Members of the Ballinrobe community, including the local CDC, back, from left: Des May, Pat Duffy, Chairman, Ballinrobe CDC; Martin Murphy, Willie Culkeen, Jazib Javed, Tom Tiernan and Tony Walkin. Front, from left: Mary McConnell, Deirdre Biggins, Margo O’Shea, Mary O’Kelly, Sheena Duddy, Margie Ferrick and Mary Kelly. Pics: J Meenan Photography
Standing on its own two feet
Like all towns, Ballinrobe has its difficulties, but right now a new wave of energy and enthusiasm seems to be sweeping the area
OUT of adversity great success can come. And when the seeds of success are sown prior to the arrival of adversity, even greater things can be achieved. So Ballinrobe Community Development Council hopes to prove by not only helping the local area through the current economic gloom, but by strengthening community spirit and developing a ‘can-do’ attitude among the people in the process.
More than ever before, the town is alive with activity. It’s not all visible yet in terms of physical results, but there’s a palpable sense of purpose. And an air of positivity. Times are testing in the traditional south Mayo market town, in common with everywhere else, but paradoxically, more projects seem to be in the pipeline now than ever before.
Promoting many of the projects is the local Community Development Council, which was established almost five years ago in response to a perceived need for a united voice championing the local cause at County Council, Government and other influential agencies level. Not populous enough for a town council and without the business impetus to drive a chamber of commerce, it was felt that such a council could best fill the void.
As with all organisations, it has taken time for it to find its feet. With those pins now found and firmly planted in the heart of the community, it has begun to be nourished by more and more local people, its voice is getting stronger and its teeth getting sharper. It is becoming the umbrella it was always intended to be: not operating independently of the town’s already-strong voluntary organisations, but joining with them so that each gains from the others’ strengths.
This unity and commonality of purpose is what underpins the community development philosophy of the CDC’s new chairman, Pat Duffy. A native of Aughagower, but living in Ballinrobe with his wife Michelle and their family for over a decade now, he has always been impressed by his adopted town and believes it has more strengths than weaknesses. The key ingredient in maximising the former and minimising the latter is cooperation.
“Where a community comes together to make something happen, and where it’s entitled to that, it can be achieved. If a town identifies its needs, if there is unity of purpose and professionalism and a desire to see things through, then it can be achieved from within,” he says.
“Basically, people are the same all over the world, they have the same desires and aspirations, and every community is a cross-sectional representation of that. In Ballinrobe, we’re not missing that much. You can complain about not having a nice hall for a meeting, but there’s no point having a nice hall if you don’t have a crowd at the meeting.”
While he is now the CDC figurehead in name, he sees his role primarily as a steering one, while the ability of the organisation, and of the town, to get things done lies properly with the people. And in that steering role he takes a very broad community view, emphasising that there is a lot of good work going on right now at many levels in the town and that the efforts of all groups are complementing each other.
He points to the drive for a new town hall, which made significant progress last year when the Archbishop of Tuam agreed to the site of the old CBS school being used for the building of the new facility. He mentions the efforts of the Family Resource Centre, Tacú, and in particular its championing of youth issues, notably its achievement in having the old Maple Hall provided by Mayo County Council as a youth facility. Significant fund-raising efforts are required to bring both projects to fruition, but strong foundations have been laid and that strength is matched by the determination of those involved. Both projects are being undertaken by committees other than the CDC, but it has representatives on each and there is communication back and forth and mutual support.
Many other ideas and projects taking shape right now stemmed from the establishment last year of five new sub-committees of the council, to deal with different issues and progress various projects. The idea was that people could join the sub-committee that best suited their interests and expertise, a concept that was welcomed and embraced by up to 70 people.
Their evolution is far from complete, but the sub-committees have already had successes since their formation. The Queen of the Lakes festival was revived and provided a huge fillip to the local economy last August, brought about through the combined efforts of the retail and business sub-committee and the tourism group, while last month the community sub-committee organised one of the finest St Patrick’s Day parades ever seen in the town. There have also been developments on the Bowers Walk project, there was a colourful Lithuanian Day last summer, plans are in place for the erection of a monument to US naval hero and native of the town, John King, and the tidy towns committee has been reformed. Plans are in place too for the establishment of an exciting new website for Ballinrobe, which, according to Pat, will be ‘a window for marketing Ballinrobe, a source of information for the community and for visitors, a forum for retailers and for the youth, as well as a place to inform people of the activities of the CDC’.
Other plans are also in the pipeline, such as the advent of a Ballinrobe voucher, which will be available to be purchased in certain places in town, similar to the An Post gift voucher, and which may then be redeemed in any outlet in town that is willing to be involved in the promotion. The details have yet to be finalised, but it is another example of the level of creativity that now seems to exist in the town.
The wings of Ballinrobe CDC now span the entire community. It is not trying to be all things to all people, but rather aiming to prove itself worthy to be the thread that knits together the distinctive, colourful and vibrant patchwork that is the Ballinrobe community. There are realities that must be faced, and they are being faced, but there must also be scope for dreams. Marrying pragmatism and vision, with the whole community on board, is the overall objective.
“It often appears to me that as a town we are far too modest. We have a great town. We are a great community. Yes, we can be so much more, but it is difficult on a personal or collective level to nurture the ambition and raise the energy to push Ballinrobe to the front until we fully appreciate what we are, what we have, and what Ballinrobe deserves. Ballinrobe is a fantastic place to raise your children in, which is about as good a verdict as a parent can give,” says Des May, a member of the infrastructure and development sub-committee.
And better may yet be to come.
Gas to flow by autumn
WHEN the seven Mayo towns to be connected to the Bord Gáis grid as part of the €50m Gaswest project were announced two years ago, Ballinrobe was not among them. Immediately, local man Des May set about researching the level of interest in the town and compiled a detailed report with compelling statistics on potential usage, which he then presented to the gas company. As a member of the CDC’s infrastructure and development sub-committee, he got the support of his fellow members and, while Ballinrobe was disappointed some months ago to learn that too few people had signed up to make it viable, that scenario has since changed, and two weeks ago Bord Gáis announced that Ballinrobe would indeed be connected, by autumn of this year.
CDC chairman Pat Duffy is quick to praise the perseverance and professionalism of Des May in making Ballinrobe’s case. The man himself is more modest in his assessment of his own contribution, but is delighted the connection has been secured and believes it augurs well for the town’s future.
“When the original report was published identifying Ballinrobe as the only town in close proximity to the gas line not to be connected I was energised simply by a sense of indignation that Ballinrobe seemed, once again, to be passed over.
“I believe Ballinrobe securing the gas connection was significant on two grounds. Firstly, the economics – it offers our existing businesses an alternative energy supply with competitive rates and security of supply into the future and it offers Ballinrobe an equal footing with neighbouring towns in attracting new businesses. Secondly, I believe the success in overturning the original decision proves that we are not as helpless as we sometimes feel – that with cooperation and effort we can influence these decisions that fundamentally impact upon the town and its future and in that it is a great example of what the CDC can offer,” he says.
Businesses doing it for themselves
BUSINESSES in Ballinrobe have come together under the umbrella of the business and retail sub-committee and, though the level of interest was minimal at the start, the notion of working together has really taken off in recent months, as Deirdre Biggins, chairperson of the sub-committee, outlines.
“At the start it was hard to get people involved. It was mostly new businesspeople and nobody wanted to step on the toes of anyone who had been there for 40 years, but now there’s a broader range of businesses represented. The recession has been very positive in that sense; it has brought people together and got them all singing from the same hymnsheet,” says Deirdre.
The best example of this note-perfect chorus of cooperation is the forthcoming Sale Day, planned for May. The idea is that on the appointed day every business in town will have a sale in its premises, with the cost of promoting the novel event spread evenly, and thinly, among all the businesses that have signed up.
“The biggest achievement in relation to the Sale Day is that we have 62 businesses in the town in agreement and committed to it. That’s the most amazing thing,” she admits.
Business may be slower now than it was in recent years, but the silver lining is the we-must-make-it-happen-ourselves attitude the recession has engendered in the town’s businesspeople. And it’s being reciprocated.
“People have less money to spend now and, of course, we’re realistic and know that consumers want value for money and for that reason they’ll go to Aldi and wherever for certain things. But there also seems to be a big improvement in shopping local; people are now making a bigger effort to source what they need locally. They realise that businesses have closed in the town and they don’t want any more to close, and we [the businesspeople] are adopting the same attitude.”