Secret of success for satellite towns such as Drogheda

Hinterlands of Dublin and other cities can benefit economically from that proximity

In the late 1700s, Drogheda was the largest linen manufacturing town on the island. In 1971 over half the employment there was in industry, mainly textiles and clothing. Now there has been a massive growth in the service sector

In the late 1700s, Drogheda was the largest linen manufacturing town on the island. In 1971 over half the employment there was in industry, mainly textiles and clothing. Now there has been a massive growth in the service sector

 

For many living outside Dublin, the capital is still seen as a competitor for jobs and economic development. However, in the last 40 years, the development of the State as a whole has relied heavily on Dublin’s success within the wider EU economy. Cities and their satellites are best seen as complementary to one another rather than as competitors.

Technical change, in particular better transport and communications, has greatly altered the relationship between cities and the towns in their hinterland over the centuries. The development of Drogheda is an interesting example of this dynamic relationship in Ireland.

In the late 1700s, Drogheda was the largest linen manufacturing town on the island, more important than Belfast. In addition to industry, it was an important commercial centre, importing a wide range of goods, including luxuries such as wine, to serve the local clientele.

Town merchants grew wealthy on this trade. An obsequious local newspaper, the Drogheda Independent, reported in 1802 that: “In the evening, his worship gave a superb entertainment at the Mansion House to upwards of 150 gentlemen of the town and neighbourhood; mirth and frolic floated around the festive board until a late hour when the company departed highly gratified with the hospitable reception and polite conduct of Mr Mayor.”

Population peaked

However, the days of that jolly all-male merchant community were numbered. By 1800, improving transport links meant that, for luxury goods, Dublin became the main supplier of Drogheda and other similar towns. A collapse in the local linen industry meant that the population of Drogheda peaked in 1821 at 18,000, a figure not surpassed for another 150 years.

Drogheda, along with much of the rest of Ireland, had a difficult 19th century. It served as a major port for thousands from the west of Ireland fleeing the Famine. However, Dublin displaced much of local business in distribution, and these jobs were only partly replaced by new industry, including textiles, clothing and footwear.

Over the first half of the 20th century, proximity to Dublin was neither a major help nor a hindrance for towns like Drogheda. The 1960s saw some growth, taking Drogheda’s population to a new high of almost 20,000 by 1971.

This success was based on a significant increase in industrial employment. In 1971 over half the employment in the town was in industry, a much higher share than in other similar sized towns. As it was a 150 years before, the most important industrial sector in 1971 was textiles and clothing, accounting for 20 per cent of all employment.

Since then, Drogheda’s industrial employment has fallen dramatically with the demise of traditional industries, and today industry employs only 40 per cent of the numbers in 1971. However, this has been more than offset by massive growth in service sector jobs, which rose from 3,000 in 1971 to 9,000 by 2011.

Close to the airport

The most important factor driving this growth has been the increasing role of skilled service sector jobs. Drogheda has become an important location for tradeable services, facilitated by its proximity to Dublin and particularly to the airport. Other towns close to Dublin, such as Leixlip and Mullingar, have also seen employment growth in traded services.

After a long period of decline from its 18th century glory days, over the last half century Drogheda’s population has increased by over a half.

Its role as a commuter town, with excellent road and rail links to Dublin, can be overstated – only one in five Drogheda residents works more than 45 minutes away from home. Rather, the big story is how much of Drogheda’s more recent success is due to jobs based in or around the town.

Here proximity to Dublin airport should be a major factor in attracting service businesses to the Drogheda area: it is often quicker to reach the airport from Drogheda than from many parts of Dublin’s southside.

However, Drogheda’s development is somewhat hampered by being split between two separate local authorities, an issue for many other towns and cities lying on, or close to, county boundaries. Waterford’s development, for example, has been adversely affected by the limited economic activity on the Kilkenny side of the river.

The future growth of satellite towns such as Drogheda is likely to come from the expansion of employment in services, particularly traded services, rather than from industry. Continued growth of cities such as Cork, Limerick and Galway can benefit the towns in their hinterlands. It is notable that last year’s biggest jobs growth occurred in the Galway and Limerick regions.

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