“There’s a saying, high tides raise all ships, and towns are like that. One thing can kick off another thing and a trend can begin out of nowhere.”
Matthew Loftus has just opened a new cafe in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, and feels he has hit the town at the right time.
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift toward remote working, with growing evidence suggesting office workers are considering a move out of the city as a result.
Recent data from MyHome.ie shows searches for properties less than €100,000 have gone up sixfold in counties Cork and Leitrim and up fivefold in Galway, Wexford and Mayo as buyers look for value without the constraints of a commute.
As a consequence, some of Ireland’s smaller towns are seeing an increase in economic activity. Ballaghaderreen is one such town bristling with a sense of renewed energy.
Since the first lockdown in March, five new businesses have appeared on the main street; Grow cafe, the renovated Durkin’s Bar and Restaurant, an expanded Computers4u store, Enhanced Motion (a neuromuscular therapy clinic) and GRG sports, an online sportswear store.
Local estate agent James Kilcoyne says house sales in the area have been "phenomenal" since July. "We're down to the bare bones of what we actually have left to sell," Kilcoyne says.
Some city-based workers, originally from the town, returned for the initial lockdown and have yet to leave. There is also a sense among business owners that the lockdowns have led people to become reacquainted with local businesses instead of taking to bigger satellite towns of Castlebar, Roscommon or Athlone for their shopping.
But with a vaccine on the horizon will things revert to pre-coronavirus normality, or is Ballaghaderreen – and rural Ireland in general – experiencing a permanent regeneration?
A nationwide survey of 7,000 people across Ireland found that 87 per cent of respondents were working remotely because of the virus and 83 per cent of those surveyed said they would like to continue to do so in some form after the pandemic. The Western Development Commission (WDC), which conducted the survey alongside the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway, is running a campaign to encourage remote workers to move west called More to Life.
Tomás Ó Síocháin is chief executive of WDC which is based in Ballaghaderreen. The organisation first introduced a remote working policy in the office in 2003, making it one of the earliest State agencies to embrace the concept.
Ó Síocháin says there are three key elements needed to make widespread remote working a reality: good technology, a lower carbon economy and a recognition among companies that remote working is an acceptable option.
“I think the most significant change in the context of Covid is that shift in culture or mindset. That’s not to be underestimated,” he says.
The commission has developed a “talent tool” where people can register their interest to move west and input their skillset. The growing database can assist the IDA in attracting investors to the area and it builds a picture of how many people are serious about making the move.
The commission is also working with more than 100 remote working hubs along the Atlantic coast, from Donegal to Kerry, to draw them into one network. The Atlantic Economic Corridor Hubs Project has an initial €1 million in funding from the WDC and Ó Síocháin hopes it will help answer lingering remote work concerns by providing a correct office space, high-speed broadband and, in some instances, childcare facilities.
A fresh front
A remote working space will form part of the newly refurbished Durkin's Bar and Restaurant on Ballaghaderreen's main street, which was recently sold to a local investor and leased to James Mitchell and Patrick Sharkey.
It came as a big shock to both James, who had worked in Durkin’s for 26 years, and Patrick, who had been there for 16 years, when the Durkins family announced in June they were selling the business. The bar, restaurant and guesthouse has been on the square since 1976, catering for everything from Confirmations, Communions and funerals to Irish dancing lessons, county title wins and radio broadcasts.
The pair have overseen an extensive renovation of the premises, which will now include a remote working boardroom, a function room, a cafe, bar (with a new cocktail menu) and a 21-bed guesthouse. They hope to open in December, when Level 5 restrictions lift. “There isn’t one part of the building which hasn’t got something new . . . by the time we’re finished every corner will have been changed,” says Mitchell.
“It’s hard to know post-pandemic what will happen, but I think it has shown people can work from home and I think that will lead to more people moving west, or moving home. Hopefully that will continue – certainly we’ll be providing the services for that,” Sharkey adds.
Bread van queues
One businesswoman who was on the square before the virus hit is Stacey McGowan, whose bakery van Dun Bakehouse has operated since 2018.
Every Friday morning her sourdough breads, scones, pastries, tarts and coffee attract long queues that would rival those of any artisan city bakery. “It’s been much busier since we reopened – a lot of people working from home. There’s a lot more of the younger crowd.”
She is hopeful that the boost in business will last. “I don’t think it’s going to disappear when this is all finished, because it suits everybody – both employers and employees. Even if people have to go back to the office once a week or whatever, it won’t just go back to what it used to be.”
A growth mindset
Ballaghaderreen native Matthew Loftus went to school in the town and studied engineering at NUI Galway, but took to vegan cooking after graduating. He gained a substantial social media following with his video recipes, and began selling his food at farmers’ markets and in local shops under the company name Grow. Originally he planned to open a cafe in Castlerea.
“I felt like Ballagh was going the opposite direction – I didn’t see any green shoots of life, I didn’t feel a lot of energy, I didn’t see people trying stuff out or just going for it.” But after the first lockdown when he saw other businesses – like Enhanced Motion and GRG Sport – put up their shopfronts it gave him a “great sense of encouragement”.
“It meant people were believing in it [Ballaghaderreen] enough to put their business on the line.”
Without thinking too much about it he decided to open his cafe there on the square instead of in Castlerea.“Towns need a diversity of business . . . it takes only a few little things, and then more people start going to that town. Then a cafe pops up, and before you know it, there’s a trend and it’s like ‘oh that town has great cafes’.” Business has been “great” since he opened in September. Currently limited to takeaway food and coffee, he has plans to do up the garden and host movie nights and evening events once restrictions are lifted.
‘It’s a no-brainer’
Kilcoyne says he has sold houses in the Ballaghaderreen area to people from Scotland, Spain, Germany, Dublin and many locals, too. While he thinks remote working has driven a certain portion of these sales, he does not believe it is the main driver – he believes that is “value for money”.
A Daft.ie report at the end of 2019 found the town to have the country’s cheapest housing market, with average property values below €100,000.
For James Greevy and Amy Beirne, it was a combination of value for money, the reality of remote working and the draw of their hometown which led them to buy in Ballaghaderreen.
Amy works at Custom Ireland, a destination management company based in Dublin. James works for Herdwatch, an agricultural technology company based in Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Before the virus hit, they lived in an apartment in Naas, Co Kildare – a midway point for both their workplaces but still a long commute for both.
“We were spending over €1,000 a month in rent in Naas and that just seemed madness,” says James. They looked at buying a house there, but the savings required as well as the unaffordability of the mortgage if one of them were out of work soon ruled that out. The reality was that neither really wanted to stay in Naas long term.
“I think we both love being in the countryside, there is only so much time we can spend in the city without feeling like we need to go and be outside for a while,” says Amy.
Then, Amy’s grandad’s house in Callow – a townland between Frenchpark and Ballaghaderreen – went up for sale. “There was a little bit of a sentimental aspect to it for me, but the price had a lot to do with it as well. You’re just looking at how much value you get for a house in the countryside versus a house in Naas,” says Amy.
The couple planned to chip away at a substantial renovation over a number of years while still living in Naas, but that all changed very quickly. “By the time we actually had the keys to the house the world was a different place. All of a sudden you were three to four weeks into being trapped in the apartment in Naas and straight away remote working was a reality,” James says. The couple packed up their apartment and have moved back to their respective parents’ houses while they renovate.
“There’s definitely more people our age at home now, people who would normally be working away in Dublin or Galway,” James says, but he’s not sure if they will still be around post-Covid.
“I’d say it completely depends on employers’ attitudes to remote working when this starts to lift. But for people who are living in Dublin who are earning good salaries but are also paying an absolute fortune in rent, it’s a no-brainer.”