What we can learn from Ireland's best place
Westport, named by ‘The Irish Times’ as the Best Place to Live in Ireland, isn’t perfect, but it comes close. Its success is a product of careful planning, an innovative approach to voluntary work, and a triumph of public spiritedness. Fourteen years after her last article about the Co Mayo town, KATHY SHERIDANreturns to see what has changed and why it stands out as a place to call home
THE MAN WHO coined the phrase “When I hear the word ‘culture’ . . . I release the safety catch on my pistol” had it easy. He never had to wrestle with words such as “community”. Or “partnership”. For several days this week we wandered around Westport, asking people what made it the best place to live in Ireland. “It’s the community,” they said, over and over. “And partnership”.
The problem, we said a bit testily, is that anyone with a flitter of loyalty will say much the same thing about their own settlement. “Community” and “partnership” trip off tongues so easily nowadays that they mean something only when someone is obliging enough to cite an example of, say, anti-partnership. Involving himself, ideally.
Step up Noel Kavanagh, who was already a major employer in Westport in 1998, when he bought O’Connor’s Fashions on Shop Street. The alterations he had in mind for the premises were clearly not in sympathy with its status as a very prominent listed building, and a battle royal ensued between one hard-nosed, determined grocer and the town council. Somehow, the council prevailed.
“It’s a battle I lost, and happily so,” Kavanagh says now. He tells the story against himself to explain why his message of congratulations to council officials on Monday credited the town’s success in no small part to officialdom. That is not an admission often made by members of the entrepreneurial classes.
He mentions men such as Peter Hynes, the county manager; Martin Keating, the director of services for the Westport area; and Simon Wall, the town architect. “They had a significant part to play in all this . . . by insisting on our conforming to a particular style, sometimes at my own considerable expense,” says Kavanagh wryly. With a string of supermarkets scattered across the west of Ireland, in Northern Ireland and in England, he has dealings with 16 town councils. “Westport’s is right up there at the top,” he says.
Given the general cynicism about politicians and council managements, this is one of the surprising features of Westport’s success story. A willingness to cross party lines for the good of the town is a noble tradition. Members shared the chair even when Fianna Fáil held a majority, says one of that party’s councillors, Margaret Adams. She remembers when they all combined their expenses to fund civic receptions and once even used them to pay for the first load of gravel on the railway line.
It was that long-term solidarity and prioritising of the town that put steel in their spines when council initiatives came under fire. Minister of State for Tourism and Sport Michael Ring – a true “covey”, as locals are known, with Westport lineage that goes back at least to his grandparents – swears that his most testing time in politics was in the 1980s when the town council decided to ban plastic signs. “You can laugh, but that was one of the biggest battles I’ve had to fight. We came up against tremendous political pressure. But we held our ground and we were proven right.”
Signage was always a red-flag issue. Simon Wall – who, significantly, was the first town architect in the country when appointed to Westport, in 1997 – remembers counting no fewer than 38 signs at Knockranny junction alone, “enough to cover three-quarters of an acre when laid on the ground”. The council met a lot of what he delicately calls “negativity” when it took action.
That Westport-first ethos was crucial to the town’s successful drive to protect its core in the era of the bubble. It kept Tesco and others at bay amid demands for out-of-town retail parks, until the retailers caved and settled within the town’s confines.
Westport has no ghost estates. Luck, poor infrastructure and timing played a role, but the council also ensured there was little of the developer-led free-for-all that is evident elsewhere. Although section-23 development and town-renewal incentives seemed to threaten in the late 1990s, the council was far-sighted enough to insist that apartments be family-sized, to prepare for the day when tax incentives ran out. In the meantime, lettings are healthy, avoiding the dark holiday-home syndrome, and the schemes are well managed.
It was a struggle. Developers are what they are, says Seán Staunton. “A lot of them thought a blade of grass was a waste of space,” and it was always up to the councils to keep them in line. Staunton, a former town councillor and a former editor of the Mayo News, remembers developers “complaining bitterly about getting less – far less – than they wanted”. The council was quick to refer schemes to An Bord Pleanála, “a great friend” of the Westport 2000 development plan, says Wall, even though the plan was nonstatutory.
Now the worst of the bubble’s depredations is an idle medical and retail centre on the edge of an estate, which may yet see life in the form of new business incubators.
“You can see the town has developed evenly. There’s no carbuncle stuck on to it,” says New Jersey-born Judy Parker, a veteran of the tough New York rag trade. When I interviewed her in 1998 for a feature on Westport, she was one of a slew of blow-ins who had put down roots. Notably, there were no celebrities among them or members of the political, legal or business set who had overrun places in Connemara or west Cork.