Turning the lights back on in the upper storeys of Denny St, Tralee’s widest and finest street, is the aim of a concerted effort in the Kerry capital.
Denny St has been at the centre Tralee since the town’s foundation in the 13th century. For 400 years it was one of the main seats of the Fitzgeralds, the Anglo Norman Earls of south Munster.
In 1580s, the Elizabethan Dennys “threw the Fitzgeralds out on the castle lawn” as a Sinn Fein councillor
eloquently put it at one memorable Tralee town council meeting before that institution too came to an abrupt end in 2014.
The castle was demolished in the 1820s and Denny St built — then as now — partly as property speculation.
Denny St is the only planned street in Tralee and its fine Georgian buildings (the cut-off for the period is 1830) with some Victorian additions were meant as gentleman’s houses with fine back gardens for the family.
“It was built as an oasis of calm, it embodied the rise of the Irish middle class, “ said Victoria McCarthy, architectural conservation officer with Kerry County Council. “Now, however this elegant Georgian street is buckling under the pressures of the 21st century.”
A fifth of the buildings are empty and almost half of the upper levels of all the three- storey buildings are vacant.
Conservation obstacles and lack of finance and perhaps a fashion for moving out of town are given as reasons for the evacuation.
Today, just two buildings are in family ownership with the families in residence; shop floors are commercial and retail outlets; there are two hotels a hostel and a guesthouse and a few buildings are not occupied at all.
“Because they are protected structures, the initial reaction is we can’t touch them, but that is not the case,” said Ms McCarthy.
Conservation grants are available and some would be entitled to the repair and lease loan schemes also.
Denny St is not alone; across Ireland, town centres have been emptied of their residents. This is in stark contrast to historic areas in other countries.
Move through Edinburgh and there are lights on the Georgian buildings, families are watching TV and children are playing inside, said Ms McCarthy.
“We have become used in the past decades to seeing town buildings empty and the lights off,” she said.
However, she believes the trend is swinging back.
“There are ways around noise and there is a lot of interest now in energy saving and insulation. The bottom line is there are solutions and there is money.”
A recent conference on re-imagining Tralee highlighted what the area looked like before and after the construction of Denny St. Many of the records were unveiled by Tom Denny, descendant of the Denny family.
Among these were photographs of the street before 1924 when the red bricked Ashe Memorial Hall, one of the first public buildings in the new state, was built over at the end of the street.
Recently, Denny St was relaid and a two-way traffic system introduced. The change is part of a €1.7m
investment in upgrading Tralee town centre — amid a feeling the town has lost status in recent years that it is being overtaken by Killarney.
Ms McCarthy says the response from the public, particularly from young people, on planning for the future of the street has been very positive.
“I have directly spoken to nearly 100 interested people. Although the street has challenges, attitudes are positive and very upbeat which is hugely encouraging at this stage,” she said.
Artist and art historian Lousie O’Donnell grew up in the hub of Tralee town centre, along with her three sisters, where they had a birds’ eye view of all that was central to Kerry life from the Rose parade to the bringing home of the Sam Maguire.
The daughter of Tralee ophthalmologist the late
Pat O’Donnell, Ms O’Donnell and her mother Maeve, who is well known in conservation circles, still live on the street in a beautiful high-ceiling, three- storey over-basement building.
The original Georgian shutters are intact and the O’Donnell home is one only two to have wonderful stucco plaster work.
“We lived over the shop, essentially. This has always been a doctor’s house,” said Ms O’Donnell, who has the original vellum deeds.
“Mum loves living in the centre of town near the parks, the shops and the church. She calls the rose park her front garden that she doesn’t have to weed.”
As a child she made snowmen in the garden and in nearby Pearse Park and played on the swings and the slides with all the other children when well over a dozen families all lived over the shop on the Denny St buildings.
There were Murphys, Sheehans, Farrells, Foleys, Scullys, Lyns, Alatters, and Kellys, among others. The bank managers’ families lived over the two banks on the street.
These days, Denny St empties at 5pm when the offices shut and everyone goes home.
Both Ms O’Donnell’s parents were actively involved in conservation, in An Taisce, in the public protection of Ballyseedy Wood and the ‘Save the Green’ campaign to stop the iconic town park being turned into a car park.
The family home was always associated with doctors. Francis Crump, who set up the isolation hospital in Tralee and was part of the drive to tackle cholera and typhoid in the town, lived there with his sister.
The story goes she fell in love with the craftsman brought in to do the stucco work on the ceilings and he left a print of her behind the door.
“Some day I will remove the wallpaper and see if it is really there,” said Ms O’Donnell .
In Europe, people still live in the city and town centres and emerge from the beautiful old buildings. It’s a future, Ms O’Donnell says, that is possible for Tralee.
“Traffic noise was never a problem if you were used to traffic,” she says. “It’s not just Denny St. Castle St too and other streets should be lived in.
“It makes the area more sociable and it makes it safer. It would be fantastic to see people coming back. It keeps the place alive.”