The shopping centre that came at a high price
Balbriggan’s Millfield home to the largest Tesco in Ireland, but is now in receivership. But in a struggling town, the people are fighting back
Built beside a graveyard: ironically, the lack of crowds at Millfield shopping centre in Balbriggan, Co Dublin, make it quite a pleasant place to shop. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It is on the edge of the town, but you can see Millfield Shopping Centre however you arrive in Balbriggan. It looms above the old town and the sprawl of new estates in this part of north Co Dublin.
It began to rise from its foundations in 2009 and opened its doors in April 2011. Nice timing. It is its misfortune to have been built beside a graveyard, because analogies were always going to be far too easy to make when things went wrong.
They did. This week Nama put the centre into receivership. It was not supposed to be like this, but the timing ensured it could hardly be any other way.
Here you can buy some type of pretty much anything. Toys, televisions, clothes, books, computers, glasses to read with, glasses to drink from. It takes up two floors, neighboured by friendly shops doing battle with the long stretches of To Let posters and wide concourses developed with crowds in mind.
There are people, yes. Masses, no. Ironically, it’s one of the things that make it quite a pleasant place to shop.
And at the top corner, by a huge window overlooking the expanse of Balbriggan, whose population has doubled, to more than 20,000, in less than a decade, is a cafe area recently haunted by abandoned counters and unlit tables, although a new eatery has joined the always-welcoming O’Briens staff who previously had a monopoly by default.
And it was here, a few weeks ago, that a woman toured the tables with a clipboard.
She was a member of the third of Balbriggan’s population classified as “nonethnic Irish”, and she was on a mission for her adopted community. In her hands was a petition against Fingal County Council’s proposed move of the Carnegie Library from the town hall to a nearby side street, to make room for the Department of Social Protection.
But this resistance to the move turned out to be about more than one building. It was about the present, and future, of Balbriggan’s struggling town centre.
The original brief for Millfield’s architects had been to create “an attractive urban quarter for Balbriggan”. It didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, although Millfield became too big to sustain its own weight, it was big enough to further contribute to the stagnation of the town centre.
So the battle for the library became about a community fighting back against the planning that expanded the town while diluting the community, and about taking steps to revive a town centre that had been sucked dry.
The library campaign succeeded. The council backed down. The library will remain where it is. And, from that, something larger has emerged. In preparation for the impending abolition of the town council, locals have attempted to replace it with a people-led Balbriggan Community Council, with the aim, as they say, of “taking back our town”. A priority is improving the town centre.
In the meantime, an initiative suggests that if a lot of people can each take a small step, then the distance won’t seem so great. With that in mind townspeople are being asked to “take the pledge”, to offer to do just one small thing for their town.
There is immediate incentive. The Giro D’Italia cycling race will pass through Balbriggan in May, briefly introducing the town to millions of viewers across the world.
It will be a rare moment in the spotlight for the town, but while Dún Laoghaire, in the south of the county, has become the most written-about example of the death of town centres, places such as Balbriggan, out on the lesser-noticed edge of the north of the county, are as reflective of the horrors of town planning, of the death of main-street shopping, that have afflicted so many towns across the country.
And, equally, they are reflective of people-led initiatives to turn things around.
It’s another community trying to pull itself from the rubble of the boom. Another town seeking light from under the shadow of a monument to commercial hubris in a country half sunk under the weight of them.