I have walked the streets of Ballaghaderreen on three or four occasions in recent weeks. It’s becoming a bit of a habit. It’s also bringing back some amazing memories. I don’t believe I’ve walked through the same streets of the town on any great scale since the famous day the cabinet of the Irish Government arrived there and decided to hold a full meeting of State – way back in the days when Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach – and farmers from all over the region came out to protest outside the building that proudly carries the name of one James Dillon.
It was the 19th of January in the year 2000. I was there with my RTE News hat on. It was all a bit chaotic. There were crowd control crash barriers and guards everywhere. It was billed as an historic move to highlight a new phase of spending in the west of Ireland – the first day on which an Irish cabinet had actually ever sat around a table in such a rural location. There were to be announcements on new jobs and assurances of loads of money for the west.
Liam Scollan was the then Chief Executive of the Western Development Commission. He was more than animated about a 13.6 billion pounds investment plan for the region. I interviewed him on the day. He was optimistic – but cautious too. “We have a relatively short time to get things right. We have never had it so good in terms of the amount of EU and Government investment, the buoyancy of the economy and the readiness of investors to come to the west” he said, before adding with some caution, “however, there is no guarantee that such good times will last forever, and that is why it is crucial that targets and timescales are set for the delivery of the main economic and social programmes in the region”.
When he uttered those words, I doubt if Liam could ever have known the calamitous fall from grace that was coming for the same Irish economy, and indeed for some of its European counterparts. It is truly unbelievable that within six or seven short years, the European central bank was in here running the country – a painful episode in Irish history that sent us all into a tailspin for nearly a decade and was brought so sharply back into focus again with the latest series of ‘Reeling in the Years’ on TV.
I have very clear memories of the big cars of the cabinet ministers arriving in ‘Bal’ on that day in 2000. I also remember the huge media presence, including watching Una Claffey – the then RTE political correspondent, in full flow. After that, for some strange reason, it was all a bit of a blur. The day itself more or less petered out. The farmers made their point about prices and their industry’s decline, we all did our reports, and the last thing I remember was a very late-night sojourn in the home of one Michael McCormack (Ballaghaderreen’s answer to Lord Lichfield) where the aforementioned Liam Scollan re-emerged at a rather unearthly hour to entertain us with his musical skills on the box. It was a fitting end to an historic day.
Given those unique circumstances of 2000, the reason for my recent walks around Ballaghaderreen couldn’t be more contrasting or so starkly indicative of a very different era. This time, I was there to meet Pat Towey and members of the hugely successful Ballaghaderreen Men’s Shed group – and I had decided to bring some of Bal’s newest inhabitants along for a visit.
The Men’s Shed is located in the tiny streets behind what was Durkin’s Hotel. It really is a sight to behold. All over the country, men’s groups are meeting on a weekly basis in centres like this for a cup of tea and a sociable chat, but I doubt if any of them enjoy the grand scale of facilities that the Ballaghaderreen men have now put together. It’s an absolute credit to them.
For starters, the shed is on not one, but two floors. On the ground, we were lucky enough to view the finest array of wood cutting and other workshop machinery that is to be found anywhere in a shed in the country. Local wood sculptor Willie Creighton gave a 5-star demonstration. Upstairs, there is an impressive computer suite area, a pool table, a very large TV, a kitchenette and a number of smaller 1:1 rooms where members can get support and assistance for whatever they need.
My guests were members of the Syrian community who now live at the EROC centre in the old Abbeyfield Hotel on the Sligo road. I have been working closely with this group since I took up a new position with Roscommon LEADER Partnership in recent months. From the moment I mentioned carpentry and the possibility of a visit to the local shed, there were hands in the air and much enthusiasm was evident.
The walk into town from the hotel was swift and enjoyable. The welcome that awaited us at the shed was outstanding – local men of all ages and backgrounds rolling out the red carpet for a group of visitors who have been through their own quite incredible journey over the last few years.
Sitting upstairs and drinking tea with men from both groups was a real breath of fresh air for me. There was an immediate appreciation from the locals of the sort of ordeal many of the visitors had been through in their own homeland of Damascus and elsewhere. In return, there was a real admiration from the Syrian community of the fantastic scale of the facility that has been put in place in the shed. Most of the visiting men were so keen on the visit that they soon resorted to their phones to show a little of their own background at home, and within minutes we were hearing tales of their lives at home as carpenters, tilers, joiners, plasterers and many other professions before conflict and war changed their fate.
Even with broken English, the conversation levels were engaging too. I was immediately struck by the empathy of the men from the shed in Ballaghaderreen for the plight of their visitors. They were so keen to hear of the circumstances by which the Syrian men had come here, how they had been separated from their families, and to find out too how they could help them try and get back to some sort of normality.
The Syrian men spoke of their huge desire to get back to work in the professions they were qualified and experienced in. They talked about wanting to bring normality to their family, live in their own homes, earn a living, and perhaps even return to their native land some day.
The longer the visit went on, the greater my appreciation grew of the reason why there were so many plaques and awards adorning the walls of the men’s shed in Ballaghaderreen. Here was a group of middle-aged men (and older) not only showing a welcome for their foreign visitors, but embracing their own life stories, quietly investigating where they had come from and who they had left behind, and then offering the hand of friendship to their visitors. “We go for a regular walk every week – you will have to join us” one of the men said before we left, adding that the visitors “will have to come back to see us here again soon”.
To test that promise, I called back on another day on my own to see if that hand of friendship was still extended – and found nothing but friendship and goodwill, for which I was very grateful.
In recent years Ballaghaderreen Men’s Shed has been a worthy recipient of a Pride of Place national award, in recognition of this sort of basic decency and camaraderie. I know the town has been through tough times since the days of that cabinet meeting in the early noughties. Jobs have been lost, shops have closed – and factories too – but there’s still a great sense of community to the place, and there’s an optimism about proposed new developments, new facilities and new challenges. These people have what it takes to bounce back and I have no doubt they will.
It would be remiss of me to finish without a word about the Ballaghaderreen Community Park. After another walk through the town in recent weeks, I was with the Syrian men when they mixed with locals for a game of soccer at this beautiful sports facility. The place was in immaculate condition. The surfaces are really top class and, with the fantastic buildings also in place, it is clear that it’s not just the men’s shed committee who pull together and work towards a better community in Ballaghaderreen.
While others sit around and whinge about a lack of investment and poor supports, communities like this one obviously get up from their backsides and take their own fate in their hands – raising the money, doing the paperwork and building a better town. What they have done is a total credit to them – and, at a time of such cynicism in some corners, they really should take a bow. Well done Ballaghaderreen!