Dawn raids and doggedness lifted Listowel to the top of this year’s Tidy Towns competition after 25 years of trying.
The Kerry community of just under 5,000 took the title of tidiest small town before going on to clinch the overall award, and none were more surprised than the tidiers themselves.
“We’ve had the gas works in and pipes being laid so the whole town was disrupted and you wouldn’t have places looking as good as they normally would,” said a stunned Julie Gleeson, chairperson of the local committee.
Clearly she’s her own harshest critic because the adjudicators struggled to find fault with the town, at one point in their highly complimentary report even describing the total lack of litter on the approach roads as “uncanny”.
That’ll be down to the early morning crew. “We’re known as the dawn raiders,” explained Breda McGrath, who co-ordinates the early birds who are up at 6.30am to have the town gleaming before the majority awake.
We do a litter pick, watering the baskets, painting — anything we see that needs to be done,” she said, ascribing their motivation to simple “pride in our place.
Determination keeps them going too. “You keep plugging away,” said Julie. “We’ve been trying for this for 25 years and every year you get a bit closer.”
Even now, there’ll be no resting on their laurels, for while the Listowel Races and Writers’ Week bring seasonal surges in visitors, much of the footfall is fleeting.
“We’re trying to bring employment. Listowel is off the beaten track and off the Wild Atlantic Way so hopefully this will boost us,” said Julie. “There are plans for a new greenway too along by the old railway so hopefully that will bring in visitors. It’ll bring challenges too for keeping the town looking good but we’re up for that.”
They’ll need to stay on their toes. This year’s tidiest village, Glaslough, Co Monaghan, and tidiest large urban Centre, Ballincollig, Co Cork, were both just one point off Listowel’s total.
Tom Butler, chairperson of the Ballincollig committee, was gracious in this narrowest of defeats.
We have a fine trophy to take home and we’re not in this for anything other than being happy the place is looking well,” he said.
Keeping Ballincollig looking its best takes the combined efforts of around 65 core volunteers and other smaller groups active in their own estates and neighbourhoods.It also means never taking a break.
“We’re out 52 weeks a year, Sundays, bank holidays — we even have people who’ll go out on Christmas Day. On St Patrick’s Day, an hour after the parade goes by, you won’t know there was a parade in town.”
But it’s not all hard slog. “On a Sunday we meet from 11-12 and have a cup of tea afterwards and that’s probably one of the most important parts of Tidy Towns — getting to know each other, making friendships. It’s a joy.”
And it’s spreading. The competition marked its 60th anniversary this year with its highest ever entry of 883, including 12 first-time entrants.
Minister for Rural and Community Development, Michael Ring, paid tribute to all the volunteers, saying they were proof of great positivity throughout the country.
“The voluntary work that people put into their communities brings great pride, a great sense of achievement and great camaraderie to those communities,” he said.
Martin Kelleher, managing director of SuperValu, sponsors of the competition for 27 years, noted how it had evolved from focusing on litter to include ambitious projects protecting the environment, enhancing natural amenities, and bringing heritage to life.
“Such an initiative is only successful because of the time and commitment that people put into it,” he said.
Listowel’s efforts were rewarded with the €10,000 top prize plus the €5,000 small town category award but in all some 200 prizes were given out to gold, silver and bronze medal winners in eight population categories, as well as special environmental prizes and community hero awards, with the total prize fund hitting €250,000.