'It comes back to creating a neighbourhood, somewhere you feel you belong . . .'

 

THE CHOICE of Best Place to Live was never going to be easy. Is it possible to compare Killarney and Ardara, both heavily tourist-dependent but worlds apart in size, marketing and accessibility?

Or to line up Rathmines – easily the most controversial place on the shortlist – against anywhere else at all? Fresh from the 4½-hour drive from Co Donegal, Edel Morgan spoke passionately for Ardara: “They have done everything in their power to make the very best of what they have . . . That has to count for something”.

Against Rathmines? “The nearest place we have to a New York neighbourhood, with its young energy and young heart,” in the words of Gerard O’Neill? Its iconic landmarks, even its aesthetic messiness, as described by Frank McDonald? “It’s ‘very real’, as the Americans would say, with lots of diversity”, said McDonald.

“Older people, younger people, students, immigrants, family houses, bedsits, corporation flats, rich, poor – the lot!”

How to balance that with what Morgan described as the “unbelievable community spirit” of the people and the stunning beauty of Ardara; the 12 festivals (one to welcome those from ethnic backgrounds); the state-of-the-art creche set up by a woman who worked without pay for the first year; the huge GAA presence?

She also spoke of the 30 per cent unemployment rate, how people double- and triple-job to survive. But above all came the message that this is a place where people look out for each other. Brian Forrest, a “blow-in” from Scotland, who now runs North West Sea Kayaking in the village, would not be “lured away by a better income elsewhere. Ardara is rich in a lot of other ways”.

Then again, can “looking out for each other” morph into a licence to know your neighbour’s business? “Sometimes the anonymity you get in Rathmines is just what a person might want,” said Paul Keogh.

“That’s an urban thing . . . You are as involved as you want to be,” said Maureen Gaffney.

Were we edging towards an urban-rural divide? Sadly not. O’Neill had earlier suggested that the decision-making process be “aspirational”, that others should be inspired by the winner, not necessarily “to want to move there, but to learn from them”. So he wondered, was Rathmines “more of our future than say, Westport, since we are becoming more urban?”.

“True – but the fundamental needs remain,” said Gaffney. “It comes back to creating a neighbourhood, somewhere you feel you belong; to making somewhere beautiful and functional for people.”

“I feel the small places will win on community engagement,” said Keogh.

But he spoke with some conviction of Cork, the place named by the Lonely Planet guide as “one of the best cities in the world”, home of the Wild Geese families. “You would have to be moved by the place,” he said. Gaffney mentioned the university campus – “really the nicest in the whole country”.

Keogh – though alert to the dereliction in North Main Street and Barrack Street and the city’s shrinking population – remarked on the “really fantastic” work carried out in and around Patrick Street, the 24 festivals and the fact that eight out of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical firms have chosen to set up business there.

McDonald talked about the city centre’s “fantastic setting . . . improved a lot by the space given over to pedestrians on the main street. . . It’s always been a joy to visit by train, with that sight of Shandon’s steeple as you come in from Mallow. And the houses built all over the hills, whether in Montenotte or Gurranabraher. A real place!”

McDonald also had praise for Killarney. “It’s a town that could be ruined by its principal business. But oddly enough, it isn’t.”

Keogh too was filled with admiration for those who had recognised the challenge of shifting the rackety Las Vegas feel of a decade ago to a town now rich in cultural activity and diversity, with 43 nationalities in the primary schools, three football clubs and a sustainable cycle track on the way. All that amid a population explosion to 30,000 come midsummer and more tourist bed-nights than Dublin.

Listening to a lot of radio during his road trips, Keogh remarked that he had heard much eulogising by people such as turf-cutter representatives of what they called “the good-living people of rural Ireland”.

“But what struck me in Killarney and Cork was how wonderful the towns are at every level. All the towns and places that are so seriously challenged now could learn so much from them.”