Back in business: How Gweedore is rewriting the script
The townland of Gaoth Dobhair in the Donegal Gaeltacht was hit hard by the economic downturn, but some natives are returning with fresh knowledge and ambition
Tourism is still a massive resource for Donegal, with unspoilt beaches, Mount Errigal (above), Glenveagh National Park, Tory Island and the marketing success of the Wild Atlantic Way. Photograph: Getty Images
Ciaran Richardson, head of R&D at Randox
While the 2016 Census results saw most counties experience some level of population growth over the last five years, three counties experienced a decline: Mayo, Sligo and – hardest hit – Donegal, which suffered a loss of 1.5 per cent.
The townland of Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), in the heart of the Gaeltacht in northwest Donegal, is just one example of the impact the last decade has had on rural towns and villages like it across the State.
This once-thriving area has seen closures of numerous shops, hotels and businesses, and there is palpable gap in the community. Gweedore has been haemorrhaging its people, especially young adults between the ages of 22 and 34, as they sought work in larger Irish towns and cities or had to emigrate.
This is not a new narrative for Gweedore. Christopher Friel, a carpenter and joiner, grew up in Gweedore but has lived in Perth, Australia since 2009. He and his wife Ellen had their first child recently. They intend to move home in the coming years. Friel has returned home 10 times in the nine years since emigrating.
“Myself and six friends left in January 2009. I left when things were good. It was the year after we left that things got bad. Two or three years later, I went back. I noticed a big, big difference and every time since it got worse and worse. The pubs were quiet, there were no restaurants, no buzz about the place.
“So every year you would say to yourself that there was definitely no point in going home,” he says. Now his family does plan to return, though they will live in the Monaghan town of Castleblayney.
Gweedore’s employment history is much like the trajectory of other Gaeltacht areas. Local industry and the jobs it offered was based on traditional businesses such as textiles, or seasonal work such as turf-cutting or fishing. People had to leave to get work even during the 1950s and ’60s, and emigration soared.
Job creation was seen as one solution to keep young people in the area, thus helping the survival of the language, so governments started to put opportunities in place. The turning point for Gweedore was the establishment of Gweedore Industrial Estate in 1966. It went from strength to strength and, in the 1970s, succeeded in attracting people home to live. It was a time when there was a confident mood in the community and tourism from Northern Ireland was booming.
Hotelier Jimmy Boyle ran the Seaview hotel, one of two family-run hotels in the locality owned by his family. The other was the Óstán Gaoth Dobhair. Both have now closed.
“It was a very exciting time [in the 1970s and 1980s]. Gweedore back then was very unique because the Gaeltacht was getting a lot of priority for jobs on the industrial estate. So we weren’t just relying on tourism. We had all-year-round trade, that was the difference,” says Boyle.
The industrial estate continued to grow right up until the late 1990s with a range of companies in sectors including engineering, textiles and snack food manufacturing. It reached peak employment levels in 1998 with 1,388 people.
Boyle took over the family business in 1994 and started investing in both hotels.
“Things were going well and all the signs were very positive. But jobs started to go in the industrial estate. It started to go pear-shaped around about 2003.”
Manufacturing companies started moving to countries in eastern Europe and Asia for cheaper labour costs. Add the crash in 2008 and things spiralled downwards.
“Credit dried up, people’s personal income dried up, and the first thing to get hit would be hospitality,” says Boyle.
“I can only speak for myself, but I was left exposed with a very large building. If I had the old Seaview – 19 bedrooms and a bar – I’d probably still be standing today, but we were too big. The rates were up at €68,000 a year. And emigration kicked in again.”
The Seaview closed in 2015. “It’s very sad [now]. There are so many businesses are closed or gone. The National Irish Bank is gone, AIB is gone. Closed buildings are an awful, awful sight when you go through a parish,” says Boyle.
The attrition of Gweedore Industrial Estate left it on its knees. It had to regroup and try to attract new investment. This new approach included the rebranding of the Derrybeg Industrial Estate to Páirc Ghnó Ghaoth Dobhair (Gweedore Business Park) in 2002.
“The Gaeltacht, in common with other areas, has suffered from the economic downturn in the past decade. But I think it’s fair to say we’ve seen the worst of things and things are turning around,” says Micheál Ó hÉanaigh, director of enterprise employment and property with Údarás na Gaeltachta.
Employment fell on the estate from almost 1,400 in the late 1990s to just over 400 after the latest closure.
“The challenge was to find a newer way of doing things, and then we got hit by the downturn and the country is still working its way through that,” says Ó hÉanaigh.
After the closure of Largo Foods, Údarás established an Enterprise Development Forum, which brought together key agencies such as Údarás, the county council and the institute of technology and put together a three-year plan to “turn things around” with a target of 300 jobs upon completion. Ó hÉanaigh says they are due to make their target.
He is quick to highlight the importance of Áislann Gaoth Dobhair, a three-storey enterprise, innovation and digital hub centre with a hot desk space. The availability of good broadband is vital, he says.
There are undeniable natural assets in Gweedore, and tourism is still a massive resource for it to capitalise on for job creation, with unspoilt beaches, Mount Errigal, Glenveagh National Park, offshore islands such as Tory, and the marketing success of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Gweedore native Michael McBride has returned to take up a role in running An Chúirt Hotel (Gweedore Court Hotel) with the owners, the Doherty family, after working in some of the finest hotels in the world including the Hotel George V in Paris and the Hempel Hotel in London. He is bringing in international expertise including Michelin-star chefs to improve the business.
“I always felt that it doesn’t matter where I go in life, there is no place as beautiful as my home, Gweedore,” says McBride. “However, I always thought we weren’t great at scripting things . . . You need to leave home sometimes and go into an international business environment to learn how to approach business from a structured point of view, from accountability and measurement.
“So we had the natural, raw ingredients but we could have been better in actually getting to the end line.”
McBride believes that the community must work together to make Gweedore thrive again.
“I firmly believe that Gweedore is going to come back,” he said.
Dr Ciaran Richardson is head of R&D at Randox, a medical diagnostic company, at its facility in Dungloe, Co Donegal, 20 kilometres from Gweedore. Randox was founded in Co Antrim in 1982 by Dr Peter Fitzgerald and employs 1,400 people globally. Richardson is originally from Gweedore.
“I’m a scientist and [having studied and worked in the UK], I never believed that I could move home. I applied for a job with Randox in Co Antrim, which would at least be striking distance from home, and they offered me a job as team leader at their facility there.
“In 2012, I was approached by senior management who asked if I would be interested in in heading up the research and development at the Dungloe facility. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me. Back in the late 2000s, things were going well in Antrim and I think Dr Fitzgerald and management were looking to diversify and expand and establish further facilities. The facility was set up in 2008.
“They have invested €10 million in the facility to date, created 110 highly skilled jobs and have ambitious plans to continue adding positions. Randox shows that you can have a very highly skilled operation right here in Donegal.”
Aisling Arnold, Arnold’s Hotel
Aisling Arnold is general manager of Arnold’s hotel, a family-run hotel in the seaside village of Dunfanaghy, 30km from Gweedore. Arnold is a chartered accountant and worked with Deloitte in Dublin for eight years before returning home to the family business. She has implemented a number of changes, including opening the successful Café Arnou.
“During the recession, I got a call one day from my mum and dad. They asked me if there was any chance I would come back and give them a hand. They were kind of struggling, like all businesses, especially in the hospitality sector. I said I would come back for 18 months and see if we could turn this around.
“I thought, ‘What do people expect now?’ Really good coffee, good food, a decent glass of wine. Just because we are in the northwest of Donegal doesn’t mean that we can’t do the same as Dublin or London or Belfast.
“We have a very close-knit community here. I think [success for any rural town or village] is about believing in your area.”