Ireland’s empty towns: Historic buildings lie vacant in some of Waterford’s most scenic towns

County Waterford has some of Ireland’s most beautiful old buildings, with an unparalleled heritage. But its streetscapes are blotted by vacancy. Eoghan Dalton reports
Ireland’s empty towns: Historic buildings lie vacant in some of Waterford’s most scenic towns

(left to right) Paddy Mulhearne, Laura Kirwan and Susan Veale of the Social Enterprise Group standing next to the derelict Woolen Mills building just off Kilmacthomas Main street. While the success of the Greenway has changed the fortunes of Kilmacthomas, locals hope more can be done for the area's Main Street. Photo: Dan Linehan

There's a story behind every vacant historic building in County Waterford’s towns and villages.

There are reminders of long-ago holidays or family outings, whether in the Grand Hotel in Tramore or Bride Valley Stores in Tallow, while other areas are throwbacks to our largely defunct railway network.

There have been small drops in a number of towns’ population over the past decade, but the most pronounced has been in Cappoquin, where some of the most prominent vacancy is also found. There, the population dropped by almost 8% up to the last census in 2016.

Waterford is the lead local authority for homeless services in the South East region, and recorded 62 adults as homeless in the city and county in late June.

However, 305 people contacted the council's integrated homeless centre that month, with 88 presentations. There were 58 single people, as well as 25 children across nine families, in emergency accommodation at the time.

While there are 33 properties registered on the derelict sites register, the council is also faced with doing up old stock among its housing.

These are known as voids, which are local authority properties that have previously been let and have been vacated, and require refurbishment before re-letting.

"Our target at any one time is to have voids at less than 2% of overall stock," said a council spokeswoman. "As of the end of July, the level of voids was at 1.5% of overall stock; 80 properties out of 5,320.

At present, council housing stock accounts for approximately one in 10 of Waterford's overall housing, which puts the voids at around 0.15% of overall housing stock.

Summing up the current situation in the county, a spokesman for Focus Ireland's Waterford office said an "offset of the housing crisis" has seen people forced out of the city into towns and villages across the county.

"The housing crisis in Waterford has continued especially in the last three years as rents are now comparable with prices in larger cities," he said.

"The lack of one-bedroom apartments is also a serious contributor to the number of adults who are homeless in Waterford, particularly single people."

Focus is involved in supporting 120 homes and apartments across Waterford, including 30 located in the city's Housing First project, which is managed by South East Simon alongside the city and county council.

Anne O'Leary, who leads Housing First, said that owing to the lack of single-bed accommodation, the charity has purchased two-bed accommodation to house clients.

She noted that while the programme is city-based, several clients hail from the county and that, due to "family dynamics", it has often been preferable for those tenants to remain in the city rather than return home.

"It depends on people's circumstances but a high percentage of the people we have housed through Housing First would have been living on the street before."

In terms of tackling dereliction and vacancy, the local authority has carved County Waterford into different sections, rather than targeting specific properties, according to Waterford City and County Council’s head of enterprise Richie Walsh.

The areas of Cappoquin, Lismore, Tallow, Villierstown and Ballyduff Upper make up the Blackwater Valley Economic Development Zone, while the mid-county, taking in Kilmacthomas, Portlaw and Bonmahon are linked in with the likes of the Greenway, the Copper Coast and the Comeragh Mountains.

"We're looking at them - the towns - as groups rather than as individual units, with the thinking being that it’s the development zone that is important rather than the individual town,” says Walsh.

 The derelict Woolen Mills building just off main street, Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford. Kilmacthomas along with Portlaw and Bonmahon are categorised in the mid-county section by Waterford City and County Council. Photo: Dan Linehan
The derelict Woolen Mills building just off main street, Kilmacthomas, Co. Waterford. Kilmacthomas along with Portlaw and Bonmahon are categorised in the mid-county section by Waterford City and County Council. Photo: Dan Linehan

"This is healthier from a planning perspective too. It stops one town grabbing everything for itself and allows for better planning."

Walsh admits that it takes time to "break up the idea of every town and village wanting something for itself" but believes it's working.

Since the amalgamation of the city and county councils in 2014, the council structure has changed to allow an overarching group to oversee the county’s towns and villages.

Morris Conway, a council architect whose responsibilities cover Tramore and West Waterford, is part of a four-strong group; two other architects and an engineer feature.

"We've 27 towns and villages and all of them need work. All of them need attention," he says.

"It will take a while but we will get there. It's incremental work. Each building has a story, there's a reason why it's vacant and there's a reason why it's derelict. But I will say that with more regeneration funding coming through the National Planning Framework and the Project Ireland 2040 document, there is a major funding stream that can be tapped into."

We are suffering from a lack of precise information

There has been a push on to make the council take more direct action towards prominent vacant and derelict buildings.

Una Dunphy, a People Before Profit activist based in Tramore, sits on the local authority's Housing, Culture and Community Strategic Policy Committee.

She says she has pushed for the council to form a group examining vacancy and dereliction and now sits on the panel alongside councillors and officials; some recent work has involved meeting with researchers from Trinity College who are examining urban vacancy.

"We're suffering from a lack of precise information at the moment," Dunphy says. "We need a door by door audit carried out of each urban centre in each town - some places have this work done, like Cappoquin, but that's thanks to a really strong local community group. Other places don't necessarily have that and the council needs to step in and help them get that part done."

A number of these audits, which the council calls "health checks", are in the offing over the next 12 months. Some are completed, such as in Lismore, but the council hopes to engage with the owners of vacant properties ahead of releasing the information.

The old Moore's Hotel building in Cappoquin's Main Street, Co. Waterford. A door by door audit has been carried out in the town thanks to the local community group who don't see tourism as a way forward for the area. Photo: Dan Linehan
The old Moore's Hotel building in Cappoquin's Main Street, Co. Waterford. A door by door audit has been carried out in the town thanks to the local community group who don't see tourism as a way forward for the area. Photo: Dan Linehan

Walsh says there is quite often ongoing engagement with owners, auctioneers and potential developers to progress inactive sites.

Any plan to bring a vacant or derelict site back into use can quickly face complexities that bedevil the system, including title difficulties which need to be resolved, or if there are multiple owners, or if the site is intertwined in a legal dispute.

"It's obvious that people own these properties and in some cases they are choosing not to do anything with them. The council has to be willing to meet that head on," Una Dunphy says.

Compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) are used by the councils to tackle vacant homes, though these have often been concentrated on properties in Waterford city.

The council's most recent spate of CPOs has seen 16 orders confirmed by An Bord Pleanala targeting 20 individual properties. These properties were all identified as vacant and in private ownership.

Sean Tobin heads up the Tallow Enterprise Centre and has found there can be a lack of focus towards towns that aren't in immediate plans.

"Our message is you have got to do it yourself. We have a community hub costing around €1m when all investment is done but it's taken some time to get it to this point. We also have the old large Bridevalley Stores here and it's been waiting for over two decades to be developed.

 Denis McCarthy, Ben Murphy and Tom Feerick the three directors of the Cappoquin regeneration project in front of three of the buildings which are part of the project. "We need to have the facilities in the town right first." Photo: Dan Linehan
Denis McCarthy, Ben Murphy and Tom Feerick the three directors of the Cappoquin regeneration project in front of three of the buildings which are part of the project. "We need to have the facilities in the town right first." Photo: Dan Linehan

"What is really needed is an audit of the listed buildings and other types across the town. A number of prime properties have been revamped but you still have these vacants that have potential which just isn't being met."

Something noted by members of Cappoquin's Regeneration Company, which includes pharmacists, undertakers and a former TD among its committee, is that they are less eager for tourism as a way forward for their area.

The group is setting out plans for a multimillion euro reworking of the town centre which will bring four major buildings back into use.

While tourism has proved a boon for many parts of Co. Waterford, they note that the pay is often lower than with the types of jobs which may be attractive to remote working offices, so their "initial plan" for Cappoquin is to attract higher earners.

"Our view is, if it’s attractive for people to live in, it will be attractive for people to visit," says secretary Denis McCarthy, a former manager of the old Waterford County Council.

"We're not exclusively looking for salaried people but that would be the initial interest and more tourism can then follow. We already have St Declan’s Way, Cappoquin House and Mount Melleray so we're not short on those offerings either, but we need to have the facilities in the town right first."

Recreating the heart of Cappoquin 

With its thoroughfare blighted by empty premises, Denis McCarthy hopes a plan to "recreate the heart" of Cappoquin will regain its purpose and provide an example for how to revive rural towns and villages.

Under proposals announced in April, the Government intends to bring life back to struggling parts of the country via relocation grants, shared ownership schemes for local amenities and a €1bn fund to convert long vacant properties.

But in Cappoquin, a town of 700 people in West Waterford, plans are already underway thanks to a €1.6m mission to bring key buildings at the centre of the town back into use as remote working offices.

The project is being driven by the Cappoquin Regeneration Company, a volunteer outfit made up of retired locals, of which McCarthy is a secretary.

An ex-manager of the old Waterford County Council, he outlines how the buildings will be bought and designed thanks to funding provided through the Government’s Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, with further funding provided by Waterford City and County Council, philanthropic group Tomar Trust and Waterford Leader Partnership.

 Some of Cappoquin's properties that will be restored include Blackwater House (pink building) which will turn into a digital hub to encourage some of the 120 people from the town and surrounding area who are commuting away fromthe town. Photo: Dan Linehan
Some of Cappoquin's properties that will be restored include Blackwater House (pink building) which will turn into a digital hub to encourage some of the 120 people from the town and surrounding area who are commuting away fromthe town. Photo: Dan Linehan

“It seems like a lot of money but when you have a significant amount of derelict buildings in the town it won’t take long to use it up,” he says. "The key thing for any rural town or village is sorting the dereliction and vacancy, surveying your needs, replacing what's in the past and creating a new community.”

The Regeneration Company, whose members have already built a self-sustaining community centre with a creche on the premises, is hoping to "create a new town centre" and regain its purpose.

Nestled between the Knockmealdown Mountains, River Blackwater and West Waterford’s healthy farmland, the town had been on a downward spiral for years. Once the home of historical bacon and chicken processing factories, their closures saw Cappoquin lose over 200 jobs.

"[Cappoquin] has essentially lost its function or purpose," said a 2018 Prescience report commissioned by the Regeneration Company to analyse the town’s fortunes.

"The traditional economic activities that it was founded upon and which sustained its population and supported a range of local services have been lost."

Despite this, "thriving businesses" remain in the town centre, with the local Supervalu and Barron's Bakery among them.

Private dwelling vacancy rates for Main Street were 34% in 2016, while the older housing stock found in Main Street was mainly built pre-1919.

Work is underway on Blackwater House on the corner of the town’s Main Street, a three-storey former pub, while the long-vacant Moore’s Hotel at the opposing corner is also part of the plan. The buildings are listed structures and will be preserved through the regeneration work.

McCarthy recounts some of the company's survey work: “Would you believe we found there’s 120 people from the town and surrounding area who are commuting away from Cappoquin? We’re aiming to bring some of those into the future 40 offices in the converted hubs.” 

Included in the town's regeneration plans is a housing pilot scheme which will see Cappoquin, as one of six towns, having been selected by the Department of Rural and Community Development, tasked with encouraging town centre living.

This will see a number of properties extending from Upper Main Street onto Green Street being restored and reconfigured to provide energy efficient homes.

‘The Greenway has changed what Kilmacthomas is about’ 

While the success of the Greenway has changed the fortunes of Kilmacthomas, locals hope more can be done for the area's Main Street.

Some of Kilmac's most notable vacants lie away from the centre and include an old railway station and an out-of-use woolen plant, with planning permission in place to construct a distillery on the site of the former.

Gortinore Distillers & Co acquired the site, which dates back to the 1850s, from Waterford City and County Council in 2016.

The railway station meanwhile is part of a regeneration works programme and is to be converted into a museum and information hub.

 The D. Lynn public bar in Kilmacthomas which, along with a number of other properties in the town, has been vacant for a number of years. Photo: Dan Linehan
The D. Lynn public bar in Kilmacthomas which, along with a number of other properties in the town, has been vacant for a number of years. Photo: Dan Linehan

“The Greenway has changed what Kilmacthomas is about over the past five years," says Richie Walsh, head of enterprise with Waterford Council.

"The council's work around Kilmacthomas has been focused on those outlier projects like the old derelict railway station, while the private sector has been charged with bringing Main Street back to life."

This has been somewhat successful, thanks to the increased footfall of the Greenway, while Ger Cusack, chairman of the Kilmacthomas voluntary social enterprise group, says "it's done a lot to preserve the existing businesses and has led others to upgrade" their current offerings.

Still, there are properties which have remained empty for some time with little sign of improvement. It's a mixed picture, says Cusack.

He has one building himself that was rented out as a restaurant until it closed a year ago. While offers have come for it to be turned into a takeaway, he is reluctant to go down that road.

"There's no place to eat at night seated in Kilmacthomas and that's something that's needed. I've had enquiries but I don't think a takeaway would be a good fit. The place is kitted out as a restaurant."

He adds: "There's limited demand, other properties are just sitting there then."

 Susan Veale a member of the Social Enterprise Group and Tidy Towns Committee looking after the flowers on Kilmacthomas' Main street. Ger Cusack, chairman of the group believes a one-way system could be brought in to open up a lot more space on the street. Photo: Dan Linehan
Susan Veale a member of the Social Enterprise Group and Tidy Towns Committee looking after the flowers on Kilmacthomas' Main street. Ger Cusack, chairman of the group believes a one-way system could be brought in to open up a lot more space on the street. Photo: Dan Linehan

Housing is limited. AirBnb has been an option for some while there are around a dozen council homes being built, but there has been no major private development since before the Celtic Tiger. One way forward, reckons Cusack, is for the Main Street to be rerouted into a one-way system while trying to pedestrianise some of the thoroughfare.

"I know there would be opposition but it would be a lot easier to do in Kilmac than in other places. We already have two parallel roads and the old N25 going around the village, so it wouldn't be difficult to redirect the traffic.

"It would give a lot more street space, possibly make it more attractive to cyclists who aren't coming towards the Main Street and we could bring properties back into use."

‘Lismore is a gem, but it’s been pretty quiet’ 

Waterford City and County Council is to "quietly engage and coax out" owners of properties on Lismore's Main Street over the coming months.

The plan has arisen out of concerns that a number of properties are going unused, whether for commercial or residential use.

The council declined to provide figures from its own recent 'health check' survey of the town centre, however a spokesperson for the local authority's rural development department said that while Lismore has a strong tourism offering, it is struggling economically.

"The concern is that Main Street is dead and so we are trying to coax owners out to engage with the council. Everybody thinks Lismore is a gem and the reality is that it's been pretty quiet over the last three or four years.

Richie Walsh, head of enterprise at Waterford City and County Council, in Lismore which is part of the Blackwater Valley Economic Development Zone. Photo: Dan Linehan
Richie Walsh, head of enterprise at Waterford City and County Council, in Lismore which is part of the Blackwater Valley Economic Development Zone. Photo: Dan Linehan

"We're trying to do something long-term here where we'll actually work with people who are holding onto vacant properties. In some cases there’s a fear and they don't know what to do, in other cases they're now living upstairs over what was a commercial unit which is now vacant."

Former Mayor of Waterford John Pratt, who sits on the town's heritage board, believes the town is due a "bump" to help revitalise it.

"There's some really lovely offerings around Lismore on the tourism side but we do need to see more take place at getting properties occupied and bringing that bit of life back into the town centre."

While there is little new residential property on the market, Councillor Pratt says the relaunching of the Lismore House Hotel will be a game changer that can help kickstart the next phase of the town's development.

Waterford City and County Council is to "quietly engage and coax out" owners of properties on Lismore's Main Street over the coming months. Photo: Dan Linehan
Waterford City and County Council is to "quietly engage and coax out" owners of properties on Lismore's Main Street over the coming months. Photo: Dan Linehan

It is understood that the 29-room building, originally built by the Duke of Devonshire in the late 1700s, will reopen in November following its purchase by a hotel group.

The council has submitted an application for a remote working hub which it is hoped will be a catalyst for further works in the town, according to the council.

It has stressed to the Department of Rural and Community Development that its remote work application will be the beginning of it placing an "emphasis" on a renewal scheme for Lismore and tackling its vacant properties.

"The intention is that phase one - the remote working application - will be an enabler for an overall programme for Lismore for significant public realm works and relooking at how Main Street works for the town. A lot of traffic tends to pass it and the way it's configured is the main reason for that."

‘Pandemic a boon for seaside Tramore’ 

 The pandemic has been a boon for Tramore as people have flocked to the seaside town to make use of its spacious beach and promenade, however frustrations remain.

They arise particularly among locals and focus on notable empty buildings away from the seafront, sitting among a number of independent businesses.

The prime example is the landmark Grand Hotel. It's the "elephant in the room for Tramore", according to Sandra Power, who runs the nearby Lady's Slip clothing store.

"So much is being done around the centre of town but that still needs to be tackled. It's hard to watch as it is here."

Closed since 2014, the 80+ bedroom property was built in the 1700s and gives an impressive view of the town and its beach.

It was sold to Chinese businessman Guoqing Wu in 2014 but has lain empty and in poor state for much of the past six years. A derelict sites notice was issued in 2018 and the council has been trying to force action by pursuing Wu through the courts.

The Grand Hotel in Tramore, Co Waterford, which has been described as the "elephant in the room" for the town. Photo: Dan Linehan
The Grand Hotel in Tramore, Co Waterford, which has been described as the "elephant in the room" for the town. Photo: Dan Linehan

The council's struggles to even make contact with the owner were notable on previous occasions, as it hired tracing agencies in a bid to track him down as part of the derelict sites process, without success.

Councillors previously voted to place a compulsory purchase order on the building but, late last year, a works schedule was agreed between the local authority and the owner to avoid the building falling into further dereliction.

Fears remain that the works may not proceed beyond a "spruce up" of the property though.

Paul Horan, who lives and trades across the road from the Grand, thinks too much is made of the problems around the property, instead viewing it as just one example of how the town has underdeveloped.

He feels that the hotel owner, who did not respond to a request for comment, has been unfairly characterised by some and instead places blame at the council for a "weakness" in failing to develop this section of Tramore.

"I moved here from Dublin 40 years ago and I feel it suffers from a lack of interest when you compare it to elsewhere. There's a county council office still based in Dungarvan which helps them thrive while Tramore is often a feeder town for Waterford city."

 Regeneration and pedestrianisation of Main Street in Tramore, but where is the centre of the town? Photo: Dan Linehan
Regeneration and pedestrianisation of Main Street in Tramore, but where is the centre of the town? Photo: Dan Linehan

When contacted, the council said it met with the owners on Tuesday, July 20, where it detailed "works outstanding" from its Derelict Sites Notice and which must be finalised ahead of the matter coming back before the courts in September.

Morris Conway, architect for Waterford City and County Council, says there are a number of plans for the town aimed at tackling vacancy and dereliction, which partly arise from the question, where is the centre of Tramore?

"It's something that's confusing for people. You have a very steep main street, a maze of smaller streets off that, but where is the centre? Now most people felt that the Queen Street-Broad Street junction was the centre so we've been carrying out public realm works to link up those parts with the rest of the town in a better way."

There are three identities in Tramore which need to be linked too.

"There's the seaside, the town proper and there's a dormitory of Waterford which sits around the ring road. There's a physical disconnect, not helped by the main commercial centre's hilly geography, and that's something we're trying to work on by connecting the main streets to the seafront and drawing people down from the residential areas to the town centre."

Homes can be tricky to rent or purchase, with several dozen options listed instead on AirBnB for anyone looking for a quick hit of the seaside. However the council expects to provide approaching 100 homes in the next 18 months through a mixture of direct builds, purchases and long-term leases.

The derelict former Tramore Hotel. Photo: Dan Linehan
The derelict former Tramore Hotel. Photo: Dan Linehan

A management group was formed to manage the town centre and a public realm scheme aiming to upgrade the Queen Street-Broad Street area and to give it pedestrian priority, adds Conway.

The town's derelict Victorian railway station is to get a new purpose through a regeneration programme, with over €200,000 drawn down to date through renewal schemes so the protected structure can be converted into a community space.

Between its 5km long beach, the promenade and nearby amusements park, Tramore has a "festival atmosphere" throughout summer, says Conway, but he says planners need to spread visitors around into the centre.

"Tramore can take an influx of about 30,000 people over a weekend without it rattling the town. It won't be overwhelmed [at those numbers].

"We don't have another town that can do it and it's a success story akin to the Greenway really."

As part of its plans, the council has purchased No 9 Main Street and will use it as an experiment in above-the-shop living, with the ground floor earmarked as a retail space.

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