Welcome to Abbeyshrule: a tidy little town
Only 200 people live in the Co Longford village that won the Tidy Towns contest this week. The pub is at its heart, everyone knows everyone else, and locals are philosophical about the future
‘IT’S ACTUALLY A VILLAGE,” says Philip Butler, recently retired Eircom employee and chairman of Abbeyshrule’s winning Tidy Towns committee. “Around 200 people live here. I don’t think we’d want it to grow any bigger.” He’s sitting in the Rustic Inn, opening a big pile of congratulatory cards from friends. “Would you look at this,” he says to the inn’s owner, 75-year-old Ted McGoey, as a €20 note falls from one card. It’s from a former winner of the competition, entreating them to have a drink on him. “He’s a gas man,” says McGoey.
The Rustic Inn is the heart of the village. McGoey is a third-generation resident of the town. The inn was established in the early 1960s, when a historical society visited the ruined Cistercian abbey on the edge of the village.
“They wanted to know if they could get a cup of tea or coffee, and Betty” – McGoey’s wife – “put on salmon for them, and apple tart, and that was the start of our catering business,” says McGoey. “We were doing grocery and hardware and petrol. At the time I’d go to Longford for the milk. I remember, when Quinnsworth opened their big supermarket in Longford, driving home to see all my customers going in the opposite direction. So we went into bar licensing and food.”
Abbeyshrule really is pretty. There are stone bridges over the canal, bog-oak sculptures of birds and fish by Brendan Collum (“People sheltered under that wood 5,000 years ago,” says Philip Butler); flower arrangements by committee member Margaret Dowler adorning baskets and old bicycles; and the 19th-century Whitworth aqueduct bringing the canal over the River Inny.
Certain areas have been allowed to grow pleasantly wild, and there are two resident lawnmowing goats. “Some people call them Thelma and Louise,” says Butler.
Since the Tidy Towns win, on Monday, the Rustic Inn has been relatively buzzing. “There were 10 or 12 people in for lunch just having a look,” says Michael McDonnell, who’s sitting at the bar. He says his family have been buried in the graveyard of the Cistercian abbey for generations. He’s sitting with flat-cap-wearing Edward Price, who apologises for shaking my hand with his stained one. “I was sorting out turf,” he explains. (A tractor and trailer of turf are parked outside.) “Actually, that’s very good for your hands. If anything gets buried in peat it preserves it. You’ve heard of bog bodies? Well, it preserves your skin the same.” “Mind those fellas!” says Des “Doc” Doherty as he squeezes by us to leave.
Doc was Joe Dolan’s piano player in The Drifters. He and his American wife, Audrey, came over from Mullingar because of the Tidy Towns win. “I came to Ireland in 1966 for three weeks, went to a dance and I’m still here,” says Audrey. “We actually don’t come to Abbeyshrule much, but we came down purposely to congratulate them.”
Being a Tidy Town is not Abbeyshrule’s only claim to fame. Incongruously, it’s also home to an aerodrome and an airfield and occasionally hosts air shows. The biggest one, in 2005, featured the Red Arrows. “We lost a lot of money on that,” says McGoey, who’s also heavily involved with the aerodrome. “It bucketed rain all weekend.”
Many of the local anecdotes involve aeroplanes and air shows. “A fully laden Boeing 747 once did a double fly-past over Abbeyshrule,” says Philip Butler. “Teddy had the contacts with Aer Lingus. Putin or Sarkozy couldn’t get a fly-past like that done now, but Abbeyshrule got one. I’ll always remember sitting on top of the bridge as a young lad and the hairs standing up on the back of my head. It was unreal.”
The town suffered a tragedy in 1976 when three men died in an air crash in the Galtee Mountains: Jimmy Byrne, the man responsible for the airstrip, Dick O’Reilly, a Longford-based car dealer, and Tom Gannon, a solicitor. “That hit very hard,” says McGoey.
It’s a tight-knit community, with both Catholic and Church of Ireland congregations. Everyone seems to know everyone else and almost everyone is somehow involved with Tidy Towns. Many were displeased in 2009 when a local published a memoir about growing up in the town. “That’s one for the incinerator!” says another local. “He told stories about his neighbours, but they were recognisable. It caused fecking mayhem!”
Traditionally, people in Abbeyshrule were dairy farmers, but until recently there was other work to be found relatively locally. “People work in Longford, Athlone, Castlebar, Tullamore,” says Irene McGoey, daughter of Ted and Betty, who teaches in nearby Ballymahon. “They’re all about half an hour away. People also work in Dublin.”
More young people are living in the town now, says Irene, than when she was growing up, largely thanks to two boom-time housing estates. One, Corncrake Meadow, is incomplete but well tended by the Tidy Towns committee. (“One lady from Dublin bought her 29th and 30th houses in the town,” says Philip Butler.)
Nineteen-year-old Carla Esler, a barmaid at the Rustic Inn, says five other people her age live in Abbeyshrule. She says that young people are having problems finding work and that a lot of them have moved to Canada and Australia in recent years.
“The lad who’s 18 or 19 years of age has more education now than he had 20 years ago,” says Edward Price philosophically. “If he thinks he’s going to get somewhere by moving out he’s going to move out.”
Ninety-year-old Michael Kelly is sitting at the bar with a glass of whiskey. (“Just say we’re here for the lovely soup and brown bread,” his wife Maureen says with a chuckle.) He maintains it was always thus. When he went to work as a mechanic in the UK, in the 1940s, he says, “you’d meet more Irish people there than here”.
He returned to Ireland when his brother died in a hit-and-run accident, in 1948, “the year Sheila’s Cottage won the Grand National”. He settled in Gaybrook, near Mullingar, in 1955, “when Quare Times won the Grand National.”
Outside, before leaving, I chat to Irene McGoey on a bench at the front of the Rustic Inn. Her daughter is on her lap, resting her feet on their contented family dog. Across the road George Farrar, a former flight instructor, is working on his four-season garden (singled out for mention by the Tidy Towns judges), and children in uniform are drifting back from school.
“It’s a one-tractor town,” says Irene, nodding towards Price’s parked tractor. “But it was a very happy place to grow up. I’ve lived in Dublin, Kerry, Paris and America, but I moved back here four years ago. People do come back.”