Where to next for Castlebar?


WORKING TOGETHER? A drum band and dancers performing at the Heart of Castlebar Street Festival in 2011. The festival is no more after division between organisers and businesses. Pic: Ken Wright

Edwin McGreal

Over the Christmas Niall McGarry of Joe.ie and Her.ie certainly generated debate with his comments in these pages and on social media decrying the fall of Castlebar’s once vibrant social scene.
Many agreed, others took issue and he even earned a rebuke from the Chamber of Commerce. But if McGarry’s comments did nothing else but start a debate about the town and its social scene, then they were a good thing.
Those of us who grew up socialising in the town found it hard to find fault with his assessment of the problems in the town. People will, of course, always differ on proposed solutions.
But before you speak of solutions, you have to acknowledge the presence of a problem in the first place.
When our group turned 18 in or around the year 2000, we did not realise, then, how blessed we were to be coming of age in Castlebar.
In terms of pubs and late night venues, there was any amount of choices but many are gone by the wayside now.
Pubs like The Humbert, Hennellys, Buckos and Stalkys were always hopping. From a club point of view you had the TF and The Welcome Inn Hotel in competition. There were four different venues within the TF and, at times, three in the Welcome Inn. The town’s nightlife was alive.
With both hotels having their own difficulties, there is no such club presence any more. As it is right now in 2017, there is only one late bar in the town, Cox’s, and no full time night club.
When we were coming of age in Castlebar, the buses came from Westport to the TF. Now, they go in the opposite direction. And while some businesses in the town criticise revellers who go to Westport or the bus company which provides the service, they are missing the point. The buses would not run if there was a vibrant night scene in Castlebar.
Right now you’d feel sorry for anyone turning 18 in Castlebar. No club, one late bar and many pubs often don’t appeal to a younger crowd. It’s worse still for underage teenagers with no teenage discos to speak of.
It’s certainly a matter well worthy of further discussion and analysis so we delved deeper to try to get to the heart of the matter.

Uphill battle
Mark O’Connor works for pharmaceutical company Pfizer but his real passion is music and a year ago himself and Jim Mulroy setup Relish with the aim of putting on discos and shows in the town.
It was they who operated the only disco in the town over the Christmas period, with gigs in the Castlebar Celtic clubhouse — one of only two venues for such occasional events, along with Garbo’s, beside the bowling alley.
“The easiest thing to do is to come down here at Christmas and identify that there’s an issue,” Mr O’Connor told The Mayo News. “The second easiest thing to do is put on a makeshift disco on December 23 and 26. Those dates will always attract a crowd.
“If you are trying to do something, well then try having something on January 20 or February 17 - that’s how you will gage the reaction to it.
“We set up Relish as Jim and I were both disappointed with the direction the night life in Castlebar has taken. We set up Relish with a view to breathing new life into the social scene in Castlebar. What it has been the equivalent of is an asthmatic breathing on a forest fire. It has been an uphill battle.
“The biggest issue is locations, or lack thereof. Celtic or Garbos … neither have a late license or have an interest in getting one due to the cost aspect.
“What we’re left with is one late bar that everyone moans about and people getting on buses and going not just to Westport but to Ballina and Galway too,” he said.
Living for the weekend
O’Connor wistfully recalls when both The Welcome Inn and The Travellers’ Friend were thriving, which made Castlebar a hotspot on the social scene in the west. Now, both venues lie idle.
“The root cause of so much of this is that the nightclubs in this town are pegged to the hotels they are part of, they have never been standalone enterprises. The economic downturn closed the hotels and the clubs suffered by default,” he observed.
“In 1998/99 the TF was renowned nationally as a good place to go. People used to work during the week in order to go out on a Saturday night in Castlebar. People don’t live like that anymore, it’s not because they don’t want to but that there is nowhere for them to go.”
O’Connor singles out people like promoter Finbar Hoban and those involved in Love Castlebar as people ‘doing a lot of very good work’ but argues that there is not enough collaboration in the town.
“There are people trying but they are not getting a lot of support. The co-operation that you see in Westport just does not exist in Castlebar. The perception out there is that there is a less ambitious outlook within the town limits in Castlebar.
“We’ve a college full of people (GMIT), there’s definitely a huge market there and we have the facilities in the TF and the Welcome Inn,” he said.
He argues a meeting with several ‘key stakeholders’ and the formulation of plans for the town could be a crucial first step. He would also love to see venues like the TF and the Welcome Inn outsourced to promoters rather than being closed. The TF Hotel itself is open but its theatre and disco are closed.
“We need to focus on a good social scene as not a want for the town but a need. Many people do not see it as a KPI (key performance indicator) for the town but if a town is lively and buzzing at night, it creates a great reaction. The opposite is true too.
“We need a long-term plan, not a get rich quick thing. People involved have to have a passion to put life back into the town, to want one of the town’s KPIs to be a fantastic night life.”
An aspirational place to live
The aforementioned Love Castlebar is a group in the town who have taken very active steps in recent years to improve the town in many ways. From their painting of derelict buildings to running the Love Lannagh Festival and much more besides, the group of volunteers have made a difference.
Helen O’Hara is their driving force and is very passionate about making the town a better place to live, work and socialise.
“Our contention has always been that everything will follow if you make a town an aspirational place to live. You will attract talent, enterprise and jobs. People will want to come home, people who go to college here will want to stay.
“There’s a huge amount of positives for the town in terms of amenities. I don’t think any other town of its size in the country has access to the same amount of amenities as Castlebar does. You have a good cost of living, quality standard of living, educational and sporting facilities,” she told The Mayo News.
Those are good building blocks, Ms O’Hara says, but Castlebar is not harnessing its potential right now and certainly not proving to be an aspirational place to live from a social perspective for younger adults, she argues.
“A key area which needs addressing is the social scene for people from the age of 17 to 25. Once you are beyond that age, there’s a lively pub scene, live music, Finbar Hoban is playing a stormer with top class gigs.
“All young people want is to be around other young people. There is no place for them to congregate, no one serving that audience. Everyone else had their niche when the hotels shut down and no one else went after that market.
“I moved from Dublin somewhat reluctantly, worried about leaving behind all that city life has to offer but I have not regretted it for a nanosecond since but I don’t know if I would feel the same way if I was 23 in Castlebar right now,” she added.

Operation transformation
Ms O’Hara sees huge potential in the town but points out the right environment for growth needs to be present.  
“We, as a town, need to do a lot more to create vibrancy for young people in the town. The nightclub is one aspect but only one. The capacity is in the town to be transformed extraordinarily in the next couple of years but we need to get one of the venues (TF Hotel or Welcome Inn) open.
“The council can create the environment to enable people to be entrepreneurs but they can’t open a night club. It has to come from the community.”
Plans for a new music venue on the site of McCarthy’s Bar on Main Street are ‘exciting’ says Ms O’Hara.  
“When we were in college we were home every weekend to go out in Castlebar. We’ve seen how quickly it can change so that gives me great hope for the future that it can go in the other direction just as fast,” she added.
What the future holds for Castlebar is a topic we will revisit in the coming weeks. Certainly, there’s no doubt there’s unfulfilled potential in the town. Can it be harnessed?