Sunday 18 March 2018

Green and red flags fly as Castlebar shows signs of recovery

For some time the Mayo capital has stood in the shadow of Westport, but there are signs of a ­rebirth.

Having a meejum: Michael Baynes and Conor Geraghty at John McHale's Pub in Castlebar. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Having a meejum: Michael Baynes and Conor Geraghty at John McHale's Pub in Castlebar. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Just the tonic: Siobhan Foody is hoping to make Castlebar the gin capital of Ireland
Charlie Haughey
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The excitement on the streets of Castlebar is palpable as the town looks forward to Mayo's semi-final replay against Kerry today.

The streets are adorned with Mayo bunting, flags fly from the buildings down the slope of Castle Street, and the Bronntanas gift shop is doing a roaring trade in green and red wing mirror covers, Mayo caps and fan earrings.

Growing up above the family shop on the main street in the town, the town's tourism officer Michael Baynes remembers the atmosphere in Castlebar in those years when Mayo hoped for All-Ireland glory.

"My mother used to love it, because the kids forgot that they were going back to school - if we were playing in the All-Ireland final."

Castlebar, an inland town whose charms are not always apparent to outsiders, has for long stood in the shadow of Westport, the Mayo tourist magnet with its elegant Georgian streets.

While Michael Ring, Westport's Fine Gael minister, has showered his home patch with new baubles, Castlebar did not enjoy so many benefits under the local leader Enda Kenny, according to his critics - and is only now showing signs of recovery.

When a few malcontents had the effrontery to point out Enda's alleged failure to bring home the bacon, he branded them "All-Ireland champion whingers".

Mayo's biggest town may fail to attract hordes of coach tours, but it has ong been a regional powerbase with an abundance of curiosities.

What other town can boast two taoisigh, Charles Haughey (born in the town where his father served in the Free State army) and Enda, as well as a world-renowned opera singer Margaret Burke Sheridan, and the inventor of the torpedo, Louis Brennan?

Not to mention, the third Earl of Lucan, George Charles Bingham, who gave the order for the most notorious military manoeuvre in history - the Charge of the Light Brigade.

One historian described the Castlebar earl as an intelligent man, almost entirely lacking in common sense.

What he lacked in common sense, he made up for in bloody-minded cruelty as a local landlord in Castlebar. As he evicted thousands of tenants, he declared that he would not "breed paupers to pay priests". It is hardly surprising that he was affectionately known locally as "the great exterminator", and they burned an effigy of him in the town.

From the moment General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert arrived in the town in 1798 with a force of French invaders and declared a grandiose "Republic of Connaught", it has produced a string of colourful figures.

Republic of Connaught

The 'Republic' hardly lasted a week - but the town has maintained an independent streak.

Castlebar even has its own measure of stout, known as the "meejum" - a glass that is filled somewhere between a half pint and a pint.

After a lengthy and exhaustive stroll taking in the sights and sounds of Castlebar, Michael Baynes takes me for sustenance to the home of the meejum, John McHales.

This is the favourite pub of the award-winning Castlebar novelist, Eimear McBride, who has described it as a "real old-boy pub".

The front part of the bar used to be a shop, and regulars sit along the old wooden counter, next to shelves decorated with ancient custard tins, washing soda ads, and snuff containers.

The barman Conor Geraghty told me the origins of Castlebar's unorthodox unit of measurement, the meejum.

One year, when the price of drink was raised, workers from the old bacon factory could no longer afford a pint.

They took a glass of stout instead, but because they didn't want to look unmanly they ordered it in a pint glass.

The publican John McHale topped up this half pint by a considerable amount and the meejum was born. The precise amount is undetermined, and seems to be down to the generosity of a barman or barwoman on a particular day, but it costs €3.30.

Castlebar offers evidence that the notion that the Irish pub is inevitably doomed is a false one.

A number of pubs have closed in the town centre, but others have been revamped and are thriving.

At lunchtime and dinnertime, Bar One on Rush Street is packed with locals and tourists.

Good food has been the key to the survival and success of the pub, according owner Mark Cadden.

Just around the corner, Declan Swift has returned to his hometown to reopen an old bar as a modern pub, Bridge Street. Declan spent 17 years working in bars and restaurants in Dublin, and his pub combines a sleek, modern look with a traditional atmosphere of snugs and dimly-lit corners.

"I find the quality of life is far better here than in Dublin. This pub project drew me back. There is very little room in Dublin for the small guy trying to run a pub business."

As in many other towns, the pubs that are doing well are not just relying on drink to get by. Declan puts on music from early until late - from the Cappuccino sessions in the afternoon through to traditional sessions in the evening - and he also hosts a comedy club.

"I think that a pub has to be more than a place to drink," says Swift. "It has to be a meeting place."

While Enda Kenny has been lambasted in some quarters for not lavishing investment on his home base, the opposite is true of the former Fianna Fáil minister Pádraig Flynn.

Building the N5

If you ask anyone about the development of the town in the 1980s and early 1990s, they will give credit to Flynn, who is as much revered by many locally as he is reviled as a national figure.

"He rebuilt the N5 road into the town, and brought us the new council offices, the new garda station, the fire station," says Michael Baynes.

Before Flynn was minister for environment, the main road to Castlebar was a bumpy, potholed mess that went through every town and village - and a trip to the capital could take most of the day.

When the new road was built under Pee's guidance, it was known locally as the "N Flynn".

While Flynn brought huge infrastructure to the town, some have argued that his clientelist approach to favouring his home patch bred a certain sense of entitlement and complacency in the town.

Castlebar relies heavily on public service jobs, from the county council to various government offices, the hospital, schools and a campus of Galway and Mayo Institute of Technology.

Former councillor Johnny Mee says there is a need for a factory in the town, to add to the jobs at Baxter Healthcare.

More recently, after the battering of the recession, there have been strenuous efforts to promote the town. There are signs of a rebirth, with shops reopening in different guises, and new restaurants. One of the banks that closed has reopened as an entertainment exchange shop for computer games and tech products. Another is a cheap clothing shop.

Siobhan Foody, a local graphic designer, says: "There is a lot of momentum in the town now - with new events happening all the time.

"There are a lot of groups coming together and working together, and this didn't always happen in the past."

"Castlebar has had to try harder than most to promote itself and be more creative, because we wouldn't get the same number of tourists as somewhere like Westport."

Siobhan is organising the Mayo Street Food festival, taking place next month. She is also involved in October's book festival, Wild Atlantic Words.

She came up with the idea to have a Castlebar Gin Trail, which started in June. Up to 15 bars are enabling visitors to take part in this juniper-filled journey, where they sample a different gin in each pub.

"We are hoping to establish Castlebar as the gin capital of Ireland," says Siobhan with a flourish. Why not the gin capital of the world?

Castlebar now also has its own mini-gaeltacht through a scheme known as Oscail an Doras, where shopworkers, and bar and restaurant staff are encouraged to converse with customers in Irish.

Up to 23 shops, restaurants and bars have designated Irish speakers, and most are named in an Oscail and Doras guide, so that those who want to talk the language are able to do so.

The scheme's organiser, Daithí Ó Gallachóir, says: "We launched it last year and we wanted to highlight the fact that we have many Irish speakers in the town. There is also a gaelscoil."

It is not the only the spoken language. There are also Irish signs and messages across the town. At the Thunder Road cafe, they combine an enthusiasm for the cúpla focail with a love of the songs of Bruce Springsteen.

At the entrance to the cafe there is a sign - "Everybody has a hungry heart" - with an Irish message underneath "Tar isteach agus líon do bholg agus do chroí."

Lucan family

The motto of the town is 'Ar Aghaidh' (Forward), but strolling through its streets, one cannot help noticing the Lucan family's influence.

The most famous Lord Lucan, who vanished in 1974, is only believed to have visited Castlebar once when he dropped in with his mother at the convent school at the Lawn where the family once lived (but that was before he did his disappearing act).

The family has left imposing buildings and there is a Lucan Street in the town centre, but the only living remnants of the notorious dynasty in Castlebar are the trees near their old house and along the Mall, which used to be Lord Lucan's cricket pitch.

Castlebar continues to be a money-spinner for the vanished aristocrat's family.

Under old rules of tenancy, the Lucan estate owns the freehold for a large number of Castlebar properties, many of them in the centre of town. Small amounts of ground rents are due on these properties every year - and while these mostly go unpaid, purchasers often buy out the leases when they are acquiring property in the town.

The family may have gone, but they are still part of local legend, with stories of a ghost of one of the lords haunting the local bacon factory in years gone by, and a curse placed on the family by an old woman evicted by Lord Lucan's agents.

For the moment it is a curse of a different type that Mayo will hope to exorcise by beating Kerry today and going on to win in the All-Ireland final in September for the first time since 1951.

If the team succeed where others failed, the flags will be flying on the streets of Castlebar for many weeks to come.

The Mayo Street Food Festival comes to the heart of Castlebar town on Sunday, September 10. There will be Mayo food and drink producers around the market and street food available in the canteen area, prepared by the best local cooks and chefs.


Charlie Haughey

Population: 12,000

Employers: The town relies heavily on public service jobs and major employers include Mayo County Council, Mayo General Hospital, GMIT, and 13 schools. Baxter Healthcare is a significant private employer.

Attractions: Lough Lannagh, the Mall, and the National Museum of Country Life.

Famous sons and daughters: Margaret Burke Sheridan, opera singer; Charles Haughey (above), Taoiseach; Enda Kenny, Taoiseach; Pádraig Flynn, European Commissioner; Ernie O'Malley, IRA commander and author; Louis Brennan, inventor of the torpedo; George Charles Bingham, 3rd Earl of Lucan, landlord and failed military commander.

Photos by Keith Heneghan

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