The Athenry House Site: A Twenty-Six Year Planning History

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Dominic Monaghan

This article, by Dominic Monaghan, was first published in The Tuam Herald June 19 2024  

I would like to comment on the important greenfield site in Athenry town, known locally as ‘Leonard’s Lawn’ in the past, but best known today as ‘The Athenry House’ site in reference to the   numerous development-led planning applications that were submitted in recent years. From a national planning perspective this greenfield site tells a unique story as the site spans the period 1996 to 2011 – the period of the roaring naughties (‘Celtic Tiger’) and the subsequent bust in September 2008. 1996 is generally considered to be the year it all began (Frank McDonald/James Nix, ‘Chaos at the Crossroads’, 2005).

For twenty- six years (1998) I have been centrally involved in the various planning applications for this site which involved three development companies: King Estates Ltd 1998 – 2000, Oyster Homes Ltd 2004 – 2008 and Ghost Zapper Ltd 2018 – 2023. I want to explain why I got involved and where the planning process is currently at in relation to this site. I have never been involved, either as an individual or as part of a group, in any other third party planning submissions except those which apply to the Athenry House site. I was totally independent. My involvement in this site is complete.

I was raised in Athenry town and lived all my youth at the only farming residence with a significant boundary wall next to the Athenry House site. I’ve had a deep attachment to Athenry House since my childhood and the wonderful parkland that surrounds it. The Clarin river flows in a southerly direction through the site dividing it into two parts – the east side and the west side (Fig. 1). All of the Athenry House grounds and the neighbouring residence – Riversdale House and lands, were zoned ‘agricultural’ in the early Athenry Development Plans. In 1998 the Athenry House site acquired the zoning definition ‘Commercial/Residential’. In 2004 it was re-zoned C2 (Commercial/Mixed Use).

It was a long arduous campaign involving the following: eight development-led planning applications (three were withdrawn) lodged with The Planning Department of Galway County Council, three appeals to An Bord Pleanála (ABP) / An Coimisiún Pleanála, and two ABP oral hearings – 2006 and 2022: two oral hearings for the same site is extremely rare. At the end of this campaign a number of important objectives were achieved, most significantly by far, the de-zoning of the Athenry House lands east of the river (Fig.1) to ‘Open Space/Recreational and Amenity’ in 2023 – a wise, practical and forward-thinking decision by our local planning authority and one which ought to be welcomed by the people of Athenry and our locally elected county council representatives.

Ideally, I would have preferred if all the lands were designated Open Space/Recreational & Amenity including the lands belonging to Riversdale House, my home place. Combined, it would have made a great ‘Central Park’ for Athenry – a wonderful setting for a parkland, which indeed it originally was, within a rapidly expanding town – a town very much in favour with large multi-national companies like Dexcom (Fig.2). Notwithstanding, I am content with the Planning Department’s decision to designate the east side ‘Open Space/ Recreational & Amenity’(zone OS), a very welcome inclusion in the recently adopted ‘Athenry Local Area Plan 2024-2030’.

The Ghost Zapper Ltd. (Comer Group Ireland) era.          

The most recent planning application – 21/2281 (Ghost Zapper Ltd. aka The Comer Group) was refused planning permission in April 2022 by Galway County Council Planning Department and by ABP (ABP-313449-22) in November 2023. As of June 2024, no active planning application has been lodged for this site. Regarding the potential development of the Athenry House site on the west side, I believe a developer will apply in the future. I hope it is a developer who values historical remains! The site is zoned C2 (Commercial/Mixed Use) in the ‘Athenry Local Area Plan 2024-2030’. I think development on the west side may be acceptable for the following reasons –

* Nobody wants to be looking at Athenry House in its present state (Fig.3). It could be considered a victim of un-intended damage in the planning process of this site. It needs to be restored and functional again. The damage, while regrettable, is fully repairable (Peter Cox – Carrig Conservation, pers. comm. 2006). Similar demense houses were in ruins for much longer and were successfully restored. Many local groups such as ‘Friends of Athenry House’ have put forward very good ideas for its usage. Galway County Council Planning Department in association with the development company’s design team will play a large part in its design, restoration and functionality. Great opportunities exist for Athenry House and its adjacent coach house building, both of which were scandalously named for demolition by Ghost Zapper Ltd in its 2021 planning application 21/2281.

* If you look closely at the layout of the existing town within the historic town wall (Fig.4), there is a natural extension of the urban town setting moving southwards. Why this urban expansion did not take place in earlier times is associated with a number of theories, mostly speculative. These are: the early establishment of the manor house and associated lands, the site of a fever hospital /a leper compound, a few ghostly sightings and a flood plain – there is some evidence to suggest that this is not the original channel that the Clarin river flowed through. The more plausible explanation is that the town simply did not expand beyond what we see today (Prof. Etienne Rynne). There is evidence that an inner town wall may have existed to protect a smaller less ambitious settlement area, hence the term ‘town walls’ (Dr. John Bradley – pers. comm. ’06).
 
 * This is a unique opportunity to create a truly 21st century urban development that could showcase all that is good in modern architectural design, something that is not available to other towns in western Europe who cannot work off a blank (greenfield) canvass. If designed properly it should attract thousands of visitors a year to Athenry to view the internationally award winning architectural design that is ‘New Quarter’, Athenry. The site comprises a considerable area inside the circuit of the historic town wall (Figs. 1 & 4). The sustainable-living goals (carbon neutral) and modern design statements are enormous here!


* We Athenrians are privileged to live in a very special town immortalised in film/book (‘Flight of the Doves’ – Ralph Nelson/Walter Macken), poetry (Padraic Fallon), song (Pete St John) and steeped in historical remains! Every town should be allowed to expand and grow residentially and commercially according to the times. Athenry is no different. I have no doubt that our hard-working local planning authority, whilst encouraging local participation in its design layout, will ensure a 21st century development that will be the envy of similar historic towns throughout Ireland, the UK and Europe. The historic town, its people and its ‘fields’ deserve no less!

* The site development, as proposed in the most recent planning application – 21/2281, has just one access route at Swan Gate for vehicular traffic both inbound and outbound, sharing the same road with Aldi via the Swan Gate car park. Historical evidence suggests that an access point did exist towards the southern end of the site via the present opening at the Spittal Gate (site of). It’s unlikely that this southern access option will be available anytime soon and even if it is it will be of limited value as the opening is extremely narrow, allowing for a one-way vehicular system to operate. Is there a greener solution that the design team could look at? This is the ideal site to look for a cleaner, greener option with a little bit of ingenuity and foresight!

In Conclusion

While some sub-surface evidence does exist for very limited and scattered building remains on the west side, no archaeological evidence to create a streetscape to tie in with the rest of the town exists (Dominic Delany, Archaeologist – pers. comm. 2008). The Athenry House site, in my opinion, requires a lot more scholarly attention and academic thought concerning the period prior to the construction of Athenry House. This aspect has been neglected and needs further discussion. It would help greatly if the archaeological excavation findings and report (2007) were more readily accessible locally! The report remains unpublished.

Regarding An Bord Pleanála – ABP/An Coimisiún Pleanála, I have grave reservations in that body acting on local planning issues. In my experience it is not tuned in locally and some of its decisions border on the bizarre. The oral hearing in October 2022 was poorly chaired; it was a disaster. It needs to concentrate on strategic projects of national and regional importance. Its pre-2008 celtic tiger role as a puppet for rubber-stamping central government housing policy is no longer relevant. Our local planning authority process can look after that with the consultative urban Local Area Plans.

Finally, for anybody who wishes to view my submissions to Galway County Council Planning Department they can do so by logging on to the Galway County Council website at: www.galway.ie/planning, and putting in the relevant planning file numbers 20/1384 or 21/2281. My submissions are more readily accessible online via Finbarr O’ Regan’s excellent local history portal, dedicated to matters concerning Athenry, at www.athenry.org. My submission to An Bord Pleanála( ABP-313449-22) is also available to access via the athenry.org website. My ABP submission gives a more comprehensive account of why I pursued this course.

List of Figures:

Fig.1: Plan of the ‘Athenry House’ site layout with the Clarin river dividing the site into a west side (C2: Commercial/Mixed Use) and an east side (OS: Open Space/Recreational & Amenity).  Courtesy: Ordnance Survey, Dublin. Ireland.

Fig.2: A sign at the ‘Athenry Roundabout’, off the M6 motorway, erected in February this year welcoming Dexcom (misspelt on sign) to Athenry. It was taken down a few days later.

Fig.3: Athenry House (feature photo) as seen from the Swan Gate car park. The 19th century stable building, to the left in the photo, was pencilled in for demolition by Ghost Zapper in 2021. The early 1960s bungalow, between Athenry House and the stable, is to be demolished.

Fig.4: Map of Athenry town showing the present day residential/commercial development (red).

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About this record

Written by Dominic Monaghan

Published here 22 Jun 2024 and originally published 19.06.2024

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