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The Ballagh bypass: safer but a drain on a once-thriving town?

Local Ballaghaderreen News

The Ballagh bypass: safer but a drain on a once-thriving town?

The N5’s route through Ballaghaderreen can make it a dangerous place. A new road around the Co Roscommon town will make it safer. But will it drain even more life from the once-thriving town?

Original article appears in The Irish Times, July 26th 2014

Brian Mulligan owns the Mulligan & Co furniture store on Flannery’s Corner, in the Co Roscommon town of Ballaghaderreen. The corner is a narrow T-junction that traffic must negotiate to make its way through Ballaghaderreen before it continues its journey west. It is primarily because of concerns about the safety of the junction that the town’s bypass has been built. The new section of road will open in early September, if not before then.

Mulligan’s father, Jimmy, bought the business when Brian was in his last year of national school, “and so for 44 years this corner boy has seen many a heavy truck manoeuvre around this bend. It’s the tightest corner from Dublin to Westport, and I’ve always been full of admiration for those drivers who have had to turn their trucks on a sixpence.”

Anyone who has stood at Flannery’s Corner on a busy Friday afternoon would understand why the €60 million bypass has been built. But a bypass can also harm a town, its commercial life and its residents, and so not everyone is happy.

Ballaghaderreen is a small town with a population of 1,822. Its main street has become a shadow of what it once was, and the N5’s new 13.5km arc around the town threatens it further. Business owners are on edge, community activists are planning ahead and one couple are threatening legal action over what they say is a significant devaluation of their home.

Phil Butler and her husband, John, live in a well-kept two-storey home on the eastern side of the bypass. The Butlers’ garden, which features white lillies and a groomed lawn, is an asset she feels has been made worthless by the construction, opposite her home, of what looks like a large pond – a treatment area for run-off water that she says was never on the original plans they were given.

In a letter to the National Roads Authority this month, the Butlers expressed their concern at the lack of consultation with locals; “plans for the area appear to be modified from day to day with the impact on the residents of the area only being apparent when the works have been completed.” Butler says she is at her wits’ end but is determined to fight her corner.

Eoin Madden is an engineer who lives across the road from the Butlers. He says he can see the value of the bypass for the region as a whole but sympathises with the Butlers, with others affected by the works, and with what the bypass means for the town’s economy.
“Countries only progress with decent infrastructure. It bring jobs, industry and investment to a country,” he says. “But that does not mean that everyone benefits. The effect is for the greater good, but, within that, local traders suffer. The town loses its very essence, [its reason for being] there in the first place: as a place of trade. It all contributes to the draining of life from small towns – and that, unfortunately, is inevitable.”

Western plight

Once a hub of activity in the west, Ballaghaderreen was home to a large Dawn Meats factory, the Monica Duff & Co department store and two hotels. Monica Duff’s, at one point the town’s biggest employer, stood at the heart of Ballaghaderreen and stocked everything from drapery, groceries, beer and spirits to animal feed and farm supplies. It also had a bar and a bakery. Duff’s closed in 1986 and the others followed, the Abbeyfield hotel shutting in 2011. Now all four large premises lie mostly vacant.

There are six unfinished housing estates in Ballaghaderreen, with a total of 83 unfinished properties. In 2011, unemployment in the town reached 32 per cent, before seasonal adjustment, compared with 19 per cent nationally. St Nathy’s College, the local secondary school, ranks well among western schools in the annual university league tables, but most of the town’s workforce are skilled manual labourers. There is no industry in the town to support its educated youth, resulting in a brain drain.

It’s a common problem in the west of Ireland, one that John Healy wrote about more than 50 years ago in his book The Death of an Irish Town, about the neighbouring town of Charlestown, Co Mayo, which was bypassed in 2007. Gerry Murray, a Co Mayo Sinn Féin councillor, says Charlestown’s bypass brought “a significant loss of business to the town. Restaurants and pubs were particularly badly hit, and a good number of retail units have shut down, including the town’s main grocery store.” He blames the loss of trade on poor signage on the bypass and on a lack of local “meaningful engagement” by the NRA and the government. “Small-town Ireland is on its knees, and the Government doesn’t want to know about it,” he says.

Cathal Henry, a local historian and author of The Charlestown Chronicles, says the town has been saved from the worst by the fact that the N17 Galway-Sligo road still runs through it. “If the N17 were to be bypassed, as well as the existing N5 bypass, it would be a much more serious issue.”

Ballaghaderreen has no such secondary source of traffic.

Heart of industry

If you arrive in Ballaghaderreen from the Dublin side you encounter two large Aurivo co-operative complexes, each producing dairy products and animal feeds. These thriving manufacturers are now at the heart of the town’s industry, providing 100 local jobs between them. This, though, is far fewer than the 170 jobs lost in 2008 when Dawn Meats closed up shop in the town and moved to Ballyhaunis, 20km away. This, says Michael Frain, a local shop owner, was a turning point for the town.

“That was like our Dell in Limerick: the town never really got over it,” he says. Frain has worked hard at a community level in Ballaghaderreen for many years, and recently he has joined other business owners to build a local tourism strategy, branded Lakes and Legends. He hopes it will attract people off the bypass and back into the town by emphasisinglocal amenities and waterways.

In Towey’s Topaz filling station, owned by Pat and Jackie Towey (no relation), Pat is positive about his business’s prospects. Life is too short, he says, to speculate about a future we cannot predict. “We will lose some volume in passing traffic, but I also think we’ll attract new customers locally, as our forecourt is usually very busy, and some driversfind it difficult to access the pumps.”

This congestion will be eased by the arrival of the bypass, he hopes. He believes in adjusting to change: opening earlier, building stronger customer relations and emphasising his business as one of the last filling stations en route to Ireland West Airport Knock. Towey speaks of the importance of fighting for adequate signage on the bypass to alert passers-by to the town’s amenities.

This is something several business owners speak about, and a key plank of the strategy developed by Frain and his supporters. Durkin’s Bar and Restaurant has held a prominent position on the square for the past 35 years. It has expanded over the decades and now occupies a large section of the street frontage, but its owner, Andrew Durkin, fears the bypass will threaten some of his trade. “We will definitely lose a percentage of our turnover. From Friday to Saturday we have a brisk turnover of people passing through, so I think the bypass will have a major impact on my business. That said, it’s hard to know. We won’t know anything until it opens, and there’s no point sitting back and crying about it. Michael [Frain] has done Trojan work in trying to emphasise tourism in the area. We need another way to get people into the town, and so the tourism initiative and adequate signage are very important issues.”

If you do manage to negotiate Flannery’s Corner, McLoughlins Service Station, on the right-hand side, offers some of the finest home baking you’ll find in an Irish petrol station.

Paul and Monica McLoughlin bought their site in 1989, having been told that any plans for a bypass would keep their station on the new road. This has turned out not to be the case, and they fear that the new section of the N5 will have a huge impact on their trade – “It certainly isn’t going to do us any favours.”

Is there a silver lining? The removal of heavy, potentially dangerous traffic will benefit the town, according to John Kelly, the local senator. “I think locals will be more confident in coming into the town and parking, I think it will make it much safer for school children, and overall I don’t see it as being a negative thing.”

Time will tell.