Recovery in Abbeyleix: ‘There is a recovery, but it is ever so slight’

Co Laois town, bypassed during recession, is seeing slow growth but it is ‘very, very fragile’

Stanley Fyffe, Jenny Kent, Fintan Dunne and Marie Quinn have seen a “fragile” recovery in Abbeyleix, Co Laois. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Stanley Fyffe, Jenny Kent, Fintan Dunne and Marie Quinn have seen a “fragile” recovery in Abbeyleix, Co Laois. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

The town of Abbeyleix in Co Laois was bypassed in 2010, the year the recession was at its worst. The irony of the bypass is that passing trade from motorists has now reduced, yet the main street of the town still thunders under the constant flow of lorries, which take this route to avoid the M7 toll payable between junctions 18 and 19.

In 2000, Jenny Kent opened the Abbeyleix Manor Hotel, which has 44 bedrooms and employs 47 people, making it one of the biggest employers in the town.

“After 2010, we lost about a third of our business between the bypass and the recession. We’re a three-star hotel. Four- and five-star hotels around us began to be put into Nama and we couldn’t compete with them on price,” she says.

Recovery for her has been very gradual. “It’s a very slow rise. We bottomed out in 2013, and this year, turnover is slightly up again. We’re going back to our core business of weddings, and there is an increase in bookings for next year.

“The road is gone, so we had to go out and create something ourselves with the weddings. The more business you do, the more the word spreads. Access to finance is always a difficulty: upgrading rooms and the function room, carpets, repainting, all the maintenance. Banks don’t have any money to lend to small businesses in the country, but to be honest, the least amount of money I can borrow, the better.”

Kent’s biggest fear for the slow continued recovery of her business is a possible rise in the minimum wage. “That would crucify us and many other small and medium businesses in the country, because we are finding it very hard to survive and that is a fact,” she says.

Survival

Marie Quinn has run the business for 32 years. It can seat 30, and she employs six people. She opens seven days a week and closes only for two days at Christmas. To keep her business going, she routinely puts in 12-hour days, starting with a baking shift at 6am.

Would her business have survived the recession if she hadn’t put in so many unpaid working hours herself?

“I don’t think you could pay someone to do what I’ve been doing. Because you’re self-employed, you cannot afford to stop,” she says. “All the businesses in town are fighting for the same passing-trade customers now, whereas there used to be enough for everyone before the bypass. In the recession, the price of products didn’t go down, and that was hard, because we had to keep quality up. Running a cafe is very labour-intensive. It’s not like a shoe shop, where your products are already there. You have to make everything.”

Small improvement

“Small businesses are very much ignored, especially out of the urban areas. You’re beavering away doing your best, and it feels like nobody cares. We’re not being recognised for keeping people employed locally because the numbers are only five or six at a time, but it all counts.”

Fintan Dunne, an estate agent in the town since 2003, says: “There is a two-tier economy in Ireland. Rural towns like us are still struggling and dragging behind, while the likes of Dublin, Cork, and Galway improve. What we’re lacking is jobs.”

In 2007, a three-bed semi in Abbeyleix was going for €245,000. Today, the same kind of house is going for €130,000. “There is a recovery, but it is ever so slight,” he says. “In maybe two or three years, more recovery will filter down to us here. It won’t ever catch up, but maybe it will become a bit more tolerable.”

Parking is free in Abbeyleix, but business-owners complain there is not enough of it since the main street was dug up and reconfigured some years ago.

“Paid parking would be the final nail in the coffin,” says Stanley Fyffe, who is the fourth generation of his family to run their clothing shop.

He describes his shop as “higgledy-piggledy. In it’s own cluttered crazy way, we’re offering something different to the Dundrums and the Liffey Valleys. It’s one of the reasons people come into us, along with service. Smaller towns like us could flourish if they offer more uniqueness; quirky little shops, nice places to eat.

Grocery shops

Like the other business-owners, Fyffe does not believe Abbeyleix is in post-recession.

“Our business is slightly up this year on last year. There is a very small improvement, but it’s very fragile, and you can lose that improvement in the space of a few bad weeks. Personally, I think things are still very, very fragile.”

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