NEWS that the way has been cleared for the Educate Together school to be relocated to Marsh House will be welcomed by those alarmed at the deterioration of the former home of Castlebar Town Council. The unsightly growth of grass, weeds and nettles through the patio of the building reflects just how quickly an unused building can lose its appearance, and how neglect can wreak damage on what was once a classical structure.
There are, according to Castlebar Municipal Council, ten derelict sites in the area at the moment, a figure so low as to suggest that there must be a thin dividing line between the definitions of dereliction and plain abandonment.
And it is surprising how silently an abandoned site or building can melt into the background. We become so used to its presence that, in time, we even forget it is there, and all too often it takes an outsider to draw our attention to the existence of sites which have become eyesores.
The county council has plans, it seems, to move on the question of derelict sites, but it cannot be overlooked that some of the most prominent of the abandoned are already in public ownership. Buildings like the Imperial Hotel on the Mall, the old Library at Mountain View, and the old Post Office cannot but be in rapid decay after years of lying empty and unloved while costs like security, basic maintenance and insurance continue to rise.
Meanwhile, many of the private sites, once sturdy, well kept, exemplary family homes lie open to the elements, a blot on the landscape and a health and safety hazard. The old abandoned residence on Blackfort Hill, once the home of the respected O’Quigley family is a sad reminder of a family which was once at the heart of the civic and cultural life of Castlebar. James O’Quigley, a teacher, was a Labour member of Castlebar Urban Council. His son, Ben, a barrister, was Leader of Seanad Éireann. Elsewhere, boarded up houses are a silent witness to the march of time.
Granted, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and the vengeance of the recession has played no small part in adding to the list of dereliction. Despite the first shoots of recovery, too many retail outlets remain locked and shuttered, proof of the unequal struggle of so many small businesses to make ends meet. And, according to the latest figures, the situation is even bleaker in Claremorris and Ballina, where the number of derelict sites are a multiple of what they are in Castlebar.
Abandoned properties, boarded up premises and derelict sites can have a seriously negative knock-on effect on a town’s reputation and appearance. A few short years ago, RTÉ choose to selectively feature footage of part of the Ballinrobe streetscape in a particularly poor state of dereliction, an image which did scant justice to that upbeat and thriving market town, except to serve the purpose of the documentary makers.
Castlebar has been more fortunate than most in that a group of civic- minded volunteers have taken it on themselves to brighten up the abandoned shop fronts and to inject a tangible air of optimism into the town centre. ‘Love Castlebar’ has put words into action and at least provide an appearance of business pep when it was most badly wanted.
But they know that appearances can only do so much. The reality is that there are still too many closed shops, too many blacked out windows. But at least the fightback has started, and even the longest journey starts with the first step.