A Vision for Athenry – April 2024

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Galway Advertiser, Thu April 18 2024 – There’s a spring in Athenry’s Step at the Moment

Thanks to Declan Varley, Editor of the The Galway Advertiser for allowing me to dream a little about the future of Athenry, one of Ireland’s most unique towns.

“I was out in Athenry last Saturday night, availing of an opportunity to play some music with friends in Dowlings, one of the town’s great pubs. Athenry was busy, very busy. What was really heartening was the number of young people around. While we stayed in the same pub all night, gaggles of twentysomethings did that thing they love doing, moving as one laughing, cacophonous organism from pub to pub. It was a joy to see.

There’s something special going on in Athenry right now, a spring in people’s step, a deeply palpable newfound confidence in the future of this historic town that has been at the centre of things for over seven centuries. That confidence stems from several developments that have positioned the town as a hugely attractive place to live in, to visit and to invest in. In fact, there are few other towns of this size anywhere in Ireland with the advantages conferred upon Athenry.

It is at the junction of two motorways, offering it superb road connectivity to three international airports. It also has major rail connectivity to Galway, Dublin, Limerick, Cork and soon directly to Shannon Airport. Our government also plans to double track the existing rail line to Galway city, thus giving Athenry the frequency of service familiar to people who live in the bustling suburbs of Dublin city.

The town has two state of the art new secondary schools, truly remarkable buildings that inspire those who learn and work in them. A third is on the way as part of one of Ireland’s first Gaelcampuses, where a child can learn through the medium of Irish, all the way from preschool to Leaving Cert. Almost 3,500 children and young people go to school in Athenry every day. It has become a major seat of learning.

Athenry now has water services infrastructure capable of accommodating a doubling of its population. Drive by the town on the M6 right now and you’ll see the groundworks underway for the construction of Dexcom’s new manufacturing facility which will employ 1,000 people. The BIA Innovator regional food hub is working with artisan food producers across the west of Ireland in scaling up production and marketing our wonderful food to the world. A new multi-purpose community and economic hub is being developed in the heart of the town on Northgate Street.

Through a great collaboration between Athenry FC and Athenry Athletic Club, the local community now has access to a 400m synthetic running track and a full size astroturf pitch, all within walking distance of the town. The community is also alive with GAA activity across several codes. Athenry has one of the best music schools in the country, with 25 teachers and over 500 students. Athenry Tidy Towns is a vibrant organisation with people working tirelessly to make the town more attractive and sustainable. Every Christmas the great volunteers at Athenry Christmas Lights turn this heritage town into a magical winter wonderland. So what’s missing?

Maybe with the newfound freedom afforded to me, I can comment as someone who has always had Athenry’s best interests at heart. It’s a place and a community that I’m deeply proud of. Many of the positive developments above happened because I had the privilege of working with some exceptional people to make them happen, but more can and should be done. Here are some ideas on how we position Athenry as a key town of the future.

We urgently need to complete the ring road around the town and take all of the through traffic out of the town centre. We need additional parking on the edge of the town. Once that’s done, we need to be really courageous and pedestrianise the whole town centre. Every Christmas, for just a few hours, we get a sense of what that would look and feel like. On the night the town’s Christmas lights are switched on, all of the narrow medieval streets leading to Athenry’s historic square are closed to traffic. It looks and feels fantastic.

Children wander about freely and safely. Groups of teenagers and elderly people stop to chat with one another, enjoying a short-lived sense of safety and security. People flow freely in and out of the town centre pubs and restaurants, not afraid that they will step out in front of one of many cars that mount footpaths every day just to squeeze down those medieval streets. There isn’t a town centre location anywhere in the world where pedestrianisation hasn’t led to increased footfall and commercial activity. The research is there to prove it. Would anyone suggest running cars down Galway’s thriving Shop Street to Quay Street axis ever again?

Right now, with the support of the Department of Rural and Community Development, Galway County Council in partnership with the Athenry Town Team are planning a major revamp of Athenry’s public realm. Athenry has also been selected as a candidate for a Town Centre First Plan, funded by the state. It aims to tackle vacancy and dereliction and breathe new life into the town centre. All of this work will be wasted if we insist on sending cars and trucks down those beautiful streets every day.

Next, we need to acknowledge that the extraordinary tourism potential of Athenry is largely untapped. Name me another town in Ireland with the history of Athenry, with the physical evidence of that history still there for all to see and touch, and a town with a name that’s sung with deep pride in stadiums across the world? There isn’t one. Yet the vast majority of people who sing that song have never set foot in Athenry, have never stood in the Great Hall of its ancient castle, or visited one of those aforementioned pubs or restaurants. Two thirds of the town’s fortified walls remain, along with five wall towers and the majestic Northgate. Close your eyes, walk those narrow streets, and you’re transported back five centuries to a bustling centre of commerce and education.

Let’s tell that story to the world. Let’s visit Locronan in Brittany, another medieval walled town, and see how they’ve been doing it for decades. Let’s work in partnership with Failte Ireland to promote Athenry. For example, when someone buys a ticket to Ireland v England in Twickenham, there could be a QR code on that ticket or a link on a confirmation email taking you to a thirty second promotional video on the town. There’s so much to see in those fields you sing about!

With a pedestrianised town square, we could give people a real sense of that medieval town with a fully revamped weekly market, featuring some of the best food producers and craftspeople we have to offer. Athenry can become one of Ireland’s foremost tourism destinations, a place that people add to their Irish itinerary, but we need to be courageous and get over our fear of change.

We’re building a greenway from Dublin to Galway that will transform towns and villages along the way (ask the people of Newport and Kilmacthomas for evidence). Let’s connect Athenry to that greenway, via Oranmore. The route is ready to go, nearly all on state owned lands, and it would also facilitate the hundreds of workers making their way to Dexcom and future employers every day. While we’re at it, let’s get off the fence and continue that greenway all the way to Tuam and on to Enniskillen, alongside a rail line or not. I don’t care, but please end the decades of inaction. In the town itself, let’s develop safe active travel corridors to all the schools in the town. Every child living in Athenry should be able to walk or cycle to school.

Finally, and I’m hoping to help alleviate Galway’s chronic traffic problems here, let’s build a new railway station next door to Dexcom, on the publicly owned lands there. Why? Because every now and again we need to plan for our future and do so with vision and ambition. When the existing rail line is double tracked, we will have a commuter train service connecting Athenry to Galway city, similar to Dublin’s DART, with trains whizzing in and out of the city numerous times per day. The existing Athenry station can continue to serve the needs of the people who live in Athenry, but a new station is needed for this century, with a massive park and ride facility.

One of the main reasons why Galway is choked with traffic every day is because of the hundreds of commuters from South, North and East Galway who have few options other than their car to get to their places of work and study. Athenry is at that junction of the M17/18 and M6. The railway line runs right alongside that junction, it’s already there.

Now imagine a worker or student from Loughrea or Gort, who is told that they can leave their car in Athenry at a well operated park and ride facility and catch a train that runs every ten minutes during peak hours. That train gets them to Oranmore, Renmore (also a new station) or Eyre Square, and there they can get a shuttle bus to anywhere in the city, on time, stress free and cheaply. There’s a reason why Dublin’s DART and LUAS services are packed with commuters every morning and evening. And, much of that future commuter traffic will also be coming the other direction, from Galway and Oranmore to Athenry. With that new station facilitating safe and efficient public transport every day, we could transform the quality of life of thousands of people.

That’s what all of the above is about. Every single one of these ideas delivered is a step closer to creating a vibrant, happy and healthy community. Athenry can become the template for all other rural Irish towns. Let’s make it happen.”

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About this record

Written by Ciaran Cannon

Published here 24 Apr 2024 and originally published 18.04.2024 Galway Advertiser

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