We need healthy small towns

I love small towns. I am the product of one. The first two decades of my life were shaped within the confines of one. Back then, towns were in their heyday. While there were cities beyond the hills, everything we seemed to need was available in the small town. Sure, we had a chipper to feed everyone and a town hall to hold everything in, and to provide custom for the chipper. And we had two telephone kiosks, some schools and two churches, and three banks and a town library (in my house ) and a lake and a few roads out of it. What more could a body ask for? What else in life did we need, even if there was something mildly attractive about the few roads out?

Small towns had notions. Every small town had its divides, its have and its have-nots. In my small town the haves were on the other side of the town. The have-nots seemed to be on our side, but at the time, on our side we sometimes felt we were the haves, because we had the town park, the ball-alley, the river, and all the fun places to run and hide and play and daydream about one day being a real have, not just a pretend-have with things that belonged to other people.

Big things only happened rarely in small towns, but eventually like many of the crowd my age, I upped and left the small town. And now sometimes, it feels like it was another life, as if I had somehow dreamed it all, the innocence, the insularity, the satisfaction with all that it had, this small town.

Small towns, unlike villages, had the constant stream of fresh blood going through their veins, through the transferables, the teachers, the gardai, the bank officials, a regular recycling of professionals keeping towns alive in the 1970s and 1980s.

Of course, I kept coming back to it, because it was my home, but many years later, I recall dining there, amazed that in this small-town you could now order szechuan chicken and tikka masala. Yes, the small town was going cosmopolitan. The small town was serving food that up to now you only got in bigger towns.

And as I sat there balancing my rice on the end of my chopsticks, I got around to thinking that if all small towns got a chance, got a leg-up, if they hitched themselves to a boat on a rising tide, that maybe they’d become bigger towns and they could have a greater chance of encouraging people to stay.

And live great lives.

And that happened.

A few years later in that same small town, the number of restaurants grew and grew and grew, and you had to wait to get a table because in those halycon days, everyone was eating out, all the time — well-fattened youths took every seat, money was no issue. Starters, the lot, with pints. And keep the change.

And off out the door.

Everyone was eating pannini — which my mother always said was just a jumped-up sandwich for people with notions.

Old buildings came down. New ones went up and the face of the small towns changed, but there was a feeling that there was nothing behind it all, nothing to sustain this unprecedented growth. In the days when there was cash, there was nothing of substance built, just more and more apartments or ‘flattttttttts’ as my mother disparagingly called them. (where did I ever get my cynicism )

Every small town in Ireland was having a ball. Places where once you’d be lucky to see a car going through on a Friday night or a cat going through with his tail on, now many small towns had their own pop-up brothels, where you could be spanked to within an inch of your life for the price of an few hour’s work on the buildings. The fattened youths went between Paddy Power and the pannini and the breakfast roll. A hard breakfast and a soft breakfast.

The good times were rolling. Paddy Small-town was having the ride of his life literally, and going skiing twice a year on the rent he was getting from the extra houses he was renting to the young couple on the edge of the small town.

But then it changed.

And the Celtic Tiger fecked off without as much as a goodbye note or any suggestion that he still respected us in the morning.

Many of those well-fed youths who thought nothing about having their dinner both in the middle of the day and in the evening were gone. Most were probably in Perth or Canada.

Last year as I spent some days in my hometown getting the raw gut feeling for my latest book which is set there, I found myself eating alone in cafes and restaurants that were once full. And this made me sad; sad that another generation has been robbed from the small town.

And this is why I look at the Government’s proposal’s this week to reinvigorate small towns with scepticism. I would love a new generation to have the simple wonderment of what life in a small town once was, but to quote Joni Mitchell, they ‘paved paradise and put up a parking lot‘. The ball-alley is gone, the ruins where we played as kids were gone and scores of empty flats lie waiting for new victims.

I pored over the Government proposals this week but I fail to be moved by the promises within, even if fervently I hope that the objectives are achieved. For me, they just smack of an amalgam of previous plans. Industrial policy has to be more inclusive of small towns — see how Loughrea, Tuam and Athenry are flourishing. Or soon will be. See how Ballinasloe has been starved. Let’s hope that these proposals are meaningful and can, through the implementation of on the ground initiatives, bring life back to rural Ireland. We need those small towns in which to live lives of meaningful community interaction.

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