Many hands make light work

What's best for the west

A WELL EARNED REST Ballina Community Clean-Up volunteers from left: Rodney O’Donnell, Tony Newell, Derek Leonard and Barry Higgins enjoying a break during the recent painting of Pearse St. The coffee was compliments of a local business drop-off.

Case study: Ballina Community Clean Up

Anne-Marie Flynn

Lockdown might have presented challenges for communities across Ireland and indeed the world, but in Ballina, a fervent group of volunteers made the most of an opportunity. Since February, dozens of locals have mobilised as part of the Ballina Community Clean Up project, contributing thousands of volunteer hours to enhance the town, adding momentum to a movement of just six people that started in early 2019.
Rewind to the beginning, to coincide with local man Mark Duffy’s decision to run for the local elections. A collective frustration with the town’s perceived stagnancy motivated the small group to stop talking and start doing.
Each Saturday morning at 8am, for one hour, the band of six met to carry out a litter pick, in the hope that more would join and expand the crusade to make Ballina a better place to live. Eyebrows were raised initially; was it just a political stunt? The election came and went, and the group continued to grow, now with its own councillor. And a movement began to take shape.
Now, in the most uncertain of times, the group can look back at a productive summer; since February, it has cleaned up the neglected Brusna Falls, reviving an old walking route at Caltra, where in the olden days the townspeople learned to swim. It has tidied and replanted the Quay area. It has started the Beelieve in Ballina Biodiversity initiative, leaving a trail of wildflowers in its wake.
Through pure people power, over four weekends it has transformed three unsightly stretches of neglected buildings in high-profile locations in town with thorough, high-quality paint jobs. It supported local artist Smiler Mitchell to create an already iconic mural of Jack Charlton, whose unveiling on the day of his funeral led to international publicity for the town. Litter levels have visibly decreased, with fewer blackspots. In May, the group won the coveted Today FM Sound Town monthly award and has its eyes firmly on the overall prize. That’s only some of it. And they don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
According to Chairman David O’Malley, the secret to the group’s success is its inclusive, non-political, democratic ethos.
“We only ask people to give the time they can spare,” he says. “There is no pressure or politics; it’s very informal. We all want to make our town better, but we also look out for each other and support each other. And it’s fun.”

The fun factor may be what makes the group buzz; the few days this writer spent up a ladder with a paintbrush count among the highlights of an otherwise dour summer. The goodwill is off the scale; local businesses and individuals have warmly welcomed the work; and a stream of donations of food and treats finds their way to the group’s location every weekend. Regular social media updates inspire new faces to turn up each week. Everyone who does is welcomed and given a job.  
Important too is the inclusive nature of the group. Unusually, members come from all communities within the town; are of all ages, and of multiple nationalities. Class and politics are put aside in the town’s interest. There are spin-offs; the Parkside area has its own team, the Quay another. It’s not uncommon now for up to 60 people to join the socially-distanced 8am Saturday clean-up. “The group is a new opportunity for people to get involved in their community,” explains O’Malley. “We know we need to work in unity across the town to get things done.”
It’s not all plain sailing; a lot of work goes in behind the scenes to keep the show on the road. It’s fair to say that in the past, Ballina might have been viewed elsewhere as a fractured town, lacking direction and cohesion. There has been resentment about perceived neglect, and its peripheral nature lends itself to low visibility.
The group is under no illusions that they cannot solve all the problems. Infrastructure, resources and investment are needed to address existing disadvantage. O’Malley is firm in his belief that groups in the town need to pull together, in collaboration with businesses, representative groups and the local authority, and that a collective, long-term vision is needed.
But for the first time in a long time, there is a sense and a confidence that Ballina is heading in the right direction, with the townspeople driving the revolution.
Ballina Community Clean Up might just have sown the seeds of change; there are hands aplenty to keep them watered.