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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 20 August, 2019
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Planning 'neglect' has made Drogheda a town that has lost its 'heart'

Cliodhna Russell hears from business owners worried about their very survival.

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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.

Cliódhna Russell from Monknewtown, Slane visited the nearby town of Drogheda to find out what has gone wrong and right since the last election five years ago – and what people want to see happen after this election.

‘A TOWN WITHOUT a heart’ – that’s how Drogheda is described time and time again when I spend a day talking to locals and business owners in the Louth town.

Despite hearing from buskers and a homeless man about how generous residents are, the overriding feelings are of anger and abandonment.

Nearly everyone I spoke to criticised recent planning decisions, with most people convinced that lack of parking and accessibility has pushed shoppers out to nearby retail parks, leaving the town searching for its heartbeat.

Most business owners feel the government simply isn’t listening to them and the majority of people say they don’t know who they will vote for – and not because they feel spoiled for choice.

The Louth town has changed considerably over the last decade since I was at school there. Boarded up shopfronts are now a common post-recession sight – an outcome that looks to be the reality for the foreseeable future.

Narrow West St Narrow West St

When people were asked what the biggest issue in the town was, there was a very consistent theme: the main street, and how the town has ‘lost its heart’ due to the planning around it.

Michael Reade presents a current affairs show on LMFM, a station servicing the north-east that’s based in Drogheda, and is very familiar with the complaint. He explained to TheJournal.ie:

It’s a problem that goes back eight years now. They decided to extend the footpath running up West Street, which is the main street in the town. The work was very slow and delayed and as a result led to huge problems and the closure of a lot of businesses and shops on the street.

“That, coupled with the influx of multinationals coming to retail parks … there’s easy access, free parking and it’s very convenient for a lot of people to do their shopping there, which has seen the businesses sort of without custom in the main street and people deciding not to go there.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Sinn Féin candidate Imelda Munster said that the work on West Street took twice the amount of time it was supposed to take and “it never returned to what it was after”.

Once the out-of-town retail parks were built, it was evident it was going to take footfall from the town but it actually ended up taking the life and soul out of it.

‘This town will not survive unless something is done’

The anger and frustration is felt even more strongly by some business owners.

Orlaigh Callaghan is the co-owner of Stockwell Artisan Foods. Located just off West Street, the café has been in business for nearly 10 years.

Stockwell st

Business is very hard… The so-called planning that went into Drogheda never happened. It doesn’t matter how well you run a business, how much support you get and it really doesn’t matter if you stay 24 hours a day, if the infrastructure of the town is not being put in place there is nobody to do business with.

“There’s absolutely no planning in this town … there’s no way we need another hairdresser’s in this town, there’s no way we need another pub and we definitely don’t need another betting shop. Between casinos and betting shops, it’s scandalous in a town this size and what it supports in anti-social behaviour. There’s just no planning, there’s nothing for the young people.”

“I really feel sorry for any young business person starting in this town…the people who are making decisions in this country never ran a business in their lives, they haven’t a clue. The people who are running businesses now are die-hards.”

cafe Orlaigh Callaghan (left) and co-owner Gwen Fearon

When asked about voting in the upcoming election, Callaghan had nothing positive to say about present or past governments:

“There is nobody to vote for. Fianna Fáil are really a hard crew. Fine Gael have totally done a U-turn on everything they were voted in for. Labour – there is no such thing as Labour anymore.

“They’ve become, I dunno, I don’t even think they know who they are, I know who they were supposed to be. That’s gone. There is no working party out there, there is no party out there that supports medium and small businesses.”

I would do well anywhere, [but] the Irish government have done nothing for me to do well. My staff are fabulous and my customers are loyal to me. That has nothing to do with the Irish government.
I have gained nothing from this government and I gained nothing from the government that was in before them and I will gain nothing from the next government and that is fact.

“We both got awarded women of worth awards by the town because they saw us as being such ‘fabulous females’. That’s all well and good but I don’t need someone to tell me what a fabulous female I am.

“I mean, I would have preferred if they handed the €500 or €300 that somebody got paid for making that piece of art and put it towards a playground somewhere, do you know what I mean? I don’t want a pat on the back.”

“This town will not survive unless something is done.”

Granny at bus

Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd was quick to point out that the town planning comes under the remit of the council and isn’t something the government is responsible for:

The council is in charge of town planning and it has lacked in its pursuit of high standards. I would think they need to be far more proactive.

He added, “The recession has deeply affected the commercial impact of the town but there is a turn around, all shops on West Street are now occupied.”

‘We need a heart to the town rather than these retail parks’

Other businesses had a more positive outlook, but location could play a part as shops on one end of West Street are getting footfall from the two shopping centers that came into the town during the Celtic Tiger.

Ann Fox took over her family’s business, Fox’s Jewellers, with her brother in 2005 after her father passed away. The shop celebrated 80 years in business last year.

Ann Fox Ann Fox

Fox said that parking is the biggest issue for her business, with many customers complaining about how hard it is to get a space in the town.

The outside shopping centres are taking business out of the centre of Drogheda.

“I suppose a lot of people would complain about the amount of shops in the town, there’s very few nice shops.”

However, commenting on how business has improved, Fox said, “Our figures were slightly up for December. The footfall was fantastic but our figures were only up slightly.

Fox said she would be optimistic for the future, “I think people are not as afraid to spend as they were.”

That tone was echoed by Patrick Kirwan who owns Kirwan’s Fish Cart, which has also been in business for 80 years.

Patrick Kirwan Patrick Kirwan

Patrick’s father worked from a cart on West Street for 50 years and Patrick continued to work from the cart for 10 years after his father died, before moving into the shop 20 years ago.

It was good up until the recession came and then it was very tough for the few years during the recession, but in the past year especially you’d notice things have definitely improved gradually.

“Parking has always been a big problem here in the town. One thing that it needs is a big multi-storey car park somewhere close to the centre of the town.

“If you look at West Street now in the past few years it’s definitely come back a bit. You can see new shops opening up now on West Street which we definitely needed. We need a heart to the town rather than these retail parks… You need a good main street in the town.

“The more shops that open in the town, the better it is for the town and for people coming in to shop.

At Christmas time this year I think you could see that people had more to spend – if they didn’t have more to spend they were definitely less cautious with what they were spending. People are still looking for good value for money, but definitely there’s a better vibe off people.

Asked about how he plans to vote in the upcoming election, Kirwan said he was undecided but added:

“You know some of them are just giving you a spoof just for votes and that, but I think you have to look at who’s good for business and good for the country … some of them will come out with promises now and you know it’s not going to happen.”

What will sway the votes?

When I worked on The Michael Reade Show at LMFM for an internship almost 10 years ago, the town’s hospital Our Lady of Lourdes, was the dominant issue at the time.

To this day it continues to make national headlines and while Reade acknowledges that having one of the busiest hospitals in the country is a concern – he doesn’t know if that will make an impact at the ballot box.

M Reade

“When it comes to voting I’m not sure how much that will play into people’s minds and how much an influence it will have.

I think the vote will probably break down in terms of the economy and jobs and philosophical thinking as to whether you believe in the current course that the government is taking or if you think there should be an alternative course which perhaps the left wing parties are suggesting.

“I think some votes will be won and lost on things like the hospital, I don’t think it will actually affect the government parties in Louth because I think people would see it as a big problem but a historical problem that belongs with Fianna Fáil.

“Again policing might be an issue that would win or lose a few votes but I’m not sure that people will make the connection when they go out to vote, I think people will be more concerned about whether they have money in their pockets, whether there’ll be jobs for their children or if people will have to leave the country.

I can see a lot of people who would disagree with water charges and think it’s an awful thing but will still vote for the government parties. Or to put that in another way, I can envisage a lot of people who would be very angry about water charges but wouldn’t vote for parties who are pledging to abolish them, because they’ll vote for other reasons.

A visit to Drogheda Men’s Shed showed that it’s not just the town streets that have been abandoned – the feeling of being deserted has trickled down to the people who live here.

Pensioner Danny Churchill expressed how he feels disconnected from what’s going on – describing the current system as ‘not people friendly’.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

‘There’s always money for drink’

Having socialised in Drogheda in my late teens and early 20s, I remember busy bars, queues into nightclubs, more queues for food after and then a good hour long wait before being able to get a taxi home.

But has the town’s nightlife survived the recession?

Darragh Smith has worked in pubs in Drogheda over the past 20 years and has been working in Donaghy’s for almost two years.

Bar manager

Asked if the recession damaged the pub industry in the town, he said: “Certain pubs, but there’s always money for drink. Pubs haven’t been hit that hard – not in the town, in rural areas, yes.

“When I came here in 1995/96 every pub in Drogheda was flying. You’d see a few of them slumped but that was down to them being leased out and the wrong element getting in.”

He said that at 6 o’clock the bar gets busy with an after-work crowd.

You go into any of the bars across the town and there’s a professional client. The old days are gone when you have your regulars. People now go from pub to pub to pub.

He added that people are a lot cheerier but that “we are a nation of whingers and we’ll always have something to complain about”.

Smith said the pub industry is different town to town but that overall Drogheda is steady.

After leaving the bar I came across a band called Grand who were busking on West Street on the freezing cold Friday night in January. In their experience, the people in Drogheda are very generous – they said they ‘do better’ in the Louth town compared to Dublin.

https://vine.co/v/iJEriU9HFj1

“We’ve been busking in Dublin a few times and in Drogheda people are much more generous and much more into it and they’ll come up and smile and talk to you a lot more,” one of the band members told us.

“In Dublin they probably take it for granted because there’s loads of people busking and it’s saturated.

In Drogheda we’d make on average probably like four times as much as we’d make in Dublin.
A homeless man also expressed the sentiment that people in Drogheda were generous.

Describing how he had to leave Dundalk to get away from the heroin scene that he was part of there, he said that he is now clean and is currently on a methadone programme.

“I’ve been in Drogheda for the past six months and I’ve put on over a stone since then.”
He added that there’s loads of homeless people in Drogheda:
I could bring you to the soup kitchen and introduce you to at least 12 people who are squatting.

Asked what the people of Drogheda are like, he said: “They’re very generous people, they’re lovely people.

But when asked if he believes politicians care about him, he said: “No, I do not.”

Politicians not caring or listening was something that came up again and again – with locals feeling that their town has been abandoned by the people they voted in.

Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd disputed this saying, “I spend my life listening to people.

“I’ve been in public life for 42 years now. It’s very important to keep in touch with people, the most important skill is to listen, not talk.”

“I always try to be available for people, I give my phone number out freely and it’s out there.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin candidate Imelda Munster acknowledged that a lot of people in Drogheda feel abandoned, but she added, “I’ve always listened to people and have weekly constituency clinics. 

She said her job is about “working for people, representing them and standing up for them”.

However, with just weeks to go before the election – there seems to be quite a difference between what politicians are saying and promising and what people are experiencing.

Read: Has the recovery made it to Sligo? I went home to find out>

Read: I went home to Cork city to see how people feel ahead of the election

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