O'Connell Street, Sligo: 'It used to be wonderful. Now it's a jungle'

 

THE VIEW FROM O'CONNELL STREET:In the final part of her series on the O’Connell Streets of Ireland, ROSITA BOLANDasks shoppers in Sligo how they would improve their main street. They have some unexpected suggestions

ON A WEEKDAY morning, the first thing that strikes you about O’Connell Street in Sligo is not the businesses along the street but the line of traffic that crawls down it. It’s clear that this one-way street is a busy artery. It also quickly becomes obvious that its shoppers are as vocal about what’s going on in the middle of O’Connell Street as they are about the shops that flank it: pedestrianisation is the topic everyone brings up in conversation.

The street used to carry two lanes of traffic, but in August 2006 it was pedestrianised, and trees were planted. It reopened to cars in December 2009, but this time with a single lane. The trees were removed. The footpaths have not been widened, but the cars are funnelled between two lines of steel bollards that leave room for pedestrians to use some of the roadway.

Kevin Colreavy of Sligo County Council says the borough council now plans to pedestrianise O’Connell Street again. In October last year it approved a proposal from the town’s councillors to pedestrianise O’Connell Street on Sundays, although the hours of closure to traffic have yet to be decided. That scheme will be reviewed after it has been operating for six months. The council says that it has asked the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government for €500,000, to pay for the work involved, and that a response is still pending.

ONE PERSON WHO is against the repedestrianisation of O’Connell Street is Michael Gleeson. “There is so little indigenous community living on the street now, over the shops. That’s part of the reason it didn’t work before. The street was dead at night, and people didn’t like walking down it.”

Gleeson says he doesn’t usually shop on O’Connell Street, as it “has the premier-priced shops, and I’m currently unemployed. Mostly, I use this street for socialising, not for shopping.”

The River Garavogue runs close by, and the Yeats Memorial Building – home of the Yeats Society – and Glasshouse Hotel stand near the northern end. At the other end is Source, a multistorey restaurant, wine bar and cookery school.

O’Connell Street has about 40 premises, including 10 clothes shops – one of them a Penneys – three jewellers, three pharmacies, three pubs and restaurants, a cafe, two bookshops, a one-hour photo shop, a discount shop, a bank, a shoe shop, the entrance to a shopping centre anchored by Tesco, and six that are empty or to let. Some of the businesses, such as Hargadon Bros pub, Moffitts of Sligo drapery and Mullaney Bros clothes shop, have been there for generations. Wehrly Bros Jewellers has been trading at 2-3 O’Connell Street since 1875.

According to Ann O’Rourke, however, “there’s nothing here on this street. I only walk down this street to go somewhere else, or to go to Penneys.” O’Rourke has stopped outside a shop that sells upmarket bags and shoes. She points at the window: “€150 and €200 for a bag! In the sale! How does anyone pay those prices? It’s value I look for, and I watch the price of everything.”

GERRY FEENEY, WHO is looking in the window of Mullaney Bros, says, “Shopping years ago here used to be an experience. The shops on this street had wonderful facades. This used to be a wonderful street, but it’s been turned into a jungle . . .

“What I mean by a jungle is that mostly you don’t know what’s there in the shops any more. You just stumble through the street. It’s become characterless. Not this shop, though. There’s still service here. Years ago, if you came into Mr Mullaney, he’d know if you’d put on a pound or two, and he’d steer you away from size 34 to size 36 just by looking at you.”

Feeney is here to visit Permanent TSB. He’s irked about the state of O’Connell Street. “There’s no kerb appeal. It’s ugly. Those bollards are ugly. The pavements haven’t been extended even though the traffic has gone down to one-way. There’s nowhere to sit out and have a coffee. They took away the trees. And it doesn’t look good to see employees in front of their shops, smoking. The street needs to be painted, and flowers need to go in. People have travelled abroad; they expect more of their streets now.”

Feeney says his children shop in a completely different way from him. “My daughters and sons are shopping online. They’ll come into the street to meet someone and go for a coffee but not to shop, whereas I was brought by the hand by my mother to buy shoes on this street as a child. It’s a different way of consuming for them. For them it’s, ‘Dad, can I have the iPad?’ so that they can see what’s available online.”

“O’Connell Street is okay to shop in,” says Evelyn Hughes, who is visiting from Ballina with her daughter Marie Hughes. “It wouldn’t be terrific. It’s a bit bleak. I think people are in bad form, and that’s reflected when you walk around . . . Price is a big factor for me, and while the cheaper stores are there, I think somewhere like Penneys is for younger people, not me.”

Her daughter manages a shoe shop in Ballina, so her eye as a shopper is honed by also being that of a trader. “I always look at a street from the ground up,” she says, pointing to a chimney stack with a large piece of vegetation growing out of it. “That shouldn’t be there. It doesn’t look good. That gable needs repainting. The whole street needs tidying up to make it more attractive.”

LIKE MANY OTHERS who stop on O’Connell Street to talk, Liz Sheridan mentions a business that recently moved away, an Italian restaurant named Bistro Bianconi. “It had a pizza oven in the window, which was great life to the place, because you could see them making the pizzas.”

She has just collected photographs from the one-hour photo shop on the street and bought a sandwich for lunch. “I would like to see this street pedestrianised, even if just for certain hours of the day. And, in fairness, the owners of shops on this street could spruce things up a bit.”

Andy Kearns also talks about Bistro Bianconi’s. “The pizza oven was a bit of theatre on the street. They’re not closed down, but they’ve moved off the street, and it’s a loss. It has made a difference to the street at night.”

Evelyn Corcoran and Megan O’Connor, two art students, are often on O’Connell Street, as they catch their bus here. “Penneys and Eason is the main place where we shop,” Corcoran says. O’Connor adds, “The street is nice, but the road is kind of busy and the footpaths are so small . . . I liked the street better when it was pedestrianised.”

“This is not really an attractive street, and there is nothing in particular that would bring me here, but I do go round all the shops just the same,” says Teresa Keegan. “The footpaths could do with being upgraded. The council keep opening and closing the street, and they’re wasting money. They need to stick with a decision.”

A COUPLE WHO DON’T wish to give their names say that what they want to see on the street are more high-profile chain stores. “Marks Spencer, and Argos, to start with. It would make the street more competitive, and attract more shoppers.”

“I’d say there will be a lot of places on this street closing in the next few weeks,” says Martina O’Sullivan. “I don’t shop here. If I want to go on a spree, I’ll go to to Dublin.”

O’Sullivan doesn’t want to see the street pedestrianised. “People didn’t walk down it at night before, and they won’t walk down it again at night if it goes back the way it was.”

Jens Derenthal, a German who has been living in Sligo for 19 years, and his friend Tony Valach, a Slovakian who has lived here for seven years, say that O’Connell Street is nice and old-fashioned, with everything they need.

Derenthal would like to see the street cleaned up. He points to wires drooping across several buildings. “It’s all abut taking care of the details. The weeds. The wires.”

Valach changes his mind about his comment that the street has everything he needs. There is one more business he would like to see on O’Connell Street. “It’s a pity there isn’t a sex shop,” he says. “I’m not joking, honestly. In Slovakia, they are no big deal.”