"Drumshanbo used to be synonymous with the Poor Clares," says Fr Frankie Murray.
“And then with Charlie McGettigan. And now, it’s Gunpowder Gin.”
McGettigan, the well-known singer-songwriter, laughs at the association. But without question, the Leitrim lakeside town has gone through a series of pronounced iterations over the decades. The roaring success of Pat Rigney's distillery, perched on the edge of town, has given the place name a vogue-ish and international identity. Even on a sleepy October Tuesday, a coach tour is parked outside its visitor centre.
Like all Irish towns, Drumshanbo is going through a post-pandemic reckoning. Local people are emerging from a lost 18 months trying to gauge the extent to which familiar patterns of life will return.
“We don’t seem to trust anymore,” McGettigan says of prevailing attitudes to the virus.
“We have had so many knockbacks. You think about last December and everyone went bonkers and then the numbers shot up. People don’t fully believe that it is gone.”
One change cannot be turned back: the closure of the Bank of Ireland branch in the town, one of 88 to go. "You won't get a bank from Carrick-on-Shannon to Bundoran, " says Eamonn Daly, a retired teacher who lives with his wife, Orla, in the family townhouse dating to the 1860s. The family name is in a tiled shop front, a legacy of his parents' independent business.
“There will be no bank in north Leitrim.”
Now, locals worry that the ATM will go, not just the bank. There is talk that the credit union will take it over, but nothing is confirmed. Others worry about what will happen to the attractive building. A new occupant is needed.
"It is gutting the business centre of the town. And you end up with surplus buildings. Main Street is badly affected because we had two iconic buildings there – the bank and Crawfords drapery," says Paschal Mooney, broadcaster and former senator.
Mooney is Drumshanbo through-and-through. Like his father, Joe, locals vouch for the energy the Mooneys have shown in the town’s interest. “He’s a much maligned character,” says McGettigan when he knows Mooney is within ear shot.
Drumshanbo had Connacht's first outdoor, heated swimming pool, back in 1971. It was originally envisaged for Carrick but it was decided it wasn't big enough. Joe Mooney had the paperwork ready to persuade Henry Kenny – Enda Kenny's father – to bring it to Drumshanbo.
“I learned from him that it didn’t matter what government was in power,” Mooney says, “That the real power lay with the civil servants. That if you had a network through the sec’ gens and assistant secretaries, the people who are making the decisions. If you could get in with them… I saw that no more than with the sports grants. I saw it as what a public representative should do. It wasn’t unique to me.”
It might be one of the reasons why Drumshanbo is an aberration in Connacht. "You hear it again and again from people: Jesus, Drumshanbo is buzzing," says Sinead Gillard, who set up Jinny's Tearooms in 2019 with her husband, now a local success story.
Unlike many towns, Drumshanbo has an air of self-sufficiency about it. The local Gala and Centra supermarkets employ 100 people and successfully fend off competition from discount chains in Carrick.
McGowans’s Westlink has more than 20 lorries on the road. The Department of Agriculture is a major employer. The vocational school had 75 new entrants this September: numbers are up. La Belle Fleur, another independent business with a gorgeous façade, has flourished. Talk Tech is one of the newer businesses on the main street whose profile is changing.
It’s a pretty, sloping, small town in transition. Along with two banks, the butchers shop has closed and over the years, the lights went out on a number of small independent shops on Church Street.
Eamonn Daly and Paschal Mooney ran around the town as youngsters and can point to the dwellings that used to house 16 pubs.
“Quite a few of those would have an adjoining grocery,” says Daly.
"Every second Saturday night was called Arigna Night because every second Saturday, the miners got paid. One Saturday night was Piccadilly and the other Saturday night was a ghost town. It was crucial to the commerce of the town then. And the miners were special people: very open and extremely hard working. Now, there are six pubs here."
When Daly’s parents moved to Drumshanbo in the 1940s, they opened a clothing shop – a drapers with men and women’s wear which ran until 1996. It is one of the number of long-standing premises which have never been fully replaced.
McGettigan moved to Drumshanbo in 1973 from his native Ballyshannon while working with ESB and so witnessed a sudden transformation. "When I came here, this was a bigger business town than Carrick." Like dominoes, the old reliables fell away: the Arigna mines, Lairds jam factory, the power station and Matill shoe factory went black. "The town went right down the tubes. Now we are on the up again. But it is slow and steady."
Morans bike shop, specialising in motor cycles, bicycles and go-karts, has been a feature of Drumshanbo commerce for 50 years. Timmy Moran passed the business on to his son, Declan, whose own son, Tadhg, an engineer who worked with Hewlett Packard across the globe, is now back home and working in the business. Declan readily concedes that Tadhg is behind the impressive website.
It was a boon through Covid – and through the faltering supply chain from England since Brexit. For years, their main parts supplier was a wholesaler in Coventry. In recent months, the Coventry supplier sent a container to Holyhead destined for Ireland. "It was sent back. And then sent back a second time. They rang up and said it's a waste of time dealing with the Republic and a bigger waste dealing with the North." The Morans now source parts from Germany. "There's no problem but the language barrier. And the time lag."
Over the past decade, online has become a chief source of business. “We would sell as much in Cork now as we do in Leitrim.”
The shop doorbell still gets a workout. Christmas bike enquiries have been early and frequent. “There’s a lot of bikes sold for Christmas. You won’t get one now.” Moran is optimistic as a retailer as commercial life returns to normal but he has lived through the vicissitudes of Irish economic cycles. “We have to wait and see. Like, hopefully, there is not going to be a recession out of all this. There’s an awful lot of money borrowed in the country. And that has to be paid back.”
Like everywhere, the first Covid lockdown left Drumshanbo people feeling unmoored and isolated. For Sinead Gillard, an immediate concern was what to do with their new business. “We couldn’t close. Pascal, my husband, and our eldest girl kept it going. It was a case of surviving. We put it out on Facebook. And we put dinners in bags and left them in a fridge by the door for collection. There was a real fear at the start. People would come in and almost throw the money down because nobody knew what this virus was about.
“Then, there was a woman being stopped by gardaí when she was picking up a meal for her parents. And I wondered if we were doing the right thing: did we look like we were being greedy because everyone was closing? I do think a lot of people thought it was only for a number of weeks rather than the months and months it went on for. And I was worried we would get a bit of a backlash.”
Instead, the business was well-supported and it offered an escape from the monotony of being locked inside week after week.
The Poor Clares is one of the oldest institutions in the town. McGettigan would sometimes play a part in the local dramatics productions and they always made a point of putting on a performance for the sisters – there are six women in the order now – who watched from behind a covered grille.
“They may not have known the play but they would respond to seeing the local doctor or whoever dressed up and behaving strangely.”
Now, it was as if the entire town had adopted the enclosed way of life. An immediate transformation lay in the rituals and comforts of bereavement, both social and religious. Covid restrictions imposed a rigorous and austere set of restrictions on the Irish funeral tradition. That was something Fr Frankie Murray, who moved to the town in 1994, struggled to come to terms with.
“At the very start we had a really terrible tragedy. Conor, a young boy from the locality, was killed in an accident. It was the beginning of April in the first lockdown. The whole town had stopped. Candles were placed on the wall outside his house. So there was a whole line of candles. People lined the road. And we have started doing that now whenever there is a funeral; gathering with candles outside. And I think that silent solidarity was very important. Because it has been terrible. We couldn’t visit hospitals. We couldn’t visit people when they were dying. I couldn’t shake hands with them and I knew them so well.”
The Covid restrictions have been in place for so long that the old patterns and traditions – and the crowds – may not return in the same way.
“Well, I find it very hard to think the Irish wake will ever disappear, in country areas anyhow,” says Daly.
“There is the most beautiful ritual about it. You go to the darkest area in a remote part of the county with floodlights around the whole place and people in high-vis jackets. You come away so uplifted. I can’t see that disappearing. Maybe the touch won’t be as physical as before.”
All of the signs are that Drumshanbo will make a quick and robust recovery from its period of hibernation. With a winter population of just 902 (2016 census), it is probably the perfect size to avoid the usual panorama of social problems common to bigger provincial towns. Burglary and thefts are rare. Street violence has not been an issue. Court reported pieces are infrequent and tend to concern minor misdemeanours such as after-hours drinking.
“They do tell me that there is a drug presence in this town that is very real,” says Fr Murray. “It has infiltrated the little towns below the surface.”
In the summer, the numbers swell. The Joe Mooney summer school has for years been one of the big summer draws to the area: about 1,500 music pupils, often accompanied by parents. It was worth about a month of retail to local traders. Even though it didn’t run last summer, a lot of regular attendees returned anyway out of force of habit.
The region is an angler’s paradise. In the early 1970s, James and Moira McGuire used to do seasonal bed and breakfast, mainly for German tourists in pleasure boats. “These weren’t fancy cruisers,” says Sinead Gillard, their daughter.
“So they looked for accommodation. We used the house for B&B and we stayed in a caravan out the back.”
The German visitors constantly assured them that if they built holiday chalets, they’d have a business. Her parents came with a proposal to Bord Failte and were advised to send any visitors to Carrick-on-Shannon. “That was like a red rag to my father. So he built the chalets anyway.”
The visitors kept coming; French, German, Belgian. In 1996, the Lough Allen Canal, originally built in 1817, was redeveloped, burnishing the town's reputation as an attractive waterside resort.
The main hotel closed at the outset of Covid and has not reopened, which is a setback. And reimagining the main street is an ongoing challenge. But Drumshanbo seems well set up to thrive in the post-Covid era.
There's a new energy about the small town. And it is nearly a decade since RTÉ came to town to do a special report on the ghost estates for which Drumshanbo briefly acquired international attention – NBC and BBC featured the same forlorn, abandoned development. Someone got McGettigan's number and he obliged the visiting reporter by driving him to the relevant estates at the time. They counted 200 unoccupied houses that day, unlighted and incomplete and terribly lonely.
But those images are now dated and irrelevant. The same estates are finished and full and the once abandoned houses occasionally feature on the local auctioneers websites, sparkling with promise and selling fast.