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Donegal: a 'forgotten' county or one with renewed community spirit?

Michael Sheils McNamee examines the disconnect between the nation’s perception of ‘poor’ Donegal – and how it views itself.

Pasted image at 2016_02_12 03_51 PM

As part of our election coverage, we sent some of our journalists back to their hometowns to report on the issues concerning the people who live there.

Michael Sheils McNamee, whose family are from Letterkenny, Co Donegal, visited the town to find out what’s gone wrong and right since the last election five years ago – and what people want to see happen after this election. 

Michael Murphy raises the Sam Maguire Michael Murphy raising the Sam Maguire in 2012 Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

WHEN DONEGAL WON the All Ireland Football Championship in 2012, a comment on the Late Late Show by host Ryan Tubridy left a few local noses out of joint.

In what was meant as a light-hearted barb, the host made reference to the ‘refugees’ in the audience who had come down from the North.

“Everyone thought it was funny except the people from Donegal, you know,” says Jamie Boyle, a local community worker for Cara House.

This feeling of disconnect is at the heart of how people think about politics in the north-west.

The county is connected to the rest of Ireland by a land border of just over 10km and it once prided itself on the tourism slogan: ‘It’s Different Up Here’.

For a while during the boom, it looked like it might have been coming into the mainstream.

In a few short years around the turn of the millennium, Letterkenny was dubbed the ‘fastest-growing town in Europe’, with its population shooting up by 27% between 1996 and 2002.

IMG_8289 Celtic Tiger much? Square arches on Main Street in the centre of Letterkenny Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

However, when the recession hit, it hit hard; entire GAA teams emigrated and the building industry – which had thrived during the Celtic Tiger – was totally decimated.

With the election less than a week away, how are things looking now?

If the recovery is alive and kicking in this corner of the world, it wasn’t evident at 9.40am on a cold Monday morning.

The scene was of few people walking the streets and shops slow to pull up their shutters.

But this doesn’t tell us a whole lot. Looking for bustling shops first thing on a Monday might be just as much of a challenge in Dublin.

A better place to start is Cara House.

The family support centre has been in operation here in Letterkenny for almost 15 years. When it received Tusla funding to become a family resource centre in 2008, it was one of the last places to do so before the downturn took hold.

While the classes on offer range from computer skills for seniors to baby yoga, its real purpose is more specific: bringing people together.

IMG_8324 Cara House Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

“We try to do something for every age group. For everybody. Because even if you’re rich, you have social needs. It isn’t just for disadvantaged people. There are different ways of being disadvantaged,” explains Susan McCauley, coordinator of Cara House.

McCauley explains that if the downturn brought hard times to the north-west, the silver lining was the renewed sense of community spirit.

“Letterkenny grew so quickly in the boom times that it lost a lot of its community spirit,” she says, “There is what I call ‘old Letterkenny’, then there’s the people who came in the Celtic Tiger years, then there’s the African community and the Polish community.”

I would like to see our centre as a place where people can come together and get to know each other, you know.

susan mccauley - 1 Susan McCauley Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils McNamee

Sitting at the drop-in café that runs throughout the morning, people are happy to talk.

One person who comes in for a cup of tea is local man Patrick Doherty.

Having struggled with alcoholism and unemployment, the change in the country’s fortunes has mirrored a shift in his personal situation.

“Personally, the last five years have been difficult,” he says, “But in the past 10 months I’m in a great place. Before that, it’d been difficult to find work. I’ve applied for maybe 50 jobs in this past two years, but it’s nearly always a younger person who would get it.”

And that would be jobs like filling petrol and that sort of thing. You wouldn’t even be called for an interview.

patrick-doherty Patrick Doherty Source: Michael Sheils McNamee/TheJournal.ie

Marie Kelly, a friendly dark-haired, middle-aged woman from the outskirts of the town was also happy to share her experience.

When her father and her sister died within a year of each other, she found herself facing an issue common across rural Ireland – isolation.

“Since I discovered Cara House and coming into Letterkenny, that’s been a great help to me… I do know of people that have been isolated over a long time and they went into a strange place. And see, that’s what I would be worried about. That if I stayed this way that I’d be like them.”

I did find that they’d gone a wee bit odd, but it wasn’t really their fault.

For McCauley, the fear with any political shift would be funding cuts that might damage the community spirit that has grown up in Cara House over the past five years.

I would hate everything to change now, especially after all the work we’ve done. That would be my fear if a new government came in.

In Cara House, the attitude was positive – the overall impression from people seemed to be that maybe the downturn had made people a bit friendlier.

One person who thinks so is Rachel Ahmed. Originally from Nigeria, she has been living in the town for more than seven years, and working in Cara House since last November.

rachel ahmed Rachel Ahmed Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

“People in Donegal, especially Letterkenny, they’re beautiful. You don’t have to say anything and they’ll say ‘hi’ to you. They’ll start up the story with you,” she says.

‘There was never a boom, I can tell you that’ 

After finishing up in Cara House, it was back down into the centre of town.

By this time it was just after lunch, and things had picked up. The shops were busy, and there was a bustle around the taxi rank that had been lying empty earlier in the morning.

IMG_8331 Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

It was time to ask the people who should know more about whether or not Donegal is in a state of recovery than anyone else: people who own businesses around Letterkenny.

First up was Mr Chippie, a well-known café visible from the bus station.

Soteris Afxentiou, originally from Cyprus, opened the business with his wife 19 years ago.

Sitting down in the coffee shop adjoining his main restaurant, he explains that he has been able to expand his business in the years since the recession.

Originally coming in as an outsider, Afxentiou says that it took him a few years to realise why Donegal is referred to as the “forgotten county”.

We don’t really sustain ourselves, and always the government has to take money from other counties to inject it into Donegal to keep Donegal going.

While IDA announcements and programmes of investment are no bad thing, Afxentiou sees the incremental gains made by small businesses as the backbone of growth for the area.

mr chippie Mr Chippie by night Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

“There was never a boom, I can tell you that,” he says, reflecting on how things have been going in the catering industry, “[The recovery] has been very gradual. A very small and moderate growth but you have to work much harder for that as well.

“If you came to Donegal thinking there is some new great boom, the Celtic Tiger is long buried.”

Another person who has been seeing signs of a gradual recovery is Shane Clarke, who co-founded E-Vapour (which is a vaping store) three years ago with his uncle.

“It would be,” he says when asked if Letterkenny is a good place to open a business.

Especially being so close to the border, having people come down from the North. In the last couple of weeks some places have even been doing €1.50 [on the pound].

‘I think it’s a cop out’ 

One person who doesn’t buy the poor mouth interpretation of the county’s fortunes is Philip Ward, manager of Voodoo Lounge, a prominent entertainment venue.

“I think it’s a cop out that people use a lot,” Ward says. “I think you have to fight for your corner and run your business well and that’s the way we work.”

You can go on with that stuff you read in the media but you make your own success.

In the past 10 years Voodoo Lounge has expanded its offerings, going from being only a nightclub to having a separate wine bar and serving food.

phillip ward Philip Ward Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

The way Ward sees it, government-level initiatives have served Letterkenny well.

The town scooped the top prize in the national Tidy Towns competition last year, and the Wild Atlantic Way has driven tourism up the coast and into the region. Both of these things have helped boost confidence within the county itself, and to shift how Donegal can be perceived by the rest of the country.

How will this translate into how Letterkenny votes on Friday? 

To find out a bit more about the issues that are coming up on the doorsteps during this general election, the next stop was ‘Ireland’s Number 1 Local Radio Station’ Highland Radio.

Giving us a quick run through, Highland Radio’s Sean Doherty, whose phone-in programme is a lightning rod for local grievances, explains that the main issues lighting up the phone lines are water charges, healthcare, emigration and the road network.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“There is a perception that Donegal is isolated,” says Donal Kavanagh, Highland Radio’s political anchor.

“The main issues here are transport and infrastructure.” 

In 2012, a survey from An Taisce found that the county had been hit by the worst planning in the country during the boom, with thousands of hectares of residential-zoned land left unoccupied.

Another blow – and something that has only become an issue in recent years – is the defective building material mica, which has come to infamy as a sort of pyrite of the north-west.

Mica, Kavanagh explains, is something that you can expect to start hearing a lot more about.

The defective building blocks used during the Celtic Tiger are only now coming back to haunt homeowners in Donegal and Mayo.

It emerged as an issue when people began to notice cracks appearing in the façades of their homes, and serious damage starting to take hold.

“There’s one woman in the area and her curtain rails have fallen down because of it. Nothing will stay in in the walls,” Eileen Doherty, a member of the Mica Action Group told TheJournal.ie in 2014, just as the problem was taking hold.

There are gaps between the roof outside and the walls because the cracks are giving way.

Following a visit to the area by minister of state in the Department of the Environment Paudie Coffey and local TD Joe McHugh last summer, a commitment was made for an expert group to be set up.

donal kavanagh Donal Kavanagh Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

A chairperson was appointed last month, and its work will be to establish how many homes have been affected and then to consult with homeowners, looking at what might be done.

But still, with the issue in its third year, this report isn’t due until the end of May, and there is no clear time-frame for when a redress scheme, if any, might be introduced.

This sluggish response to such a serious problem and difficulties with infrastructure all seem to tie into this sense of Donegal being left out.

The problem with Donegal’s infrastructure

Other legacy issues from the Celtic Tiger are still at the front of people’s minds. When Kavanagh talks about Donegal’s transport and infrastructure problems, anyone who has ever driven from Dublin to Letterkenny will know exactly what he means.

Back in 2009, Fianna Fáil’s then-Transport Minister Noel Dempsey was enthusiastically talking about the possibility of the National Roads Authority cooperating with authorities north of the border to develop the M2/N2/A5 corridor into a fully-fledged motorway network.

The people of Letterkenny are still waiting.

Last month, the north-west branch of business group Ibec called for the development of the road network to be put back at the centre of the political discussion.

“The north-west remains the only region not connected to Dublin by a high-quality road,” said its regional director, Terry MacNamara.

This is a crucial missing link in our road network. The lack of a motorway is damaging connectivity and the competitiveness of the north-west, while broadening the divide between Dublin and the regions.

dublin to donegal The M2/ N2/ A5 road from Dublin to Letterkenny

“The people feel that we’re sort of far removed from Dublin, we’re sort of an afterthought and as such the recovery is being felt perhaps in Dublin, perhaps in Cork… it’s the bigger cities,” says Kavanagh.

Will this be reflected in the ballot box? The county has changed from being two three-seater constituencies to one five-seater this time around. Pushed for a prediction, Kavanagh says he can see two Sinn Féin steads – and possibly a third:

A strengthening for Fianna Fáil in the region should see the return of Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher, although there might be some pressure on sitting TD Charlie McConalogueSinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty and Padraig MacLoughlain are both expected to keep their seats, with a small chance of Gary Doherty taking a third seat for the party.
Slight favourite for the fifth seat is Fine Gael’s minister of state Joe McHugh, although he will be facing stiff competition from independent Thomas Pringle. Independents Niamh Kennedy and Dessie Shiels and Fine Gael’s Paddy Harte all also have an outside chance of taking the last seat.

Should people be optimistic? 

Finishing up in Highland Radio, the light was beginning to fade and it was back up to the centre of the town to ask people on the eve of an election how positive they were feeling.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Letterkenny still has its fair share of empty shop fronts, but things are without a doubt picking up.

And – although it’s impossible to prove – a sense of community seems to persevere. The taxi down from Highland Radio came to €8.20 on the meter, but the driver charged €2.20 less. The reason why? “It’s always been a €6 fare”.

download (1) Source: Michael Sheils McNamee/TheJournal.ie

Nobody I spoke to wants to see a repeat of the fallout from the economic collapse from 2008 onward.

And while the full effect of the recovery is not being felt yet, the indicators are beginning to look good.

Unemployment in Donegal peaked at over 21,000 in 2011, with more than 6,000 on the live register in Letterkenny alone – a staggering figure for a place with a population of less than 20,000.

The overall figure for the county dropped to 16,224 in January this year. Still high, but steadily decreasing year-on-year.

In line with a national trend, house prices have also began to pick up, rising by almost 10% last year.

This gradual recovery – aided in part by the bumper rate on the sterling for those travelling down from the North – seems to be taking hold, and people are happy for it to continue that way.

As the the day came to a close, the steady rain that had been ongoing since the morning seemed to subside, and as if by magic…

IMG_8333 Source: TheJournal.ie/Michael Sheils Mcnamee

Not to make any predictions, but that is a rainbow.

Read: These are the 10 most important constituencies in the general election

Also: Here is where you can find the cheapest and most expensive fuel in the country

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