History of Claremorris Chamber

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In the early sixties Claremorris and area had very little going for it. Today it has almost everything that a lifestyle community of this size needs. ‘Self-sufficient’ is how one person recently described Claremorris town.

But the journey over the last 60 years to today’s success story was not easy, especially as the local community activists watched Castlebar and Ballina getting the cream of the jobs. But they persevered and today boast an attractive town both for residents and investors. However, the story could have been very different had a group of people not had the necessary foresight in the early sixties to identify the necessary developments needed to bring Claremorris and area in line with Mayo’s bigger towns. Claremorris looked like it missed the boat when it came to job production, industry and general upgrading but it has pulled itself out of the doldrums and is ‘almost perfect,’ according to Michael Reidy, founder member of the Claremorris Chamber of Commerce and 30 years secretary of the town hall.

Today Claremorris can almost be described as a satellite town of Galway with it’s impressive infrastructure, road network and attractiveness for young couples and families to set up home. Since the announcement of the government’s plans to decentralise some of their Dublin offices 150 jobs will be redirected to Claremorris and we seem to be the new hotspot for buying property. It is virtually impossible for young people to get mortgages to buy or build in the Westport and Castlebar areas but Claremorris with its bypass is ideal. Just a stones throw from Galway and even nearer to Castlebar, Claremorris can expect a doubling in population within the next few years. And it is not before time. Castlebar and Ballina seemed to get all the grants, all the jobs and all the attention in years past and now Claremorris is getting it’s just reward for waiting patiently in the wings.

To find out how Claremorris managed to develop quietly over the years, almost unnoticed, until now, with its new-found attractiveness to visitors and investors, we spoke to Michael Reidy, Consulting Engineer, to try to capture the community spirit that has driven Claremorris to where it is today in what seems to be a two pronged development. Of course it all started in 1961 when the Chamber of Commerce was set up “At that time you would call a meeting and everybody would be saying we need this and we need that and the thing about it is you can see all the things we were looking for being provided in the town now and you can nearly say we don’t need anything else. We are nearly at the stage of being self-sufficient,” explained Michael. According to Michael it was nearly all infrastructure changes that were required but there were little or no grants available to carry out the work. Coinciding with this immigration was massive and that was putting a huge drain on the town. Therefore the Chamber surveyed the area to find out who was out there and eligible for jobs and who were overseas and willing to come back. With that, a relationship was built up with the IDA and it was made known to them from day one that the people of Claremorris were interested in improving their town and making it attractive to potential investors.

Bigger Centres

One of the first missions of the Chamber was to acquire lands for an industrial estate and after much hard work one of the first industrial estates in the country was established on the Kiltimagh Road. “We worked to collect money which was put into bringing services into the estate, water, sewerage and roads so we could show it to people if they came to the town and say there is an area where you could build”. In 1971 the first industry, Claremorris Ltd, was set up in the estate and they continued until increased competition forced them to shut and CBE took over. Conratty Ltd came along later and joined the estate and the mushroom plant opened. They now have over 60 tunnels built there and all four companies mentioned created a lot of jobs for the town. But it wasn’t easy sailing and the people of Claremorris had to watch the bigger centres like Castlebar and Ballina getting the grants and getting the jobs and they must have felt hard done by. “I never felt that we got what we were entitled to after putting so much into it but Galway was there and it was developing rapidly and Castlebar and Ballina and they probably got the cream of the jobs,” reminisces Michael. He also mentioned the Claremorris Bacon factory which was another big employer, employing up to 200 in the factory but once it closed due to rationalisation and other reasons those jobs were never replaced. Despite this Michael points out that the town continued to prosper and the start of the bypass five or six years ago was a major stepping-stone to its current success story. On the controversial issue of the market square which was a bone of contention among many business people in the town Michael was more positive: “If you are going to try and make an area more attractive you have to exclude the traffic from it and it did mean the loss of a number of car parking spaces but hopefully Mayo County Council will make up for that now and purchase further lands.” Looking back over forty years of development Michael outlined the footpaths, the services, putting the ESB cables underground, the bypass and the planting of trees as the major improvements which have brought Claremorris to the stage of being nearly ‘self sufficient.’ In both Secretary and President roles, Michael Reidy was an officer of the Chamber of Commerce for over 30 years and remains involved as a member today. However, the development of Claremorris was two pronged and is much more than the infrastructural development as orchestrated by the Chamber of Commerce. The development of the town hall as a community hall also acted as a catalyst in the bringing together of the people of Claremorris and area and enabled them as a body of people to fight and work for the development that they so deserved.

Claremorris Town Hall

Claremorris Town Hall will always be remembered for the Sunday night dances of the ’70s. At times 1500 to 2000 people travelled from far and wide and packed the hall. Before long and due to the outstanding success of these dances the £20,000 mortgage on the hall was soon cleared. In those days the hall ran itself, explains Michael, and nobody gave a second thought what would happen when the dancing days died out. Such was the success of the dances that a fund was set up, and from this grants were given to local clubs and societies to develop their clubs, clubhouses and buy new equipment. As much as £130,000 was given out in those days in grants to local GAA clubs, swimming and athletic clubs, school bands, St. Vincent De Paul and the Community Games. Loans were also given to groups and the credit union, who were very small at the time, were given a repayable loan to change to a more suitable building. The success of the town hall during that dance era is difficult to document because it gave a social outlet, was a meeting place for organisations and was an added attraction to the town at a time when the Chamber of Commerce were actively trying to attract new people there. Michael Reidy was also involved from the beginning of the Town Hall, firstly in his role as engineer when he drew up the plans for the Town Hall which was built by direct labour and then as secretary, a position which he still holds over thirty years later and hopefully will continue to hold for many more years. He has acted as Manager for that Town Hall over the years and especially in more recent years looking after the bookings for the hall. But Michael has a slightly sour taste in his mouth. After years of dedication to the development of Claremorris town from infrastructure and community development points of view, Michael feels they have been deserted. “It is difficult to make money on the Town Hall because expenses are very high and that has to be collected from rental income. Up to this year we have being breaking even but this year we didn’t break even and we had to go to our reserves but they are dwindling also. “We will have to embark on some major fundraising this year and try and get some grants. The service the town hall has provided for the town is unbelievable providing space for karate, dancing, computer classes and various courses but we are going to be in difficulty before long. “We’re currently at a crossroads and I’m hoping that the new people on the committee can get more fundraising going and more activities in the hall. Eaten bread is soon forgotten and that seems to be very much the case now. The Town Hall was great and we gave grants to many but the recipients don’t seem to come back and support us. We gave it with a heart and a half and they got it and that was it but maybe we could do with some of it now.” Claremorris has peaked and hopefully will stay there for many years to come. But it is important that the history of how the town reached such great heights isn’t forgotten. Without the community development spear-headed by the Chamber, the infrastructure improvements would have meant nothing and vice versa. And now the Town Hall needs some help. It is an excellent facility with the ability to cater for many needs and is there at a low cost for the community. Community halls and town halls are often taken for granted but they don’t run on air. Everything costs money these days. Michael summed up the quandary perfectly: “The perception is there that the town hall is part of the town and it will look after itself. That is the feeling I have. But how do we get past that perception?” Well that is the question. © Connaught Telegraph