THERE is much to admire about Youghal in 2017.
The East Cork seaside resort’s historic Clock Gate Tower is re-opened, its College Gardens lie in splendour beneath the medieval town walls, the beach touches the horizon, and the views across the rolling Blackwater are a tonic to the soul.
The town hosts an amount of family-focused activities, including a heritage trail, river cruises, fishing, leisure centre, bowling, greyhound racing and golf. Traditional music at Brú na Sí is hosted by a Comhaltas branch that the Department of Foreign Affairs has seen fit to dispatch as ambassadors.
A thriving food culture persists amongst many top quality restaurants, while local accommodation is expansive and inexpensive.
Yet, the town’s main streets battle against three decades of decline with almost 40 former business premises closed. Many of them stand vacant as open graves. Some are derelict.
Youghal, as journalist Claud Cockburn (buried at St Mary’s Collegiate Church) once noted, stands “at a slight angle to the Universe”. Long and gangly like Claud himself, the mile-long North and South Main streets are straddled and divided by the Clock Tower.
Retail on South Main St has all but disappeared, accelerated by the recession, a domino effect and even the amalgamation of two secondary schools into one, three miles away. In three decades it lost an hotel, two cinemas, three pubs and numerous shops. A similar number have disappeared from the other side of the tower.
Global economics took their toll on Youghal. Three textile factories, including Youghal Carpets, died while half a dozen light-engineering plants departed, for a combined loss of 2,500 jobs in a town with a population under 8,000.
Historically, Pasley’s supermarket and Merrick’s department store drove town centre retail in the shadow of the tower on North Main Street.
The growth in traffic did little for the town too and, in 2003, parking and deliveries had become so problematic that Pasley’s — by then Brooke’s SuperValu — moved to a more spacious address. Merrick’s closed six years later, albeit nowadays a discount store.
The retail sector largely decentralised in the noughties, as Tesco and Lidl set up shop on the town’s outskirts. Ironically, an Aldi store planned for the old Youghal carpets site may help redress the balance.
Small businesses continue to come and go but the challenges facing them are constant. Some criticise on-street paid parking but structurally the town is a victim of itself.
Squeezed between river and hillside, the one-way thoroughfare limits parking at its narrowest while elsewhere perpendicular parking causes tailbacks.
Twenty years ago entrepreneur Hugh Carson shocked locals with a scheme to level half the street and create a square. Today many wish he had.
Several factors compromise prosperity. One trader cites monthly bills of €1,500 for the electricity, €3,000 for water and €250 for refuse collection. Throw in internet shopping and a dearth of on-street brand names and the iceberg starts to emerge.
However, ask around and one refrain constantly surfaces: Youghal struggles to find collaboration amongst its various groups; with self-interest and even nepotism undermining ambition. People cite Killarney and Clonakilty with envy.
The late Cllr Tommy O’Connell once proposed that property owners reduce rents for first-time businesses, in return for rate refunds. Everyone supported it. Nobody did anything.
A newly-stablished Youghal Forum, assisted by SECAD, may finally bury that culture. “I dearly hope so,” says co-instigator Micheál de Buitléir.
Estate agent Diarmuid Keogh registers several disaffections while insisting that most of them can be countered “if the county council engages more widely with the community in re-drafting the County Development Plan”.
Meanwhile, the town bypass unclogged the streets but now ferries shoppers from Youghal’s boom-era estates to the variety-laden shopping centres of Mahon Point and Midleton.
Some 30 years ago, recession-ravaged Youghal rejected a proposed chemical plant for the area. Former town clerk Liam Ryan believed the political powerbrokers consequently pulled the shutters down on future investment for the town. Youghal might have become Little Island.
Mr Ryan believed Youghal should welcome industry but focus on self-sustainment. He guided successive town councils towards promoting history, heritage and natural amenities, of which Youghal has much, but little of it appreciated.
The council created the Youghal Socio-Economic Development Group (YSEDG) to project manage several initiatives. Despite the global recession the plans survived and ten tenacious years on, the rewards are being reaped. A historic Raleigh Quarter and its 13th century St Mary’s Collegiate Church has been developed adjacent to superb gardens and the town walls. The hugely popular beach boardwalk (Phase 1) draws crowds to Claycastle beach.
The YSEDG oversaw the Clock Gate restoration and helped establish a fully occupied enterprise centre for small investors.
“Fáilte Ireland is now taking Youghal seriously,” says YSEDG manager Aileen Murray.
“We are on the Ireland Ancient East programme and we are confident of gaining a slice of the tour bus market. I believe the retail sector will benefit accordingly.”
More recently, a new harbour pontoon, for which local TD Dave Stanton’s representations are roundly credited, will further boost town centre activity. It is seen as preceding a full marina. That, town centre traders believe, would lift all boats and businesses.
Making a go of business in difficult times
Originally from Ballydehob in West Cork, Lil Danne took over Merrick’s Department Store, in receivership at the time, on a 35-year lease in 1995.
With a few light engineering and pharmaceutical plants providing employment and a relatively stabilised population, she says the footfall “just about” merited the risk on what is the narrowest section of Youghal’s North Main St.
She sublet various units whose retail services included carpets, furniture, electrical equipment, children’s clothing, cosmetics, household linens, ladies fashion and menswear.
At its height, the building housed over 30 employees.
The challenge soon became very difficult, however, when the property’s owner decided to hike the rent, with an assessor raising the figure from €25,000 to €55,000.
“That on top of €10,000 rates was just too much to carry,” says Lil.
The town bypass was some years away and traffic congestion grew ominously.
Lucey Flooring and Lucey Furnishings, owned by brothers Brendan and Michael Lucey respectively, sold carpets and furniture, she remembers.
“And the location caused them hell. There was no rear entrance and it took me years to get a designated loading bay from the town council.”
Once they managed to clear a street space, “They’d be holding up the traffic as they loaded or unloaded large and bulky stock. Meanwhile the traffic warden was, shall we say, very good at his job. It was an absolute nightmare.”
A new industrial estate opened on the eastern outskirts of Youghal in 2004 and Lucey Furnishings was the first in. “I’d preferred to have stayed in town, of course, but I really had no option,” says Michael Lucey. “At least, out here, I could work without that kind of stress.”
Brendan Lucey followed his brother a year later. Both businesses still operate there.
The town centre parking situation, likewise, affected consumer traffic. “Someone might drive round the block a few times and if there was no space, drive on,” says Lil. “And I think that still applies to the street, regardless of the off-street free car parks nowadays. Meantime, there is free parking on street at lunchtime, but I think few people are even aware of it.”
The exodus from Merrick’s had begun, with a knock-on adverse effect on the surrounding street.
‘It’s hard to compete with big chains’
As Merrick’s fortunes went into decline, Co Waterford-born James Buckley left the building in 2008.
A former Selfridge’s trainee, James Buckley had traded in partnership in Youghal as Rigby’s men’s fashions for almost ten years, supplying high quality formal and casual wear to a wide-ranging client base.
With Merrick’s in decline, he left the site in 2008 and leased premises across the street, commencing businesses as Jame’s Mans Shop.
“I wanted to stay in Youghal,” he recalls, “but I realised within a year that things were bad and were about to get worse, regardless of the national economy.
“The town was in deepening recession, emigration was high and job prospects low.
“Then when the economy collapsed, it was like being hit by a tonne of bricks. Shops to the left and right of me were shutting down and every closure affected the remaining ones.
“Some days I might have three customers.”
James feels if Merrick’s had managed to remain, the area just might have survived, but when it eventually closed, everything crashed.
“People no longer had a central focal point. It was no longer a ‘shopping and then a coffee’ experience.
“Furthermore,”, he adds, “my rates were disgraceful. There was no leeway at all.”
James’ Mans Shop moved to Dungarvan, Co Waterford, where it now thrives, with the town square providing a “meeting place” environment.
It does so all the more, he says, since being refurbished last year under a “shared space concept”.
“It’s airy and bright and the sun fairly bounces off it on a fine day,” he smiles.
That said, he will always have a love for Youghal.
“l wish I hadn’t had to leave. I hear good things about it lately and I really hope that but some day the town centre recovers. The people there deserve it.”
Meanwhile, former Mayor of Cork County, Barbara Murray, founded Kool Kids children’s wear in a South Main St shop in 1992.
She was advised against the location by her father-in-law John Murray (founder of Youghal Carpets), who warned that “nobody shops south of the Clock Gate anymore”.
His diagnosis proved correct and, within three years, she relocated to Merrick’s, with three part-time staff, where she remained until 1999.
The future county mayor learned a strong lesson on local retail culture.
“Children’s clothing is a challenging outlet at the best of times,” she observes.
“People want quality and it’s hard to compete with big chains like Dunne’s or Next. I’d have maybe 30 different Communion dresses, but people wanted to see much larger ranges.”
On leaving Merrick’s in 2009, Lil Danne established two ladies’ fashion boutiques in the vicinity before retiring in 2011. One was destroyed by flood, while the second, Orchid, is “going well”.