Two men have the ability to transform this town and make it a showpiece
for the rest of the country
When I came home, early in 1969, Donegal Town was carving a niche for itself as arguably the tourist capital of the west (yes, of Ireland). The new Talk of the Town, which had evolved out of Sean Griffins pub, had just opened its doors, Pauls Palace would do so shortly after, and, across the street, Willie and Margaret Gallinagh ran their highly popular Shamrock Bar. The Central was in the process of adding on 40 new bedrooms and the National, under Mama Hughes, was a gourmets delight. Tourism was getting into its stride and huge numbers were coming across the border to spend their money in Donegal. Tour companies had discovered the county and were booking blocks of hotel rooms, a new experience for the hoteliers who had only previously seen these tourist buses when they visited Galway or Killarney. Every July the Scotch Fair brought our Celtic kin-folk into the area - and the most luscious females us young lads had ever set eyes on. Donegal Town was starting to boom tourist-wise.
Complementing this economic upturn in the hospitality sector was the manufacturing might of the Magee factory which was working at full capacity and employing up to 400 people. The hotels and Magee provided the spring board from which this towns economic prosperity was launched. Early 1969 was just before the Troubles began - and the town was a highly enjoyable and carefree place for the visitor - and the local.
Throughout the 70s, despite the north descending into sectarian and civil warfare, the republic did relatively well. But the early 80s saw a change. Ireland was gripped by a huge recession - inflation was rampant, prices shot up - and interest rates reached 20% and more. The troubles in the six counties were at their height with many incidents affecting this county.
But locally, counteracting this downturn, Abbott Ireland opened its doors at Lurganboy, employing many hundreds. The Abbey Hotel had constructed a big extension, and the new Abbey Vocational School brought hundreds of second level students into town. Led by tourism, complemented by two large manufacturing concerns, this area seemed to be missing the worst of the economic slump.
The town was doing well while the rest of the country was suffering. Tourism and manufacturing kept commercial life in town bouyant and prosperous throughout these years.
Then in the late 80s/early 90s an imperceptible consumer shift began. Letterkenny started to expand as did the county capitals adjoining us, Derry, Enniskillen and Sligo. Multiples moved in which acted as a magnet to attract business from a wide radius. Our town started to feel the heat. By the mid-90s local clamour for commercial development had begun.
Fast forward to today. The hotels are still there, along with Harveys Point and the Millpark. But its a different type of trade. The pubs are quieter, especially in daytime. During the season the town looks busy but traders say the numbers dont translate into business. The Hospira factory is about to downsize - and Magee has outsourced most of its production to the far east. The base which saw this town prosper for four decades is narrowing.
Fighting for progress in this area is not new. In 1969, I joined the Town Development Association, followed by the Junior Chamber, then the Chamber itself - and every meeting debated the same issues - how to push the town forward. There are boys newly on the development scene today who forget the diligent and methodicial work done by those who came before them. Its easy to be out on the big occasion and the photo-shoots, but remember those going back who put in the hard slog to put Donegal Town on the map. We fought for proper sewerage, we fought for clean water, for a pedestrianised Diamond, and the roofing of the Castle. We reinstated the St. Patricks Day parade and began the Christmas decorating of the town. We got the monument cleaned for the first time and personally picked up litter on the roads into town and on the river banks. We brought architectural students from Bolton Street who did a survey of the town and published a report.
We went on deputations to Lifford, we met with government ministers - we prevented things happening that would have been to the detriment of the town - and we pushed for anything that we felt would be for its better eg. the placing of ESB cables underground in the town centre.
So let no-one today claim the moral high-ground - the work was done over many years by people who looked for no recognition - their only motivation - the progress of Donegal Town and the welfare of its people.
So forgive me if I wont take criticism and advice from any Johnny-come-latelys whose ability to live and trade successfully in this town is in no small part due to the efforts expended by those who laid the foundation before them. These newly discovered philosophers of progress were never heard of on the development front until they found a handy band-wagon onto which they could jump - and will probably never be heard of again on any voluntary committee once they achieve their objective. These remarks in no way impugn the intentions and efforts of the Chamber, Enterprise Groups, and other organisations whose members are attempting to do their best for this area.
Having said all that I welcome Bennetts interest on the town - as I do Keeneys. When John White, Project Manager and a director of Bennetts, was talking at the Millpark meeting recently, he mentioned many of the large projects his company has been involved in nationally, including the Helix and Houston station in Dublin. He revealed that many of the developments had been carried out as joint-ventures with other companies.
Between them Bennett and Keeney potentially own most of the area between the mart and the back of Upper Main Street.
Could we make a heartfelt plea? Recent events have caused big divisions in this community - but two people have the ability to heal this split. We would ask John White and Danny Keeney to meet and agree to pool their local assets. Together they could create a town centre that would be the envy of the country - a showcase development that would provide the template that other towns would study as the ideal of how urban development should be implemented.
This type of co-operation could create a model that people of the town would be proud to bequeath to their children and grandchildren - and further generations to come. It could have everything, shops, restaurants, cinema, art-house, apartments, river walks, pedestrian bridges, a new access road - the list is endless - and all smack in the centre of town.
You may say this is a pipe-dream - but if two proud men would back off a little and enter discussions - it is a dream that could come to fruition. More complex deals have been done in the past by both companies - it only requires the will to make it happen.. Come on Mr. Bennett and Mr. Keeney - forget whats gone by - enter into negotiations and make this town the showpiece it could be with a bit of goodwill - a large dollop of courage - and lots of imagination!