Ireland’s new motorway plazas: A long way from ‘f*** me, Kinnegad’

Kinnegad Plaza: staff at the Mac’s Place carvery. Photograph: Alan Betson
DRIVING AROUND IRELAND HAS CHANGED A LOT AS BIG, BRIGHT SERVICE STATIONS HAVE CROPPED UP ALONG THE MOTORWAY NETWORK, INCLUDING THE NEWLY OPENED KINNEGAD PLAZA

Joey Baker, the supervisor at Kinnegad Plaza, is showing me around the seven-week-old service station built where the M4 meets the M6, on the Meath-Westmeath border. It’s the newest of the six large Plaza motorway service areas built by Pat McDonagh, the Supermac’s owner, who has just been granted planning permission for a seventh, at Portlaoise.

All the Plazas have roughly the same layout, with a Spar shop on the left as you enter, and a row of McDonagh-owned restaurants directly ahead: a Mac’s Place carvery, a SuperSubs sandwich shop, a Papa John’s pizza restaurant, a standard Supermac’s (which is also a drive-through to the rear), a Bewley’s coffee dock to the far right and a large, bright seating area to the front and upstairs.

Kinnegad was always a service town. Every bus in Ireland stopped here. But in the last years it was a pure ghost town. The motorway killed it. This is breathing life into it

After a conspicuous absence, these larger European-style service stations finally seem to be booming across the motorway network, with the Plaza group joining similarly convenient and generic offerings from Circle K and Applegreen. (There’s an Applegreen service station just up the road from Kinnegad, at Enfield.) The absence of such sites, Sean O’Neill of Transport Infrastructure Ireland, or TII, tells me, was partly because of the piecemeal development of the motorways, which left plenty of towns un-bypassed for a long time.

But there was also, it has to be said, a recession to contend with, and huge resistance to the motorways and motorway services from businesses and politicians in newly bypassed towns. Many sites were subject to long planning delays. “I think it took a while for everyone to get a feel for what was happening with the motorways,” says Pat McDonagh. “Now I think it has matured. People know what’s happening and that there is a necessity for these.”

Kinnegad Plaza: staff at the Mac’s Place carvery. Photograph: Alan Betson
Kinnegad Plaza: staff at the Mac’s Place carvery. Photograph: Alan Betson

TII and its predecessor the National Roads Authority – TII was formed in 2015, in a merger of the NRA and the Railway Procurement Agency – started developing service areas on State-owned land in two tranches. They did so firstly back in 2009, in partnership with Superstop, a consortium of Applegreen and Tedcastle Oil Products, and, more recently, in partnership with Circle K (although the rival bidder, the Superstop 2 consortium, legally challenged this tender). They did this in the hope that the private sector would take the initiative on other sites.

McDonagh is one of those private businesspeople, and today Kinnegad Plaza employs 75 full-time staff serving people travelling between Dublin, Galway, Sligo and Mayo. (A truck-refuelling area is still under construction.) Joey Baker is sensitive to the idea that they’re pulling business out of small towns. He has lived here most of his life and, despite spending five years in England, jokingly refers to moving four miles down the road as emigrating. The Plaza is filled with framed GAA jerseys and pictures of local sites of interest. Last weekend they held a fundraiser for Coralstown Kinnegad GAA, and about 1,000 people came out to watch the stunt biker Matty Griffin risk life and limb for their entertainment.

“Kinnegad was always a service town,” he says. “Every bus in Ireland stopped here. But in the last years it was a pure ghost town. The motorway killed it. This is breathing life into it, an oxygen and defibrillator all in one.”

Today it’s a snapshot of Ireland on the move. Daytripping families, tourists and commuters pass through, locals meet for coffee, and businesspeople chat feverishly over notebooks. A lot of coffee is sold. Some visitors are thrilled with motorways and convenient, efficient services, while others wax nostalgic for villages and family-owned shops. Sometimes the same person expresses both views.

There are industrial psychologists who spend a lifetime working on the design of places like this

Geraldine Martin is holding her nine-week-old baby, Bobby, while her mother, Sheila Tully, is trying to distract her daughter, Teighan, and niece Alexia from the Toy Story merchandise for sale nearby.

“She really wants a Jessie,” whispers Tully of Alexia, who has a picture of Jessie from Toy Story on her shirt.

“And I want a Toy Story watch,” says Teighan.

They’re on their way from Granard to the Irish National Stud because the girls love horses.

“Clip-clop,” says Alexia.

“I remember as a child there was never anything like this place,” says Martin. “When we drove we always brought a picnic. But these places are great for a quick snack, toilets and a drink.”

“It was a real treat then to stop at Mother Hubbard’s,” says Tully.

“But it’s everyday for them,” says Martin. “They’re used to it.”

Joey Baker stops by, and they end up talking about Love Island. “Did you see that fella who won it?” he says.

“Like Maura [from Love Island], we’re keeping Longford lit,” says Sheila.

The motoways are great for getting from A to B. But the older roads are a nicer drive. If I was driving my Honda Goldwing it would be great

Kieran and Marian Walsh are retirees who dropped a friend to Dublin Airport this morning and are meandering home to Athlone along the back roads. Why? “Because we haven’t seen them in a while,” says Kieran. “We saw a lot of bad planning, a lot of ribbon development on the roads. You know that old thing you see in auctioneers’ offices – ‘road frontage’? We’re seeing a lot of that.”

They’re here for a break and to do a bit of “people-watching”.

“If I could write like Maeve Binchy I’d get a benefit out of that,” says Kieran.

They talk a little about the layout of the Plaza and the different restaurants. “There are industrial psychologists who spend a lifetime working on the design of places like this,” says Kieran.

Will they rejoin the motorway for the rest of their trip? “We’ll go the old road,” says Marian. “The motorways are boring. There’s nothing to see on them.”

“They’re great for getting from A to B,” says Kieran. “But the older roads are a nicer drive. If I was driving my Honda Goldwing it would be great.”

Does he have a Honda Goldwing?

“He imagines he has,” says Marian.

“I wouldn’t even want one,” he says about the touring motorbike, “but the lifestyle of being out there with friends cruising these old roads, that’s attractive.”

Kinnegad Plaza: Barry Duffin, Shane Dillon and Jamie Downey. Photograph: Alan Betson
Kinnegad Plaza: Barry Duffin, Shane Dillon and Jamie Downey. Photograph: Alan Betson

Paddy Daly beckons me over to talk as he eats his sandwich. He works for an oil company for which he zigzags across the country, meeting the owners of filling stations. “Once, when you drove from Dublin to Cork, each small village had a shop or deli or service station. The reasons those towns survived was people went into them.”

He worries about “small-village Ireland” and thinks that small companies can’t really compete with the bigger operators. He was once in the filling-station business himself, in Cloghan in Co Offaly. “My brother had a bungalow with two petrol pumps out in the yard. We were sitting drinking tea one Sunday evening and my father said: ‘You know, them petrol stations with a shop are going to take off. You should open one of them.’”

Soon he had two. The business continuously evolves, he says. “My dad couldn’t understand me paying big money for a Kenco machine, because ‘Who was going to pay £1 for a cup of tea?’ After five years I sold that business, and the machines had sold 130,000 cups of tea... In that time 70 per cent of the sales were tea. Sure who’s drinking tea now? It’s all coffee.”

He misses having filling stations sometimes, he says, because he likes being part of a community and being of service. He’s very involved with the National Ploughing Championships, and his favourite job there is “helping people to find their cars when it’s getting dark.” He laughs. “The look of relief on their faces!”

The food here is lovely. We had breakfast here for €9. That’s good up near Dublin. It’s cheap and it’s comfy and clean

Rebecca Gilchrist, who is a social-care worker, and her Connacht rugby player boyfriend, Conor Kenny, are recovering after a couple of days of driving around trying to find her a new car. Gilchrist has resolved to just go to a friend who works at a garage. “He’ll sort it out.”

“My back is killing me,” says Kenny.

“I think you stop in places like this for more of a rest, really,” says Gilchrist. “And the food here is lovely. We had breakfast here for €9. That’s good up near Dublin. It’s cheap and it’s comfy and clean.”

“I remember coming to Dublin from Galway when there was no motorway,” says Kenny. “You could be six hours on the road.”

Nowadays he says he often finds himself in the Plaza in Galway. “It’s pretty much the same as this one.”

“You’d nearly forget where you are,” says Gilchrist.

For almost two hours four people have been huddled in conversation over notebooks and laptops in a corner of the premises. When two of them get up to leave I go over to talk to the two who remain, Anthony Carey and David O’Connor. They run Photo-Me Ireland and are wearing shirts with “Photo-Me” etched on the chests. They provide photo booths and, more recently, coin-operated laundry machines. “I know that’s a bit of a strange mix,” says Carey.

They increasingly find themselves having business meetings on the road. “Maybe five or 10 years ago you might sit in an office to discuss something,” says Carey. “Now people tend to do it on the move.”

Everyone is on the move now, he says, which is where the laundry machines come in. They’re a relatively new product for them, but they’re proving surprisingly popular. They’ve been installing them in shopping centres and forecourts just like this one. Are they looking around and wondering why there isn’t one here? They laugh. “Pretty much, yeah,” says O’Connor.

Kinnegad Plaza: truck driver John Marshall. Photograph: Alan Betson
Kinnegad Plaza: truck driver John Marshall. Photograph: Alan Betson

Kinnegad Plaza is a little off the motorway, but a lot of truckers come here, I’m told, because they’re bypassing the motorway to avoid the toll. Outside in the car park, John Marshall shows me the cab of his lorry. “I always wanted to be a driver,” he says. “I grew up on it. My dad was a truck driver, and I followed in his footsteps.”

He shows me around. “I’ve a bed here,” he says, pointing at a bed behind the seats above which a Down GAA flag is hoist. (He’s from Down but lives in Ballinasloe, in Co Galway.) “And there’s a bunk up here.”

He has an eyebrow ring and a camouflage T-shirt. He has the names of his four children tattooed on one of his arms. On the dashboard are a Minions toy and a Cartman from South Park toy. “My kids say he looks like me.”

He spends four nights a week sleeping in his truck. In the past few days he’s been all over the country and is currently on the road to Portumna, in Co Galway, with a cargo of blue pallets. All drivers now have a machine documenting their driving time, and the regulations mandate a 45-minute break every 4½ hours. That makes service stations like this one essential. “You can shower and change and have a nice meal.”

And he gets to meet the other truckers, who give each other advice about traffic and safe places to park. “There’s only so much you can listen to on the radio, so the first thing you want to do when you see someone is to start talking to them.”

He often brings his nine-year-old daughter out on the road with him. She sleeps in the bunk above his bed. His father still drives too. “He’d prefer to sleep parked on the side of the road. He’s that generation. He’d go on the old roads and find a wide spot and have his food with him.”

Marshall loves trucks. “It’s sort of in the blood. I love the freedom... I have everything I need.” He opens up a compartment. “Gas for my cooker.” He points beneath the bed. “A fridge.” He opens another compartment. “Saucepans. It’s a home away from home.” He laughs. “I sleep like a baby.”

Kinnegad Plaza: the Edwards family from Canada. Photograph: Alan Betson
Kinnegad Plaza: the Edwards family from Canada. Photograph: Alan Betson

Michelle and Kevin Edwards and their children, Michael and June, are from Canada and are driving around Ireland in a rental car. They can’t get over how easy it is to drive here. Back in Canada they regularly drive to a mall three hours away. On holidays they drive for 10 hours to see relatives.

“We were just talking about how easy it must be to be a truck driver here,” says Kevin. “I mean, it’s just two- or three-hour journeys.”

“They still feel long to me, because I can’t see out the window,” says Michael, the youngest.

A hirsute man with an interesting hat asks Joey Baker where the maps are, buys one and then goes to sit outside. “I have some bad habits to attend to,” he explains, lighting a cigarette.

His name is Keith Weber, and he’s a retired public servant from Austin, Texas. A few years ago he found himself newly divorced and recovering from a bad accident (he pulls his trouser leg up to show me his badly injured foot) and wondering, “What now?”

“What now” included making friends with Dublin City FM’s Americana guru Noel Casey, recording a country album and visiting Ireland twice. The album is dedicated to Weber’s son, who died at the age of 29, and the sleeve art features a picture of one of his tattoos. It’s a great bit of gravel-voiced country music. (He gives me a copy.)

Driving here has been a bit of a challenge, Weber says. “The motorways are great, but off the motorway the roads are as wide as bicycle paths. I’m only in a little Toyota. and when you’re coming down a narrow lane and a tour bus is coming towards you...” He pauses. “That’s wild.”

His GPS system has also been confusing him, so he pats his new map reassuringly. “I need that for a sense of where I’m going.”

What type of hat is he wearing? “This is a beaver-felt bowler, popular in the old west.” He laughs. “It’s one of a kind that fits my head exactly and is shaped to fit this face.”

Kinnegad Plaza: Keith Weber from Austin, Texas. Photograph: Alan Betson
Kinnegad Plaza: Keith Weber from Austin, Texas. Photograph: Alan Betson

Several gaggles of Spanish teenagers come into the building. Their bus drivers, PJ Walsh and Noel Curley, sit down to eat breakfast rolls. Do they always stop here?

“We would lately,” says Walsh, and they both laugh. “This one has an incentive for us to stop here.”

What incentive? “I don’t know if I can tell you.”

“Each person you bring will spend at least a fiver, so they incentivise us to bring them in,” says Curley.

“We get up to €9 worth of food for free, but the other places do that too,” says Walsh. “But here, for every 1,000 customers we bring in we get a night in a Supermac’s hotel.”

Walsh has been bus-driving for a year and a half. He also has a farm. “Cool,” I say.

“‘Cool’ is the wrong word. Some people might say ‘you fool’.”

They both laugh. “Anyway, tell them you’re a bus driver the next time you come in,” says Curley. “You’ll get a free meal.”

Kinnegad Plaza: Jean Rafter and Liam O’Neill. Photograph: Alan Betson
Kinnegad Plaza: Jean Rafter and Liam O’Neill. Photograph: Alan Betson

Jean Rafter and Liam O’Neill are driving from Brownstown, in the Curragh, to Leitrim, where they plan to do nothing but fish and read books. Rafter works for Tusla while cowboy-hatted, long-bearded O’Neill is retired but once worked assembling stages for shows around the country. Before that he was in the Army, and when he left he decided to stop shaving forever, he says. “That was 1978.”

“When I was working I used to like the little towns,” he says, “and we’ve been coming on the backroads from Kildare to Leitrim.”

“We prefer it when we’re rambling,” says Rafter.

“Remember the little pubs you’d stop at years ago?” says O’Neill. “They’re all closed now, even on the back roads. The likes of Portarlington and Rathangan, they were merchant towns one time, on the canals, and now they’re all empty.”

Rafter sighs. “I think kids won’t have any sense of a journey at all,” she says. “When they go on journeys from Dublin to Galway they’ll stop once at a plaza, whereas I could remember all the places and cafes. My dad used to recite poems about the traffic. ‘Maynooth to be sure is very poor, Kilcock is very bad, but of all the towns I’ve ever seen the worst was Kinnegad.”

O’Neill laughs. “The real version of that was: ‘But of all the towns I’ve ever seen, f*** me, Kinnegad.”