How do you fix a broken town?


The modern Irish town has been hit hard by the crash. In the first part of a major ‘Irish Times’ series CARL O’BRIENvisits Youghal, Co Cork

IT’S A SAD, GREY morning in Youghal. As you walk along the town’s main street you pass Merricks department store, once the oldest in Ireland, which is lying empty after the last retailer moved out of the store’s former building a few months ago. Farther along is the Regal Cinema, which shut last year after 74 years in operation. The Devonshire Arms, one of two large hotels in the town, is hard to miss: it’s had its windows boarded up for months. The town has dozens more empty shopfronts, with dusty windows and peeling paintwork or “to let” signs, which used to host bustling toyshops, newsagents, supermarkets and pubs.

For hundreds of years this seaside town was famous for its long, elegant main street. The clock tower and pretty 19th-century shopfronts made it one of the most photographed towns in the country. Today Main Street has an air of near-devastation. The commercial centre is in slow collapse, the result of a sharp downturn in trade and a jump in the popularity of large out-of-town retailers like Tesco.

Over on the edge of town the deserted industrial estates point to another story of loss. Weeds obscure buildings that once provided manufacturing work for thousands of employees. Faded signs welcome visitors to company buildings, now hidden behind rusting, padlocked gates. It’s an eerily quiet no-man’s-land, almost like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie.

All the town’s big factories are now closed. Elba, Couristan Carpets, Technicolor Home Entertainment, Artesyn Technologies. They have all shut down over the past decade, leaving at least 2,000 people without jobs. The last employees in the only remaining factory, Tytex, a Danish medical-textiles manufacturer, were let go a year ago.

The town’s biggest employer is now St Raphael’s, a former psychiatric hospital that became a care institution for people with intellectual disabilities. It employs 250 people.

“If that ever closes you might as well put up two gates on either side of the town,” says James Daly, a Siptu shop steward who dealt with the fallout of many of the company closures. “To see husbands and wives losing their livelihoods, devastated and worrying about their homes and the future for their children, it’s absolutely heart-wrenching.”

Youghal’s town centre is dying. Unemployment has soared with the closure of old industries, and the economic centre of the town is in danger of collapse. Young people are leaving in search of work elsewhere. Poor planning decisions at the height of the boom have also left it with unsightly and largely empty apartment blocks.

The downward spiral of a town like Youghal is only a single tragedy in a much larger story. Crippling unemployment, financial insecurity and emigration are exacting a heavy toll on towns like it across the country. Statistics and indicators of economic growth or joblessness tell you only so much. They don’t show the carnage that results from the collapse of industries, or the shattering experience of joblessness.

Towns like Youghal are filled with the stories of people struggling to find work, or battling to hold on to it, of families under strain or torn apart by emigration, of generations-old family firms biting the dust.

What is worse is that the decline of these communities isn’t just explained by the sad and inevitable legacy of history. There is a sense of neglectful, or indeed deliberate, public policies by local and national government that squandered opportunities and laid the foundation for their decline.

Yet there are also stories of hope, of new businesses setting up in the teeth of the recession, of jobless people retraining and carving out opportunities for themselves, and of towns rediscovering a resilience that few realised they had.

The future of these towns is uncertain, though one thing is clear: with the Government’s coffers empty, and increasing uncertainty about our ability to lure foreign investment, they will need to draw on their inner strengths to remake themselves and prosper once again.

ANGELA HEHIR STILL finds it hard to drive past the empty shell of the factory where she spent some of her happiest years. “I worked in Tytex there for 12½ years,” says the 42-year-old, a mother of one. “Everyone knew each other or socialised together. A lot of couples met there. There were neighbours and friends. It couldn’t have been a happier set-up, really.”

Tytex, which employed up to 150 people, said it was pulling out of Ireland because it couldn’t afford the high labour costs; it relocated the factory to eastern Europe.

“It’s hit us very hard,” says Hehir. “Myself and my partner have been building a house, so how do you pay for that? There’s no going out any more, no weekends away or holidays. It’s worse for families where both parents were employed there . . . There’s no work in this town – none. Everyone is leaving to find work. The shops are closing left, right and centre.”

Hehir says the social impact on Youghal has also been devastating. “The pubs and cafes would be full. You’d meet people in town. Now, for lots of people, it’s a case of collect the dole and go home. They can’t afford to go out. It’s such a shame.

“It’s harder here because this is a town that’s always had thriving industry. I’d worked in the factory since I was 17. You could walk from one job to the next. Now, for the first time, I’ve no prospect of employment. There’s no other work: the shops aren’t taking anyone on. You can commute, but that costs a lot of money. As I see it the town is literally closing down around us; it’s becoming a ghost town. But no one seems to be doing anything about it.”

She fears for the future of her child and for other young people in the area. Unemployment in the town is heading in the direction of 20 per cent, well above the national average of about 14.5 per cent. Young people leaving education are among those at highest risk of unemployment.

Donal Daly is one a growing band of people commuting long distances from Youghal to find work. A mortgage broker, his work dried up with the property crash. Now he commutes to Limerick each day, making a round trip of about 250km. “You’ve got to go wherever there’s work. The way I look at it I was lucky enough to find work there. I have to support my family: I have two children,” he says.

“It’s incredible how things have gone backwards so quickly here over the past few years. There’s been an air of apathy and negativity over the town. It’s been totally neglected by governments and business leaders.”

For an unfortunate few, commuting to work isn’t even a consideration: instead they must focus on day-to-day survival. One local politician, who declines to be named, says grinding poverty is a reality in some households, where both parents are out of work and saddled with personal debt.

“It’s been shocking to see it during the election campaign,” the local politician says. “To see a family with no history of poverty now with only enough food on the table for two or three days a week, missing mortgage payments and relying on the Vincent de Paul, that was something I hadn’t expected to ever see a return to. This is the reality of what’s happening in some homes.”

WHEN A TOWN loses between 2,000 and 2,500 manufacturing jobs in a few years the shock waves reverberate through the lives of former employees and shake the commercial heart of the town.

Absolute Flowers is one of the few shops to have opened in recent times. Its co-owner Susan Spillane admits to being under severe pressure. “It’s all about survival,” she says. “There’s no work around; the town is dead. There’s nothing to keep anyone here. My own daughter has gone to Australia, and my youngest son is saying he can’t stay here for much longer.”

A few doors down the street are Seán Twomey and his 30-year-old son, Stephen, who run a butcher’s shop. They, too, are struggling, but their frustration centres on the cost of commercial rates. “We’re hanging on by a thread,” says Stephen. “We’re local and established, so we should be all right. We’re just making enough to keep ticking over. But the rates are crippling us. We’re getting no assistance from the council. It’s killing the town. They’re hounding people for parking here on top of everything else.”

Farther along is a Supervalu run by Ken Brookes. He says he was forced to move the busy supermarket, which had been a linchpin for the town centre, out of its premises on the main street and closer to the periphery, to compete with Tesco and Lidl.

If the closure of any business jolted Youghal it is that of the iconic Merricks. Once a fine department store, it housed nine sections over three large floors, selling everything from pins and needles to suites of furniture. After it was sold, 20 years ago, various businesses operated from the building; earlier this year the last retailer left. Gordon Good, who ran Merricks for 35 years, is saddened to see the enormous premises lying empty.

“Its advantage for a town like this was that it was a meeting place for people as well as a large shop. People could come in and they didn’t feel they had to buy anything. They would wander around, which was unusual in those days, when everything was bought over the counter. Now that it’s closed it’s very sad. It means that part of town is going to be dead unless someone comes along.”

For people like Michael Farrell, a publican and member of the town’s chamber of commerce, it’s little surprise that the town is suffering visibly. If you factor in 2,000 job losses and the large numbers now commuting elsewhere for work, he estimates the town is losing between €20 million and €35 million a year. They are catastrophic losses for a town with a population of less than 10,000.

There is another reason why the town centre is dying. Planning authorities allowed a large 24-hour Tesco and a Lidl on the edge of the town boundary; now they are sucking much of the commercial life away from the centre. It’s a classic case of the “doughnut effect”, a term coined in the US to describe what happens when the commercial heart of an urban area is relocated to the suburbs, leaving a sometimes derelict or empty centre.

Dr Kieran Keohane, a lecturer in sociology at University College Cork, says it’s unusual to observe this phenomenon in an Irish context. The social impact is more than just the running down of a town centre: it also affects the social fabric that binds a community together. “If we define a community by the density of the social networks, or people’s contact with others, then the doughnut effect is more than just physical: it reduces people’s contacts in the town; there is less occasion for people to meet or converse, for shared understanding.”

IT CAN SEEM HARD to imagine now, but Youghal was one of the most important towns in medieval Ireland. In the 1400s it was the chief port on the island and, in these islands as a whole, second only to Bristol, in England.

Just off Main Street are some echoes of its prosperous and influential past. The old defensive walls and almshouses are still intact, as are Elizabethan-era homes such as Myrtle Grove, where Sir Walter Raleigh reputedly smoked the first tobacco in Ireland.

Alongside it is the first post-Norman college in the country, St Mary’s, which was founded in 1464 as Our Lady’s College of Yoghill; a papal bull referred to it as the “university of the city of Youghal”.

By the 1700s visitors were flocking to the town. “In the summer months great numbers resort to Youghall, for the benefit of the salt-water . . . With respect to amusements, the town is not without its share. Such as wish to dip in the news and politicks, can at all times be furnished with the public papers, by resorting to the Mall House, while billiards and backgammon afford ample entertainment to others,” according to the Annals of Youghal, in 1784.

Much later, mass tourism came to Youghal via the railway. Thousands descended each summer from Cork city and beyond. Old photographs show dense crowds gathered on railway platforms or swarming along the beaches. At the same time the town’s carpet and weaving industries were creating thousands of jobs for the region. When those industries waned in the 1980s and 1990s they were replaced by high-tech manufacturing jobs with firms that made DVDs and power supplies.

Ironically, the town’s decline began in the middle of the boom. While other towns were bustling, the manufacturing industries here were beginning to relocate to Asia and eastern Europe, for their cheaper labour. Political leaders insisted that new multinationals with higher-skilled work would take their place. But none did.

These days the scars of an economy in decline are plain to see, but some believe the town itself has been in denial. Michael Twomey, a history teacher and journalist, has been so moved by its decline that he has written and directed a documentary, Town Out of Time. It is a powerful testimony to the changes that have affected Youghal, and is born of anger and frustration. “We had conversations for a long time about the state of Youghal, like everyone. But I began to feel that people were being anaesthetised by fatalism,” he says. “People here feel they have no control. So the film was born of the need to say the unsayable and to speak the unspeakable.”

The picture it paints of Youghal is of a town suffering because of factory closures, the collapse of the town centre as an economic hub and poor planning decisions, such as the construction of big apartment blocks fuelled by seaside tax incentives. When Twomey organised a public screening in Youghal last December he and his colleague Kieran McCarthy, who shot the film, steeled themselves for criticism. No one, they reasoned, would welcome what they had done. “The reaction was surprising in the end. There was frustration and there was embarrassment, but overall there was relief. People were glad that the sore had been opened up,” says Twomey. “My initial instinct was that people wouldn’t want to watch it, but they did. People want to face up to where we’re at. That, in itself, is a positive.”

Locals also feel that the town’s peripheral status – it sits right by Co Cork’s border with Co Waterford – means it has been neglected by the local authorities. The town has only rarely had a representative in the Dáil: the election in February of Sandra McLellan, a local, as a Sinn Féin TD has given the area its first deputy since 1979.

“We’re caught in the middle of the two counties. We’ve no real leadership. The bypass arrived a few years ago – but the town itself had been bypassed long before,” says James Daly, the Siptu shop steward.

SO HOW DO YOU remake a crippled town and see it prosper? Perhaps you begin by defining the characteristics of the town that for centuries have made it an appealing place to live – and then adopt strategies to bring them to life.

The town is brimful of potential. It has five kilometres of white, sandy beaches; it is at the mouth of the Blackwater, possibly the most picturesque fishing river in the State, and is close to the cities of both Cork and Waterford.

The town’s heritage would be a far bigger draw for tourists were it better marketed. Few of our towns or cities have Youghal’s kind of blood-spattered medieval history. A marina, which would be crucial to attracting tourists with money to spend, would give the town an immediate boost.

Eoin Coyne, a 22-year-old Fianna Fáil town councillor, is keen to accentuate the potential of the area. Even though some of his family have been forced to emigrate, he says the town can, in time, become a thriving place for young people again. “I certainly wouldn’t lose all hope. It’s our duty to lobby politicians in central government. We have great potential: we have fantastic facilities, ready-made factory buildings, a fantastically educated population, skilled tradesmen and women. This is a great place to do business: you have the population, the factories, we’re close to Cork Airport, Ringaskiddy. It has huge potential: we need to highlight that.”

In a historic building just off Main Street some of the town’s residents are doing their best to carve a new future for themselves. Enterprise Youghal, based in the St Mary’s College building, supports entrepreneurs looking to set up businesses by providing office space, broadband and telephone lines for affordable monthly rates. Some of the businesses being incubated at the centre, which is supported by the town council and other bodies, include an internet marketing firm, archaeology services and an IT company.

Tom Connolly used to work for Apple. He now runs a project-management company from the centre, dealing with clients across Europe. He is also planning to expand into online sales of tailor-made crafts, such as musical instruments made from bone, similar to the spoons, used in traditional music. “I’ve everything I need here. Good broadband speeds, a supportive business environment. Our offices are also on the tourist trail around the town, which will help,” he says. “This downturn has taught us a sense of humility. You can’t increase wealth by buying bits of the country from each other. I’m an optimist, and if you can set up a business in this environment it augurs well for the future.”

Most people here believe stronger local government is essential if the area is to realise its potential. The town council has few powers save setting rates and rezoning land. Cork County Council holds the real revenue-generating power. Its recent decision to paint the empty shopfronts on the town’s main street in jaunty seaside colours, in the absence of more meaningful change, seemed to sum up its impotence in the face of the downturn. In the meantime local representatives end up being blamed for issues that are often, though not always, beyond their control.

There have been calls for the railway line to Cork be reopened, but Irish Rail says the population is too small to make economic sense. With little sign of multinationals returning to Youghal, and little in the way of public funds to improve infrastructure, the town will have to rely on itself to pull through.

David Fitzgibbon, one of the owners of Aherne’s seafood restaurant and town house, is one of the reasons visitors go out of their way to visit Youghal. He remains defiantly upbeat about its prospects. “This town has an awful lot going for it. We have the most beautiful river, the Blackwater, a lovely long beach, a historic town, renovated town walls,” he says. “We just need a little bit of help. We don’t need the attitude of ‘the town is dead’. We really need something a bit more upbeat . . . Everyone’s under pressure. You can either wallow in it and say, ‘I’m finished,’ or you can keep going and try your best.”

Twomey and McCarthy’s documentary about the town finishes at the old railway station near the sea, now overgrown and semi-derelict. It is a striking tableau. You can almost hear the echoes of the thousands of people milling around the platform or the clank and shudder of trains pulling in and out. But for the pair it is also a symbol of hope. “Every town has its peaks of history. I think we’re at a historical impasse now. Those good old days in the old photographs won’t come back. We have to let go of that. Our film ends optimistically, I think, by looking outwards from the railway station towards a new future. There is something out there, but we have to go and find it.”

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