by Sean Flanagan
I have been asked: What do I think of the appearance of Claregalway village? I don’t know whether this is a question that exercises the minds of many people in a collective sense with the notable exception of the Amenity Group and some individual householders. To address the question I will broaden it out to include business, tourism, ecological and heritage perspectives. These aspects have assumed new significance all around the country in the light of rapid changes now taking place. As a starting point I refer to basic guidelines as they have existed locally up to now and potential opportunities for the future.
- Where we come from is part of what we are, handing down foremost treasures to the next generation, for example, the values of community spirit, physical or historical features of the local landscape, eye-catching structures of artistry or craftsmanship, language, nature, music and culture.
- Residential settlement in Claregalway up to now was characterised by buildings with relatively low roof lines. The green foliage of the big Sycamores and other broad leaved trees in the village combined with lush hedgerows in adjoining fields (to be seen again in 6 weeks time or so) provided the ideal visual backdrop for a village located on a flat plain only a little higher than the level of the river.
- The houses in Lakeview estate (where I live) built in the early 1970s were specifically designed to blend into these surroundings and to be unobtrusive on the skyline. So too was the new church, consecrated in 1975, with its design and shape that fits into harmony with the landscape. The church and its grounds, the National School with flower boxes, care and attention very evident, provide attractive centrepieces at the hub of the village.
- Since the 1980s the village has become a strategic junction for traffic from the north going south to Shannon and Cork and coming from the south to Knock, Sligo and N.Ireland.
- Tourism experts have strong evidence to show that the more a place is beautified to attract the eye, the more travellers will stop to break the journey for refreshments, etc. and the more tourists can be enticed to pull up for leisure and visit sites of interest. This can be extended to include visitors staying overnight, enjoying the craic, spending money and adding to the income of local hostelries and restaurants within walking distance.
- Claregalway has untapped natural resources for community-based rural tourism and for attracting visitors. These resources are centred on the unique setting of the river, de Burgo Castle and the Abbey. A tourist trail of riverside walks in a quiet setting has amenity value, so also birdwatching (has anybody seen the kingfisher or barn owl in recent times?), the fishing and the local history as reflected by the fortunes of the castle down the centuries. The Burkes (de Burgo), Earls of Clanricarde, were very significant forces in Anglo-Irish history.
The glory and stone artistry of the east window of the Abbey is a story in itself. If in doubt, take a close look at the interlacing tracery. Yet over the decades the many overseas visitors who stopped at the bridge to take a photo of these ancient sites resumed their journey with no cultural explanation of what they were looking at. Take-away leaflets at local outlets would help to fill this information gap. Summer schools for language learning, nature, heritage, culture or native crafts are other possibilities.
- At the new shopping centre at River Oaks, new goods and services and extra jobs have expanded the commercial well-being of the village.
Having reviewed the general background, let us move on to the present appearance of the village. To say that it is unimpressive is putting it mildly. My criticism relates to three main components: the intrusion of high rise buildings changing the character of the village, the condition of the N17 carriageway and the proliferation of litter and rubble on roadsides.
At one stroke the height of the River Oaks shopping centre has marginalized the Abbey to the edges—the 13th century Franciscan Friary that has dominated the village for 700 years. This towering edifice would suit the city but it now casts its long shadows over the adjoining village streetscape and does not conform with low profile residential settlement. Located where it is, hopelessly out of character with the long established local pattern, its overwhelming spectre, out of proportion design and elevation and box-like windows offer reminders of a 19th century workhouse.
Another way of viewing the local backdrop that is being lost is to take a look at the Abbey across Summerfield as you approach the village downhill from Cregboy. Once visible for miles around, nowadays only the tower and belfry peep above the high roof lines of the new houses.
In the Development Plan for Claregalway, Galway Co.Council state that: “It is intended to protect the visual and natural amenity of Claregalway and its surroundings” (Paragraph 2.6). Current trends are in the opposite direction.
As we all see, the village has been choked for some years now with relentless traffic and noise. The village has been captured by the passing motorists and long distance hauliers. There are no concessions to local inhabitants, except for a risky set of traffic lights. Their needs in going about their daily business have been forgotten. Off-peak traffic is characterised by speeding cars and lorries. Garda speed checks are rare.
The rutted condition of the N17 road surface, the half obliterated line markings or none, the daily cascade of flying chipstones and surface water drenches from the main carriageway onto footpaths and up the noses of local pedestrians all combine to illustrate a litany of incompetence in the maintenance of one of the busiest primary roads in the country. Its not long since the widely publicised plans for a village by-pass offered residents relief in 3 years time or so. The sudden silence now on the by-pass is an ominous sign. If the history of previous community actions to improve road and traffic matters hereabouts were ever to be written, the author might wish to record that the relevant authorities and politicians responded best to people pressure.
Although the local roadsides are strewn with litter, again I don’t know whether it is of community-wide concern. The fact that it is tolerated suggests not. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital, selected Galway for his European base in 1970 after touring Ireland with his wife looking for a location. He stated that “a community which takes pride in its appearance was exactly the community he was looking for”. This flagship enterprise led to the fleet of high tech industries that followed on. The same principle applies equally in importance to a village or town.
A glance at roadside litter offers a good measure of the leading market sellers in take-a-way drinks, confectionary, food consumed on the move, chocolate, you name it, a daily record of the dietary habits of litter louts. Torn silage plastic is also evident. In its Annual Report Bord Fáilte singled out the litter problem as a blot on our reputation. Although a big job, the problem can be tackled at local level. This work could be extended to include the collection of old junk and rubbish from derelict sites, rebuilding broken down stone walls, planting trees where appropriate, etc.
This analysis is intended to be constructive. If there are alternative analyses, put pen to paper with a view to positive action.