Saturday 21 April 2018

Town where Easy Street is no more

Once-thriving Nenagh in battle to survive but new plant brings hope

FOR years, the single nightclub in Nenagh was called 'Easy Street'. The locals have heard all the jokes.

As things stand, if every unemployed young adult living in the town and surrounding region -- and no one else -- went to the club next Saturday night, it would be mighty close to its 700-person capacity.

On the face of it and given the national difficulties, 600-plus young adults out of work in one of the major towns of the Mid-West region might not sound like an insurmountable challenge.

But the devil is in the detail.

Although Nenagh is the largest town in north Tipperary, its total population doesn't reach 8,000. That's why there is only one nightclub. And it's why, suddenly, that figure of 600-plus people aged under 25 but unemployed is so arresting.

Frank Foley (19) sat his Leaving Cert last year.

"I finished in CBS last year. I'd say about 30 of my mates are unemployed. Five from school got jobs, maybe another five went to college. I have just giving up hope, there is no point in asking for jobs," Frank said.

"I get €100 a week for signing on. How can you live on that? There is no job for me in this country and I am fairly sick of it. You'd be left fairly disillusioned."

Easy Street, then, is long gone, but the memories linger.

Nenagh came of age in the swinging 1960s. Formerly an agricultural town, the start of mining in the nearby Silvermines region brought employment to hundreds and resulted in new estates popping up across the town and new facilities to support them.

While the silver has long run out, for a long time the town continued to attract various industries and employers.

In this matter, it was helped in no small way by the intense rivalry of two former Fianna Fail ministers. Desperate to secure the hugely significant vote from the town, neither Michael O'Kennedy nor Michael Smith was reticent about pushing Nenagh forward when the opportunity arose throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

It did not go down too well elsewhere in Tipperary North Riding -- or, arguably, elsewhere in the country -- but the two Michaels ploughed on regardless.

There was the decentralisation scheme that saw part of the Revenue Commission relocated. There was a new regional water scheme and a new town sewage system.

There was a new library, fire-station, county council offices -- whatever the requirement, it appeared the Government purse strings were very flexible when it came to the town known as 'a stranger's paradise'.

But more importantly, there was thriving industry.

A decade ago, Aventis and Proctor & Gamble employed almost 800 people in Nenagh. That's more than 10pc of the total population of the town.

But Easy Street is closed.

Aventis has pulled out of north Tipperary and Proctor & Gamble downsized dramatically in 2007, leaving hundreds more jobless. The knock-on effect was catastrophic, with the recession hitting Nenagh when it was already on its knees. The figures are stark.

Just over 3,000 people were signing on the live register in Nenagh in June -- a 200pc increase on unemployment figures in early 2008. Nationally, 13.4pc of the potential workforce are signing on. While not all 3,000 signing on in Nenagh live in the town, it is estimated that well in excess of 20pc of the town's labour force is unemployed.

"Everyone is struggling to survive," Martin Morris, who runs the Hibernian Bar on Pearse Street said.

"I'm employing 10 people. You do everything to keep the show on the road and keep everyone in a job, but there is no comfort zone."

Nenagh has the biggest population and the biggest unemployed population in north Tipperary. The options, especially for young people, would seem stark: emigrate or join the dole queue.

But a town famed for its welcome has high hopes of a new arrival.

Earlier this month, the country's latest bio-technology plant -- HKPB Scientific -- opened at the former Aventis site.

Those behind it are hopeful of one day employing up to 200 people, but HKPB is still very much at the 'small acorn' phase.

Donnacha Haverty, who was educated at Nenagh CBS and has 15 years' experience in science and chemical engineering, is chief executive.

"The company is very much hi-tech and it is important to be based in the Mid-West where there is a ready-made workforce available," he said.

HKPB, which specialises in the manufacturing of medical technologies that have the potential to dramatically reduce health costs for patients and hospitals, is "innovation driven", he said. The smart economy, and all that.

But as we said, it's small acorns just yet. HKPB currently employs eight people as it perfects two technologies which are close to market -- patents pending.

"The first allows us to make a component that is used in bone cements for orthopedic surgery," Mr Haverty said.

The second product is a coating patent that attempts to overcome problems with coatings currently used in orthopedic implant and cardiovascular devices.

"We have just established (in Nenagh)," he said. "We are targeting small customers -- orthopedic companies in Europe. After that, all going well -- worldwide."

He believes "the potential to grow is very significant".

But what about that figure of 200 jobs that is, in some ways, the talk of the town?

"It won't happen overnight, we are talking about over the course of four or five years, but there is a long way to go to get to that stage and like everything else, not all will go to plan," Mr Haverty said.

Nevertheless, Nenagh has enthusiastically embraced the bio-technology plant -- some 200 people sent CVs applying for anything that might be going.

Like everywhere else, people want to work.

And HKPB's arrival is a welcome boost for business people in the town, who are seeking to navigate their way through difficult times.

Local accountant Ger Ryan has been prominent in setting up the 'Nenagh Business Network Group' this year.

"Basically, it's 40 people who work in Nenagh in a variety of fields and industries who are trying to help each other out. We try to generate new leads for each other and see can we do business through mutual interests," Mr Ryan explained.

The network group is entirely driven by members and, unlike many others, is free -- vital at a time when, he admits, businesses in the town are struggling to stay afloat.

"Consumer confidence is hit," he said. "We need indigenous industries. We need a shot of confidence like what HKPB offers."

Ironically, one of the biggest projects under way in the area could be detrimental to its future.

However, town mayor Seamus Morris believes the town by-pass for the M7 Dublin-Limerick motorway is "as much an opportunity as a challenge".

"We hear now about bringing water from the Shannon to Dublin," he said.

"Why not bring people to the water -- let's invest away from the east coast. The infrastructure is here."

'We have been let down by state bodies and I think people realise now that we are out on our own, so let's see what we can do for ourselves," Mr Morris said.

"We are abandoning the national spatial strategy here. The IDA or Shannon Development have not done anything for us so we will have to take care of ourselves now," he added.

But despite the tough economic climate, young college graduates are also taking a chance on the town.

Sandra Twohig and Orla Moynihan run an optician's shop six days a week at Quintin's Way in the town centre.

"In fairness, people in Nenagh are loyal and will support local trade. They have been good to us and we have managed to gain a good customer base, which is helping our turnover," Ms Twohig said.

"The one thing we are learning from the recession is that people do not tend to travel to the cities like Limerick or Cork any more and are trying to help out their local community.

"In general, people in Nenagh are extremely supportive of each other."

The famous US football commentator John Madden -- whom those young adults will know through popular video games -- once said: "The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer."

You have to take the rough to get to the smooth.

The people of Nenagh know they will have to fight together.

Irish Independent

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