I’ve been inspired to write this by a little cafe, nestled into a lane-way, off the Main Street of a forgotten town in south east Ireland.
I say ‘forgotten’ town because, although this home of 14,000 people has its share of bustle and busyness, it’s nowhere near as vibrant as it could be.
I’m a blow-in (Irish slang for someone who’s not native to the area), driven out of Ireland’s capital due to over-inflated rent prices, and drawn specifically to Arklow through in-law family ties. When I look at Arklow from my blow-in perspective, I see two sides of it: I see the unkempt shabbiness of a main street filled with vacant buildings and unloved shop fronts; and I see potential.
If Arklow was a person it would be someone who’s worn the same outfit and hair style for years. You’d notice the pilling (those little balls of fluff that appear on worn fabrics) on their clothes and a head full of split ends. But you’d look at this person and you’d say ‘If they just put a bit of effort in, they’d be extremely attractive.’
I don’t get it. I drive through this town every day to go to work and wonder ‘Why on Earth don’t they do something with this place? Do they not realise what they have here?’
Arklow has incredible character – it’s streets curve and slope, it has curious little side streets and alleys, and many of the buildings date back to the 19th century and beyond. Originally a Viking Settlement, it’s Irish name, ‘An tInbhear Mór’ means ‘the big estuary’ because its beautiful, wide river spans out to greet the sea.
Arklow is positioned in Ireland’s ‘sunny southeast’ (yes, I know it’s a contradiction to put the words ‘Ireland’ and ‘sunny’ in the same sentence, but this corner of the rainy Emerald Isle gets the best weather in Ireland), and it’s 1 hour from the capital city of Dublin, accessible via an excellent motorway.
It has a fascinating little Maritime Museum, a public swimming pool, a free outdoor gym, a skatepark, coastal walks, a well-equipped children’s playground, a forest trail to a castle, a golf-course, global franchise fast-food and coffee vendors like McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks (if that’s your thing), a shopping centre with well-known high street retail brands (like River Island and TK Maxx), and a lively pub scene. And, you can walk to the beach from this town. So why isn’t Arklow absolutely hopping?
Someone has taken the wind out of Arklow’s sails – quite literally, in fact. Arklow’s wide river estuary was once teeming with traditional tall ships rigged with canvas sails. Many of the town’s occupants have told me fascinating stories of ancestors who spent careers aboard decks that sailed from Arklow to brave the world’s wildest oceans. Today, in comparison, there’s very limited maritime activity. Arklow could be turned into a town that millionaires with yachts want to visit. Think boardwalks, restaurants overlooking the estuary, street food festivals, foodie hidden gems tucked into alleys and laneways, shops that sell artisan goods and crafts (look at the type of shops that tourists flock to in the popular town of Dingle).
I understand, the town was hit hard in the past. Arklow once brimmed with the economic advantage of a war-time munitions factory, an internationally-recognised pottery factory, and a huge shipbuilding and fishing industry. The munitions factory closed, the pottery factory closed, and the large-scale fishing and shipbuilding grinded to a halt. Now vacant buildings in desperate need of licks of paint dominate the main street, and empty lots and abandoned buildings sit where the factories once were. But why can’t Arklow brim with new economic activity?
Manicured planting here and there hints at a Tidy Towns presence (Tidy Towns is an Irish government initiative and nationwide competition that encourages community volunteers to make their town more attractive), but no amount of flower boxes will take from the scruffy, vacant buildings. Why are they vacant? If you can’t get businesses to rent them, turn them into residential buildings – there’s a nationwide housing shortage, there’s no reason why they should be empty.
Rumour has it that the vacant buildings have been in the same families for years, passed down to generations who won’t restore them to their former glory. How could you own a historic building, or any building for that matter, and not want to keep it well-presented? The town’s collective lack of civic pride has weathered Arklow’s face and worn away it’s smile, which means that today, if I was a tourist driving through, I’d keep driving.
Arklow is set in its ways and needs a total shake up – a shift in perspective, a makeover, an outfit change.
Look around Ireland and find other coastal towns like Dingle and Kinsale. These towns are harder to get to but people go out of their way to visit them. Arklow has all the ingredients to be one of them, but it needs collective community action to make it happen.
There are one or two little places that are singing from my hymn sheet. One of them is that little cafe, nestled into a laneway, off the Main Street. And it’s in this cafe that I sit and write this article. I was drawn to The Blue Cafe by its colourful abundance of hanging baskets and immaculate exterior paint. I stepped inside and the thoughtful decor encouraged me to stay and order food. The reason I went out of my way to walk up this lane and go inside this cafe was because of its exterior appearance. So if everyone else drastically improves their building’s exterior appearance, then there’s no reason why others wouldn’t been encouraged to enter them.
So Arklow, I encourage you to take a look at your town from a blow-in’s perspective. Coastal, historic, characterful – this is your town. Shabby, unkempt, grubby – this is also your town. Take pride in it and bring it back to the vibrant hub it once was. Paint your shop fronts (why not agree as a community to paint them in bright colours like the houses in Kinsale so that tourists will go out of there way to see them?). Replace visibly broken fixtures. Remove graffiti, or else radically embrace graffiti and collectively invite world-renowned street artists to paint your buildings for you (now THAT would draw a crowd into town). Are there legislative or county council restrictions holding you back from putting tenants in your vacant building? Then fight to change the legislation and remove the restrictions.
Be like the little cafe that caught my attention and drew me inside. Take your town back, polish it up and show it off to the world.
Author: The Arklow Blow-in