When Boyle estate agent Mike Smith did a television interview some years ago highlighting the huge volume of empty shops in his home town , he was branded a traitor by some locals.
It may be an exaggeration to say he had to leave town, but he did decide in the midst of the furore it was a good time to take a holiday.
Smith, a partner in Smith Kelly Scott estate agents, had an insight into the downturn. He had seen his own workforce drop from 11 to two within weeks when, as he recalled, “the phone stopped ringing”.
But now he is happy to report it is ringing off the hook and residential property around Boyle is “flying”.
A small number of key commercial properties in the town centre have recently sold, none more significant than the prominent Royal Hotel, which was bought by Roscommon County Council for just €100,000.
The hotel is synonymous with Boyle. But, much to the discomfort of many in the town, since its closure seven years ago, its crumbing façade has been regularly used to illustrate rural dereliction.
Locals are disappointed officials have ruled out retaining ‘the Royal’ as a hotel, as it is on a flood plain, but it is at the centre of “Boyle 2040”. The ambitious blueprint for the town was drawn up by Boyle Town Team , a voluntary local group working to improve the town, and the local authority.
Part of the historic façade will be preserved, while more modern wings will be demolished for a riverside boardwalk and a plaza .
“There was talk of knocking the building,” said local business man Brian Nerney, chairman of the Town Team.
He recalled in the late 1980s there was a also plan to demolish King House, former seat of the King family from Rockingham, and turn it into a car park, but “fair dues to Roscommon County Council they saved that and now they are saving the Royal”.
When Dublin artist Greer MacKeogh first visited Boyle in 2016 she was struck by the sight of what many brand “an eyesore” and intrigued as to what locals thought about its decline. She embarked on a project called “The Hotel” which will record the Royal’s importance as a social space .
“Some people remember the smell of soup, or the cups of tea they had there with friends,” said the artist who also discovered that many people met their future partners there.
Brian Nerney is one of them. He met Helen, his wife of 26 years, when she worked as a chef in the Royal.
The Town Team has applied for €2.9 million of the Government’s Rural Regeneration & Development Funding for facilities to complement its existing attractions such as King House and the 12th century Cistercian Abbey. A greenway linking the town with Lough Key Forest Park is a priority.
The restoration of a gatehouse at the entrance to Rockingham, is being led by Boyle Chamber of Commerce in the hopes of converting it to tourist accommodation.
My personal belief is that if we get this funding, with Lough Key on our doorstep, we will see a hotel
“It is on An Taisce’s list of most at risk protected structures and if we don’t do something we could lose it ,” explained local solicitor Dara Callaghan.
Accommodation is key to the town’s tourism development, and property owners are being invited to join “Boyle Rooms” to bring Fáilte Ireland-approved accommodation to the main streets.
Nerney, former owner of the Roscommon Herald, and developer of Boyle Spool Factory, which houses a gym, co-working space and conference rooms, is in upbeat mode as he awaits an announcement on the second round of rural funding .
He says €800,000 in funding has already been allocated to Boyle, including €500,000 from the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme, for the 6.7km greenway.
“The greenway is shovel ready. The lands have been acquired,” said Nerney, who believes work will start early this year.
“My personal belief is that if we get this funding, with Lough Key on our doorstep, we will see a hotel. We have already had inquiries and there are suitable sites available. I don’t believe we will ever get a 300-bed hotel but Boyle is ready for a boutique hotel.”
The council has estimated over half of Boyle’s retail units are empty and only 15 people live in the town centre, a trend it hopes to reverse. Boyle is one of six small towns allocated €100,000 to draw up a plan to transform main streets into more attractive living spaces.
While Minister for Rural & Community Development Michael Ring would not be drawn on whether Boyle will benefit from further funding he said rural towns need to be creative and not yearn for a return to the past .
There are people out there who making a living knocking rural Ireland but if we think in a different way there can be a future for these towns
“We will never have rural Irish towns the way they were and there is no point pretending,” he said. “Even the multinationals are struggling because of the growth in online shopping.
“There are people there coming up with good ideas. I believe there is a future for Boyle and towns like it.
“We are not going to have the shops we had in the past but a lot of places are reinventing themselves and we are funding libraries and health centres and other initiatives. We are also trying to get people back living in the town centres. There are people out there who making a living knocking rural Ireland but if we think in a different way there can be a future for these towns.”
However all the ideas in the world will not save rural towns if the national broadband plan is not rolled out, according to the chief executive of Irish Rural Link, a national network of rural community groups.
Séamus Boland says recent commentary about the cost of the broadband plan made him nervous it might be abandoned.
“You have to remember that 40 per cent of the population live in rural Ireland and you cannot abandon these people,” he said.
Brian Nerney says positivity is key.
“I have spent 30 years in community development, where we fought to get €2,000 for this and €500 for that and now here we are now talking about €2.9 million. It’s unprecedented in Boyle . . . Just like in any small town there has been a bit of negativity but we rose above it and we did not let it throw us off track”.