After the bypass: evolution of a midlands town
10 years after Moate was bypassed, finding parking is easy. Running a business is not
Frank Murphy of Lily May’s cafe in Moate, Co Westmeath: “For Moate, the downturn came at the same time as the bypass.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
It’s close to 10 years since I was last in Moate, Co Westmeath, although I regularly commute across the country. That’s because this town, like Tyrrellspass and Kilbeggan and others were all bypassed a decade ago with the expansion of the M6.
Just after the town was bypassed, Róisín Ingle of this paper reported on the reaction from local businesspeople. I’m back to see how some of these businesses have been doing since, and to try and discover what kind of identity Moate now has a town, given that it is no longer bisected by an ever-flowing river of traffic.
The first thing I notice when arriving in Moate is how cars are whizzing past me in both directions. This was never the case in the days when traffic crawled along the bottleneck of the main street, at the rate of some 10,000 cars a day. I also immediately find a parking space. There are no meters, but there is a sign saying parking is for three hours only.
Moate (population 2,763), looks very pleasant, as I walk up and down Main Street. It has a lovely, newly renovated library, an arts centre, independent cafes, an opticians, a pharmacy, a large supermarket, a greengrocer and a couple of butchers, hair salons and barber shops. There’s also a large community school, a small hotel, a bank, Garda station and post office: the cherished services of any rural town. There are 11 pubs, and obviously a lively nightlife: Peadar’s Bar has a sign declaring the premises is “Probably the best party bar in the Midlands”, while the Auld Shebeen’s sign further down the street says, “Moate’s ultimate party venue”.
“Ten years ago, we had four full-time and four or five part-time staff,” Annette Dalton, owner of The Pantry cafe says. “The minute that new road opened you could see the difference,” she told Ingle in 2008. Dalton now employs half the staff she did before the bypass, and is down about 35 per cent.
“As a resident who lives in Moate, I like that the town is quieter. But as a business person, I loved the buzz,” she explains. “It was lovely to see different people all the time. But I would not still be in business now without my local customers, who have always been loyal.”
Her menu does not change any more. “When there were thousands of people coming through a day, I’d have no problem if I wanted to do a pulled pork sandwich as a special,” Dalton says. “If I did that now, it’d be a month before people might try it. You can’t change anything.”
When there were thousands of people coming through a day, I’d have no problem if I wanted to do a pulled pork sandwich as a special
She would like to see more proactive work being done to build opportunities for business in the town. “We’re in Tidy Towns and we have a Men’s Shed, and the library is done up and and a few other things. That’s all lovely, but it doesn’t help business. I think everything will stay the same in Moate and things won’t change.”
Ten years ago, publican Terry Coughlan told Ingle that it would be “six months” before locals would be able to gauge the impact of the bypass. He’s lived and worked in the town all his life.
“The bypass brought in local traffic to us; people from Rosemount and Ballycumber and Mount Temple. They wouldn’t have come into Moate before,” he says. In the last decade, many people bought into a new housing development and now commute to work: “Some to Athlone, but a lot to Dublin.”
As for the town itself, he says: “It’s obvious Moate is not going to grow as a base for business. A lot of the businesses here are struggling, especially with people ordering online,” he says. “I think our future is being a suburb of Athlone; a commuter town.”
Peter Gillivan retired from his butchers business five years ago, and Shane Maher, who used to work there, has since taken over. Maher has retained the name over the shop, which has been in business for decades. “It’s a recognisable name and a kind of landmark to people passing through the town,” as he says.
We talk over the glass counter, over neat arrangements of locally-sourced steak and lamb and chicken skewers, while he intermittently serves customers.
His shop is at one end of Main Street; a walk of some 10 minutes from top to bottom. “Before the bypass, it would take me an hour each time to drive from one end of the town to the other on Fridays when I made deliveries,” he says. “I’ve nearly forgotten what that is like now.”
For him, footfall has gone up due to the increase in local business from nearby villages. “But I don’t think the locals here in Moate have learned how to deal with the bypass yet,” Maher says. “No new businesses are opening. My big fear is that people running the small businesses of the town will retire and nothing will replace them.”
No new businesses are opening. My big fear is people running the small businesses will retire and nothing will replace them
He gives as an example his long-standing former neighbour on the street, John Galvin, whose giftshop closed the previous week after 43 years trading in the town. “He couldn’t compete with people buying from the internet.”
Maher explains why there is a move to bring in parking restrictions. “People from around park in the town and then get on the bus to commute to Dublin. Then there is no parking for local people who want to come into town and do a bit of shopping.” I ask how it will be regulated. He’s not sure, but parking restrictions are definitely coming to Moate.
Frank Murphy is the owner of Lily May’s cafe, and has been in the town for 12 years. “For Moate, the downturn came at the same time as the bypass,” he says. He estimates that maybe 5 per cent of the passing traffic used to stop in the town. “They supported a lot of local shops and businesses, so the bypass hit extra hard as it happened as the same time as the downturn.”
Murphy is one of six members of a volunteer organisation called Moate Partnership. Their main function is to organise the town’s Christmas lights, the Christmas Market, and the St Patrick’s Day parade. My visit is in late January, and yet the town’s Christmas lights are still up.
“Community involvement in the town needs to be a lot more proactive,” he says. “It ends up being the same people every year doing all the work.”
Later that week, Moate Partnership is due to hold a public meeting in the Grand Hotel. Murphy shows me a copy of the letter that has been sent to all local traders. It reads: “Over the last number of years our activities have been organised and carried out by a very small number of people and the meeting will be an ideal forum to determine whether there is an appetite for others to get involved… We look forward to a strong attendance.”
I ask him to estimate the attendance he expects. “If I didn’t see between 40 and 50 people, I’d be quite disappointed,” he says. In addition to the letter sent to local traders, the meeting has been publicised on social media, and in the Westmeath Independent.
One resident declares that for them, the town has become a ‘claustrophobic and parochial’ place since the bypass
When I return to my car, parked at the far end of Main Street, it is with some trepidation, as I have been absent far longer than three hours. I am relieved to see there is no ticket, but wonder how the town plans to implement the three-hour rule in the future.
In a small community such as Moate, everything has the potential to be personal. One resident I talk to during the day I’m there declares that for them, the town has become a somewhat “claustrophobic and parochial” place since the bypass.
They talk at length about this, because they want me to report that while the town might look pleasant to an outsider like me, that to live there can be sometimes stultifying. “Please don’t use my name,” the person says. “People will be offended, but for me, it’s how I feel about the town.”
When I later call Frank Murphy back to find out how many members of the public did turn up for the public meeting, he is now anxious that my reporting might look as if he is complaining about people in the community. Between 40 and 50 people, as he had hoped, did not attend the meeting held by Moate Partnership. Just 14 turned up, plus the six members of Moate Partnership.
“To be honest, we were expecting a bigger crowd,” he says, now wanting to downplay his earlier comments about numbers and the implied criticism they contained about the motivation of the townspeople.
“But the good thing about the meeting is that new faces did turn up, so they showed they cared. I did say that the people of the ground needed more help and it didn’t look likely we could continue with these events unless we got more help. Then we opened up the floor for people to talk.”
At the meeting, a new St Patrick’s Day committee was formed, and it was confirmed that the parade would go ahead again this year. It was also agreed that Moate Partnership should now work closely with a separate community organisation, the Moate Action Group, as it makes more sense to combine shared resources.
“There was a good feeling that came out of the meeting,” Murphy says. Just before the beginning of February, the Christmas lights were finally taken down, by Moate Partnership. They were helped by other members of the community, who had attended the recent public meeting in the Grand Hotel.