Clodagh Finn: After decades of decimation, rural rebuilding begins

WE didn’t see it as cafe culture then, of course, but if you’re of a certain age and from the greater Tralee area — a narrow focus, I admit, but the scene was repeated in restaurants and hotels in many other regional towns — the name The Allegro Grill will fill you with a warm shot of nostalgia, writes Clodagh Finn

The site of the former Denny bacon factory in Tralee. Picture: Domnick Walsh

The restaurant on the corner of the Mall and Denny St was a magnificent haunt for teenagers in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s who gathered in its booths to drink (surprisingly good) milky coffee, puff on shared cigarettes, talent-spot, and plot the great escape.

It wasn’t the same for everyone, but most of us were hell-bent on figuring out the fastest way to leave Tralee.

It’s ironic, then, to find myself sitting in the same place two decades later — it’s a Costa now — sipping on a not-as-good coffee and saying to a friend how nice it would be to come back.

All the things that were repellent to us as teenagers now seem like advantages. We don’t talk about “squinting windows” and “stifling town life” any longer. To middle-aged eyes, these have been recast as community spirit and the comforting idea that a neighbour might have your back.

The words “small” and “dead-beat” — teenagers are cruel — don’t apply any more either. With a population of more than 23,000, Tralee isn’t small exactly but to anyone who has lived in snarled-up cities with sprawling suburbs, that is ‘cosy’ personified.

Sure, Tralee has its bad traffic days but you can still be in the mountains or on the beach in a heartbeat. If you live there, more often than not you’ll be able to walk to work and, perhaps, even come home for lunch.

The problem in that sentence, of course, is the word work. Many of the people who left Tralee in the most recent bout of e/migration left to get further education and, yes, along with it, a taste of travel and adventure.

Ultimately, though, they left to get work.

Unemployment has hit Tralee particularly hard. Once the industrial capital of the county, the town has haemorrhaged jobs in the last number of decades as industry after industry shut up shop.

The immediate social impact of that is obvious, but it’s the long-term effects of that gradual wearing down of the fabric of a community that has been most upsetting.

It’s not so much the closure of banks, shops, pubs, post offices, and Garda stations that resonate on a human level, though you can’t understate how corrosive the loss of services and the lack of investment in education and infrastructure can be. No, what most forcibly strikes the townie forced to live in the city is the way the older generation has been left behind; marooned in towns and villages that are struggling to look to the future.

It’s heartbreaking to see them robbed of the companionship, support and family contact that should be a matter of course. How many ageing parents find they have to make do with occasional weekend visits from children and grandchildren now forced to live in bigger centres of population, here and abroad?

Many of them have become Skype grandparents. On the up side, some techie grannies talk of the pleasure of singing along with their children’s children, but also of the deep frustration of losing that special moment to the ether when a connection cuts out with an infuriating little blip that sounds as if it’s come from the bottom of the sea.

Of course, video chat is infinitely better than no chat; Skype has been an absolute godsend to the relatives of the 80,900 people who left the country last year. And some of those may well come back.

In Tralee, a few former schoolmates are trickling back, returning to a town where things are, thankfully, looking up. The town is gearing up for an extended Rose of Tralee festival, which gets under way on Wednesday. Yes, the teenagers in The Allegro Grill used to sneer at that too, but it’s worth upwards of €7m to the local economy and some 1.7m people will watch the lovely Roses on TV.

What has been really heartening this year, however, is news that the site of the former Denny bacon factory is going to be revamped as part of an ambitious €3.2m regeneration plan for the historic Island of Geese area in the town centre.

It was once the town’s biggest employer, providing up to 400 jobs at its high point. As The Kerryman fondly recalled: “From the early hours of workday mornings, the bottom of Rock St was alive to the lively, industrious, if somewhat grisly, sound of meat-processing.”

Many of us recall the smell too.

Yet, it was sorely missed when it finally closed in 2007. Seven years later, the Kerry Group donated the 2.3-acre site to the people of Tralee and Kerry County Council is now asking those same people to help them shape a masterplan for the area.

For the next six weeks, you can get your spake in by filling out a survey at www.theislandtralee.ie. A number of people have already suggested the site be converted into an artisan food and craft centre, along similar lines to the English Market in Cork.

Perhaps it’s also worth taking inspiration from the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, the 10,000 sq ft digital hub that aims to create 500 jobs in five years in West Cork.

Whatever happens, it’s great to see that region and now this one in Kerry doing something that might just allow the next generation to live and work in their hometowns if they choose to do so.

Incidentally, The Allegro Grill has just rebranded as ‘Gaudino’, named after the Italian family that first opened the restaurant 45 years ago. It moved to Castle St a number of years ago and now has a choice of milky coffees — flat white, cappuccino, latte.

No wonder we’re yearning for home.

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