Blarney’s future must not be set in stone

Blarney has the potential to thrive and prosper but its distinct identity could be lost as the town becomes enveloped within a greater Cork City, writes Eugene Gribbin.

The current debate on the expansion of Cork City into the county involves complex issues and I am reluctant to comment save for one aspect — the future of Blarney.

Blarney has a very distinct identity, related in no small way to its particular context which consists mainly of unspoiled pastures and gently rolling green-clad hills visible from its streets and over its rooftops.

Blarney Castle and Gardens helps attract up to 500,000 visitors a year to the town. Blarney could develop positively if a suggested regeneration plan was adopted.

I would respectfully suggest that this special quality is well worth preserving but may be compromised if Blarney becomes a suburb of Cork City.

An alternative option would be to maintain the green belt around the town and to pursue regeneration through a strategy of consolidation for which there is ample opportunity.

Blarney has an urban structure which is highly porous and spread out with a population density of only 13 persons per hectare.Yet it is this porous nature which offers many opportunities for the provision of new homes in a very attractive setting.

Blarney has many advantages — the benefits of a mild microclimate and a high-quality landscape — especially in the grounds of the splendid Blarney Castle Estate with its iconic stone situated in a medieval tower.

There is also quite an outstanding retail enterprise — the Blarney Woollen Mills and a picturesque village green overlooked by the Blarney Castle Hotel, one of the best preserved early Victorian hotels in the State. 

A sparkling river, the River Martin, flows through the picturesque town.

Not surprisingly Blarney attracts half a million visitors each year, yet its own population has experienced little growth over the last 12 years.

In contrast to Blarney’s population stagnation, Co Cork has experienced a population increase of over 15% during the same period.

In addition to population stagnation, the town also experiences periodic traffic congestion with a daily influx of tourist busses getting mixed up with local traffic — in many ways, it is a victim of its own success.

There is also a high level of dependence on the car as a primary means of transport, seriously affecting environmental quality within the town where pedestrians and traffic frequently compete for space.

An additional problem results from the lack of permeability through the town with property boundaries impeding pedestrian movement which is consequentially restricted to narrow pavements alongside busy peripheral roads.

These and other problems could be addressed by a regeneration strategy to make better use of the many opportunities for consolidation through infill development on mainly brown field sites.

This process could take place over many years as and where the opportunity arises. Such a strategy would be multi-faceted but could include the following measures:

  • Section of new road to complete ‘loop’ around the town to make more efficient use of existing road network and facilitate traffic calming within town centre.
  • Consolidation within the ‘loop’ — the gradual development of some 14 “opportunity” sites.
  • Provision of a new “greenway” for pedestrians and cyclists. This could run from east to west as a spine through a sequence of attractive spaces, varied in character and scale including 300 meters of riverside walk — it would connect all the principal activities, housing and car parks.

It could eventually extend to the adjacent town of Tower to the west and link up with the Clogheenmilcon Walk leading into Cork City to the south-east. A branch could extend northwards to the railway station which should be reopened.

Such a strategy would be highly sustainable and may well attract EU grant aid. It would facilitate traffic calming and environmental improvements within the town centre for example the space in front of the Blarney Castle Hotel.

This strategy of pursuing consolidation with attractive infill development would provide much needed useful accommodation — residential, retail and some commercial to attract new businesses — currently there is an over-dependence on tourism.

It would also increase the population to the critical mass required for the viability of local services and efficient public transport as well as encouraging more visitors to make overnight stays.

Blarney is very much a hidden gem as far as most Irish people are concerned. 

They have heard of the Blarney Stone but do not realise that it is located in 60 acres of high-quality parkland, perhaps the most attractive in the State and well worth a visit and an overnight stay.

Sensitive design of proposed infill development on brown-field sites would ensure that it coalesces with the existing urban structure to form a visually coherent and attractive townscape throughout the town and, of critical importance, when viewed from the top of the much visited Blarney Castle.

It would greatly enhance vitality within the town reinforcing Blarney’s unique heritage, identity, character and sense of place. 

In short, it would provide a network of pleasant and varied public spaces and congenial settings to facilitate and indeed encourage a whole range of activities such as a Farmer’s Market as well as cultural events, exhibitions and festivals such as an International Festival of Blarney.

This proposed strategy for Blarney’s regeneration was submitted to Cork County Council during the public consultation process of the Blarney Local Area Plan.

The chief executive’s report (March 2017) noted contained “fresh and innovative proposals many of which could be delivered and facilitated without the need for policy change… and would be considered as part of a future Traffic, Transportation and Public Realm Strategy for the Town Centre.”

This is an encouraging response but ultimately the success of such a multi-faceted regeneration strategy will depend upon whether the main stakeholders can be persuaded that it could deliver real and lasting benefits for them and for the town.

All towns have their own particular characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, but there is not one which would not benefit from the application of such a strategy to identify the many opportunities for consolidation, rationalisation and calming of traffic and environmental improvements within its existing footprint at a time when increased accommodation is urgently needed and needed in the right place — within the town, close to existing amenities and facilities.

No town contains more opportunity than Blarney which I believe has the potential to thrive and prosper provided the correct decisions are made in regard to its future status — a town or a suburb.

Dr Eugene Gribbin is an architect and planner

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