitor wants to return and the Easter holiday sunshine brought more than the usual crowds to the village. "We had the worst traffic in 20 years here on Easter Sunday. The coaches were backed up as if they were going to the Slane concert. The locals were still happy though," one local man said.

Case Study: Kilkenny

The Marble City has weathered the storm and with major  investment on the way, the city looks set to prosper,  says Gemma Fullam

If hen parties are a bell weather for economic recovery, then things are looking up for Kilkenny. Gaggles of visiting bunny-eared women were once a commonplace sight, but the recession saw them peter out.

Eddie O'Dwyer and James Doran own the Kilkenny Activity Centre on New Orchard Road. "Hen parties are big. They're up a lot on last year. We now need two or three more part-time staff at the weekends than 2014," Eddie said. He is confident for the future. "The fear factor is gone."

John Hurley, CEO of Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce, is more cautiously optimistic. "There's general positivity, definitely more money going around, but there are a number of businesses, particularly in retail, that have not seen a significant upturn yet. But the confidence is coming."

Kathleen Moran, director of Kilkenny Design Centre, which has been in business for over 25 years and employs 40 people, says innovation has been the key to their survival.

"We opened two new businesses within our business; the Food Hall downstairs, and Anocht, our fine-dining evening restaurant. That's been growing steadily, so we are very pleased with that.

"The last four years have been very difficult for all independent retailers in Kilkenny. I think now there is beginning to be a good gradual improvement, rather than a dramatic change. Kilkenny is very lucky because we have a beautiful environment. We have the accommodation, the restaurants and the nice festivals and I think it all works quite well together. We have kept our quality standards and I think that's probably helped as well."

Despite being festival central, the Marble City hasn't seen the same boom in bed occupancy as other cities.

"In Kilkenny, occupancy has increased 2.4pc for the first three months of the year. Limerick has seen something like a 20pc increase. At times of peak demand, yes, we've seen an increase in our rate, but the other six days we haven't," said Colin Ahern, general manager of the Kilkenny Ormonde Hotel and chairperson of Kilkenny Tourism

"For the last five or six years, we've seen absolutely no increase in our food and beverage. There are green shoots, there's no point in me saying there's not. We've started to see more domestic travellers, but international hasn't kicked in yet. Everyone's talking about the value of the dollar, but we're probably not going to see that until next summer."

Chocolatier Ellana Moylan has noticed business pick up at the farmers' market, where she works for the Truffle Fairy on their stall, selling chocolates and artisan foods. "It has been mental since Patrick's Day. Easter was crazy for us. The chocolate is booming."

John Hurley is enthused about the city's future: "The most significant single story we've had is the plan to develop the 14-acre former Brewery site and, in particular, the use of the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund. I've heard potentially in the region of €200m. The fact we're now going to have this investment makes an even stronger case for Kilkenny as a place to work, live and base a business in."

Case study: Clifden

Clifden may be isolated but festivals draw visitors, writes Caroline Crawford

Clifden in Connemara has proved a massive success story when it comes to retaining tourists.

The west of Ireland town, in the far reaches of Connemara, has seen tourist numbers stay steady throughout the recession.

One reason is the frequent festivals held throughout the year in the thriving destination.

This weekend will bring big crowds to the sixth annual Clifden Traditional Music Festival.

Marie Walsh, the chairperson of the festival, said they had purposely chosen to hold it during the off-peak season to entice more visitors to the town.

"We always have it either the weekend before or after Easter, which wouldn't be traditionally busy weekends.

"It's very important when you are having a festival that it is not just about yourself. It has to work for the entire town, and if you are asking businesses for some sponsorship, you want to see it work for them also.

"We have some members of the committee who would be involved in a lot of activities in the town and would be very forward-thinking when it comes to these things," she said.

"We have seen the festival increase in numbers year on year and this weekend, Clifden is at full capacity. It's great to see things like this prove a boost in tourism," she added.

However, according to Ronan Fahy, general manager of the Clifden Stationhouse Hotel, it's a constant battle to entice tourists to the remote spot in the winter.

"Summers are good, but the winters are tricky. We do have to do a lot of deals. We're hoping the Wild Atlantic Way will extend our season out, but we can never be complacent about the winter. It's hard going but it comes down to heads on beds.

"We offer deals and we try and watch our costs as best we can," he said.

Not to rest on its laurels, Failte Ireland also has significant plans for promoting the town as part of the Wild Atlantic Way.

It plans to make Derrygimlagh, just outside the town, one of its signature points on the route.

According to Fiona Monaghan, Failte Ireland's head of the Wild Atlantic Way: "Works will commence shortly to develop the Signature Point at Derrygimlagh, which boasts two of the best technological innovations of the 19th century, namely, the Marconi Transatlantic Wireless Station and the landing site of the first transatlantic flight by Alcock and Brown."

Case Study: Tralee

Civic spirit boosted town down on  its luck, writes  Majella O'Sullivan

The recession battered Tralee.Unemployment spiralled out of control and vacant shops were an ugly blight on the townscape. Tralee looked, and felt, depressed. It was clear by 2011 that the principal town in the Kingdom was hit harder by the downturn than the tourist hotspots of Killarney, Dingle and Kenmare.

It was time to take action and fight back. Four years ago, the Tralee Task Force gathered all the key agencies, interest groups and local organisations, including the town council, Tralee Chamber of Commerce, local tidy towns and other groups.

The Tralee Chamber Alliance was formed and each organisation was invited to nominate a member to the board of directors. Its mission statement was simply: "Leading growth, fostering pride" and the aim was to make Tralee a better place to live, work and visit.

Since then the town has made enormous strides.

Last year, it won a gold medal in the Entente Florale and the special President's Award for its community garden at Tobar Naofa.

Over the last two years, Tralee has won gold medals in the Tidy Towns competition and improved its tourism offering.

Tralee is now listed as one of the top 10 destinations in Ireland by TripAdvisor and was voted one of the best places to retire by Market Watch USA and US News.

The town has also embraced cafe culture and the town centre is replete with a wide choice of places to eat and drink, conveniently mapped out for visitors in the Dining in Tralee booklet.

Best known for its Rose of Tralee International Festival, the town also hosted 17 other festivals last year.

This month, two new hotels are opening in the town centre - the Ashe Hotel and Benners - with the creation of 80 new jobs.

Chief executive of the Tralee Chamber Alliance Kieran Rutledge says job creation is still a priority.

"We have been an unemployment black spot and while there are a number of vacancies in the higher end of the technology industry at Kerry Technology Park, we've been lobbying the IDA for jobs that fit the unemployment category that we've got," he said. An advance manufacturing facility is now going through the planning process, holding out the prospect of 200 more jobs.

The chamber alliance has published Tralee: a business destination, which will be distributed through the 72 Rose Centres worldwide and through government agencies via Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan. It lays out what the town has to offer as a place to live and work.

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