Westport's Garden of Eden

Off the fence
Westport’s thorny Garden of Eden

Liamy MacNallyLiamy MacNally

WESTPORT Civic Trust started ten years ago in response to concern over the future of the Bank of Ireland Garden.  That concern is still alive and well!  In the meantime that short-lived Celtic Tiger paid its fleeting visit with its dire consequences and its everlasting NAMA footprint.
Both the Bank building and Garden are in private ownership, albeit by different owners, as far as can be ascertained.  The building is still owned by Bank of Ireland while the Garden is owned by a local development company.  
Westport Civic Trust was founded in 1999 when the Garden and the attached courtyard buildings were put up for sale.  Many local people were concerned that the Garden could be developed and that Concrete Row would become a reality.  The Garden is at the heart of Westport town.  It is a unique facility.  It is about an acre in size and older Covies will remember it well.  Many a Westport mouth was fed with produce from the Garden.  The Garden hosted flowerbeds, a vegetable plot, a water feature, an orchard and a greenhouse that was once heated! 
The Bank of Ireland building is listed and the Garden forms part of its curtilege.  This means the Garden also attracts special protection status.  Any planning application (that might be approved by the local council) would be subject to the full rigours of examination by An Bord Pleanála.  In 1999, the Bank of Ireland sought proposals for the Garden and courtyard buildings.  Westport Civic Trust submitted a detailed proposal for a Town Centre Garden with letters of support from several local organisations.  With the Millennium looming it would have been an ideal opportunity for Bank of Ireland to display a gesture of generosity towards the people of Westport by declaring the Garden a public area.  The practicalities of maintaining the Garden could have been sorted out quite easily.  Instead the Garden was sold.  It was also local election time.  Existing councillors and candidates signed a petition to maintain the Garden, as did hundreds of local people.  Some of those Councillors still sit around the chamber table in Westport.
Westport Civic Trust argues that the Garden could be used in a variety of ways.  The ‘Millennium’ submission included plans for flowers, vegetables, water features and a restored green house.  It also catered for people with disabilities by incorporating raised beds, a sensory garden, plants with interesting fragrances and textures marked with Braille plaques and an area for school children to grow vegetables.  The Garden is walled and it could be easily managed with it being closed at dusk each day.  The Bank Garden is a gem of an opportunity for a town like Westport.  All that is lacking is the political will.
The current local politicians are divided on the Garden’s future.  A recent council proposal on the Garden designated it for partial development.  A ‘rough map’ circulated at the council meeting detailing the development/Garden split was flawed because it contained a large area that does not form part of the Garden.  Is this the proverbial ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’?  The Bank Garden, in its essence, cannot become a partial development and a partial recreational amenity.  Any development will ruin its soul. 
Westport Town Council facilitated recent discussions between Westport Civic Trust and the Garden owner.  Some people argue that, while facilitating the discussions was well meaning, the wrong parties were in discussion!  The discussion over the future of the Bank Garden is not and cannot be confined to the owner and Westport Civic Trust.  The future of the Bank Garden concerns the people of Westport.  In this context it means that Westport Town Council must be at the heart of the discussions not merely facilitating discussions between other parties!  Perhaps it would have been a healthier sign for Covies if the Westport Civic Trust facilitated discussions between the owner and Westport Town Council!          
Over €600,000 has been approved by Government to develop the Railway Line Walk.  The same principle can be applied to the Bank Garden.  With a proper submission from ALL interested parties then it could mean that monies would be approved for the Garden.  This would also ensure, and rightly so, that the developer is properly and adequately compensated.  No one is interested in ‘taking over’ the Garden at the expense of its owner.  That mentality is alien to fair play and justice.  Common sense is the only thing that can play the biggest role in these ongoing discussions.  That also means that those who disregard any proposal from Westport Civic Trust will have to wake up and smell the coffee.  The Civic Trust is in it for the long haul and its members are an ally to the development of Westport for this and future generations.  Opportunity knocks!