Kilkenny battles image as stag party haven

 

Kilkenny's reputation as a tourist spot recently suffered negative publicity. Michael Parsonsreports on the dilemma facing local authorities

"Ireland's hottest city-break destination" is the description tourism officials use to promote Kilkenny. And they're not referring to the weather.

The State's smallest city, with a population of about 22,000, has become a leading year-round inland tourist destination.

"Kilkenny: open your heart to it" is the latest marketing slogan to appear on tourist literature and road signs throughout the county. However, a small but vocal group of Kilkenny people and disgruntled visitors have claimed the Kilkenny experience does not match the marketing-speak.

Callers to radio shows have complained about a city which they claim is plagued by late-night public order problems. One local taxi driver claimed Kilkenny was "the most dangerous city in Ireland".

The negative media coverage has provoked considerable reaction and soul-searching in the Marble City, where the summer tourist season is supplemented by a thriving year-round influx of midweek conference-goers and weekend pleasure-seekers.

Kilkenny has traditionally cultivated an image as a major cultural centre, with its wealth of medieval buildings, crafts industry and events such as the annual Cat Laughs Comedy and the arts festival each August.

But the city has also become a magnet for hen and stag parties, with revellers attracted by its relative proximity to Dublin, plentiful hotel accommodation and dozens of late-night bars and clubs. The authorities are faced with a dilemma: how to curb the alleged wilder excesses of the younger partying crowd without alienating the golden goose of the wider tourist market?

A call by recently elected mayor of the city, Labour Cllr Marie Fitzpatrick, for pubs and fast-food outlets to close at midnight has attracted little support from fellow councillors who fear such a "Cinderella City" would have devastating consequences for the local economy - where an estimated 25 per cent of all jobs depend on the hospitality sector.

But late-night drinking has already been curtailed following a decision last May by the District Court to refuse bar extensions later than 1.30am. Following a number of high-profile violent incidents, gardaí had objected to a request by publicans for a renewal of traditional extensions to 2am.

Paul Kenny, chairman of the Kilkenny Taxi Association, says one publican he knows "employs 170 people, and if you cut closing times, a lot of jobs are at risk". He believes reports of public order problems in Kilkenny are overblown: "I don't think Kilkenny is worse than any other town of its size." Kilkenny is a "small, compact place where most nightlife is concentrated in just a few streets and up to 4,000 people are all being pushed on to the streets at closing time".

He claims "the finger is pointed at the wrong people" and "most stags and hens are good-humoured, are not out to cause trouble, and contribute to the economy in a big way".

In fact, he says, much of the trouble is caused by "locals who are off their heads before they even get to the pubs".

While calling for a greater Garda presence on the streets, and for "judges to support the Garda by imposing stiffer penalties [ for public order offences]", Kenny claims "gardaí nip most incidents in the bud".

John Breen, vice-chairman of the Kilkenny Vintners' Association, described Kilkenny as "a safe, vibrant city with very responsible publicans who have no problem sitting down with gardaí to resolve this".

Kilkenny police chief Supt Pat Mangan said his priority was public safety, and gardaí were co-operating with other interested parties such as the local authorities, publicans and hoteliers to address the issue. He added there were no plans to revert to 2am closing times but conceded that this was ultimately a matter for the courts.

Crucially, he said public order problems were "no worse than in any Irish town of its size".

Local Fianna Fáil TD and Minister of State for Trade and Commerce John McGuinness said closed-circuit television cameras were "a major deterrent to anti-social behaviour". He has successfully lobbied for Department of Justice funding to secure a Garda CCTV system for Kilkenny.

Kilkenny Tourism is planning "a public relations campaign to promote Kilkenny city and county in a more positive light to counteract the negative publicity". Spokesman Tony Walsh accepts there are problems and believes the tourism sector must engage with disgruntled visitors and listen to their complaints. "Kilkenny should always strive to be the cleanest, safest and best visitor destination possible - and not settle for being just average."