Gort, one of the County Galway towns most ravaged by recession, is fighting back and has positioned itself to reap the rewards of recovery.
The capital of the Burren Lowlands region, which includes South Galway and North Clare, a few years ago, was an employment black spot about to be by-passed by motorway and facing a seemingly bleak future. It was flooded, too.
But, as a result of the work of the Buren Lowlands organisation, Gort, and its hinterland, has emerged strong from the bust years and is facing the future with renewed optimism.
This was the consensus that emerged at the public meeting in the Lady Gregory Hotel in Gort last week organised by the Burren Lowlands, which aims to promote the region as an attractive place to live, work and visit.
The volunteer, community-led committee has a multi-pronged plan to revitalise the area including: a new initiative to boost tourism numbers; a programme of investment to revitalise Gort town; and a plan to lure industry to the area.
NUIG economist and former head of Teagasc Rural Economy and Development Programme, Cathal O’Donoghue, a member of Burren Lowlands committee, said some years ago, the prospects for Gort were bleak.
“There were 400 jobs lost, which was a sixth of the total working population of the town over a period of five years. The mood in the area was challenged. There was worry and concern about the future. It was all doom and gloom,” he recalled.
The fruits of the recovery have been felt mostly in Dublin, he said, and while Galway City has benefited, Galway County and the West of Ireland generally has been “sluggish”.
Dr O’Donoghue said, however, that the “strong community” in the region has contributed to such an extent that Gort has “turned a significant corner”.
“Five years on and Gort has now more population than ever before and the unemployment rate is declining at a relatively quick rate,” he said.
Dr O’Donoghue, the recently appointed Dean of Arts at NUIG, said its location was ideal to attract industry due to the international connectivity offered by its closeness to Shannon Airport, and due to the abundance of highly-skilled and qualified workers in Galway, which was second only to South Dublin for the numbers of people educated to third level.
Monday’s meeting heard how Gort is poised to capitalise on the increase in tourists to the region due to its inclusion later this year in a new Burren Lowland Drive, an offshoot of the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW).
Fiona O’Driscoll said the Fáilte Ireland initiative to attract more overseas visitors inland, is a scenic, culture and heritage route that will take in Gort, Coole Park, Ardrahan and link back into the WAW at Kinvara.
This will benefit the entire Burren Lowlands, which includes areas such as Kilcolgan, Kinvara, Ballinderreen, Kilchreest, Labane, Beagh, Peterswell and North Clare’s Crusheen and Tubber.
Ms O’Driscoll said the area had suffered a triple-whammy of flooding, bypass and recession but Gort was resilient and she encouraged people to continue talking-up the area.
“If you are a tourist in Tralee, and you ask someone on the street where to visit they will send you to Killarney. If you are in Killarney and you ask someone where to go, they will say stay in Killarney. We need to be more like Killarney – stay in Burren Lowlands!”
Joe Byrne, Fine Gael County Councillor and Burren Lowlands committee member, outlined the group’s plans for a financial investment in Gort. As part of a Government initiative announced last September, the group has been given a grant of €59,000, which will be spent on a number of enhancement projects in the coming months to increase the attractiveness of the town.
Some €25,000 is for a landscaping programme at Galway Road, Corofin Road, Church Street, The Square and approach to it. In conjunction with the Brothers of Charity, some €15,000 will be spent on making the town more wheelchair accessible.
Money has also been allotted to the creation of a heritage trail booklet for Gort, a tree-planting initiative in the town’s housing estates, graffiti removal and remedial work on Ennis Road playground.
Cllr Byrne said the enhancement plan was to “help to contribute to the revitalisation of Gort”.
Fianna Fáil County Councillor, Gerry Finnerty highlighted the interconnectedness of the town and its farming hinterlands.
“Without the rural community, the town will not survive; without the town, the rural community will not survive,” he said
The diversity of people living in the region, and the importance of people from other countries – particularly Brazil – to the area, was emphasised by Annie Rosario of Gort Resource Centre, and Obert Makaza of Gort Justice for Undocumented Group.
Mr Makaza outlined the group’s campaign for a regularisation scheme for the thousands of undocumented in Ireland, including some 400-500 in Gort.
Teresa Butler, chairperson of the group, in her introduction outlined how Burren Lowlands was “liaising with the IDA” and they hope to look at ways of attracting enterprise to the area. She said the area has been designated as a REDZ, a Rural Economic Development Zone, by Government, which qualifies it to apply for funding and supports.
Ger Ryan gave a presentation about Kinvara Enterprise Centre.
It has teamed-up with Michael Smyth, CEO of SCCUL in Galway City with the aim of using the template of the successful community enterprise centre in Ballybane and replicating it in Kinvara. There is a plan to map the business in the area and create a business network for training, mentoring, networking and business development opportunities.