Thurles, like so many rural towns, has seen many of it’s streets decimated in recent years as businesses have closed their doors. Once thriving with life and activity, these streets now paint a very different narrative.
Taking one street as a prime example, Friar Street in Thurles has 19 business units either boarded up or on the property market. A once thriving street is now vacant with tell tale signs of the abandonment of rural Ireland. Friar Street is also the first street seen my many visitors to Thurles when traveling from Thurles train station. The first impression we are giving to tourists is that they have visited a dead lifeless town.
According to local representative and business man Seamus Hanafin, “40 years ago Friar Street was thriving, as were other streets and Liberty Square”. Clearly passionate about his home town, Hanafin gave some insight why these streets now resemble ghost towns, “Two things have happened in recent years. We have seen the shopping centers take crowds away from the heart of towns and secondly, we have seen shoppers favour big name retailers over local family owned businesses”
This is certainly a fair point. In the couple of decades, international retailers from Starbucks to Boots, and Zara to Harvey Norman have taken a grip on the Irish retail market. Shoppers have favoured these international brands, sometime even spending more on the same product in the process.
When asked further about the root cause of the issue of derelict streets, Hanafin went on to state “These streets, once thriving with life no longer have people living on them. Councils have made it less sustainable for life to be maintained in the heart of our towns, we must now focus on bringing life back into the town centers”.
Cllr Hanafin didn’t just focus on the problem, but was also looking to solutions. “If we take Clonmel for example, they have trialed a pilot scheme where businesses get grants over 3 years to locate in streets such as Friar Street. In the first year, they would receive 75% of the rates back in the form of a grant, 50% in the second and 25% in the third.”
There is no simple solution to this problem. Independent TD Michael Lowry echoed many of the points made by Cllr Hanafin. “Friar Street is an example what has happened to so many small towns around the country. In the current environment, small businesses simply can’t survive as they are levied by taxes, various charges and rates”. Looking at the role of planning, Lowry stated “this problem was prevalent 15 years ago when planners failed to develop policies and plans for business to scale and expand on these streets. As a result the hear has been pulled out of our towns and all we’re left with is abandoned streets”.
Michael Lowry spoken about some recent conversations he had with business people in not only Thurles, but also in Clonmel, Nenagh and Cashel; “I have talked to business people the length and breath of the county. They want to make a living for themselves and their families but moral is low. Many of the costs associated with doing business are far to high and they are struggling to survive. Friar Street is a fine example of a once bustling street now derelict, but there are far too many streets just like Friar Street all around Tipperary”.
“Friar Street used to have 5 or 6 pubs”, continued the Independent TD, “We have seen the effect of the smoking ban, the lowering of the drink driving limit and the effect that has had on the numbers of people drinking in towns. Young people are now drinking at home before heading to a night club. We need to address this and bring people back to the public houses and make our towns social again”
Michael Lowry was critical of the previous government and it’s decision to abolish town councils. “The abolition of local authorities such as town councils has had a detrimential impact on each of these towns. Before, town councils could proactively address issues such as Friar Street. Now, key decisions which effect each town are being made in council offices in Clonmel and Nenagh. While they try to do their best, they are not fully aware of the specific needs of each town”.
Friar Street in Thurles is one of hundreds of examples of streets abandoned in our Celtic Tiger years. We must work together to bring life back to our towns and local economies. By shopping local and supporting local businesses, you will be doing your part in this effort. It is through public support that both Michael Lowry and Seamus Hanafin can make a difference.