Edgeworthstown: A community fighting back with renewed local spirit

Liam Cosgrove visits Edgeworthstown and finds that hugely committed local people are helping to turn its fortunes around

Liam Cosgrove

Reporter:

Liam Cosgrove

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liam.cosgrove@longfordleader.ie

Edgeworthstown has endured its fair share of challenges in recent years. The bruising legacy of the boom and bust years — from half-finished housing estates to vacant shop units — combined with acts of wanton criminality by a tiny minority did not help the town’s cause. But fast forward the best part of a decade and a very different narrative is at play. Edgeworthstown is fighting back.

Committed local people are striving to make a real difference in the town — and they’re succeeding.

A small but dedicated group of local volunteers, together with local authority representatives, are steadily transforming County Longford’s second largest town into a locality that’s fast becoming the envy of areas more than double its size.

This week Leader sat down with the chairperson of Edgeworths- town District Development, Frank Greene, heritage connoisseur Matt Farrell, Edgeworthstown Sports Hub Co-ordinator Laura Doyle and local councillor Paul Ross.

“I would put it down to bad press really,” said Matt, when asked about the wider perception of the town until recently. “It’s amazing how negativity can sell more than the positive things which may be happening.

“People immediately cling onto the negative rather than the positive, but if you have a critical analysis of Edgeworthstown it has a lot going for it.”

Sitting inside the modest surrounds of Edgeworthstown Traders Association’s main nerve centre, while looking out on the backdrop of its 90-year-old schoolhouse, Matt reflects on the recent renaissance.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the town’s foundation. “It has always been a traditional market town and went through a lot of changes,” says Matt, arms casually folded.

Read also: New funding 'putting the heart back into Edgeworthstown'

“It stayed much the same apart from C&D coming here in the 1960s, which transformed the town in relation to employment and it continued as a market town.

“It had a cattle mart in it but that disappeared and then our two banks disappeared and then our credit union disappeared.

“Despite all of that, we got a new school, we have one of the finest community centres in the country and a childcare facility that is the envy of a lot of towns an awful lot bigger than Edgeworthstown.”

Those advances didn’t come without a considerable amount of planning and painstaking behind- the-scenes efforts.

Ireland's economic boom and bust in the first decade of the new century brought great change to Edgeworthtown. In the good times, 800 new houses were built. But when crash happened the town was left scarred by so-called ‘ghost’ or half-finished residential estates.

Step forward Frank Greene and the town’s assiduous District Development Association.

“Over the last seven years, this town has been rejuvenated,” said the local auctioneer. “If you go back seven years, the entrances to the town on the main N4 weren’t even landscaped. “There were weeds two foot high but with the help of the Tidy Towns we got it all tidied up.

“We have an educational campus on the Granard Road and a brand new school which cost €5.5m. There’s a special needs unit within it, a creche where children are dropped off and are then brought over to the national school. Plus, we have a state-of-the-art community centre.

“There is no other town in the county with that.”

Positive change has seen Edgeworthstown’s population almost double in size, with a more multicultural feel to it. Three out of every five properties currently being sold in the town are being snapped up by non-nationals.

Frank was keen to highlight Edgeworthstown District Development’s role in seeking out a site for a new, purpose-built library.

Only last October, rural affairs minister Michael Ring set the seal on that blueprint by sanctioning €2.4m in state aid. Add in the additional €1.2m for regeneration works approved by the Mayo TD’s department barely a month ago, and the sense of optimism exuded by the District Development chief is easy to understand. “Do you know of any market town that has an educational campus which cost €8.5m and was built in a recession?” Frank asks, with his hands outstretched.

But, as is so often the case with fast improving towns, the craving for further progress is palpable.

“A secondary school is a priority, we need that,” adds Frank, stressing the benefits of additional footfall in the town.

Another item on the Edgeworthstown wish list is an industrial park. “Over the last six months I have had a number of businesses from Dublin, Offaly, as far away as Carlow that would set up in this area mainly because we are beside the N4, we are an hour from the capital and we are on the north-south N55,” says Frank.

Evidence of Edgeworthstown’s rising stock could be found in the recent talks Frank held with a company whose interest in the town was sparked by its relative proximity to Dublin. The one missing element was that lack of an industrial space.

Local councillor Paul Ross was just as bullish about the town's future. In paying testimony to the unsung work of local volunteers like Matt and Frank, the Fine Gael representative lamented how Section 23 tax incentives had been more than a little “unkind” to urban municipalities like Edgeworthstown.

“What you had was people buying houses who weren’t bringing anything to the town,” he rues. “Owner occupiers are the key to any town and that was the big fault of Section 23.”

Read also: Edgeworthstown regeneration plans to be stepped up

Cllr Ross was quick to praise the part played by former Fine Gael TD James Bannon and then junior housing minister Paudie Coffey in boosting local coffers so that previously unkempt estates could be taken over by the council. The socio-economic firefighting of yesteryear was now at an end, he declared. While conceding that the closure of the town’s Ulster Bank in 2017 had been a “bad news story”, Paul believes the prospect of an innovative business hub in its place — together with the imminent return of an ATM — promises plenty. “It’s a huge positive,” says the father of two. “It’s a new way of starting businesses in a town and Edgeworthstown will be at the forefront of it. All you need is one good entrepreneur to start there who will then build a factory and stay here forever.

“All the plans are in place, the money is in place. Now, it’s just a matter of delivering it.”

Delivery is something Edgeworthstown Sports Hub Co-ordinator Laura Doyle knows plenty about.

Laura is the driving force behind a facility aimed at enhancing community togetherness through physical activity. The hub, located on the grounds of St Mary’s Community campus, has become a hive of activity for groups of all ages since its opening six weeks ago.

Funding procured through Sport Ireland and Longford Sports Partnership has been the springboard. Laura says happily that the venture has already begun to improve the physical well-being of local people while also tackling ills associated with rural isolation.

“We have a fantastic GAA club here, a fantastic soccer club, two of the major Longford basketball teams train within our centre and we have a fantastic badminton club,” she said, revealing that the hub recently added an 83-year-old to its Go For Life programme.

“There is a sport for everybody. It’s not a case of ‘Oh if you can’t play football, there is nothing for you’.

“We run programmes on a weekly basis to cater for all levels and also it’s low cost and affordable with a number of programmes free of any charge.”

As a young mother who has spent much of her life in the immediate area, Laura says the town can start looking forward with renewed belief.

“As a local getting married to someone from Longford, I feel I don’t need to move out of Edgeworthstown — because I have everything that I need here,” she says. “Yes, I am lucky that I am employed here. My child goes to creche in the place in front of me, she will go to school in the place beside me and my dad works in the school beside me.

“I have friends in Dublin who are paying four times my rent and the cost of childminding is three times what I pay here. Everything we could possibly need is right here.”

That sentiment was strongly endorsed by Matt, Edgeworths- town’s literary aficionado and the mainstay behind the town’s Edgeworth Heritage Trail.

“I am a lifetime here and what I hope to see now is the transformation of the place,” he says. “It has taken an awful long number of years to get to where we are now. Five or 10 years ago I would never have dreamed of putting my name on the line to invite anybody to Edgeworthstown. Now, I bring busloads of groups of people from Australia, France, America around to what is, I am proud to say, an historical town.

“If it was in another part of the country, like the Dublins, Kerrys, Galways of this world, the heritage we have here in Edgeworthstown would be proclaimed from the rooftops.”

Perhaps now, after the dedication and drive of good people who are proud to call Edgeworths- town home, the world outside the town will sit up and take notice.

Read also: Longford County Council welcome €4m Rural Regeneration and Development Funding