I got involved in a project recently, to make something of a run-down, overgrown spot in the town of Athboy, County Meath. Formerly the stables of Athboy House and known locally sometimes as ‘the Old Piggery’, the site comprised of a walled square with stone stable buildings round a courtyard at one end. A small heritage garden sits between it and one of the main roads into the town. It’s close to the middle of town, and was set for development before the country’s finances went down the toilet, and took the building industry with them. The place was just sitting there looking neglected and ugly, so some of the people from the area decided to do something about it.
And I hate to admit it, but it was the suggestion of a television personality that got things rolling.
Back in January, Diarmuid Gavin showed up, held a public meeting on the site, and proposed that the town renovate the stables buildings, so that he could film it for his new show, flatteringly entitled ‘Dirty Old Towns?’. Right, ‘cos Athboy is such an apocalyptic wasteland. I don’t imagine the active Tidy Towns committee were very impressed at the choice of show title.
But I think there was some excitement at the beginning of Gavin’s talk, with people thinking that the programme would offer some kind of budget, or that Gavin himself might contribute some design expertise. A few incisive questions from some of the local businessmen quickly established that neither would be forthcoming – but that if the townspeople were willing to do all the work and donate all the materials necessary, the production company would film it and put it on the telly.
You’ve gotta love reality television. Certainly cheaper than paying for actors and sets and scriptwriters and stuff.
Anyway, people were still interested, but much of the excitement had been deflated. The programme was due to air in April – the first episode went out on Wednesday night – so most of the work would have to be completed by then. We looked around at the ruined, crumbling stone buildings, and knew it wasn’t to be. The place was a health and safety nightmare, fit only for stray animals and drunken teenagers (I believe there are at least three or four such hooligans in the area). Even so, some of the locals took the opportunity to spread the word and call a meeting to discuss just what could be done.
I had been involved for a few years with a group that fixed up walking trails in the Wicklow Mountains – this was before life as I knew it changed with the snip of an umbilical cord. I know the buzz of working as a volunteer to help build something that will benefit a community. And it is a buzz. For anyone who spends a lot of their work day at a computer or a drawing desk, getting outside and making stuff out of earth and wood and stone is just plain good for your soul.
And besides, Maedhbh and I are still renovating the house, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to pick up some new skills and meet some of the local guys in the trades.
So I went along to the first few meetings, to listen and contribute and basically just join in. Even before any work could start, there were legal and insurance issues to sort out, getting the owner’s permission to access the property (we weren’t drunken teenagers, after all), and laying out the plans.
We decided to steer clear of fixing up the stable buildings, on the grounds that it would cost an absolute bloody fortune, and nobody wanted to do the developer’s job for him. But the square in front, which was little more than a weedy field overlooked by the ivy-covered stone fronts of the buildings, could be turned into a market square.
After some discussion, a garden designer came up with a plan for the site, and once everyone knew what was happening, things just kind of took off from there. I have to say, I had my doubts about how much we could get done, and certainly didn’t think there’d be much worth putting on the telly by April, but I underestimated the people of Athboy.
It seems that, inspired by all the politicians, bankers and property moguls who made this country what it is today, the town of Athboy had decided to do some property developing of its own.
Some people did the fundraising bit, selling pancakes, hot-dogs or coffee. Sports and community clubs donated funds. Other people handled the thorny legal and insurance stuff. A load of builders turned up out of the blue and started work, and local builders’ providers, hardware suppliers and garden centres provided an fantastic amount of materials. I did one day of shovelling stuff and took photos of all the work as the days passed, amazed at people’s contributions. Local businesses provided tractors, diggers and a dump-truck. Lorries showed up, delivering loads of materials; gravel, rolls of grass, wood and pavers.
What had once been a field of weeds and brambles quickly became a level gravel surface, with paved areas, small sections of lawn and twenty newly-planted trees, as well as over a dozen small marquees available for market stalls. Doors and a massive gate were fitted to the external walls of the buildings; all the ivy was cleaned off, and some of the ironwork painted.
Diarmuid Gavin showed up with the film crew on Sunday a few weeks ago, to find a farmer’s market in full swing, featuring a trad band, a children’s play area, craftsmen making baskets and leather goods, a few different stalls laden in scones, cakes and breads, a vegetable stall, as well as stalls selling hot-dogs, fudge, jewellery, herbal remedies, books and a few representing local clubs.
One builder I got talking to during the work, reckoned the project would have cost over fifteen grand if it had been done as a commercial job. The final bill came to about three grand, much of which had been covered by the fundraising even before the day of the market. I really think there’s an appetite for this kind of thing now. People don’t want to wallow in misery over our country’s woeful finances. There’s a lot of active people out there who want to make their towns and areas a better place to live. Not by building a load of shite quality apartment blocks fast –with no community spaces – and selling them for a king’s ransom, but by improving on what we already have. Building better, rather than more.
The farmers’ market has been taking place in the square every Sunday, and there’s a real buzz when you go there. I really enjoyed playing my small part in this project, and seeing what a community can do – and how fast they can do it – once they set their minds to it. I look forward to seeing what else can be done.
If you want to see more about it, ‘Dirty Old Towns?’ is on on Wednesday on RTE One at 8pm.
Just to wind up, here’s a very good (and nice and short) TED talk about becoming involved in local government, how rewarding it is, and the obstacles thrown in our way by the system that should be making it possible.