Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Davy Loughman - Seamus Hayden and the changing patterns of urban commercial life

The recent death of Davy Loughman and that of Seamus Hayden in the last few days have revived memories of a time past filled with youthful memories and of faces and characters no longer with us. The passing years bring with them changes which help sharpen our appreciation of times spent in the company of friends and neighbours of old. Those lost years also compel us to recognise the many changes in the way in which we live our lives and how those changes impact on the familiar streets of our ancient town. I spent the last week travelling in the Marches of Wales and England driving south to north through towns and cities which like Athy are being reshaped commercially and socially in a changing world. Everywhere I went, whether in the large urban settlements or the smaller picturesque villages, I came across evidence of the changing patterns of today’s commercial life. The local independent shopkeepers of yesteryear have lost out to the multiple stores, now catering not just for locals but for the motorised shoppers of a wider region. The out of town shopping complex brings together under one roof a range of goods and services which in times past were spread throughout the centre of every town. The result is the depopulation of the once busy town centres where shops are closed and many more house charity shops. Charity shops admittedly fulfil a need in society making use of volunteerism and the justifiable need to recycle goods, while at the same time allowing less fortunate families to benefit from the generosity of others. I am a regular visitor to Hay-on-Wye, the first book town established by the legendary Richard Booth over 40 years ago. Hay is a town of approximately 1,700 or so, yet in the 1990s it had over 34 second hand book shops, including the Cinema Bookshop which was once the largest book shop in the world. Like everywhere else the book trade in Hay-on-Wye has suffered due to the growth of internet trading and the opening of charity shops, especially the Oxfam book shops. The change in trading patterns has resulted in a reduction in the number of Hay-on-Wye book shops to just under 20, still an impressive array of book sellers in what is a small Welsh town. Elsewhere the book trade once carried on in the main streets and side streets of provincial towns has effectively shut down. The result mirrors what is happening in other areas of provincial town shopping. Butcher shops have by and large disappeared, while other independent traders have closed their doors, creating in every provincial town centre scenes of commercial gloom. How much different it was in the 1950s when the main streets were busy with local shops open to serve the needs of the local people. The changing times ushered in by the widespread use of the motor car and the technological advances which allow us to buy and sell on the internet means that towns like Athy must refocus to survive. The outer relief road project now in the early stages of its completion gives us here in Athy a recognisable timescale in which to plan for the revival of our town centre. It is an opportunity to consider improvements which can be made to make the town more attractive in which to live and work and by doing so encourage more visitors to share with us those attractions and help revive the town’s fortunes. It might seem strange to claim that the town centre has an excess of shop premises but I believe the town planners must encourage town centre living in an attempt to revitalise our town centre which needs a mixture of sustainable independent shops interspersed with residential homes. The outer relief road project is potentially the greatest ‘influencer’ of the future commercial life of Athy and now is the time to plan for that future. The Regeneration Plan announced two years ago has been a slow burner, but I understand moves are afoot to quicken the pace of its implementation so that the town can take maximum advantage of the new bypass road which will divert a huge volume of slow moving traffic from our town centre. Both Davy Loughman and Seamus Hayden knew Athy of the 1950s and saw the deterioration in the town over the decades. Seamus lived in Offaly Street at a time when the street was alive with young families and Kitty Websters and Sylvesters, with Kehoes public house providing an active commercial backdrop which was replicated in other parts of the town. Offaly Street today is a quiet street with the once busy shops closed and shuttered. The death of Davy and Seamus is a sad reminder of good times past. My condolences are extended to both families on the passing of two fine gentlemen.

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