Ennistymon's historical Blake's Corner faces battle to avoid demolition
CLARE COUNTY Council’s visitor information boards in Ennistymon, erected with the support of Fáilte Ireland, proclaim it as “Baile Stairiúil/Historic Town” and note that its impressive seven-arch masonry bridge spanning the River Cullenagh was built by the O’Briens of Thomond around 1770.
Yet the council itself is planning to demolish a pair of pivotally located mid-19th-century shop buildings right alongside the narrow bridge to make room for a roundabout on the road to Lahinch, 4km to the west of Ennistymon. The aim of this controversial scheme is to regulate summertime tourist traffic.
Both buildings – Blake’s and Linnane’s – are protected structures, having been listed for preservation because of the quality of their original shopfronts, Liscannor-slated roofs and overall proportions.
They have also been featured in books on Irish vernacular architecture and posters of historical shopfronts.
Now owned by the council, the two buildings at Blake’s Corner are vacant and in a seriously dilapidated condition despite a pledge more than a year ago that they would be repaired “shortly”. Such work is now “urgently required”, according to the locally based Save Ennistymon’s Heritage group.
After the buildings were described in October 2010 by the group’s spokesman, Denis Vaughan, as “perilously close to annihilation”, the council’s senior executive engineer Tom Tiernan said: “The council is conscious of its obligations regarding the maintenance of the listed buildings in question and we will shortly be undertaking improvement works.”
In response to queries from The Irish Times, Mr Tiernan said: “Our priorities are to keep the buildings secure and waterproof. The buildings have been vandalised on a number of occasions and we have
responded by repairing and securing doors and windows. We have also carried out some internal repairs including plumbing repairs.”
However, it was obvious on a recent visit to Ennistymon that the roof of Blake’s is sagging, slates are missing, gutters clogged by weeds and windows broken; they were only boarded up on the inside to make the buildings more secure.
The roof of a single-storey return to the rear is in a terrible state, with slates sliding down from its ridge.
In order to facilitate its road improvement scheme, the council wants to demolish both buildings and rebuild them on a setback line eight to 10m from their existing location.
A report by Cork-based consultant engineers Southgate and Associates, commissioned by the council, apparently shows how this could be done.
But the report, which was completed some months ago, has not been published. According to Mr Tiernan, it recommends “the careful deconstruction of the buildings and reconstruction of the front portions . . . set back in the site . . . using the original conserved historic fabric to the exact profiles of the buildings as they currently exist”.
Last September, despite an appeal by Fine Gael councillor Joe Arkins to “take the cloak and dagger” out of the plans for Blake’s Corner, members of the council’s north Clare area committee voted to withhold publication of the report until a “Part 8” planning application is made for the road scheme, probably within the next few months.
Minister for Arts and Heritage Jimmy Deenihan said recently that demolition and reconstruction would be “contrary to the thrust” of the 2000 Planning Act and would “require strong justification” as well as “a robust and detailed methodology that demonstrated that such an approach is both feasible and appropriate”.
Mr Deenihan told Clare Labour TD Michael McNamara that his department had also advised the council that “if the envisaged removal and set back were to proceed, a sustainable and suitable new use would have to be found for both structures” that took into account a potential increase in traffic at Blake’s Corner.
According to Mr Tiernan, traffic levels on the road to Lahinch vary from 6,000 to 10,000 vehicles per day in the tourist season, “depending on the weather”, and fall to 3,000 to 4,500 vehicles per day during the winter.
He also pointed out that the junction facilitates traffic heading for Lisdoonvarna in the north as well as Ennis.
The development of an “appropriately designed roundabout” would eliminate the problem of “repeated traffic tailbacks during the tourist season on the Lahinch side of the junction . . . because traffic attempting to negotiate the junction from the Ennis and Lisdoonvarna directions have to cross into opposing lanes”.
Despite claims by Senator Martin Conway of Fine Gael that the existing junction is a “death trap”, Mr Tiernan told The Irish Times: “While there have been a number of minor accidents in the vicinity of Blakes Corner, I am not aware of any deaths or serious injuries . . . given that traffic negotiating the junction must move slowly.”
Asked what was the point of creating a roundabout when
the adjoining bridge was so narrow, he accepted that the 18th-century bridge “isn’t as
wide as one might wish it to be” and said the council was “examining the possibility of removing the existing
footpath across the bridge” and providing an alternative for pedestrians.
But Save Ennistymon’s Heritage insists that demolition of Blake’s Corner would not address the traffic problems. The group rejects “the idea of a Hollywood set” in Ennistymon.
“There are other more constructive options including (1) a part-time one-way traffic system, (2) traffic lights, (3) move the complete building intact, or (4) a bypass,” said Denis Vaughan of the heritage group.
Mr Tiernan said all aspects of the proposed demolition and reconstruction of Blake’s Corner would be “carefully considered”. But he insisted that “the junction has to be improved [because] the entire tourism industry of North Clare is frustrated and compromised by this problem [of traffic tailbacks on approaches to the bridge].”
He also said that alternative approaches had been examined, but the provision of traffic
lights or the diversion of traffic through other parts of the town would not “provide much comfort” while the development of a bypass “isn’t realistic . . . in the foreseeable future given that its cost would be in the region of €25 to €30 million”.
According to the 2004 Architectural Heritage Protection Guidelines for Planning Authorities, “the built heritage consists not only of great artistic achievements, but also of the everyday works of craftsmen [that] have a cultural significance which we may recognise for the first time only when individual structures are lost”.
At the end of December, Ennistymon’s most prominent retail premises – Crosbie’s craft shop on the Square – closed down, in what Mr Vaughan described as “a disaster” for the town.
Just six years ago, it won
“best traditional shopfront” in the Clare Design and Conservation Awards, sponsored by the county council.