The leaving of Charlestown


In the second of a series on Irish towns affected by the downturn, CARL O'BRIENvisits Charlestown, Co Mayo. As more and more locals stream out of nearby Knock airport, those left behind are hopeful business - and life - will return.

SOMETIMES, AS HE sits at the departure gate of Ireland West airport near Knock, Michael wonders how his life changed so quickly. Every lunchtime on Sunday he gets on Ryanair flight FR806 to Stansted. The weekdays are a blur of long, punishing hours working as a construction manager at a site on the outskirts of London.

Then on Fridays, he rushes home to Mayo to snatch a few hours with his wife and son. All too quickly, Sunday morning arrives and it begins all over again.

“It’s the only option – this is the way the hammer has fallen,” says Michael (50), who has been making the weekly commute to the UK for the past year. “I have a child who’s eight. Every day he’s developing and you’re missing out on those crucial years. It puts enormous pressure on the family unit and your relationships. For me, the airport is an umbilical cord. It’s the only way I can see my wife and son.”

Michael is not alone. On a Sunday afternoon at the departures gate, there are dozens of other commuting emigrants waiting to head back to England or further afield. Around a third of those on today’s flights are commuters: carpenters, builders, engineers, therapists, computer programmers. The atmosphere is sombre, with many having said goodbye to their partners and children earlier in the morning. Many are middle-aged parents who have no choice but to leave their families to keep up mortgage payments or cover the bills. They are a new kind of displaced emigrant, caught between making a living in one country and raising their families in another.

Ross Cameron (31) is another waiting to head back to work. He’s married with two children aged three and five. He’s been commuting to London each week since his bathroom supply company folded almost a year ago. He misses his family terribly.

“You get home at midnight on a Friday and the kids are asleep. You don’t have a drink because you want to be up in time for them in the morning. You can’t head out on Saturday night with your wife because you’re off to the airport first thing on Sunday. There’s no downtime. The kids are adaptable, though: they get used to seeing their dad for 24 hours a week.”

George, in his late 50s, travels further still. He’s on his way to Poland, via Stansted, where he works at a language school. He comes back every fortnight. “Skype makes a big difference,” he says. “My wife is at home and I have teenage daughters. When you can see them, it helps. It’s not ideal at all. It just makes me angry to think that it has come to this.”

But it’s not all downbeat. Karen Burke (25) is different from most. She’s a newly-qualified speech and language therapist and is heading to London for good to take up her first job. Unemployed for the past year, she’s delighted to be heading abroad.

“I’ve been out of work since last June, which has been rubbish,” she says. “But I’m lucky – I’m one of a handful out of 35 graduates to get jobs, and we’re all in England. I’ve lots of friends over there. It’s all very rushed – I start tomorrow at 9am.”

Three miles down the road is Charlestown, Co Mayo. Locals joke that the airport should be named after the town, given that it’s far closer than Knock. It’s a compact town with small retailers and wide, well-planned streets.

As you pass the remains of a disused railway platform off the main street you suddenly, inexplicably, cross the border into Bellaghy, Co Sligo. Both towns lie side-by-side, the legacy of a historic grudge between two landowners.

The story goes that during the 1840s, Lord Knox, who owned the land on the Sligo side of the border, insulted Charles Strickland, the agent of the landowner on the Mayo side. Strickland’s revenge was to build a brand new town cheek-by-jowl with Bellaghy, complete with a rival market and – more importantly – dozens of pubs with liberal closing times. Bellaghy declined and Charlestown thrived.

Today, Charlestown is a town of around 900 people. It’s much quieter since the recent bypass diverted traffic from Dublin and Castlebar. But there’s another reason the town is ghostly quiet, especially in the evenings. Unemployment and lack of job prospects means people are leaving.

It’s nothing new to these parts. The town’s hinterland was ravaged by depopulation between the 1940s and 1960s and again in the 1980s. In his influential series for The Irish Times in 1967, No One Shouted Stop!, John Healy wrote of how the drip-feed of young people away from Charlestown was strangling it. “Morning after morning in the 1940s they went in droves like cattle,” he wrote. “There were young boys and girls, young men and women and, too often, they had no education . . . no one got mad for them because they weren’t going to make money and what was here for them but the bog?”

When the boom arrived in the late 1990s, many felt the town had finally turned a corner. Many emigrants came home. Several new housing estates sprouted up around town. The government even pledged to relocate the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to the area. Emigration, it seemed, was a thing of the past.

Today, the word is back on everyone’s lips. There are no official figures yet – census data predates the downturn – but if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, the numbers heading abroad are growing by the day.

HEALY’S CAFE BAR on the main street, a popular haunts for young people in the area, has the hallmarks of a place furnished during the boom: dark timber floors, spot lights, tastefully decorated toilets. Barely a day goes by without someone announcing that they’re leaving. Proprietor John Healy (no relation to the journalist John Healy) began to notice the phenomenon of “emigration parties” towards the end of 2009. They’re still continuing.

“I have one booked in for next week,” he says. “There was another where the lads sold a van, did an auction of the tools and had people over for the ‘funeral’. Then they were out the door. Gone.

“Not so long ago, this place was buzzing. At 8pm on a Saturday evening, you might have 150 young people here and they’d stay drinking till 2am. That’s all changed.”

Brian Colleran (33) is one of many young people from the town considering his future. He’s reduced to doing a bit of part-time work on a farm, as well as working as a doorman on weekends. It can be lonely, he confides, seeing your circle of friends disappear.

“I look at lots of friends who’ve gone off. You see Facebook pictures of them at the beach and you think they’re having a great time, and you must be missing out,” he says. “You see them here one week. And the next they’re booking a flight to Australia. It’s sad, because you see less and less of your own age group.”

Over on the edge of town, the loss of young people is a growing concern at Charlestown Sarsfield GAA club. As a Monday night training session gets under way, trainer Steve Healy admits he is worried about the coming months.

“As of now, we’ve only lost a few players to places like England or Australia, so we’re not that badly hit yet,” he says. “But lots of our players are in their final year in college and finishing construction-related courses. You wonder what kind of work will be around for them? How long will they stay here? We don’t know. You have to say it doesn’t look good.”

Over at the grounds of the local soccer club, it’s also a concern. About a third of the senior team is gone. Some of it is down to lads heading abroad, but more of it is down to players not being able to afford the day-to-day cost of training and playing.

“It’s very sad,” says trainer Martin Hopkins. “But we’ve just got to keep going and try to find new players.” Even with the numbers leaving, some are quick to point out that it’s still no comparison to the black days of mass emigration.

Fr Thomas Johnson, the town’s parish priest, remembers the 1950s, when a GAA team would start off training in the summer with a full squad; by autumn they wouldn’t have enough players to field a team.

“It’s an issue, yes, but I don’t think it bears comparison to those days,” he says. “There is still work, there are lots of families. The number of children being baptised in recent years is holding steady, which is another plus.”

Emigration is just one side of how the economic downturn is affecting the town. The collateral damage caused by unemployment and a slump in retail is potentially catastrophic for Charlestown and other towns in the region.

HENRY’S, WHICH SELLS men’s clothes, is a simple shop. There are a few shelves with old-fashioned jumpers on one side; on the other side are jeans and shirts aimed at younger men. Trade isn’t just slow – it’s almost non-existent. On some days there are no customers at all. On a good day, there are three or four purchases. Owner Jarlath Henry spends most of the day out back doing Sudoku puzzles or listening to the radio. “Sales are diabolical,” he says. “How long can I keep going? To tell the truth, I’m looking for a job. I’d be gone in a flash. It’s costing me to keep this place open. I’ve maybe another month or two.” As we speak, a stockist stops out front in a van, looking to sell clothes, but Henry waves him on.

His shop is on Church Street, one of the three main roads into the town. He points out the closed pubs and grocery shops on the surrounding streets. Rates, he says, were simply too high for many of them to keep going.

Over on the main street, Joe Mahon is feeling the pinch. His Spar is the largest shop in town and is coping with both the recession and competition from large out-of-town supermarkets. Most of his ire is directed at planning authorities. Tesco, which opened in neighbouring Swinford, had a dramatic impact in drawing trade away from Charlestown since it opened last year, he says.

“It just sucks trade away from the surrounding towns. It might employ 100 people, but it takes them away from other areas. What does that achieve? Nothing. And most of the profits go back to Britain,” he says.

Not everyone is gloomy about the town’s prospects. In sharp contrast, George Cregg, a salesman and chair of the town’s chamber of commerce, is a voice of relentless optimism. A returned emigrant from the US, he retains that country’s can-do approach to business. His wife runs the Market Cafe.

“Since the bypass we’ve doubled in trade,” he says. “Now, people who pass through are more likely to stop off. Before, they were always on the go and they wouldn’t stop.”

His own business – he delivers office supplies to companies across the region – is also thriving. “I’m positive. If we’re negative with customers, it just adds to the negativity. We have to be more positive. There is a great quality of life. We have a new Government now, we should have an amnesty on negativity. It’s time to get rid of the baggage we had and get on with things. We shouldn’t be stuck in a rut.”

SO WHAT DOES the future hold for a place like Charlestown? Most agree the town is in a far better position than it was in the late 1960s, with better standards of education, a bigger population and better infrastructure. If the economy does rebound, then places like Charlestown should be in a good position to benefit.

But there are other, more immediate concerns. The town’s only secondary school faces an uncertain future. The Marist Sisters announced recently that they plan to withdraw their patronage of the school within three years. If no alternative patron is found, more than 200 students will need to find alternative schools. Town leaders, though, are hopeful it won’t come to that.

John Healy’s brother Gerry feels prospects for Charlestown are as bad as they were in the 1950s or the 1980s. “I lived through those recessions – but they were nothing like this,” he says. “Then, people were more self-sufficient and had their own food. They didn’t have the personal debt people have today. These young fellas, who had their vans with their names on the side of them, are gone. I don’t see them coming back.”

Most aren’t quite as negative. Over the longer term, local leaders say fostering and supporting small businesses will be vital to creating sustainable communities.

“We seem to be making it as hard as possible for businesses in small-town Ireland that are struggling to survive,” says local Sinn Féin councillor Gerry Murray. “We have high rates, high energy costs. We need to tackle that. I don’t think the Government realises the scale of the problem at local level.”

There is no shortage of bright ideas to breathe new life into this part of rural Ireland. Just down the road at Ireland West airport, the chairman, Liam Scollan, has ambitious plans to develop an industrial park in the area. It has the potential, he says, to create 300 jobs over a five-year period in tourism, renewable energy and IT.

“We’ve been very disappointed at the response of the Government,” he says. “For two years, we’ve had definitive proposals to create these jobs. But it’s as if we’ve been telling them about paint drying.”

Foreign direct investment in the region has been a positive, he says, but it’s hardly sustainable and few have a genuine commitment to the country.

“If you look back, we were bailed out by Europe in the 1980s. We were bailed out by American multinational investment in the 1990s, and now we’ve been bailed out by the EU and IMF,” Scollan says. “We need to create wealth of our own, rather than become fodder for overseas investors. ”

Optimists such as George Cregg acknowledge the scale of the problem – his son will likely emigrate after college – but he feels the future will be bright if the right decisions are made and entrepreneurs are encouraged.

“I think back in the 1960s, there was a black cloud over this area. People were emigrating straight out of school. Now it’s different. We’re better educated. We’re a different breed of people. I think we’re a population which will take a chance and give it the best shot.

“Those people leaving now? We desperately need them to come back. I’ve no doubt that, in time, they will.”

Building a future for Charlestown

To see what hard work and vision can achieve in a town like Charlestown, you head out of the town until a sprawling manufacturing plant appears on the town’s outskirts.

Thirty years ago, this was a glorified shed. Tom Grady mortgaged his small farm and set up a joinery workshop. Today, Grady Joinery is a large business which produces A-rated windows and doors which up to recently could only be imported.

At its height it employed 300 people, though numbers reduced to around half that since the downturn. But things are beginning to look up once again. Just last week, the company advertised to fill some vacancies in quality assurance and sales.

“In the town things are difficult,” says Tom’s son, Arthur Grady. "But unlike the last recession, there are good prospects. There’s a vibrant airport within miles of here, much improved road network and broadband which makes its possible for small businesses to offer their services to a wider customer base thus grow and create employment.”

It’s a long way from the scenes in Charlestown depicted by journalist John Healy who was horrified at the complacency and apathy of the political establishment as thousands of his contemporaries emigrated in the late 1960s.

“There is in Charlestown of 1967,” wrote Healy, “ a savage echo of Synge’s world, for you can stand above the town on the straggling plantation and echo the words of Maura in Riders to the Sea: ‘They’re all gone now and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me.’ ”

The series - and the resulting book, published as Death of an Irish Town- didn’t go down well with locals who objected to the notion that their town was dying. Healy’s brother brother Gerry, who still lives in the town, joked that he couldn’t get a drink in Charlestown for six months.

Retired history professor and Mayo man, Prof Seamus Ó Catháin, is an admirer of Healy’s work, but feels the extent of emigration was exaggerated. “The area did suffer. But remember, the GAA team of ‘ghosts’ he wrote about went onto win the county championship in 1972. And it was trained by his nephew!” he says.  “The late 1960s were perhaps the nadir, but it grew during the 1970s. Between the 1980s and 2000, the town grew by 20 per cent. In that sense, the story of Charlestown is a positive one.”

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