Are these the best places in Ireland?
‘The Irish Times’ is on the hunt for Ireland’s nicest neck-of-the-woods and has invited members of the public to nominate their favourites. Here are four of the latest pitches
Athlone, Westmeath: Mary O'Rourke
Located in the centre of Ireland, Athlone is the place that I want to put forward and to gush about (as The Irish Times has suggested). I will find it very hard to keep it to 500 words to tell you all about why it is a lovely place to live.
Of course it is the centre of Ireland. Constantly the beauty of living at sea and mountains is extolled – but not for us those faraway delights. For us, the river Shannon flows imposingly through the middle of the town of Athlone, coming down from the lakes of Lough Ree and meandering on down to the lovely countryside of Clonmacnoise. The delight of having such a huge waterway in the middle of where you live is palpable. Emerge from anywhere in Athlone and within minutes you can be at the water.
I like the idea of living in a town which has a past and a storied history. Every Athlone boy or girl learns by heart the poem by Aubrey de Vere:
“Does any man dream that a Gael can fear?
Of a thousand deeds let him learn but one!
The Shannon swept onwards broad and clear,
Between the leaguers and broad Athlone.”
In Athlone we back on to the rolling countryside of Westmeath, with its rich pastures and fine, fat cattle, but across the bridge of Athlone, we face into Roscommon with its lean fields and trimmed sheep.
I like the idea that my town withstood the “enemy” with a brave stand by Sgt Custume and his 10 men. I like living in a town where we praise the past by name and plaque and where we tried valiantly to guard the entry to the west of Ireland. I love the idea that we are in the middle of everything, that from Athlone you can so easily get to Cork, Galway, Dublin, Belfast – anywhere you want to go is never too far from home.
We are the centre for the Amateur Drama Finals each year where people queue patiently to get their season tickets and the talk in the pubs and hotels is of the play last night and the play to come. I like the idea that Athlone is at the centre of a strong literary tradition – Oliver Goldsmith, Maria Edgeworth and most of all our very own John Broderick – fair dues to the town council in naming a new street after him. He had a caustic tongue when he wrote but we so enjoy his writing.
I like the idea that we have great primary schools, secondary schools and our very own third-level institution, the Athlone IT, which has a terrific name for attracting students from all over the country. I like to re-enact in my mind the idea that the monks of old came by water to study in Clonmacnoise. Now the youth of today come by train, road and bus to study in Athlone. There is something about the aura of learning that sticks to this area. Athlone is redolent of past and present studies. Walk through the town on any day and you can meet students of all nations.
Lest I be accused of dwelling too much in the past, we have an endless stream of terrific modern bistros and restaurants from the high-end priced to the drop-in cafés where it’s great to go and gossip. There are good shops, good company, a lively buzz and bright modern hotels.
Like all other areas in Ireland, we are going through difficult economic times, but somehow Athlone has escaped the very worst of it and its industries, big and small, are still thriving. People have tightened their belts but remain cheerful and have a certain air about them – they care for one another.
Lest I forget, we have also bred and reared very fine parliamentarians – TP O’Connor of the Parnellite and the Irish Parliamentary Party, Patrick Cooney of Fine Gael fame and the two Brian Lenihans of Fianna Fáil fame – revered names whose clout still counts in this town.
Oh and I nearly forgot – we have our very own international singer Count John McCormack, who was born and reared here.
Yes, I suppose I am cocky about my hometown, but I love it and you did say I could gush, and reader, have I gushed?
Damien Enright: Courtmacsherry, Co Cork
Courtmacsherry in west Cork, population 520, is a world away from busy roads and urban stress. A single street of pretty houses and Georgian villas set on the bay shore against a background of mature woodland, on weekday afternoons one could – as they say – hear a pin drop. Beyond the seafront gardens, small boats bob in the channel. With its beautiful name and fine architecture, Courtmacsherry has remained unspoiled
At the village centre, a small pier; opposite it, the village shop. Then, the three “nautical” pubs, a quaint old chapel and the hotel, once an earl’s summer home, with a white beach in front. Sandy coves are reached by woodland paths. Beyond, the Atlantic stretches away below the clifftop walk, with not a soul or a house to be seen.
Villages can be notoriously dull, but not Courtmac. Corkonians arrive at weekends: there is music in the pubs and lightheartedness in the air. In season, overseas holidaymakers join Irish families, summer migrants for generations. Bonhomie abounds, with regattas, festivals, opera and chamber music, yachting, boating, mackerel fishing and days on the beach.
Over the years, “blow-ins” have settled and become part of village life: nationality, sexual or religious persuasion is no obstacle. Crime is unknown. Once, burglars came to the village but were spotted. People look out for one another. The miscreants were arrested. The word went out.
Clonakilty and Bandon – with secondary schools, department stores and country markets – are fifteen minutes away, University College Cork and Cork airport just 50 minutes drive.
Two primary schools are within 10 minutes drive or bus ride and few places could be better for children than Courtmac. Fashion takes second place to traditional pursuits, such as pucking a sliotar of a summer evening in the village street, fishing and swimming in summer. GAA, rugby, soccer, tennis and rowing clubs are all nearby.
Courtmacsherry is a mecca for sea anglers and the river Argideen is famous for sea trout. The bay is a naturalist’s paradise, holding 20,000 migrant birds in winter. As children play in the yard of Timoleague national school, 2,000 golden plover pass overhead; beyond Courtmac bridge, others rise from the roosts and join the flock. Four thousand wings swirl and eddy over the estuary, now a great, brown flood, now turning and catching the sun like a river of stars.
We moved here 20 years ago from London. Sometimes, on bright mornings, as we walk the strand, I see myself back in a city, watching a couple on TV with a dog and nothing but the birds and surf and miles of empty sand. I think of how my heart would yearn for that, for the space and clean air. I think then that we’ve done the right thing. The children have taken values drawn from here, a sense of place and of what is real and unreal. I can’t think of a better start for them, or a happier ending for ourselves.
Orla Ní Néíll: Kilcullen, CoKildare
Kilcullen is a town of natural beauty and I don’t just mean the good hand it was dealt with the Liffey running through it, the tree-lined Valley Park on one side and the Camphill community farm on the other. When you walk through Kilcullen, you might be greeted by James from Nolan’s, the town’s award-winning butchers, Dave from the flower shop, or Armelle with the best macaroons west of Mont Saint-Michel. If you’re lucky, Kilcullen’s king of the old-timers Bernard Berney will stick his head out of his chemist to pass some witty remark .
This time of year, the Tidy Towns group could be painting derelict houses, picking litter or putting up the summer flowers. At the moment, they’re preparing a place for Eamonn O’Doherty’s last sculpture, Homeward, which is being placed in the Valley Park by the county council. Ar dheis Dé go raibh sé.
The week isn’t complete until you’ve had a coffee at An Tearmann, the restaurant of the Camphill community farm, which sells produce and crafts from the community, a collaboration of volunteers, coworkers and residents with an intellectual disability. The Good Food Gallery, Fallon’s Bar and Restaurant, Bardon’s Pub and The Hideout collude to make this the foodie hub of south Kildare.
Some weeks there is just too much going on – the renowned Kilcullen drama group is vying for attention with the newly formed Teen Theatre. The best laugh this year was the Strictly Come Dancing event, which had the upstanding business community members strutting their stuff alongside the young GAA players (who didn’t have to work as hard at it). You don’t notice the money you have to put into the buckets when you’re having this much fun.
You don’t have to walk downtown to catch up on the news – it’s all there in Kilcullen’s monthly magazine The Bridge or the Kilcullen Diary, a blog which gives The Irish Times a run for its money in breaking news.
And all this in a community which was the fastest growing town in Kildare in the last census. The population grew by 50 per cent in the past 10 years, the new residents mainly coming from Dublin. A recent community survey found we are overrepresented with young people, have about double the national average of commuters, yet over two thirds of people indicate a strong sense of belonging in Kilcullen – higher for people who are originally from overseas.
Kilcullen, like any other town in Ireland, is struggling in the recession, but we’re not taking it lying down. There are several initiatives planned from the community-led development plan. Is Féidir Linn.
Skerries, Co Dublin
This is a selection of the many nominations for the north Co Dublin town . . .
Skerries – the ultimate childhood playground. Memories flood in of endless, sunny, summer days. July and August seemed to last an age. Into Bob’s Casino for a spin on the bumper cars; down to the beach for a paddle; grumbling tummies satisfied by a delicious, vinegary bag of chips. A swim in The Springers or the Captains for the brave followed by a 99 from the Pierhouse Shop for the walk home.
Sport of every kind features strongly in these memories. Community Games, historic rugby showdowns in Holpatrick, GAA matches in the Ballast Pit, sea-swimming races in the choppy waters around the head, not to mention the serious business of the annual sandcastle competition on the South Strand.
I feel privileged to have spent my childhood in such a beautiful spot under Shenick Island’s watchful eye. I hope the next generation of Skerries-ities are building their own memories as we speak. Katie Keane
There is a mainline railway station, with an express into the IFSC in 20 minutes in the morning and home in the evening. But best of all is the incredible sense of community and community spirit. Priceless, especially in times of sadness and loss. Remember 10,000 people gathered to show solidarity to two lost fishermen in 2011. Amazing. Jason Campbell
Sydney may have its Opera House, but the Little Theatre means more to me. Richard O'Shea
On a sunny, summer afternoon, Skerries harbour is the best place in the world to be. Fishing boats come and go, children in small dinghies learn to sail, the sailing club punt plies fussily back and forth, ferrying skippers and crews out to the yachts on their moorings, and anglers return laden with bright silver and blue mackerel.
St Patrick lived for a while on one of the Skerries islands and often ventured ashore on saintly business. On one of these occasions, the residents of Skerries, to their eternal shame, rowed out and ate his goat. Thereafter the townspeople were known as Skerries Goats.
The legacy of this can be seen to this day, no longer with that original, awful shame but now with a quiet ironic pride. The emblem of the local sailing club is a goat’s head, and the goat’s head motif can be seen on the fluttering pennants on the yachts in the bay.
The secret’s out alright. It’s out on Skerries’s streets and in the more than 80 intimate shops, stores and markets; the boutiques and delis, the pubs and restaurants surrounded by award plaques all tucked between tiny streets of cottages where the air is crisp with sea salt, turf smoke and delicious cooking.
We can’t keep it to ourselves any longer. David Diebold
Do you live in the best place in Ireland?
The Irish Times is on the hunt for Ireland’s nicest neck-of-the-woods, and invites you to nominate your favourite. It can be a town, suburb, village or remote spot – anywhere that, despite all the problems our little nation is going through, you feel supremely lucky to have landed in. The reason could be the neighbours, social life, scenery, the facilities or none or all of these.
The winning “place” will be announced in early summer. The Irish Times will mark the accolade with a plaque for the locality, publish a story on the winning place, and make a short film about it for irishtimes.com.
The best place will be chosen by a panel of five judges: Maureen Gaffney, adjunct professor of Psychology and Society in UCD; architect Paul Keogh; statistician Gerard O’Neill from Amárach Research; Irish Times Environment Editor Frank McDonald; and Irish Times journalist Edel Morgan.
We want you to tell us in no more than 500 words why you think your area is the best place to live in Ireland. Pitch, argue, convince and gush, and explain what gives your neighbourhood the X factor.
There are also some questions about everything from the local schools to the quality of the environment. But don’t be put off if you live in an area that doesn’t fit all these criteria. Ultimately, the strength of your pitch will count. See irishtimes.com/bestplacefor details on how to submit your entry. Closing date: May 31st.