Ireland's empty towns: Tackling empty and derelict buildings in The Kingdom

In the first in a series looking at dereliction across Munster, Neil Michael examines County Kerry, finding empty properties in towns such as Tralee, Ballybunion, and Caherciveen
Ireland's empty towns: Tackling empty and derelict buildings in The Kingdom

'Looks can be deceptive,' says proprietor Aidan O’Connor who has used the lockdowns to carry out extensive renovations to the Greyhound Bar, on Pembroke St in Tralee. 'This place is far busier than people realise.'  Picture: Neil Michael

Like many towns around Ireland, the centres of Tralee, Ballybunion, and Caherciveen are littered with derelict or empty properties.

To the casual observer, those properties show little or no sign of use.

But, as the Irish Examiner has discovered, there is often more to these properties — some of which are large empty shells occupying prominent positions in the Co Kerry towns — than meets the eye.

In Tralee, there is much work behind the closed doors of what might appear to be vacant pubs. And there is talk that the town centre Dunnes Stores building, which has been closed for years, has been sold to — or is in the process of being sold to — a sportswear chain.

Further south, it’s not hard to reach a tally of around 40 derelict or seemingly vacant properties within a short stroll of the centre of Caherciveen.

But on closer inspection, it turns out many of these properties are actually owned. And while they may not be occupied all year round, they do indeed see forms of life — albeit briefly — in the summer months. With the South Kerry Greenway coming down the tracks, there is a feeling that more of the currently vacant properties will be made available for renting.

There are rumours that a deal is being finalised to buy the long-vacant former Dunnes Stores on Bridge St in Tralee. SEE: 'Tralee getting its house in order' below. 	Picture: Domnick Walsh
There are rumours that a deal is being finalised to buy the long-vacant former Dunnes Stores on Bridge St in Tralee. SEE: 'Tralee getting its house in order' below. Picture: Domnick Walsh

There is, however, another aspect of life in Kerry that can also be deceptive: homelessness.

While many think a homeless person is someone who lives in a sleeping bag in a doorway, the reality is that they are more likely to be the so-called hidden homeless, and they are everywhere in rural Ireland. They are the people who fall below the radar of official statistics, and who are sofa surfing with pals, or living in cramped family accommodation because they have nowhere else to go.

As with just about everywhere else in Ireland at the moment, it is not only virtually impossible to rent in any of these Kerry towns, it’s also very difficult to buy. Sure, you can probably still purchase a derelict cottage for around €50,000 in Caherciveen. But you’ll also need at least another €100,000 or so to be able to live in it.

Depressingly for anybody wanting to rent in any of these towns, or within a 10km radius, the highest number of rental properties on Daft was around 30.

The lack of supply is hardly helped by the number of new houses being built. In the first quarter of this year, for example, just two new builds were completed in Caherciveen and 51 were completed in Tralee.

A quick check on Daft, however, shows no new homes available to purchase in any of the three Kerry towns featured. For those trying to get on to the property ladder, either to rent or buy, limited supports are available.

According to a report in February 2020, just 39 social houses were built in South Kerry in five years. 

While we have a rough idea of how many Government-backed Rebuilding Ireland home loans for first-time buyers via Kerry County Council have been approved, how many have actually been drawn down is not clear.

According to the Housing Agency, which assesses all applications, 177 applications were assessed between 2018 (when the scheme started) and June 2020. Of these, 72 were recommended to be approved and the remaining 105 were recommended to be declined.

For the first quarter of this year, a further 29 applications for Kerry County Council were assessed, with the Housing Agency recommending approval in seven cases. The remaining 22 applications were recommended to be declined.

It’s hardly a surprise that not only is the Simon Community due to start offering services in Kerry, but the Peter McVerry Trust is also operating in the Kingdom from its new base in Cork City.

‘You need employment to keep a town like ours alive’

'A lot of properties have been sold recently since we got the go-ahead for the greenway... The greenway is a game-changer,' says Willie O’Driscoll, who has been running his off-licence on Church St in Caherciveen since 1980. 	Picture: Alan Landers
'A lot of properties have been sold recently since we got the go-ahead for the greenway... The greenway is a game-changer,' says Willie O’Driscoll, who has been running his off-licence on Church St in Caherciveen since 1980.  Picture: Alan Landers

For a small town once regarded as the capital of south Kerry, Caherciveen has more than its fair share of empty properties. A quick headcount around the centre of the town comes up with around 40.

There is more to this than just closed doors and boarded up windows. Most are owned by either one individual who inherited it or a family that either doesn’t know what to do with it or hasn’t the means to do anything with it.

Some are also owned by people who either live abroad or elsewhere in Ireland and only come back to the town for a few weeks every now and again.

One of the most significant empty buildings in the town is the Daniel O’Connell bar and restaurant. Badly damaged by fire a few years ago, the impressive three-storey stone townhouse was recently purchased by a local businessman. What his plans are is anybody’s guess but there is a feeling locally that its purchase can only be good for the town and might even see the place being reopened.

A number of other empty properties are, tellingly, reminders of the various small businesses in the town that have died over the past 15 to 20 years. They include butchers, bakers, and pubs.

Decline measured in pubs and people 

Indeed, if ever there might be a measure of a town’s decline, one might be the fact that while once Caherciveen had 52 pubs, it now only boasts about 10 functioning bars, maybe 12 at a stretch depending on the situation post-Covid.

The census figures aren’t kind either. While in 2002, there were 1,272 living in the town, that figure had dropped to 1,041 in 2016 and it is continuing to drop.

But while it might be easy to see the place in perpetual decline, especially when you realise some of its vacant properties have been empty for decades, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, far from it. There are a variety of reasons for that and they all involve money. 

One of them is the new Aldi being built in the centre of the town. Many see this as being a good thing that will draw business into the town rather than away from it, as out-of-town supermarkets have. And there are rumours that a primary care centre could be built in the town too.

Another reason to be cheerful is the 32km South Kerry Greenway, which is seen as a make-or-break event for the town. Stretching from Glenbeigh village to Renard, the greenway will — if objections by landowners and environmentalists concerned about the welfare of the Kerry slug and the lesser horseshoe bat are defeated — bring a lot of much-needed business to the town.

Indeed, it has already started having an impact on property purchases, with a number of houses having sold in the past year or so that had previously been empty for years.

Willie O’Driscoll, who has been running O’Driscoll’s off licence on Church St since 1980, said: “A lot of properties have been sold recently since we got the go-ahead for the greenway. That will have a huge impact on the town," he says: 

Caherciveen was the capital of south Kerry. I remember Dingle when you couldn’t get a sandwich there and now Dingle is booming. Kenmare is booming. Caherciveen was better than those towns going back 40 years but it has declined ever since.

As to what happened, he says he has little doubt: “I’d say it’s no employment and the youth left,” he says. “They can’t even get minor football teams here now.

“We had 52 pubs here in town once, one for every card in the pack or one for every week in the year. At the moment we have four open and maybe three or four more will open after Covid.

The Greenway is a game-changer.

If there is a homeless problem, there are few in the town who feel able to talk about it. One businessman, who did not want to be named, said the town has its own way of dealing with problems and issues, like homelessness.

“People who sort them out and find them somewhere to stay,” he said. “The community is like that here. “While there might not appear to be many properties to rent in the town, this is Kerry and we do things slightly differently.

“What might be advertised and what might be actually available might be slightly different.”

While recent Daft.ie checks to see what is available to rent showed just one property, there are far more properties for sale in and around the town. And they include good deals for anybody who has a budget to restore them.

There are around 30 properties for sale on Daft.ie but there are also others available through local agents.

A property on St Brendan’s Terrace in the town, which was listed through Maurice Fitzgerald for €55,000, was sold recently. Another property — 12 New St — is on the market for €90,000.

'We’ve lost nearly 25% of our population in south Kerry in the last 15 years, and it’s purely down to employment,' says Colman Quirke who runs his newsagents on Main St in Caherciveen: 'You need employment to keep people here.’ 	Picture: Alan Landers
'We’ve lost nearly 25% of our population in south Kerry in the last 15 years, and it’s purely down to employment,' says Colman Quirke who runs his newsagents on Main St in Caherciveen: 'You need employment to keep people here.’ Picture: Alan Landers

Colman Quirke, who has lived in Caherciveen all his life and runs Quirke’s Newsagents on Main St, says it would be all too easy to paint a pessimistic picture of the town.

“We’ve lost nearly 25% of our population in south Kerry in the last 15 years, and it’s purely down to employment," he says: 

It doesn’t matter where you are, in order to keep people, you need employment. 

The closure of a sock manufacturing business was the biggest blow the town suffered, with the loss of around 400 jobs.

As a consequence of the population drop, it now only has one secondary school, Coláiste na Sceilge, which grew out of the amalgamation in 1999 of St John Bosco Secondary School, Scoil Uí Chonaill, and Waterville Vocational School.

And while there are 10 GAA clubs in the area in and around Caherciveen, on the Iveragh Peninsula, the last five south Kerry minor U17 championships have been contested by four teams.

In three cases, you have two clubs amalgamating to create a minor team but the fourth one is actually an amalgamation of four different GAA clubs.

“The greenway is one essence of what is our future, and our future is tourism,” he said. 

“Historically, we were always what was described as a market town. But because of the demise of our population, we are having to reinvent ourselves as a tourist destination. Tourism is our way forward,” said Mr Quirke.

“It is estimated that 300,000 and 500,000 will use the greenway. It is going to be spectacular when it comes. It’s not just about something that is going to enhance the place.

Caherciveen is in serious trouble and the greenway is something that is going to dictate the difference between our survival or not. 

"That’s very stark, but I do believe that is the reality.”

Tralee ‘getting its house in order’ to bounce back when pandemic ends

The creators of the Tralee My Love initiative two years ago, Rebekah Wall and Ash Maguire, run Madden’s coffee shop and cultural hub on Milk Market Lane in Tralee. 	Picture: Neil Michael
The creators of the Tralee My Love initiative two years ago, Rebekah Wall and Ash Maguire, run Madden’s coffee shop and cultural hub on Milk Market Lane in Tralee. Picture: Neil Michael

Walking down Pembroke St in Tralee, it’s not hard to spot empty or seemingly derelict or semi-derelict properties.

Grass and weeds grow from chimney stacks overlooking the street.

One property sticks out. The sign has been taken off, its dusty windows are shuttered from the inside, and its paint peeling and faded. It looks abandoned, but it’s not. It’s The Greyhound Bar.

Behind the closed-up front door are carpenters and tradesmen doing work the owner wouldn’t have been able to do if it weren’t for lockdown. That’s Aidan O’Connor, who has been running the pub for nearly 50 years now.

“I’ve been here since I was born,” Mr O’Connor says, proudly.

He was raised here by his parents, Tom and Hannah, but his mother ran the pub after his father — who bought it in 1933, when it doubled up as a grocery store and pub — died when Aidan O’Connor was just seven.

In 1972, Aidan O’Connor was working in London and had just got married when his mother, who died in 2014, asked him, the oldest of three siblings, to come back home. He did and, as, he says, “the rest is history”.

The pub, which employs 15, closed on March 15, 2020, and has only opened for “two weeks and two days” since.

“Nothing whatsoever would have been done if the lockdown didn’t happen,” Mr O’Connor says. “This is because to do the work we are doing, we had to have scaffolding up all over the place.

“We were inside doing the toilets, sandblasting stone walls, pulling down ceilings, and the lighting has been completely redone. We’ve put in a new roof over the bar, and new roof over the beer-garden bar, and there is still an awful lot of work to be done.

“I took advantage of the lockdown to get it all done.” And, he says: “So, although there have been times when people who don’t know Tralee, or this part of it, have walked past, I can understand how it looks.

“But looks can be deceptive. This place is far busier than people realise.”

Of the town’s development, he is optimistic: “Things are so busy across the town, development-wise, that it’s a compliment to get a tradesman,” Mr O’Connor says. “It is so busy that it is very hard to get tradesmen.

“Tralee is behind the curve when it comes to the towns of the county, but I think that, as a consequence of the lockdown, I think it will be quietly coming back to what it used to be.

It was a brilliant town, and I have no doubt we are all getting our house in order. 

Rebekah Wall and Ash Maguire, who run Madden’s Coffee Shop and Creative Hub, on Milk Market Lane, and who are behind the Tralee My Love promotional initiative, are equally optimistic.

They took over the former grocery store, and an empty shell next door, in May 2018. They are next door to The Old Mill, a huge stone building that has been closed for decades, but which it is rumoured might be at the centre of development plans for the area.

Future plans could include pedestrianisation of the laneway, “to create more of a social space, where people can gather and hang out”, Rebekah says.

Other rumours concern the former Dunnes Stores on Bridge St. There is talk that a deal is being finalised to buy the building.

And with a boutique hotel being built opposite the town’s Garda station, and the famous Quinlan’s pub due to reopen, people like auctioneer Jim Finucane say there is new momentum in the town.

“There is definitely a vibrancy coming back to the town,” Mr Finucane says.

With obvious signs of much building work being undertaken in the town, the scale of the housing crisis is not so evident. Not many people are begging or sleeping rough.

But with very few affordable homes to buy, or to rent, and with so many on the social-housing list, the homeless problem in the town definitely exists. It’s just that the crisis, like all the restoration work going on at The Greyhound Bar, is behind closed doors. 

There are 830 people on the social housing waiting list in Tralee. Around 18 of the 98 or so residential properties for sale in and around Tralee are vacant sites that need to be developed. And, of the remaining properties, another 17 are over €300,0000.

Unaffordable housing

That price means they are out of the range of an average working couple’s first-time purchase in a town where, in 2016, the average gross household income was around €33,000. On the residential rental side, things look even worse.

Over the past week, for example, there have not been more than 20 properties for rent on Daft.ie in, or within a 10km radius of, Tralee.

While it’s difficult to see how many vacant or derelict properties there are in Tralee, because Kerry County Council’s public register is currently empty, a casual walk around the town reveals no shortage.

It’s no accident that over the coming weeks, the Simon Community is beginning work in Kerry for the first time.

The county has 81 people housed in emergency accommodation.

And while 14 of them can be housed in the county’s only emergency accommodation centre, the Novas-run Arlington Lodge, in Tralee, another 12 are accommodated by the agency in and around the town.

Una Burns, head of policy and communications at Novas, says: “There are many more people than the official figures that are homeless. And that’s not just in Tralee, that’s national.

“The figures that the Department of Housing publish every month only relate to people who are funded through department funding,” Ms Burns says. “It doesn’t include the hidden homeless, anybody who is sofa surfing, anybody who is involuntary sharing in overcrowded accommodation, and even people who rough-sleep aren’t counted in official figures.

“So, we know the figures for the homeless are greater.

“And there is nothing to rent in Tralee that is within the HAP (Housing Assistant Payment) limit. So, anybody on any kind of rent support or rent supplement is not going to be able to rent anything from DAFT.ie, because the HAP payments will not meet what they need.

“That either pushes people into ‘official’ homelessness or into hidden homelessness, where they are just going from friends to families, or where you now have multi-generations of one family living together.

“That issue is very prevalent in Tralee.”

Ballybunion — 'We have the scenery, we have the beaches'

'Someone should be knocking on Google’s door and telling them this might be a great place for a remote working hub,' says Tom Mulvihill, who runs Danna’s shop next door to the former Ballybunion Golf Hotel. Picture: Domnick Walsh
'Someone should be knocking on Google’s door and telling them this might be a great place for a remote working hub,' says Tom Mulvihill, who runs Danna’s shop next door to the former Ballybunion Golf Hotel. Picture: Domnick Walsh

The first thing you notice when you drive into Ballybunion town centre isn’t the scenery.

It’s the roof of a 1960s hotel that dominates not only the skyline of the popular north Kerry seaside resort, but also the scenery around it.

You can even see it from Loop Head across the bay in Co Clare.

Built on the site of the old Central Ballroom, it was meant to — in effect — cash in on the fact that, in the decades before Ryanair introduced Ireland to package holidays, this was once one of Ireland’s top beach resorts.

Tens of thousands of people used to throng here and at the height of its popularity as a resort, it had as its heart the Central Ballroom, a mid-1950s mecca for many, especially in the big band era.

Now this drab 1960s building that shut down six years ago squats in its place, with all the charm of an inner-city office block.

Kerry County Council’s Derelict Sites Office has been keeping a file on it since 2018. Having shut down two years before amid rumours it was to house asylum seekers, it has been gradually slipping into disrepair ever since.

Indeed, by the time the Ballybunion Golf Hotel was taken into receivership last year, there had to be repairs to the roof to stop debris crashing onto the street below.

Some people see it as a place where fond memories of holidays they spent in the Kerry tourist resort were formed.

Others, who never liked it and probably recall the days of the Central Hotel and Ballroom with a misty-eyed longing, see it as nothing more than a blot on the landscape that should never have been built in the first place. And others see it as an investment opportunity.

Whatever the outcome, it could be years still before the doors of this town centre shell open again — if indeed they ever do.

Tom Mulvihill, who runs Danna’s shop next door to the hotel, hopes it will sell when it comes up for auction.

“This is just me thinking outside the box but someone should be knocking on Google’s door and telling them this might be a great place for a remote working hub,” he said.

“It would make a good office block. They could get workers to come down and work here for a month or two a year.

“And what better place? We have the scenery, we have the beaches.”

Dating to the 1960s, the Ballybunion Golf Hotelhotel, which shut down six years ago, dominates the town and the scenery around it. 	Picture: Domnick Walsh
Dating to the 1960s, the Ballybunion Golf Hotelhotel, which shut down six years ago, dominates the town and the scenery around it. Picture: Domnick Walsh

The building is one of a number that now lies shut in the heart of what should be one of Kerry’s most thriving tourist towns.

Across the way from it, for example, is a property that is one of the oldest in the town and still has its original features, including its old white wooden picket fence. It has been empty and derelict for much of the past 20 or so years.

Apparently, and this is just one of a number of stories about the property, nobody can find the deeds.

A few doors down is a thriving pizzeria, which occupies the front of a building that is otherwise bricked up all the way to the back.

Head back up Main St and you pass countless more empty properties.

Local Sinn Féin county councillor Robert Beasley is pretty clear about what the problem is.

“The traditional seaside resort just doesn’t have the same appeal that it used to have anymore,” he said.

“They just don’t get the same crowds that they got 30, 40 years ago.

“Having said that, with the weather now and with the pandemic, the town is actually very busy. But even with that, if this was 40 years ago, you’d be talking about 15,000 people in Ballybunion.

“Now you are talking about 4,000 or 5,000 people.” 

Of the Golf Hotel, his view of it is simple: “It is an eyesore in the middle of the town,” he says.

“When the place was busy and the hotel itself was busy, we didn’t pay that much attention to it. But now that it is redundant and empty, it’s very unsightly and there seems to be little interest in anything happening with it.”

'Hidden homelessness' in rural Irish towns 

Una Burns, head of policy and communications at homeless agency Novas, says that while you might not be able to see homeless people on the streets of towns like Ballybunion, the problem exists.

“We see in towns like Ballybunion where homelessness is hidden but it is still there,” she says.

“And where it is is absolutely exasperated by the tourist economy because people who live there or are from there cannot rent anything. It is a huge issue in rural tourist towns.

“Homeless people are very dependent on B&Bs and hotel accommodation or holiday rentals. In reality, although we do, we shouldn’t be relying on these to house our homeless, especially those with vulnerability issues.

“We recently did come across numerous cases of people — not in Ballybunion — who had to leave their accommodation to make way for tourists.

“We have had one case recently where someone was paying €400 a month for basic one-bed accommodation, and they were asked to leave, as their accommodation increased to well over €1,000 a month.

“We are anecdotally coming across a lot of cases where people are warned they can only have the accommodation for a few months in these holiday destination towns and then they have to move out.

“The irony is, some of them are even people who are working in the tourism sector who are finding it really hard to find accommodation in the summer months.”

'It's just going to take time'

As to the future of the Golf Hotel, there are those who would rather see it demolished than used for anything else. And that might not be as fanciful a notion as it might appear. Mr Beasley said he recently spoke to a man who said he’d like to buy it and demolish it. 

“And if he didn’t have the money, he’d be the sort to be able to find it,” he added.

As to the future, he is convinced the town will bounce back: “No matter what happens, when you come to Ballybunion, you are at the end of the line, really,” he says.  “You’ve the sea to the west of you, and you have the beaches and the various activities, and that’s it before you head back the way you came.

“Despite what is happening at the moment, I think Ballybunion will come back. It will be recognised again. It was once the mecca of tourist resorts, and I think that will happen again. 

"It’s just going to take time.”

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