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The decline of Castlebar

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

THE discussion stemming from Niall McGarry’s commentary on Castlebar has made for interesting reading in recent weeks. For those of you who missed it, McGarry, owner of Maximum Media (the parent of Joe.ie and Her.ie) and home for Christmas, bemoaned the lack of vibrant nightlife in the town on his Facebook page, blaming ‘legal wrangles, error-strewn planning and lack of investment’ for the town going ‘backwards’. Pointing out out that the town once boasted the best nightlife in the county, he lamented the lack of night-time social activity for younger people in the ‘socially soulless’ town centre. “No social life means no youth”, he wrote, “and without its youth, what future does a provincial town like [Castlebar] have?”
I doubt there’s a town in rural Ireland today that won’t have, in some way, empathised with McGarry’s frustration. But the piece and the subsequent reaction raise interesting issues, if only from a sociological point of view. And as he acknowledged, it comes down to far more than the lack of a good nightclub.
Wilson Bird, President of Castlebar Chamber of Commerce responded last week that the perception that the county town is in decline ‘could not be further from the truth’, referencing the growing number of new eateries, demand for retail space and evidence of economic growth. Bird was also adamant that the people of the town should be talking it up instead of pointing out its deficiencies, suggesting that positive messages and stories on social media sites do help change trends.
Which begs the question – when your town is struggling, what’s the best approach to take? Do you call out the problems as you see them, so they can be addressed, or do you take the ‘Westport approach’ ie even when things aren’t going as well as you’d like, keep your game face on and make sure no-one else knows? Optics are everything after all, and the latter is a tried and tested PR approach that has served Westport well down the years. But then, so has the single-minded commitment and hard work by businesses and volunteers who mucked in and made the most of their opportunities.

Vicious circle
Money won’t fix all ails, and when a solution or a vision for a struggling town’s future isn’t clear, it leads to paralysis on the ground. In turn, the lack of direction inhibits collaboration, erodes confidence and results in a vicious circle. Sometimes, understandably, it’s easier for the general public to just dwell on what’s wrong, rather than come up with answers. Certainly, it’s not a phenomenon unique to Castlebar.
To be fair, the effect of a series of knocks on a town’s psyche can’t be underestimated. Like Castlebar, most towns in Mayo are still steadying themselves post-crash. Here in North Mayo, Ballina is reeling all over again at the recent loss of two major projects, namely the potential offered by the Mary Robinson archive, and the Mayo Renewable Power project, liquidated in November. Last weekend, another popular pub and restaurant business closed its doors. While the town is trying, such a series of body blows undermines confidence and morale, both of which are necessary to progress - and difficult to regain.
But we should also acknowledge the fact that towns without nightclubs aren’t a new phenomenon. The social scene in Ireland has been evolving for years, and clubbing is no longer the norm. Many people socialise these days not just in pubs/clubs, but on bikes, squash courts, swimming pools and coffee shops, where the art of sober conversation remains strong - surely no bad thing.
Nor is the lack of good nightlife to blame for the dearth of younger people in towns; rather, it is a side-effect of an unbalanced economic policy. Jobs and potential for career growth will attract young people. The rest will follow.
Other means of revitalising our towns include returning to community values, incentivising people to live in town centres and maximising our assets. The stunning Mall in Castlebar and the Moy in Ballina are scandalously underutilised, for example. And truthfully, it is recognising that waiting for others to do something won’t cut it. If we want to see our towns flourish, it’s time to muck in. That much, at least, is in our control.

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