From my travels around the country in recent years, I see a lot of problems with medium sized Irish towns in general with the midlands counties seemingly being the worst affected (but by no means limited to just the midlands).
Unless they are particularly picturesque and host a significant tourist attraction or are coastal or are within the commuter belts of Dublin and Cork and are feeding off the economic power of these cities, many seem to be in serious trouble.
I think there are a multitude of factors at play here...
1. Atrocious planning. Allowing a free for all of rural one off housing in the environs of these towns over the past 50 years meant that very little or no middle class housing estates were built in these towns and this meant that the only estates to be developed in these towns were local authority ones. This led to the towns getting a “rough” reputation, discouraging private housing development in the towns and leading to more people wanting to live in rural one off housing outside these towns. This led a vicious spiral of decline.
2. Loss of key major employers/ industry. The loss of the sugar beet factories in the 1980s/90s effectively decimated towns like Tuam and Thurles as a huge proportion of these towns’ wealth was dependent on these industries, workers would support local shops and businesses etc (the “multiplier” effect). Also the failed IDA policy in the 1960s to 1980s of trying to lure branch plant assembly factories down to rural towns backfired badly as they simply upped sticks and abandoned the towns they were in after their tax breaks ran out. Again decimating their host towns economically.
Major industry these days wants to be located in major urban areas close to airports, motorways and skilled and diverse young labour force, not in a midlands town with poor roads (and back the 1970s and early 80s for those too young to remember) a 3rd world telephone system.
3. Poor redevelopment/tax incentive strategies. When Ireland’s economic fortunes started to change for the better in the 1990s onwards, it might have seemed that many of these towns in decline might have had a shot at recovery. But at this stage, the horse had bolted by then - emigration in the bleak 80s robbed them of their skilled youth, industry had moved on and would no longer locate in these towns and badly designed shopping centers and ugly “retail parks” were allowed spring up, often outside the town centre itself, cannibalising the retail trade in these towns. In any case, many of these retail ventures failed and lie half vacant. Also poorly built and very poorly maintained apartment buildings thrown up at the edge of these town centers which in less than 15 years have aged very badly. Indeed many ended up in NAMA and are half-built empty shells as there was no real demand for such accommodation in the first place.
Poor internet/broadband connectivity to some of these towns hasn’t helped either. The decline of the rural pub is also very noticeable in these towns. Rural towns that had 8 or 9 pubs 15 years ago perhaps have 3 or 4 now.
Closure of local services such as Garda stations and post offices has badly affected the small towns. Increased car mobility for those who can travel mean more and more are shopping in bigger urban centers, furthering the decline of local businesses.
Thoughts on my theories? Are these towns in an irreversible decline to the accelerating trend of urbanisation? I know many UK towns face similar problems but from my travels in Continental Europe the medium and small town seems to still be doing well. Can local industries and enterprises be revived or invested in? Can some of these towns see a renaissance?