'It's not as good a community as it could be'
CENSUS STORIES: POPULATION SURGENATIVES OF Ashbourne, Co Meath, still call it a village but the Central Statistics Office has recategorised it as a large town because its population has risen above 10,000, according to the latest census figures.
“When I came here first it was just a one-street town. There have been big changes,” says mother of two Ann Woods, who has lived in Ashbourne for 24 years.
Ashbourne saw an explosion of housing estates and a new high-street shopping development in the town centre with many well-known brands and multiples.
However, many residents point to the absence of some essential services and a lack of community in newer estates. “There isn’t much for young people to do at all in Ashbourne,” Woods said. She laments the absence of a pool, green areas and playgrounds.
It can “create real challenges” in rapidly expanding towns when you have a bulge in the population of the same demographic all looking for the same type of services, says UCD planning lecturer Dr Paula Russell.
Defining “large towns” simply by population means they lack many of the services you would expect in a town defined as large in mainland Europe like railways and swimming pools, architect and UCD urban design lecturer Alan Mee says. Spacially exploded towns tend to lack identity and a sense of community, he added.
Like many emerging large towns, boomtime housing developments have attracted Dublin commuters (many from nearby Finglas) and a large central and eastern European population to Ashbourne.
Dubliner Stephen Connor is one of the town’s newer residents and, while he likes its diversity and range of shops, he finds community life lacking compared to the Dublin suburbs.
“Things are a bit different community-wise. I find it a bit fragmented and people don’t really want to integrate at all. It’s not as good a community as it could be,” he said .
Ashbourne native Stephen May of Freda’s Florist says, despite a strong “core community”, there is a lack of integration.
“Walking down the village there is no sense of community,” he said. “A lot of people moved from Dublin but they don’t really socialise in Ashbourne,” he said.
The florist in the older part of town has taken a hit post-boom as customers seek bargains in the multiples. They have started doing more contract work to supermarkets as footfall has declined, owner Tom May says.
In the High Street development Jimmy Reilly of the Big Apple Fruit Co sees customers from surrounding towns because of the range of shops in Ashbourne.
He also benefits from the diversity of the population with many nationalities and income range seeking artisan and local goods “It’s very cosmopolitan in that way,” he said.
A revamp of the older part of Ashbourne is planned. This would help revitalise the main street and bring jobs in construction, Kevin O’Brien of the Ashbourne Chamber of commerce said.
Such jobs are much needed as, like many large towns, Ashbourne is also hit with unemployment. Such problems can make it more difficult in building communities.
It is not easy to tell people under extreme stress and in a location they don’t want to be in that what they need to do to is become a collective, said Mr Mee.
Community building needs to be a priority and residents need to be encouraged to psychologically become part of the community they are living in, he said.
Efforts to create a community are in progress in the town which has thriving sports clubs and a revamped library offering a plethora of classes. Work is under way to establish residents committees in the new estates and the recent St Patrick’s Day parade was a sign of a community coming together, said local Labour councillor Niamh McGowan.
Many of Ireland’s new large towns have much to offer with vibrant young diverse populations and new commercial centres. Dr Russell points out that such towns can really suit people at a certain stage of life. However, after a decade of unplanned rapid growth building a cohesive community will take time and investment.
THIS IS IRELAND
WHAT IT SAID ABOUT LARGE TOWNS
5newly classified large towns with populations of 10,000 or more: Ashbourne, Cavan, Bettystown, Tramore and Enniscorthy
18.6%The percentage population increase in State’s 39 large towns
9.3%/25.7%Dublin’s share of population living in large towns in 1961 and 2011.