The Irish Times Best Place to Live in Ireland 2021 contest, sponsored by Randox Health, began in June with an invitation to members of the public to nominate their favourite place to live for the award.
Over six weeks, more than 2,400 people submitted entries for 470 different locations – cities, towns, suburbs and villages – in all 32 counties.
The most heavily nominated were the village of Glaslough, Co Monaghan, with 246 entries, and the town of Malahide, Co Dublin, with 320 entries.
Our panel of four judges – Mayo county architect Simon Wall, Monaghan GP Dr Illona Duffy, Nationwide TV presenter Zainab Boladale and Irish Times journalist Rosita Boland – have spent hours reading and debating the entries, and our team are currently on the road visiting the top 20 contenders north and south of the Border.
The competition is a celebration, but it has a serious mission: to highlight good examples of community cohesion and local initiative, in the face of challenges such as the housing shortage and the public health crisis.
Here, our judges share their impressions of the contest so far, what it has told them about today’s Ireland, and what they are looking for in the winner.
Rosita Boland, Irish Times journalist
The most striking thing to me about the 2,400 nominations I’ve read is the high number of pitches for no fewer than three towns and two villages in Co Monaghan: Glaslough, Emyvale, Carrickmacross, Monaghan town and Castleblayney. This didn’t happen in neighbouring Cavan, or indeed, anywhere else. As we visit some of the locations, I’m super curious to dig into why this is.
Specifically, I am absolutely fascinated as to what galvanised what seems like almost the entire adult population of the village of Glaslough 246 nominations out of a population of 450 – to come together as they did to pitch their place for this award. It will be very interesting to learn more about the village and its people.
There was a lot of love for Derry – with 93 nominations, it was much more heavily nominated than Belfast. I wonder is that to do with it being so close to Donegal – as there were lots of entries for Inishowen too.
After reading through all the pitches, my eyes were falling out – but I was also hugely impressed. They are genuine, authentic pitches written by people who really do like living in their communities.
Zainab Boladale, TV presenter, Nationwide
We’ve all spent so much time at home over the last year, it seems people have really been forced to become familiar with what is around them, and that shows in the submissions we’ve received.
It’s been such an enlightening experience to be able to judge a competition like this.
To read the way people describe their homes with love and pride, it’s so wholesome. People really are passionate about their place.
It’s also been interesting to watch the nominations literally map themselves out across the country, especially in the North.
Togetherness in a community is such an important part of our lives, and from reading the nominations entered, it’s clear that people share a joint responsibility for their hometown, village or city.
The best place to live in Ireland, in 2021, should be an area that people of any age can appreciate and grow in. A place where education, work and leisure are easily accessible. A place that has something unique to it, either in its history, its development in the last few years or in its natural landscape.
It should be a place that facilitates the needs of locals and has a reason it entices others to want to live there.
I believe the top contenders we are now researching reflect these factors, and I’m excited to see how the rest of the competition plays out.
Simon Wall, Mayo county architect
As the field begins to narrow, there are many considered and heartfelt pitches from a diverse range of places.
One of the key points for me is that a really good community will have the ability to demonstrate that it has a strong “collective consciousness” that has been used in a positive way to better itself.
This is often demonstrated by a significant presence of volunteerism within a community, and its ability to come together in the face of adversity.
As a local authority architect with an interest in public realm space, I have witnessed through this pandemic how towns, villages and suburbs have successfully responded to the demands of social distancing and localised travel, by reclaiming their public realm spaces through the creation of outdoor social, commercial and dining spaces, invigorating their local economies. This has led people to rediscover their neighbourhoods, and to embrace more local, liveable, walkable and sustainable lifestyles.
In an historical context, Irish towns and villages have been the economic beacons of their hinterlands. Today they often struggle to survive in the face of the societal changes of the past 50 years.
We will be looking for places that have been innovative in making themselves relevant and vibrant to this back drop of an ever-changing world.
Dr Illona Duffy, general practitioner, Monaghan
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed everything about our community environment and the qualities that make somewhere the “best place to live”. Pre-Covid the ease of travelling to work was probably the most important factor for people when deciding on where to live. However, this has all changed.
The increasing ability to work from home, the lockdown forcing people to live within a 5km zone and the temporary loss of restaurants, gyms and other communal places to gather, has meant that we have all had to get to know our localities and embrace our communities.
This change has meant that a short commute to work is no longer as essential and has therefore opened up rural towns and villages as possibilities for a better quality of living with more affordable housing.
The sense of community and need for local amenities where one lives was vital during the Covid lockdowns and showed the importance of the many existing community groups.
In choosing the “Best Place to Live in Ireland” it is important to look across all generations and find a place that meets the needs and enhances the lives of young, of old, of families, of immigrants and more.
Therefore, not only must a place have a strong physical infrastructure with adequate housing and transport, it must also be able to provide a place to live throughout a lifetime and thus have crèches, schools and later life requirements such as home supports and care for the older members of our community.
The sense of community where groups delivered shopping and medicines to those housebound during the Covid lockdown, the presence of open-air facilities that allowed people to exercise and meet safely, and the access to quality broadband allowing people to work and educate from home, were in my mind the new vital requirements of a quality place to call home.
The winner will be announced in The Irish Times Magazine on September 25th.
The Irish Times ran the original Best Place to Live contest in 2012, when Westport, Co Mayo, was selected as the overall winner. It won for its beautiful natural and built environment, sustainable transport and employment opportunities, but most noteworthy was its indomitable community spirit – exemplified in the town’s 90-plus voluntary organisations. It remains to be seen what the equivalent “X factor” will be for this year’s competition.
For more information see irishtimes.com/bestplace.