SLOW RECOVERY Despite the opening of some businesses last week, town centres like Ballyhaunis remain quiet in east Mayo. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Despite being like ‘ghost-towns’ for the past two months, there is a feeling in east Mayo that they will overcome the Covid crisis
In December 2012, the British public in their infinate wisdom voted the 1970s song, ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’ as by the glam rock band Wizzard as ‘The Nation’s Favourite Christmas Song’. The warm and fuzzy feeling of celebrating Christmas everyday was something which resonated with the British public and who could argue against them.
If a similar vote was held in Ireland, the song wouldn’t be too high up the list of Ballyhaunis-based councillor John Cribbin who described every day in the east Mayo town since the lockdown as being like Christmas Day … and not in a good way.
“Regardless of any time or day you pass through the town there is nobody to be seen. There might be only four businesses open on Main Street and apart from that every other business is closed ... every day is like Christmas Day in Ballyhaunis,” the veteran county councillor told The Mayo News.
It is a description which can be attributed to almost every other small town in east Mayo and across Ireland. Up the road in Swinford, businessman and former councillor, Joe Mellett described his hometown as a ‘ghost-town’ with the streets deserted while the situation in Kiltimagh it is much the same.
The recent relaxation of the restrictions have had very little impact on the businesses in the towns and apart from the essential services, the majority of businesses remain closed. All three of Joe Mellett’s businesses – newsagents, auctioneers and pub – have been closed since the restrictions were brought in and he admits that it is hard to imagine what the future holds for the town.
However, in the last week he has noticed an increase in traffic on the Swinford by-pass and hopes that Swinford will recover from the latest economic set-back.
“Swinford has withstood a lot of blows over the years but it is holding its own and will continue into the future. But it hard to imagine what it will be like whenever trade comes back. There are an awful lot of people buying stuff online and if they continue to do that it will be a disaster. It looks like the small shops which are open are being supported by the locals because they are providing a delivery service which is fantastic. I would hope people don’t forget them. There is an old saying that eaten bread is soon forgotten but I hope that doesn’t come into it in this respect,” he noted.
Mellett’s Emporium pub on Market Street has been in business since 1797 but having watched last week’s Claire Byrne Live show, which outlined what social distancing would be like, Joe feels pubs can forget about 2020.
“If we can get over 2020 we will probably be alright but these next six months will be a challenge. For anyone who looked at the Claire Byrne Show the other day, if your pub can normally hold 50 people but will now only be able to hold maybe 15, is it going to be viable?
“Every pub is losing money because there is costs like light and heat you cannot turn off. You are losing money at the moment but if you open up and there isn’t much trade you could end up losing more money,” he said, adding that while businesses will have to learn from other countries, the Irish government will have to provide support for them to survive.
In Ballyhaunis, despite every day being like Christmas Day, Cllr Cribbin is confident that the town can bounce back. He said there is relief that the meat processing factories in the town have escaped outbreaks of Covid-19 among its workers and feels that the public know that flouting the current guidelines will only result in further restrictions.
“Everyone was expecting people to go mad when the businesses reopened on Monday of last week but people are cautious and careful and they will obey the authorities. They see the bigger danger which could come down the road. You often hear of people who have the flu and say that the relapse would be worse. People are cautious and don’t want another outbreak.
“Since Monday there has been a little bit more activity. Delaney’s hardware store has opened since Monday but there are people standing outside waiting to go in. It is a bit like confessions. It is funny how people get used to things. People seem to be changing their lifestyle and I think so far people are obeying the authorities.
“Generally speaking people are hoping they will be back as near to normal as they were in the past but it will take alot long time and alot longer than we thought last March,” he said.
In Kiltimagh, the Covid-19 restrictions have seen the closure of the town’s two major hotels along with the other non-essential businesses. While the traditional home of Irish language poet, Antoine Ó Raifteirí may not rely on the tourism sector as much as other towns in the county, Joe Kelly, the CEO of IRD Kiltimagh still believes the loss of tourism will still be felt.
“Anytime you have 50 or 60 people employed in a hotel, you cannot keep them jobs satisfied by relying on the local town economy. You are relying on people to come in and while we wouldn’t have visitor numbers anything like towns like Westport, there certainly would have been a mix if international and national tourist along with visiting friends and relations. That will take a while to come back and along with the pubs they would be the businesses I would be concerned about.”
IRD Kiltimagh provide an array of services around Kiltimagh including providing office space for businesses and providing local housing needs. They also run the local playground and indoor play area which have both been closed since the restrictions were introduced.
For the last number of weeks, Joe and the other IRD Kiltimagh office employees have been working from home and he believes that most of the town’s businesses have adapted to the current climate and is confident they will be strong enough to survive the crisis.
“The key employers will be able to hold their head above water and some have continued to trade through this. I think things can come back relatively quickly but the most concern I would have is the fear people may have of going to various shops and doing the normal stuff they did before this. That will take a while to come back.
“Whether we like it or not, we will be stuck with it for quite a while and I think it is a matter for people to feel comfortable with it and that their own job will last as well. If they can feel comfortable going into a shop with people wearing masks and signs on the floor, once we get used to it things will start to move reasonably quickly. I think there is money in the economy and once people can get out and start spending that money I would be confident enough in that regard. People will have to feel comfortable with the new normal.”
While the centre of the east Mayo towns may be quieter than normal and there is uncertainty in the air, Joe Mellett says that one thing that has not been lost is the Meitheal spirit of helping those in times of trouble. As co-ordinator of the local GAA club’s delivery service which delivers an average of 20 meals per day, along with shopping for vulnerable people, Joe says that the enthusiasm among the drivers and the local public continues to be as strong as ever.
“In the early days we thought it might last three or four weeks but as time went on we found out we couldn’t stop because as we know the virus doesn’t stop.
“We are at it from early April and there are numerous other people doing deliveries along with neighbours who are looking after people in their village. The is a great Meitheal about the place … the coming together of all the people who are able to deliver to those who are worst off. The enthusiasm is as strong as ever. I have drivers who ring me and say ‘Joe is there anything for me today?’ and ‘where do you want me to go?’. It is great to hear.
“The service won’t last forever but for whatever length it continues, we are prepared to put our shoulder to the wheel.”