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When the west dreamt of a supercity

County View

County View
John Healy

In any trawl through the events of yesteryear, the folder marked ‘Whatever Became Of ---’ is sure to be a bulky one. The burning issues of the day have a short shelf life, their time at centre stage governed by the arrival of the next big story.
And so it was for the much heralded New City for the West, a grandiose plan for a supercity which would redress the imbalance between east and west and provide Connacht with a metropolis without rival in the developed world.
Launched 20 years ago this summer by a Galway businessman, William Thomas, the new city would be located within ten miles of Knock Airport, would cover an area of 30 square miles, and its initial population of 100,000 would eventually grow to a quarter of a million within 20 years.
It was a project big on ambition and big on design, and it would revitalise rural Ireland from its location in the Black Triangle, that neglected and blighted sweep of rural Mayo bounded by Kilkelly, Kilmovee and Ballaghaderreen. And when Mr Thomas addressed a packed public meeting in the last named town to explain his plans, his enthusiasm was infectious and the possibilities seemed endless.
The new supercity, tentatively named by Mr Thomas as the ‘City of the Sacred Heart’, would be home to a top-flight university, would have a world-class hospital, would lead in cutting-edge technology and high-grade employment. Its residential housing would be ‘new, spatial, detached in an infrastructural suburbia’. Its wide boulevards and avenues would afford free movement of traffic, with well-designed public transport and parking.
Trains would connect the new city to Dublin in 50 minutes of utmost comfort. Best of all, the €75 billion of required investment would be privately raised.
The then Bishop of Achonry, Dr Flynn, who presided at the Ballaghaderreen meeting, proclaimed that the new city would be good for Ireland as a whole. And to the doubters in the gathering, he reminded them of how the critics and naysayers had been silenced a decade earlier when Monsignor Horan had delivered on his promises.
Mr Thomas, meanwhile, had nothing but encouraging news. President MacAleese had written to wish the project well; Minister Dempsey, on behalf of the Government, had given the thumbs up; multibillionaires like Bill Gates and Ross Perot were eager to get involved. Richard Branson was already looking to Ireland as a potential investment location for his new high speed trains.
“The rugged terrain of the west of Ireland is ideal for the use of his technologically advanced tilted trains,” Mr Thomas explained to his audience.
But not everyone was impressed by the idea of the City of the Sacred Heart. Professor Seamas Caulfield said the idea was not consistent with the rational development of the region. The Government’s top civil servants and spatial strategy advisors dismissed the plan as impractical.
Within a year, the proponents of the enterprise began to realise that there would be no backing from official Ireland. Mr Thomas decided that the only alternative was to change government thinking from within. By the end of 2001, he had founded the National Western Alliance Party which would become the voice of the neglected west, and would contest the coming general election in every constituency from Donegal to Galway.
But the election came and went, and there was no sign of a Western Alliance candidate on any ballot paper. Apart from sporadic references in the media, the dream of the fabled city on the hill disappeared from the headlines, from the news, from public discourse, not to be heard of again.