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‘Save our Bank Garden’

News

STILL GOING STRONG Local campaigning residents pictured at the entrance to the Bank Garden last week.

Áine Ryan

WESTPORT Civic Trust (Trust) has appealed to the public to help save the old Bank of Ireland garden, situated on a one-acre site off Westport’s historic North Mall and due to be auctioned in a Galway hotel on Friday next.
In receivership for some years, the reserve price is €240,000 for the town-centre property which is being sold ‘as an ideal investment for redevelopment’. The Mayo News understands there is already keen interest in the sale.  
The Mayo News also understands that the county council (West Mayo Municipal District) has a genuine interest in acquiring the property but is challenged by the fact that its funds are depleted. The Trust too has raised some funds but says it needs significant more monies in order to be in a position to even bid for the property. It has set up a bank account and now hopes that its eleventh-hour appeal will raise monies needed to purchase it for the community. (See below.)
According to the vendor and selling agents, O’Donnellan and Joyce Auctioneers, the property comprises ‘a derelict commercial building which is situated on [circa] 1.1 acre site located in the heart of Westport town. The building requires significant refurbishment throughout. There is a large yard to the rear of the building, the property would be an ideal investment for re development subject to [planning permission] due to its prominent location, in the very busy town of Westport’.
For nearly two decades the Trust has highlighted the importance of this Georgian-era garden. Its outbuildings and the curtilage of the structure are listed on the Record of Protected Structures in the Westport Town and Environs Development Plan. The bank building itself was extensively refurbished after Westport Credit Union purchased it some years ago. Historic rights entail that it has access to parking rights within the courtyard complex.
   
Cross-decade campaign
WESTPORT Civic Trust was established in 1999 after news broke that the Bank of Ireland was selling the garden and courtyard buildings, separate from the house. At the time the garden was zoned by the town council under ‘Town Development’.   
“We were alarmed that the last remaining walled garden in the town centre would be replaced by car parks and apartment blocks. We set up Westport Civic Trust to protect this precious garden, and offered to buy the property from the bank at a token price in order to turn it into an amenity for the town. Our town park had recently been closed down, and Westport was left without any central green space for socialising. Most of the remaining gardens within the town had been transformed into car parks,” recalls Iris Galloway of the Trust.  
“The Bank turned us down and instead sold the garden and courtyard to a local developer, who was aware that the Trust was seeking a preservation order for the garden … Dunnes Stores then bought a building on Castlebar Street just on the other side of the west wall of the Garden. Plans were spotted which proposed to knock the wall and expand Dunnes Stores into the garden,” she continues.
Over the following years, the Trust continued its campaign – in tandem with its successful campaign for the development of the old railway line walk to the Quay to be transformed into a greenway. It lobbied the local authority, Government ministers and relevant semi-state authorities ‘to ensure the garden’s protection’.
“A new Planning and Development Act came into force in 2000, stipulating that any grounds attendant to a protected structure (its curtilage) were, by extension, protected. The garden came under this heading, as it was easy to demonstrate that it had always been part of the Bank of Ireland complex, a unit consisting of the house, attached courtyards (used for carriages, horses, storage of hay and implements, kennels, and so forth) and the walled garden, producing food and flowers for the occupants of the house,” Iris Galloway explains
She told The Mayo News that at a meeting in 2012, the Trust ‘finally got the council to agree to rezone the garden as predominantly (75 percent) ‘Open Space’.’
“We saw this as a supreme achievement, as it afforded a much greater measure of protection for the garden,” she said.

Potential of the garden for the community
THE Trust envisages many uses for the garden and has devised a draft list of potential uses with Mayo County Council. They include use by community employment schemes; horticultural students at Westport College of Further Education, Men’s Shed projects; the Tidy Towns’ committee. They have assessed the annual running costs as follows: Gardener and Administrator, €35,000; plants and equipment, €5,000; miscellaneous, €5,000. They stress that the garden would be locked and secured each evening.

History
ONCE a Dower House owned by the Browne family of Westport House, the building dates from circa 1809.  The Bank of Ireland took over the property circa 1838 and the manager and his family lived in the house and used the garden. Townspeople still remember buying vegetables there, or sneaking in, as children, to steal apples.The Bank building itself was extensively refurbished by Westport Credit Union, the owners.  
It is one of the most important Georgian structures in Westport and is listed as a Protected Structure of National Importance. The courtyard buildings are also listed as Protected Structures of Regional Importance, according to the Trust.

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