With the formal abolition of the country's 80 Town Councils on the last day of May, Clonakilty Town Council went back to where it all began by hosting a commemorative meeting at the Old Town Hall, a building in which the council sat for over 300 years. Sheila Mullins was there to record the occasion.
To first give a background history to the venue for this historic event, The Old Town Hall on McCurtain Hill was first mentioned in written records as a meeting place for the council in 1642. As well as being the seat of power in the town, it also doubled as the local courthouse for the weekly petty sessions after which a ball was held upstairs.
In June 1798 the corpses of the defeated United Irishmen, who lost at the Battle of the Big Cross two miles away at Shannonvale, were dumped outside by the Crown Forces as a warning to other would-be local rebels.
The building has suffered two notable attempts on its life; in the 1840s, while also serving as a soup distribution centre for the hungry, a riot ensued at one point and the clocktower was pulled down; during the Troubles of the 1918-1921 period an attempt was made to burn it to the ground.
In 1953 the Town Council transferred to the Town Hall at Kent Street (a former Masonic Lodge) after a short stint at the Legion Hall (now the Tourist Office) and the Old Town Hall was sold into private ownership. Today the Old Town Hall is home to the Sea Palace Chinese Restaurant and West Cork People, whose offices are located in the upstairs section.
On Saturday May 17, 2014 the last ever meeting of the Town Council was organised by the current Mayor Phil O’Regan with the help of her colleagues (in particular Cionnaith Ó Súilleabháin), who invited past councilors to attend the reunion event.
In an innovative style of meeting, after a welcome by the Mayor, in which she stressed that “this is a day of hope rather than sadness; a day in which to pledge ourselves to the aims and objectives of the people of Clonakilty”, a councilor from each of the past six decades was invited to share their reminiscences of council driven events that had shaped Clonakilty.
First to speak was Charlie Cullinane, who served in the 1970s, a time of economic depression. Charlie recalled the dire condition of the roads, the post office and Emmet Square, all of which are hard to credit now. He remembered the formation of the Tidy Towns committee at the end of that decade that would go on to “bring fame and fortune to the town”, and shared an anecdote about taking part in a survey by a local school in which he was asked to predict the future of the town and clairvoyantly said “Clon would be multi-lingual with the influx of visitors and immigrants.”
Next up was Michael O’Regan, the council’s longest serving member but in this case representing the 1980s. He spoke about the internal workings of the town hall at that time and the invaluable contributions of Michael Kenneally as Town Clerk, Mary Downey in the office and Billy Houlihan as Town Architect, “Any town in the country would have been lucky to have him and we appreciated him.”
Michael recalled the closing of the Wallpaper Factory, which was very sudden and caused great hardship for 80 former employees but also the town as a whole. This loss of a major employer galvanized the council into forming a development committee under Diarmuid O’Donovan that did great work with the IDA and others to bring new business to Clonakilty.
The 1980s also saw the town twinning with Waldaschaff in Germany under the stewardship of the late Jim Allis – an example of the council reaching out to Europe. With 30 locals working in Waldaschaff as result, it also was a huge help in a time of high unemployment.
Again Michael mentioned the Tidy Towns and their leader Gretta O’Donovan who, with the motivation of shockingly bad marks in their first competitions, got townspeople behind the organisation and funding from the council.
Ray O’Neill next recalled the events of the era that most changed Clonakilty, the 1990s. Because the council in previous decades had put in the correct infrastructure (sewage treatment, water schemes etc) the town was in a position to take advantage of the new boom in Ireland, particularly the tax breaks offered by the Coastal Resorts Scheme. Clonakilty suddenly became a tourist destination with beds to accommodate the influx of visitors. “We were not included on that first list of towns to benefit from the scheme but after intensive lobbying by town councilors, including knocking on TDs’ doors up and down the county, we made the list at the eleventh hour.”
Ray thanked Charlie Cullinane for his guidance in opening the Model Village; which has since welcomed more than 800,000 visitors. “It was the first big opening of anything in the town and was a huge cause for celebration. That Clonakilty took advantage of the Celtic Tiger is a huge tribute to councillors.”
Following this, Mayor O’Regan reminded everybody that because of careful planning, Clonakilty was not now suffering the scourge of high-rise beach hotels or empty/shoebox size houses, again a tribute to Billy Houlihan and the council.
Although 1999 saw a black day for Clonakilty when Shannovale Foods burned to the ground, Seamus O’Brien recalled how the next decade got off to a proud start with the opening of a new Shannonvale Foods factory in the year 2000. He also reminisced on the successes at home and abroad of the Tidy Towns, winning gold medals at every event. “We were selling Clon to an international audience and it was paying off”.
In 2002, the unveiling of the Michael Collins statue at Emmet Square by actor Liam Neeson established an unbreakable link between the town and ‘the Big Fella’. “Seeds were sown that day for a new Michael Collins heritage centre at Emmet Square, which will open very shortly.”
At that time the historic post office was included on a list for closure by An Post. Dismayed, members of the council launched an intense protest plan, culminating in an address to the Oireachtas. Quietly Clonakilty Post Office was removed from that list and closure never mentioned again.
This decade was huge for employment in Clonakilty. The Technology Park opened (1000 jobs are now provided in just one company there) and decentralisation brought BIM in 2005 with 200 jobs. As a result of all this, the towns population is now double that of 20 years ago.
In 2005, the GAA sold their old grounds for a record €9million, allowing the building of a state-of-the-art facility at Aghamilla and “showing how progressive the people of Clonakilty are,” said Seamus.
Mayor O’Regan commented that “we are on track to achieve just as much in this coming decade,” before announcing Ann Cullinane as the final speaker of the meeting to bring us up-to-date from 2009 to the present day.
It goes without saying that the past number of years has seen great hardship for the people of Ireland but Ann pointed out the many positive things that have happened to the town which continues to have a nationally acknowledged community spirit; it was this community spirit rather than the flood which made the headlines in June 2012.
Top of the positives list was the revamping of Asna and Emmet Squares. “Although some people rightly worried if we should be spending money in a time of austerity, everyone can see that these investments in the town have paid off and these spaces are now a huge asset.”
One of the most notable events which has taken place in recent years is the visit by President Higgins in May 2013 to mark 400 years of a town charter organised, by the very active Duchas organisation.
Mayor O’Regan finished off by reminding everybody present that the people who made things happen in Clonakilty as part of a formal Town Council are still active in all manner of community organisations and that there is a new generation following on behind. “We can do all manner of things if we are united in our endevours,” she said.