'Rural? It's about as rural as Manhattan'

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

The population of Portlaoise has expanded rapidly – but despite overdevelopment, locals say the town is now a better place to live

THERE SHOULD be a prize for the greatest official misnomer of an area. It would go straight to Portlaoise Rural. “Rural? It’s about as rural as Manhattan,” says Labour Senator John Whelan.

It turns out to be one of the most built-up places in the country. According to the new census data, its population increased by nearly 33 per cent in six years, giving it a population heading for 15,000 (compared to Portlaoise Urban, with 3,600 souls).

Fairgreen is in there, a mad, bewildering maze of about 400 houses and apartments, much of it a homage to the lucky vendor of the fields on which it was built – thus Carmody Way, Carmody Square, Carmody Walk – and all of it a candidate for inclusion in planning folklore. Amazingly, the main road to Galway was diverted to cut through it.

A spin around the Kilminchy area on the old Dublin road, and through the Rockview estates – all in Portlaoise Rural – reveals row after row of apartments and houses, most a monument to untrammelled planning. At least four of these estates qualify for exemption from the household charge as they remain “unfinished”, meaning large swathes of crudely fenced-off wasteground in full view of people’s homes, as in Rockview.

The developers of Portlaoise “Rural” pulled in the numbers during the bubble. Many of these incomers, famously, were refugees from Dublin, looking for reasonably-priced homes with an eye to commuting by train or the M7.

The county shows the biggest population increase in the State in six years, up by over a fifth. It has the largest increase in number of private households (up by nearly a quarter); the biggest jump in the number of occupied apartments in purpose-built blocks (up 116 per cent); and the biggest in renters (up 88 per cent).

And the babies came bouncing along with them. The county has also shown the highest increase for children up to the age of 4 (up over 37 per cent), the second highest for ages 5-9 (up nearly 30 per cent) and the highest again for 10–14 year olds (up more than 26 per cent).

Meanwhile, all through those years and before, parish priest Fr John Byrne was presenting his baptism figures as evidence of a coming infrastructural storm. In 2000, the number of babies baptised was 224. By 2011, it was 365, one for every day of the year. Enrolment in three local schools increased by a third. As the developers and planners galloped on, the fact the Scoil Mhuire buildings had been virtually condemned in a 2000 report slowed no one down.

Every year, the town schools were turning away 70 to 80 children. Ministerial promises faded to dust as little country schools snapped up grants for expansion and attracted the 4x4 driving classes beyond the town boundaries, while the remainder were left scrambling for local school places.

Now, as elsewhere, houses are not worth half what was paid for them, says Fr Byrne. Even with parents working, negative equity has ratcheted up the mental pressure. If the clock could be rewound, he suggests, perhaps there would have been a lot more care taken about the number and quality of the houses being built.

“The commute didn’t turn out to be as easy as people imagined. Childcare and after-school care became a huge issue . . .”

Meanwhile, in Portlaoise centre, three businessmen working hard to revitalise the old town describe the then and now. Phil Duggan (whose restaurant credentials go back to the Coq Hardi of Charlie Haughey fame), recalls arriving into Portlaoise with his local-born wife 10 years ago to open The Square Meal restaurant, and wondering why on earth they had spent 20 years in London. “We thought we’d found a goldmine here.”

Andrew Shaw, of the famous Shaws Almost Nationwide chain, saw double-digit growth in the bubble years. Gerry Browne’s lovely 40-year-old jewellery store bears testament to some expensively tasteful refurbishment.

Portlaoise has always had its blue-chip residents, of course: the prisons, the hospitals, the Department of Agriculture, the health boards, all with their secure government cheques, all boosting the profit columns until the levies, the fear and uncertainty hit home.

But the question is, did the Portlaoise Rural incomers have any material effect? “We must have benefited from them,” says Duggan, after a pause. In fact, it seems the incomers kept their distance until the Great Snow of a few years ago, when many accustomed to visiting Mammy in Dublin at the weekends and doing all their shopping up there, were suddenly trapped for weeks and forced to look towards the town for the first time.

“Best marketing plan ever,” laughs Duggan. It worked, but only to a point. The footfall has fallen disastrously. The Square Meal – once a thriving cafe where sourcing staff was the only problem – was almost empty yesterday morning. The Duggans are being forced to reinvent themselves, again.

So what have they got at the end of it all? “We have got a lot of very decent people who’ve come to live in our town. The booming population isn’t a problem – they’re babies and children, and very nice children,” says Fr Byrne. “I’d be very hopeful a community will form – though I do accept it’s not there yet. But once children start school, that tends to begin.”

Despite the doomsayers, Portlaoise has shown remarkable resilience. Planning and primary school issues aside, it has made the very best of its lot. Virtually everyone mentions the boom-time amenities such as the “fantastic” leisure centre, the beautiful Dunamaise Arts Centre, the lovely town park “with the ducks and the water”, in the words of a breathless child, the two new secondary schools, the terrific sports facilities.

John Whelan, a Portlaoise native and implacable critic of the planners, concludes “the town is certainly a nicer place now, a better place to live”.

Toria Dempsey, a blow-in and Fairgreen resident for six years, says with patent honesty that she is happy here. “We paid €195,000 for the house – it was expensive but we didn’t go overboard. We got married here and had our children here. It’s our home now. The estate is a maze but the layout of the little cul-de-sacs means you’re very private. We have everything we need here.”

And here’s the surprise. Things are looking up. Last week, finally, to the intense relief of Fr Byrne and his co-campaigners, Ruairí Quinn sanctioned a huge primary school building programme that will change the Portlaoise primary educational landscape from 2014 on.

Now who’d have predicted that?