Widening gulf and ‘uneasy tolerance’ is killing business in a town that ‘has it all’

Mon, Mar 11, 2013, 09:25

It is a slow mid-week morning for traders on Rathkeale’s main street.

Joe Williams, the only butcher in the town, is one of them. He’s doing specials on minced meat, but there aren’t many takers today. He’s sitting out the back having a cup of tea with a neighbour.

“There used to be four butchers in this town,” he says. “Now, I’m hanging on by my finger- nails. The population has drifted away. The young people have gone. It’s busy at Christmas time, but that’s it.”

There’s no shortage of deserted streetscapes or run-down main streets around the country. Rathkeale’s decline though set in long before the economic downturn.

Nowadays, there are at least 30 empty shops on the street, many of them converted into residential homes or else simply closed down and seemingly abandoned.

Some outlets are more resilient than others. The Rathkeale Hotel is renovated and does a good trade, while the Deel Bakery and Bloomers cafe and deli are among a handful of shops that have a regular stream of customers. But there is no escaping the fact that this is a town under strain.

On the face it, Rathkeale has it all. Statistically, it is one of the safest communities in the State. Its schools are among the best resourced anywhere. Its sporting facilities are unparalleled compared to any other small town. There’s a resilient community spirit with dozens of voluntary organisations.

And yet the town has been dying. The population fell by 20 per cent over a 15-year period until 2009.

In contrast, neighbouring Newcastle West grew by more than 50 per cent over the same period. Many housing estate areas have also suffered, with dozens of properties bought up and either boarded up or unoccupied for long periods of time.

Part of the reason for the town’s decline, according to two official reports, has been a widening gulf between the settled and Traveller communities in the town.

Rathkeale has been long considered by many Traveller families as their spiritual home. At Christmas time, the population of the town swells dramatically – up to three times its normal size – as Travellers return from Britain, Europe or beyond for several weeks at a time.

Yet, Travellers are almost absent from the civic life of the town. There is an “uneasy tolerance” and almost “total disengagement” between both communities, according to the reports.

It is a practically segregated town with clear Traveller and settled residential areas, aside from the Main Street. There’s growing evidence of a “flight” of settled people from the community. Some politicians have gone so far as to warn that all the conditions are there for a “social time-bomb”.

Poor planning
Traders in the town acknowledge it has suffered over recent years and that there is a problem with poor planning and abandoned properties. However they take issue with a perception that there are deep divisions between the Travellers and the settled community.

Butcher Joe Williams says: “There’s no tension. Maybe at Christmas time there can be issues with so many people around, but it’s all exaggerated. I do business with lots of Travellers. They say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.”

Ciara O’Shea who works in a local solicitor’s office in the town, agrees. She feels the media has often presented a distorted picture of life in the town, whether through TV programmes on elaborate Traveller weddings or claiming to reveal the “truth” about criminality.

“There was a documentary on Rathkeale recently and it just wasn’t true to life. It over-dramatised it all. It talked about people being afraid. That’s not true. Maybe at Christmas time, when there’s big numbers around, but there aren’t problems here.”

Losing town centre
Down the street is John Dinnage, who runs a small men’s clothing store. He feels the lack of planning enforcement is the key issue, as shops continue to be bought up and converted into residential units.

“We’re losing our town centre and it’s all down to planning. That’s the issue. There isn’t any problem with Travellers – they come in here and shop just like settled people.”

There’s little doubt, though, that there are gaps between the communities in other ways.

Few, if any, Travellers, are involved in community groups – either because they feel they don’t belong or they just aren’t interested.

There are some pubs frequented by Travellers and others by settled people. You often hear people talking about “us” and “them”, on both sides of the community.

Most Travellers chose not to comment when approached, but those who did felt they didn’t need to participate in community groups because they were happy to look after themselves without “outside interference”.

Others felt they’re were being made to assimilate into a settled way of life when it came to education, rather than having their way of life respected.

As for other settled residents, there seemed to be be underlying resentment that planning laws were being ignored or not enforced, and large sections of the town were being bought up by absentee Travellers .

“Look around here. There’s houses being built with no planning permission. They’re so close together they can’t even plaster the walls. There’s no sewerage. This drags the whole town down. No one has any interest in doing anything about it.”

Rathkeale could well be facing an uncertain crossroads, but there are those who like to believe it has huge potential to flourish, despite its challenges.

There is quiet work behind the scenes at creating more dialogue between Travellers and settled people, as well as finding areas of common ground where everyone can work together.

“Lots of people say the town is finished and it’s dead – it’s not,” says Noel White, who has run the Deel Bakery on the main street for more than two decades. Whenever he brings outsiders on a tour of the town, he says they’re surprised at how much investment and voluntary activity there is in the area.

“Just the other night we had a meeting about reopening the mart. It was a great meeting. The community centre’s been refurbished, we’ve new playgrounds, the headquarters for the county GAA teams are here. There’s so much activity going on. There’s a great spirit here. I’m very hopeful for this town’s future.”

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