Advertisement

We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Natalie Kelly, Niall Weldon and Dom Gradwell
THE MORNING LEAD

Drogheda: Locals say it is on the 'cusp of being brilliant' - it just needs attention

Our reporter Jane Matthews visits her hometown.

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

Jane Matthews from Drogheda, 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. 

DESPITE ITS RICH heritage and history, Drogheda is a town that has struggled in recent years.

Problems that existed before 2020 were amplified by the Covid pandemic, and dereliction and vacancy are now two of the standout problems visible in the town centre.

A vicious drug-related feud that still makes national headlines has also had a negative impact on the town’s development, but locals are keen to push back on what they see as an unfair narrative surrounding their town.

Many locals who spoke to The Journal shared the same sentiment: Drogheda has its problems, but with a bit more support from the Government it could thrive.

Dereliction

When Cliodhna Russell visited Drogheda for this series ahead of the 2016 general election, she documented boarded-up shop fronts becoming a common post-recession site in the area.

Eight years on, instead of getting better, the dilapidation is only more evident. 

IMG_7799 One of many derelict property on Narrow West Street Jane Matthews Jane Matthews

Walk up Narrow West Street and you’ll count 14 derelict or shuttered buildings.

Walk through the Town Centre Shopping Centre and you’ll count five empty units to let. 

In Scotch Hall Shopping Centre, 12 empty units, and in the Lawrence Centre 18.

IMG_7805 The Abbey Shopping Centre falling into ruin on West Street Jane Matthews Jane Matthews

The problem of dereliction and vacancy is so bad in the town that local man Dom Gradwell’s campaign to highlight the issue has drawn the attention of local and European election candidates as they seek to understand the area. 

“I’ve no skin in the game, I’m not involved in property or business in the town or anything. I literally just live here and loved the place,” Gradwell told The Journal.

Gradwell is active across social media and has built up a respectable following for his work highlighting the level of dereliction and vacancy. 

In his view, the problem has taken hold over a long period, but he said it was really six or seven years ago (before the first Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann was held in the town in 2018) when he really noticed a big decline in the town centre. 

His Twitter page, Derelict Drogheda, has helped grab headlines for the issue and as Gradwell put it “Councils don’t like bad press”.  

“I felt like they deserved it. They had taken the eye off the ball and needed a little prod to get things going again.”

So what’s the answer? 

Gradwell is of the view that the Council needs to take a more heavy-handed approach with these property owners, but he wants to see a broader approach taken to Drogheda’s development more generally. 

5f59b1ca-7e15-45d8-aa32-3a88343d9b07 Dom Gradwell

This is why in partnership with local charity Development Perspectives, Gradwell is working on setting up a task force made up of community members to work on “revitalising” the town. 

The aim of this task force, which will meet for the first time on 5 June, right before the elections, is to have one single voice lobbying the Government on Drogheda’s issues. 

“What’s actually happening is there’s lots of different groups [lobbying]. And everybody has the best interest of Drogheda at heart, but what we want is to just get them under the one umbrella, and have one single unifying voice, making the case for Drogheda,” Gradwell said.

On top of this, Gradwell makes the point that the lack of a local authority specifically for Drogheda is a hampering factor affecting the town. 

“We’ve got to have some sort of control ourselves, whether it’s as a city or as a local authority,” he said. 

“Drogheda is on the cusp of being brilliant, it just needs attention. 

“We obviously need jobs in the area, we have a net loss of people every single day so that needs to change whether it’s by bringing in a third level institute or jobs – I think we need both. 

“We need to get people back in the town centre, we need a Living Cities initiative rolled out, we need tax breaks for people to be able to renovate the vacant properties and get people back into town.

IMG_7791 Narrow West Street Jane Matthews Jane Matthews

“There’s so much potential in Drogheda, it’s just untapped,” Gradwell said.

“It’s just a matter of getting some love from the Government because they have just been ignoring us for such a long time,” he added.

Pedestrianisation 

 This Living Cities initiative that Gradwell mentioned is a tax incentive scheme for “special regeneration areas”, that Drogheda to-date has been locked out of, much to the annoyance of local Labour TD Ged Nash. 

“When there is public investment in an area, private investment follows,” Nash told The Journal.  

Nash is of the view that Drogheda is completely lacking a credible town centre plan and he argues that full pedestrianisation of the main shopping streets is needed to breathe fresh life into the town. 

“Town centres are for the community to enjoy them. They’re for book shops, cafes, boutiques, restaurants, supermarkets, and the kinds of things that you would see in similar-sized small cities across Europe.

“We have everything that would lend itself to that kind of ambience in Drogheda. We’re an old walled town, we have a medieval street structure. We saw what Drogheda can be when the town centre area was closed off, to allow people to enjoy it during the two Fleadhanna in 2018 and 2019.”

 Nash called for greater penalties for owners of derelict properties and added that if a person is rich enough to own a number of properties and to be able to leave them derelict then they “need to be hit in the pockets”.

City Status

Nash has been a vocal advocate for city status for Drogheda and makes the point that one of Drogheda’s big challenges is that it falls between town and local authority areas with one side of the town in County Meath and the other in County Louth. 

He believes a good start on the road to city status would be the restoration of town government in the area.

“But I think there’s a logic to city status. I always say to the people of Drogheda, city status at the moment is a state of mind, we need to behave like a city. Continue to have those ambitions and to make that case because I think it will happen. It has to happen at some point.”

Drogheda-based Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd agrees with Nash that city status is needed for Drogheda, but he believes that locals need to think about what they actually want Drogheda to look like in years to come. 

When The Journal caught up with him, O’Dowd said it was important that people in Drogheda think about what they actually want Drogheda to look like. 

“It’s easy to say Drogheda City – but what does that mean?

How big should Drogheda be, do you want it to be 100,000 [population]? I don’t.

“So we have to think about that. It’s a complex situation,” he said. 

In discussions with locals for this series, the Fleadh Cheoil, which was held in Drogheda in 2018 and 2019 is often pointed to as a reference point.

2018 saw the largest attendance in the traditional music festival’s history with half a million visitors to the town and is estimated to have helped generate €40m for the local economy.

Lolo Robinson, who runs Robinson School of Irish Dancing in the town, was instrumental in bringing the Fleadh to Drogheda for the first time in the festival’s history. 

Speaking to The Journal, Robinson said it was a seven-year fight to bring the 2018 Fleadh to Drogheda, but when it came it “awakened a new community spirit in people”.

The Covid-19 pandemic that followed however, put a dampener on things. 

“There are some aspects of the town that aren’t great at the moment, particularly retail,” Robinson said. 

She added however, that Irish music and dancing are probably stronger now than they ever were in Drogheda. 

“We have a lot of new immigrants that would have integrated into the town and they’re also very involved in the music and the dance. Music is an international language anyway,” Robinson said. 

When asked what politicians need to focus on to help improve the local area, Robinson said that more tourist accommodation is needed ahead of the Leinster Fleadh which is set to take place in Drogheda in July 2025.

This issue of retail, that Robinson and others highlighted, is one stressed by local business owners too. 

Business in the town

Justin Callaghan owns a butchers on the main street in town and has been in business for 10 years. 

IMG_7840 Justin Callaghan and sons on West Street Jane Matthews Jane Matthews

He told The Journal that he thinks the town has gone downhill and that the local politicians are only out for themselves. 

“They’re only there for your vote and you’ll never hear from them again,” he said. 

In terms of business, he said:

“You might get one good day and then the next couple of days aren’t great. I still have a lot of bills to pay and I’ve no money coming in.”

Callaghan said he’s not afraid to say that there are some weeks where he doesn’t have wages.   

He added that he worries about being able to keep the doors open. 

“Costs and everything has gone up and the footfall is just not there,” he said. 

Callaghan suggests that one thing that might help is if Louth County Council allowed free parking in the town centre for an hour or two to help bring some custom back to the centre.

IMG_7838 Justin Callaghan Jane Matthews Jane Matthews

Just a stone’s throw up the road from Callaghan’s butchers is the newly opened Evalynn Beag coffee shop. 

Evalynn Beag is the second coffee shop opened in the town by 23-year-old Drogheda native Niall Weldon, with the original Evalynn situated just outside the town centre in Bryanstown. 

Weldon opened the Bryanstown cafe just over two years ago and took the plunge with Evalynn Beag on West Street at the beginning of May this year. 

When asked about his experience of doing business in the town, the first thing Weldon noted was the sense of community and support he has received. 

He added however that it is scary to see the number of businesses that open and close on West Street. 

“Everything you hear about rising costs is true. We used to buy cups for €37 a box when we first opened, now they’re €55/60 a box. I can draw so many of those comparisons,” Weldon said. 

IMG_7912 Niall Weldon, owner of Evalynn and Evalynn Beag Jane Matthews Jane Matthews

Weldon made the point that now with the elections on he’s had lots of politicians and candidates reaching out, who he had not heard from in the previous two years. 

In terms of what he thinks needs to be done to improve the town, Weldon pointed to the Boyne 10k race that takes place annually on the May Bank Holiday every year as a great way of (literally) getting footfall in the town. 

“The Arts Festival is another great one for getting people out and about. So any of those mass festival-type events are really important,” Weldon said. 

He added: “Everyone’s shouting for West Street to be pedestrianised and they have been for a very long time. I’d love to see West Street open up like the streets of Spain.” 

While Weldon was largely positive about what Drogheda has to offer, he did point to a problem with anti-social behaviour, including fights and robberies. He added however that in recent months there does seem to be a stronger garda presence on the streets. 

“I know a lot of older people who just don’t come into downtown Drogheda anymore. Everything they need is on the outskirts and they’re ashamed to look at it,” Weldon said, citing Narrow West Street as “an embarrassment”.

“A lot of people would not agree but I love the town. The people in it are really good,” Weldon said. 

The Drogheda Dolls

Similar to Weldon, it was this love of the town that drove Natalie Kelly to set up the Drogheda Dolls community group.  

Kelly set the group up via Facebook in 2017 and told The Journal that she did so because she wanted to try and create the sense of community that she used to hear her grandmother talk about – where you might get a lend of a bag of sugar. 

“That sort of bartering system that brings a community together,” Kelly said.

“Facebook was so negative at the time and it was really just because our community and our town was getting bigger and you nearly didn’t know your neighbour.”

Since 2017, the group has grown exponentially and now has almost 30,000 members on Facebook and also has an in-person community centre dubbed ‘the Dolls House’ which opened in 2022. 

Twice a week coffee mornings are held in the Dolls House for local women to socialise and get to know each other. Kelly made the point that the Dolls House also aims to support people with loneliness.

The group have also raised a significant amount for charities – Kelly estimates it is close to half a million euro – ranging from the Gary Kelly Cancer Support Centre in the town, Drogheda Animal Rescue and the Women’s Refuge.  

Kelly takes the view that Drogheda is “maybe a little left behind” but brimming with potential. 

“The only people who are going to change it are the Drogheda people and making sure you vote for the right people,” she said.  

“Times are tough and there is a bit of anger out there, but fundamentally we’re a great town and a great people.”

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
24
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel