Residents and businesses have endured 18 months of disruption while the town centre got a facelift. A street carnival next weekend should show everyone in the West Cork town that the wait was worth it, writes Noel Baker
Butcher Michael O’Neill reaches for a meaty metaphor when describing next weekend’s events in Clonakilty designed to mark the culmination of 18 months of works to the town’s streetscape: “It’s like killing the fatted calf.”
If his words also carry certain biblical undertones, maybe that’s appropriate: after all, it was the floods of biblical proportions in 2012 that prompted much of the relief works that have been conducted in the West Cork town in the years since, and which have now been accompanied by a visual makeover for a place that had already lucked out with its looks.
Next Saturday, Clonakilty will play host a street carnival on Saturday and then on Sunday it is the turn of Clonakilty Agricultural Show in the town’s showgrounds.
Businesses and residents have been counting down the days, waiting for the final shifting of bollards and the scrapping of street diversions and temporary footpaths.
The consensus among townspeople is that the wait has been worth it. The cost of the streetscape works solely, according to Cork County Council, was €2.4m. The wait, according to many people in the town, was gruelling, but now it’s all over.
The Londis shop next to O’Neill’s butchers recently featured an old photograph in the window dating back to the mid-80s when Pearse St last underwent large-scale works. Michael laughs at the difference between health and safety standards 30 years ago compared with now, and takes a mature view of the upheaval of the past two years.
“It was a severe disruption, there was no doubting that,” he says. “It’s wonderful now and it looks fantastic but we need the people to come back and see that we are still here. You know, everything gets to a point where it’s a breaking point. In the last month or three weeks both retailers and the general public got to that stage. The carnival is killing the fatted calf.”
Michael and other retailers have nothing but praise for the contractors who carried out the works, and Cork Co. Council is keen to stress “the project has been completed on programme and in time for the 2016 tourist season”.
Nevertheless, he says that often the issue was “the perception” the town was clogged with temporary works. Now, however, the finished streetscape can be viewed in all its glory.
Giulia Vallone, senior executive architect at Cork County Council, appears to have brought something of the piazza culture of her native Italy to bear on Clonakilty. The footpaths have been widened, allowing coffee shops some on-street real estate to complement the revamped Astna Square and other pedestrian-friendly parts of Clonakilty such as the re-designed Emmet Square and Spillers Lane. The streets also feature light chairs and tables bolted into the footpath which Ms Vallone says are already popular with locals, particularly older people. Pocket Squares, or raised traffic tables where the level of the road rises to meet that of the footpaths, also work as traffic-calming measures and have been decorated by the addition of new trees.
Businessman Kevin O’Regan, a former town councillor and one of the organisers of the carnival, said whatever disruption occurred during the works in the town were still preferable to the alternative - no money being spent at all.
Tony O’Mahony, who with Aileen Hart runs the popular Hart’s cafe, sums it up when he says of the new layout: “It has modernised the town.”
There have been some teething problems, with alterations being made to iron out issues such as water-gathering in certain parts of the street, but Kevin O’Regan is confident that the devastating scenes of summer 2012, when water flowed down the centre of town, will not be repeated. Footfall and turnover were impacted during the works, which only broke for three months during 2015, but he argues, “there was an air of relief that the works were being done”.
“When the heavy rains came you were sleeping with one eye open,” he continues.
The works, in an overall €12m scheme, includes construction of new pump stations to facilitate the pumping of storm water in high tide and flood conditions, a new water mains and associated connections, and a new stormwater pipeline.
“With the new streetscape and air of positivity generally, we would hope that it will be a destination for shoppers and prospective shop-owners as a place to do business,” Mr O’Regan says. There is already speculation about plans for an indoor food market on the site of the old Lehane’s Mace store on Pearse Street while, in just the past fortnight, the Baking Emporium, hugely popular at markets throughout West Cork, opened a shop on Ashe Street.
Clonakilty’s own craft beer effort, Clonakilty Smuggler, is also due to be launched around the time of the festivities, which will centre on a big street dinner from 4pm this Saturday.
“It really will be a celebration,” Mr O’Regan says. “We want to tell as many people as we can how amazing Clonakilty is and how well it looks.”
It remains to be seen if fatted calf is actually on the menu but, for townspeople, it seems their prayers have finally been answered.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved