Enormous population growth has not been without its challenges for the small town of Milltown in Co Kerry, writes Majella O’Sullivan
It is the most inland small town on Ireland’s famed Wild Atlantic Way, but it faces the same challenges as larger urban centres on Dublin’s commuter belt in Louth, Meath, and Kildare.
Milltown in Kerry has experienced unprecedented growth and during the boom its population increased five-fold, 10 times faster than the rest of Kerry and two-and-a-half times faster than anywhere else in the State.
Yet its economic development has stagnated, with its town centre blighted by derelict or brownfield sites and its new population failing to integrate meaningfully or bring with it any economic spinoff.
More than half the houses in Milltown were built within a 10-year period between 2002 and 2011 and their occupants are largely young couples with small children or who have yet to start families, and commute daily to the nearby towns of Killarney, Killorglin, and Tralee.
Census data also reveals that, apart from having a younger population than the rest of the county, it is is also more ethnically diverse but has more Lithuanians than Polish-born residents.
A report commissioned by Kerry County Council on Milltown’s demographic and socio-economic profile is hoping to galvanise the local community into action to mitigate against its challenges with a plan for the future.
Its author, Brendan O’Keeffe of Mary Immaculate College’s Department of Geography says although Milltown is a very important market and service centre for its surrounding rural community, it is also a dormitory town for Tralee, Killarney, and Killorglin.
“It has features of the old traditional rural economy and the new economy and trying to combine those makes it more distinctive than most towns and villages in the country,” Dr O’Keeffe says.
“The community here has achieved a lot, probably more than they realise. What other community has had a 500% increase in population in 10 years? That’s a massive change and it could have gone terribly wrong.”
Dr O’Keeffe believes the onus is on central and local government to provide investment for infrastructure, connectivity and high-speed broadband but it’s also the responsibility of the community to take charge of its own fate.
“Towns shouldn’t be insular. They need to look outwards to the neighbouring towns, villages and rural areas,” he says.
“Yes, the Government has an onus to put things like the social welfare contracts through the post office network but it also behoves local people to support local business because you might think you’re saving money in the short term but in the long term, you won’t miss it until it’s gone.”
A recent public meeting at the Nagle-Rice Community Centre sought direction from the community on the projects they’re interested in to form the basis of a plan.
The next step is to put in place an implementing body that represents all the stakeholders and works with the local authority in achieving its aims.
Local councillor and publican Michael O’Shea has witnessed the changes in is hometown as an elected representative.
From a business point of view, he says there has not been a marked improvement in fortunes.
“The changes began in the late ‘90s when Kerry County Council allocated a site at An Túirín Lin for the building of a state-of-the-art childcare centre,” he says. “The town started to take off then because it started to attract young families.”
Since then, two schools have been built, the Nagle-Rice Primary School and Presentation Secondary School, both delivered at the height of the recession.
With a combined enrolment of around 1,000 pupils, the schools are now the town’s biggest employers.
Other significant employers include West Kerry Engineering and Larkin’s Bakery.
Principal of the primary school, Liam Fell, told the meeting the new building is already full to capacity and an extension is now needed.
But the town lies in the middle of the economic triangle of Killorglin, Tralee, and Killarney and herein lies one of its biggest challenges.
“Milltown is very close, access wise, to those locations, which makes it even more attractive, but the town centre, unfortunately, has gone backwards in terms of its economic success, which has stalled,” Mr O’Shea says.
“We’ve lost business to the bigger towns where the people commuting to work also shop and the pub scene is declining too.
“But it’s a very young town and the people who’ve come here are getting involved through the GAA and the schools but only now are beginning to mingle and mix. We’ll probably get a stronger community in the years ahead as people interact more.”
Assistant treasurer and coaching officer with Milltown/Castlemaine GAA, Ian Twiss, says that population decline hasn’t been a factor as it has in other parts of Kerry. However, the club is still finding it difficult to reach out to new people.
“I’ve lived here all my life and I see people around the town I wouldn’t know at all but now that my own girls are involved in the Under 6s, I’m getting to know them,” he says.
“It is more difficult now that the socialising has gone out of the community and it’s a matter of meeting people at the school pickup or at the GAA pitch really.”
Siobhán Griffin, a district officer with Kerry County Council has 30 years experience in rural development.
She says that although there has been huge infrastructural developments in the area, it was felt a plan was needed for the future.
“Having the report is a very good basis to begin a planning process and we were conscious that Milltown, with its prime location and unique demographic, probably needed future planning,” says Ms Griffin.
“It’s evident villages that do plan are doing well because they know what direction they’re taking.
“When funding becomes available for a project, whether it’s social or enterprise based, if the community is behind it, it’s easier to push it forward for funding.
“If there’s different feelings in a village or a town about what the biggest priorities are, it’s very hard to move forward.”
Dr O’Keeffe says he’s optimistic about Milltown and how it has already coped with the challenges in the provision of new community-owned facilities.
Burkes’ butchers is a family-run business that has been trading on Bridge St for half a century.
John Burke says the five-fold increase in Milltown’s population has only brought a marginal increase to his business.
He’s hoping a more integrated community will foster loyalty towards local businesses like his.
“We do get a percentage of new customers but we’d like to get a lot more,” he says.
“But I think that goes for places that are commuter towns. People working in bigger towns obviously do their shopping there and head straight home but it would be nice if we could get them to shop a little more in Milltown.
“Getting people involved in the community and feel part of Milltown will help and hopefully generate that loyalty.”
He thinks having new people move to the area has been very positive for the town.
“There’s no doubt about that,” he says. “Milltown is a great town and the gateway to south Kerry, which gives us a great passing trade as well.
“We know there has been talk of a bypass for the town but that’s one thing we’d definitely be opposing.”
He hopes that, following the public meeting, community, sporting, educational, and business groups will be begin to work in Milltown’s best interests.
He believes an even stronger community will emerge in the coming years but the native population has the responsibility to welcome newcomers and offer them the opportunity to get involved and contribute to the town’s development.
Amanda McAlister moved to Milltown from Belfast in 2004.
Raising her two children and getting involved in community groups has helped her establish roots and she sees Kerry as her long-term home.
“In Belfast, I was always involved in the community and I’ve done international volunteering as well and when I moved here I got involved in a mother and toddler group and campaigning for a playground,” she says.
She says having two children helped her integrate a lot quicker as she was meeting other parents. It also gave her a stake in the community.
She works part-time in an organic store in the town. She’s currently working on a project to start a community garden and hopes this will help bring people together. The allotments, located a few kilometres outside of town, will give people a meeting place and a place to share skill.
As a “blow-in”, she says her experiences have only been positive.
“It’s a brilliant town with so much going for it,” she says.
“We have the farmers’ market on Saturday, this new facility here [the Nagle-Rice Community Centre and playground], and the new schools. It’s probably one of the best towns in the locality to be in, and with the children in school and roots here, I won’t be moving any time soon.”
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