Brendan Smith outlines his vision for the town
Over the last fifteen years, there has been an insatiable appetite worldwide for ‘all things Irish’ but it is still our music tradition that best expresses the ‘Celtic spirit’ and melts the heart of foreigner and ‘ex-pat’ alike. Nothing exemplifies this better than the singing of the ‘Fields of Athenry’. Whether you are in an Irish bar in Warsaw or at an international soccer match in Yokohama, you cannot but feel uplifted by a song that combines joy with sadness, courage with pain and conjures up potent images of the ancestral homeland.
Surely there is now an unprecedented opportunity to tap the worldwide market that has, by pure accident, given Athenry an international reputation and to promote the town as a centre of the Irish cultural experience? The chances for success are further strengthened by the fact that Athenry is also fortunate to be one of only a handful of Irish towns that retain an authentic medieval streetscape. In the 199Os, innovative actions commenced to reinforce the town’s historical heritage including the renovation of Athenry Castle, the opening of the Arts and Heritage Centre in the old medieval parish church and the ongoing Herculean activities of local community groups.
Strangled by trafﬁc
But all of this visionary enterprise is being savagely undermined when we look at the way the town is now growing. The warning signs are there that Athenry is being slowly strangled to death by motorised traffic, with the strong possibility that it will lose its communal identity due to the construction of an urban sprawl of soulless housing estates and its absorption into a Galway city conurbation. The green fields and medieval ambiance that a growing worldwide public come to associate with Athenry will be lost forever, creating in the process a new generation that view themselves as inhabitants of an outlying city suburb rather than as residents of a small distinctive country town.
We are killing the goose that could lay the golden egg
Let us accept the inevitable fact that the town will dramatically increase in size over the next decade and that this expansion will be primarily characterised by the disappearance of agricultural land, the construction of new housing schemes and the appearance of thousands of extra cars in the locality. Yet the adoption of a visionary Town Plan, that combines the unique heritage of Athenry with sustainable urban development, should be possible. It is not too late to learn from the mistakes of countless urban schemes across the planet that have too often degenerated into concrete jungles and undermined the fabric of older existing communities.
Sustainable Development should include the following:
Construction of a ring road system to divert traffic away from the town centre
Construction of a commuter rail link to Galway city (this would dramatically curtail the growth of road traffic to and from the city)
Development of a proper pedestrian and cycling external & internal infrastructure
Construction of a network of pedestrian paths to link the main medieval areas
Implementation of a one-way traffic system in the town centre
Enactment and strict enforcement of planning legislation to:
Ensure that amenity and service development occur in conjunction with housing development and not years later.
Develop ‘home zones’ (traffic calming measures/devices) within housing estates
Curtail housing development between Athenry and Galway city (the essential rural market identity of the town should be maintained by protecting agricultural lands and green zones)
Secure a moratorium on all development adjacent to the exterior of the ancient town walls and moat.
The rural dry-stone walls of the locality, where possible, from destruction
Preserve the last remaining remnants of the ‘Esker Riada’
Ensure that building development within the medieval wall perimeter conforms to the original medieval streetscape
Promotion of Medieval Image
Adoption of a more attractive and colourful town logo that still retains the essential elements of the town’s insignia.
Adoption of bye-laws to ensure that names of new housing estates reflect the town’s heritage (set up a town ‘naming’ commission)
Adoption of medieval guild banners/logos by local businesses
Agreement on the implementation of a medieval or traditional shop front signage by retail outlets
Promotion of a modern fair/market based in the old marketplace
Resurrection of Athenry’s former annual family—orientated medieval festival (This would involve securing sufficient funds to appoint a Festival Director and the introduction of a programme that includes top medieval acts from Britain/Europe,
Twinning with old European towns…
Development of a year-long programme of smaller national/international agricultural, educational, cultural and historical seminars/conferences with Athenry
Castle becoming a prime seminar/conference centre.
Brendan Smith is a member of the Galway City Development Board, secretary of the Terryland Forest Park (Europe’s largest urban forest park project) and a well-known environmental and community activist.
Written by Brendan Smith
Published here 17 Jul 2023 and originally published Summer 2002