Camera/editing by Nicky Ryan
We got a new extension this year… It was probably helped by the fact that that report came out.
— AS LOCAL TEACHER Jay Murphy explains, there are upsides – believe it or not – to being named the poorest town in Ireland.
To an extent, it makes local authorities sit up and take notice. In some instances it makes it easier to get funding for much-needed projects and services.
But for a community struggling to cope with the loss of a generation of young men through emigration, 2014’s official confirmation of Bunclody as (to use a more official wording) the country’s most economically depressed town did little for morale.
People in the town were already well aware of the problems they faced by the time that report from Teagasc landed, locals told TheJournal.ie when we visited on a rain-sodden Tuesday morning…
“There’s certainly a story to tell here – but things are looking up,” one longtime resident insisted.
There are a lot of positives.
The economic league table that placed Bunclody at the bottom of 302 Irish towns was based on stats from the 2011 Census – essentially, emigration and unemployment rates.
There won’t be a similar report out until this year’s Census is processed which will be 2017 at the earliest.
Days out from a general election in which ‘keeping the recovery going’ has become the mantra of the outgoing coalition, is there a recovery to speak of in this small market town on the Wexford-Carlow border?
At the very outskirts of the Dublin commuter belt… Are people commuting again?
‘The teams are poor and the lads are getting old…’
Liam Kelly is probably better qualified than anyone to talk about what went wrong in Bunclody. A former chairman of the local GAA club, he also runs a local construction firm. Five out of his six adult children made the decision to emigrate after the recession hit.
The town was “devastated” by the downturn, he says.
To understand what went so disastrously wrong in Bunclody you have to go back more than 40 years, Liam explains.
Builder Patsy Furlong was a huge employer in the area back in the 70s, with over 200 tradesmen on his payroll.
Three generations of Bunclody men went into construction. The town’s location – within striking distance of Dublin – meant demand for their services soared from the 90s into the 2000s; they worked on everything from apartment developments to the construction of the M50.
We were heavily dependent… Maybe more reliant than most places on the building.
The crash, when it came, hit extra hard.
The fate of the local GAA club throws the impact of the recession into stark relief. Halfway House Bunclody (HWH) had had its most successful year ever in 2010. Within 12 months, they had lost more than an entire team – in both codes.
All of a sudden the bottom fell out of it… Everyone emigrated. To New Zealand, you name it… all over.
It all happened within the space of a year – and the town was left reeling by the sudden shift.
“The place was very depressed,” Liam remembers.
When you lose a whole generation of young lads, you know sure it’s hardly a great place to live. They were heading to Bondi and places… sure you could hardly blame them.
Fast-forward to the present day and there’s a whole section of society missing in Bunclody. On HWH sides, school-leavers are still togging out alongside men in their 30s – with a huge gap in between.
Their absence is still evident. Spend any length of time walking around the town, and you won’t pass many young men in their 20s.
As Jay Murphy (the teacher we heard from at the start of this article) explains, in the wake of the downturn it was difficult to convince young men in particular that re-training may be a good move.
We found, believe it or not, that’s probably the most difficult one to break. You have a lot more females probably coming back into education rather than males.
His school, Bunclody Vocational, is a PLC as well as a secondary school. And as Murphy tells it, while there was no shortage of women taking up business and IT courses in the first few years of the recession, “It just seems to be one of those things that when fellas lose their job they’re not as inclined to go back into education”.
That said, general demand for further education surged in the wake of the construction crash – with people aged in their 30s and even 60s and 70s coming back to school. At the same time, there was a slump in Leaving Cert students going on to third level – with many cash-strapped parents choosing to sign their college-age kids up for shorter PLC courses instead.
In one positive sign that the nascent national recovery may be gathering pace locally, that particular trend has shifted in the last few years.
Two years ago we were named as one of the 20 most improved schools in the country in terms of transfer to third level, so there does seem to be the financial support there to send the kids on if they want them to go.
However bad the crash may have been, some locals argue that the country’s general economic progress over the last half-century cushioned the blow to a large degree.
Mary Canning, who has run the local post-office for the last 40 years, says the town’s recent problems can’t be compared to the deprivations endured by previous generations.
“I remember going out to a fellow in a caravan one Christmas Eve with a food parcel… You should have seen the caravan. it was cold and damp and that – but he was happy enough living there.
That was poverty… What I call poverty.
Others, whose loved ones lost their livelihoods in the space of a few short months, speak in stark terms about the crash’s impact.
Says Kate Murphy, running to pick up some groceries in the Supervalu on the edge of town:
My husband had to go abroad… That was an awful, traumatic experience for my family.
The town itself, she recalls, was “very quiet, and kind of down”.Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube
Over coffee, the town’s only county councillor (Fianna Fáil, for the record) says there has been an upturn in Bunclody’s fortunes in recent years. Even by the time that ‘poorest town’ report came out, efforts were well under way to kick-start business and boost employment.
“People have chosen to support and make our town better to help ourselves to recover,” Barbara-Anne Murphy says.
If it’s your social welfare that you’re spending, you’re spending it in the town. If it’s your earned income then you’re spending it in the town – and people have a good community spirit in that sense.
Along with ‘shop local’ and other campaigns, the town has successfully applied for central government funding to boost employment.
They’re applying to Europe too, the councillor says, “Because I think the only chance that we really have here is creating our own jobs. I don’t think an IDA factory are going to just land in here and decide that we are the great place to be – because it doesn’t happen that way.”
If you can see past the rain (a difficult task, quite literally, on the day TheJournal.ie chose to visit), it’s clear Bunclody has quite a bit going for it. Cafés and restaurants are busy, new shops and businesses are started to spring up, and older buildings have been given a fresh coat of paint.
As the town begins to recover, there’s talk of doing more to boost the tourist trade: Mount Leinster and the Blackstairs Mountains are just down the road, while the Celtic Tiger-era Bunclody Golf Club was recently voted as one one of the country’s ‘Hidden Gems’ and even boasts (of all things) an elevator between the 17th and 18th holes.
For all the optimism, though, the absence of that missing generation is still keenly felt.
“A couple of them have arrived home,” says Barbara-Anne Murphy.
Others are kind of setting deadlines on themselves – you know, they’re giving themselves another year or 18 months to make money where they are and then they plan on coming home.
For Kate – who spoke to us at the Supervalu – things are also starting to look up. Her husband recently returned to the country – though his company is “still tendering rather than working… so we’re hopeful”.
As for Liam Kelly, the builder, four of his five emigrant children are still overseas. Just one has returned to work in Dublin. On the gaelic games front, he says prognosis is similarly mixed.
“The GAA club took a heavy knock. But we kept going and kept going. Last Sunday we won the Jim Byrne Cup which is a league for under 18 lads.
Look if we’re able to keep them at home… If they don’t emigrate we’ll have a good team again in three or four years time again.
But for the moment:
The teams are poor, and the lads are getting old as well so we’re getting hit from all sides.