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Coolaney's café spirit

Cathal Mullaney chats to those behind Coolaney's Community Café which is set to open later in the summer and also to be the first in Connacht

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Caitriona McGoldrick, secretary, Cafe FIA Co-Operative with architect, James Griffiths, outside the new community café in Coolaney. Pics: Carl Brennan

Caitriona McGoldrick, secretary, Cafe FIA Co-Operative with architect, James Griffiths, outside the new community café in Coolaney. Pics: Carl Brennan

Caitriona McGoldrick, secretary, Cafe FIA Co-Operative with architect, James Griffiths, outside the new community café in Coolaney. Pics: Carl Brennan

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While many may shudder at the thought of the Celtic Tiger and the subsequent bust that followed the boom, the housing that was built during that time in various towns and villages around Sligo has had a lasting, positive influence.

One such village is Coolaney, sitting at the foot of the Ox Mountains.

Situated in a central location within the county, the village and its surrounds has witnessed a major population boom over the last 20 years.

Coolaney's growth has been complimented by a terrific community spirit, and its progress in recent years is the envy of many similar sized areas all around the region.

In recent times, the pioneering Coolaney National Mountain Bike Centre has been established, with significant long-term benefits set to follow, while there has also been the erection of a new astro turf pitch in the village.

These are but two examples of major additions to the locality.

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They will be added to later this summer when the new community cafe opens its doors (Covid-19 restrictions pending) for the first time, and in doing so becoming the first standalone community cafe in Connacht, and the first in Ireland to be built from the ground-up.

Operating since 2016 under the name Cafe Fia - named after the deer who roam the nearby mountains - the community initiative has been a major success, leading to plans, and subsequent action, for a permanent facility.

"This has been a long running project, from pop-up to a permanent cafe and a great community effort to get it along the way," says Joe Fogarty, chairperson of the Coolaney Community Cafe Co-Operative.

"We hear so much of businesses closing and dying out; well Coolaney is bucking that trend."

The potential for a community cafe first became evident at a community meeting in 2016. The idea was greeted with enthusiasm and determination.

Mr Fogarty said: "In 2016, we had a public meeting, and asked could our village, which has a big population and has an awful lot of people like myself who moved in and really didn't have a historical or cultural connection with the place, have a cafe?

"There were so many people in Coolaney that didn't have that tie or connection so we wanted to address that, have a place to sit own and have a coffee and knit the community together."

The knitting started soon after, and a pop-up cafe was established in the local community centre.

Volunteers baked and served customers each weekend - many of the same volunteers are putting their culinary skills to similar use during the current pandemic, providing meals to people who need them via An Garda Síochána - and the reaction was hugely positive.

"We always had a plan from the very first meeting to have something permanent," Mr Fogarty continued.

"You get tired of setting up a community centre and then taking it down again and we knew the facility was needed so we looked around at all the different options and a local architect came in, James Griffiths, a Welsh man, and volunteered to design the build of this really beautiful, modern cafe building. That just really changed everything."

Having sought, and received, support from the likes of the Town and Village Grant Scheme and Sligo Leader, the process was set in train and a permanent facility was soon within reach.

It has advanced to a stage now where they hope to be in a position to open the doors of the new building, located in the community park, later this summer.

Joe says: "Now we are in the finishing stages of Connacht's first standalone community cafe in a really, really attractive modern, bespoke building and it's going to be a landmark in Sligo and a real example to other towns and villages in Ireland, in Connacht particularly."

The establishment of a permanent cafe - which it is envisaged will have full opening hours throughout the week, and will be run by a professional chef or manager - will further enhance the sense of community and togetherness in Coolaney.

"There's a very special atmosphere in a community cafe," Mr Fogarty explained.

"It's different - there are ones down in Tipperary and Kilkenny, but this is the first one in Ireland that is being built from the ground up and is the first standalone one in all of Connacht.

"It really is about community, it's about who you are and a sense of belonging.

"It's not a case of eat up and pay up and go away, it's a hub for the place and people drop in looking for news and giving news.

"People are not anonymous, they're not invisible, they really matter.

"And, as well as the cafe being about the food, it will be top class, but it'll also be maybe a hub for walking clubs, language groups, maybe we could envisage outreach to people with special needs or the elderly.

"It's a real facility for the community and that's why the Covid outreach has been wonderful. Some of our volunteers have been baking and cooking meals through An Garda Síochána for people."

As well as benefiting the local community as intended, the new cafe will also be a major attraction for visitors to the area.

The Sligo Camino, Joe says, has provided a major increase in footfall, while the site of the new cafe is situated close to the old railway line - potentially the route for the proposed Sligo-Mayo Greenway.

"That really inspired us," Joe says of the initial popularity of the pop-up cafe.

"We set it up as Cafe Fia drawing its name from the deer that live in the Ox Mountains around here, we wanted to have a strong sense of identity and place, the gateway of the Ox Mountains.

"This is what Coolaney has, we have the Mountain Bike Centre, we're on the Sligo Greenway, we're on the Sligo Way for walking, the Camino every year.

"This is what Coolaney has to offer in terms of outdoor recreation.

"We've had people who live on their own coming in, people with long families, people who had visitors, people who were visitors, road cycling clubs.

"The Innisfree wheelers used to come and park their bikes all along the main street and drop in for a chat."

And while the unique project is based in a little pocket of Sligo, it has started to reach all corners of the globe.

The Co-Operative has provided the opportunity for those willing to contribute and buy shares as a means of, quite literally, owning a piece of the community cafe.

So far, money has come in from local, national and international sources.

"This is a co-operative, and the reason it is set up as that so it's shared in the community and from the get-go we have been selling shares in it and saying 'don't just buy a coffee, buy a cafe'.

"Give us your money, you'll be a shareholder, you'll be invited to the AGM if you want to come and you can say you own part of this and this is my building.

"We're pushing that at this stage, we're going to have a shareholders wall on the side of the cafe in recognition of everyone and we have had people sending us money from Australia and from overseas who want to be associated with it."

When life returns to some sort of normality, Cafe Fia can expect its services to be in demand from locals and visitors alike.

"And, as another benefit, Coolaney's community spirit is bound to be stronger as a result.

Joe says: "We are lucky there's a bit of community spirit there and hopefully this is going to lead on to more because that's what we want, we want it to be a foundation for an even stronger, more connected community."

At the last census in 2016, Coolaney recorded a population of 990 a big jump from 200 in 2006.


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