Life in the fast lane

Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ motorway network changed many aspects of rural life: closing some businesses but creating others; reducing commuting times but enabling crime. We hit the Galway-Dublin route to assess the impact

Sat, Jan 11, 2014, 01:00

What did the Celtic Tiger ever do for us? Well, the roads, for one thing. The years from 2003 to 2010 saw the Irish motorway network expand from a length of 176km to one of 918km in a programme aimed at overhauling the country’s creaking road infrastructure.

The scheme connected regional cities with the capital, creating a radial system of high-quality dual carriageways. In a sense, all roads lead to Dublin: anyone living north of a line from Galway to Navan, where little or no construction took place, might have reason to feel aggrieved, but for those living in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford the system brought substantially shorter journey times and safer roads.

But what of the old routes and the bypassed towns left behind? It’s three years since the completion of the M6 motorway, which, with the M4, provides Ireland’s main east-west route. One way to gauge the effect of the new roads on their surroundings is to travel to Dublin along the old N6, now the humble R446.

Driving east from Galway to Dublin, the first sizeable towns you reach are Loughrea and Ballinasloe. Passing trade has always been vital in Ballinasloe, and local businesses were initially concerned about the motorway, fearing it would starve them of their customers.

As in the smaller town of Loughrea, the streets of Ballinasloe are bustling on a weekday morning. “There appeared to be less business when the motorway opened first,” says Chris Daly, speaking from behind the counter of his shoe shop, on Dunlo Street. “But as time has gone on it seems to have changed back a little bit. We don’t notice it now as much as we did at the start.”

Where the pubs worried about drink-driving crackdowns and the smoking ban, “the shops were worried about the motorway – of course they were”, says Daly. But much of that concern now strikes him as having been unfounded. In some ways he sees the new road as a benefit for the town, freeing it of heavy trucks and other unwanted traffic, so creating a nicer spot for those who do stop. “We seem to be getting more passing trade now,” he says, noting that Ballinasloe “is the last town before they get to Galway”.

Need for better roads
Although other European countries began building large-scale motorways in the 1920s, Ireland didn’t really get started until the 1970s and 1980s, when burgeoning industrialisation and the fall-off in rail freight underlined the need for better roads. But even then it wasn’t until the early years of this millennium that serious work got under way.

If the infrastructure that was to come hasn’t overly troubled businesses in Ballinasloe, the locals farther east in Moate, Co Westmeath, are less upbeat. The owner of a gift shop in the town says it’s difficult to gauge whether the economic downturn or the bypass has had the greatest impact, but “we’d miss the Dublin-to-Galway people”. The newsagents and grocers do okay from local customers, but food and hospitality have been hit, he says.

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Róisín Meets...Dawn O'Porter