The town I love so well
Westport hit the national airwaves last Wednesday morning. The town was mentioned in an interview by Professor Ray Kinsella of UCD Graduate School of Business on RTE’s Morning Ireland. He was interviewed about the buy-out by Debenhams of Roches Stores. He cited Westport in general as a small town and O’Donnell’s Shoe Shop in particular, as an example of an indigenous small town business that could be affected by ‘the internationalisation of retailing’. He spoke about the exit of Irish businesses from the high streets over the recent past and the entry of multiples like Dunnes, Tesco, Marks and Spencer, and Debenhams. He said that this trend has accelerated of late.
There is little difference between a high street in any British town and a high street here. Even the common use and acceptance of the term ‘high street’ is proof positive of the level and acceptance of the change.
There are obvious benefits to this great explosion of business confidence. The consumer has more choice, access to cheaper prices and more opportunities to shop, with longer or, in some cases 24-hour, opening of shops. One can now even shop on-line. Irish producers and suppliers are being challenged to raise the bar in quality and standards while occupying pride of place on the shelves of the multiples.
Towns compete to attract the great multiple wonders. For some people, the presence of the voracious multiple is a sign of success. It is like the economic imprimatur from the high priests of industry. Any town without a multiple is looked down on as not being properly developed. Being quaint and attractive as a town is no longer the norm. It is not what a developing town aspires to.
Just as the Londoner is baptised a Cockney within the sound of the Bow Bells, so too, in this country, any development must occur within the hunting grounds of the Celtic Tiger. One must now never be out of earshot of the roar of the Celtic Tiger. Shopping has become the new religion. Shopping centres have become the new cathedrals. Spending has become the new form of worship.
The candles are always lighting on the altar of consumerism. There is an endless supply of gifts to be brought before the altar, just as there is a constant stream of willing participants in this celebration ceremony of consumerism.
Yes, of course there are down-sides. Heraclitus assures us that the only thing that is constant is change. Not all change is for the better, of people, of society or of life in general. Like everything, striking the balance is the fine art.
The cost of the multiples is measured in terms other than Mammon. Social cost, or community, is the main cost of the consumerism that we are currently experiencing. People become redefined as ‘consumers’. All of a sudden we are part of the product chain. We are at the very end. We are the goal of the insatiable appetite of consumerism. We, the people, are the new Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Consumerism is like concentric circles. We are at the centre and the perimeter. The big drawback is that while we think we are in control, we are not. It is as if we entered a tunnel through a manhole and the cover has been replaced from above. We are in the dark. We do not know which way to turn. All of a sudden we realise that our lives have been turned upside down. Some of us now work to satisfy the 24-hour, seven-day openings. More of us are compromised because margins now take precedence over service, honesty and loyalty to oneself. Compromise has become the norm. The lowest common denominator has become acceptable as a standard. Communities lose out. The social cost of consumerism is best observed by its effects on families. The NCT Centre is now open at 8am on Sunday mornings. How times have changed! What was once the domain of the sacred has long since been replaced. The reality is that it has now become so acceptable.
The litany of low prices by the multiples has an effect on small shops. Eight newsagents/grocery shops on Spencer Street in Castlebar over 20 years ago have been closed down to one. Bridge Street in Westport, once the doyen of family businesses, now languishes in the no-man’s-land of closed premises and out-of-town proprietors. The one-time residents of the street (with some notable exceptions) have all headed towards the hills, taunted and haunted by the stag and hen parties that have blighted the town over the past few years.
Why has it become so acceptable to tolerate the display of blatant vulgarity that is now common on our streets, especially at weekends? Take a walk up Bridge Street any weekend night. The noise (no other word is suitable) that emanates from pubs is stomach churning. The scene on the street is nauseating as droves of drink-laden ‘hens’ and ‘stags’ vie for dominance in rudeness and crudity. Is this the lowest common denominator that we have stooped to? Our town deserves better. Those who went before us would spin in their graves just as those who will come behind us will wonder why we abandoned all sense of propriety and ownership to those whose only ambition is the next drink, snort or score.
Respect is something that is earned, it is not a given. The more nonsense we tolerate in the town the less respect that will be shown to its people and its character. There is not much point in drawing up a Town Development Plan that promotes town-centre residential living if the streets are populated with yobbos at all hours of the night.
The easiest thing to do is blame the guards. “They’re never around when you want them,” we hear all too often. What we seem to forget is that the Gardaí are not paid to baby-sit. If we, as a community, allow a town to develop in a certain way, then we have the responsibility to ensure that the consequences of our decisions are not ‘blamed’ on someone else.
Professor Kinsella told the RTE reporter that consumerism is re-shaping our lives and values. The proof is before our eyes in Westport every weekend, without a proliferation of multiples. We see the effects. We, as a people, have to decide where we want to go as a community. We can easily develop as a honky-tonk, duplicating the experience of a Bundoran or Tramore without the slot machines. They have been replaced by the one-armed bandit of consumerism, the prowling, growling Celtic Tiger. Those who claim he has not crossed the Shannon are living in cloud cuckoo-land. He is here, with an insatiable appetite, well-dressed and everybody’s friend.
Long before any kind of tiger, O’Donnell’s Shoe Shop was in Westport. It has been here for more than 100 years. Other shops are also having a good innings in our lovely town. We, as a community, are the only people who must decide if they will be here for another hundred years.