Apr 3, 2019

The Town in Search of a Heart

Why Shannon, a town artificially made and built in the 1960s, has never fully taken off.

Ben Morrison for The University Times
Alanna MacNameeDeputy Magazine Editor

Visiting Shannon town centre asks of the first-time visitor a rather unusual task: finding it. Not because of a warren of side streets, nor because of a disproportionate number of pubs to waylay you en route. It is not particularly poorly signposted. No, the problem with finding Shannon’s town centre is essentially that it doesn’t have one – at least not in the traditional sense. It takes three other passengers and the bus driver to help me figure out where best to get off when I ask for the main part of the town.

Shannon is an odd place. It lacks any kind of authentic “town feel”, as Sarah Murray, a Shannon native who works in the €2 shop, explains. Shannon, she tells me, is “just houses and then a big shopping centre”. The town’s Cathaoirleach (mayor), Councillor Gerry Flynn, says that “it’s not your usual type of town … we don’t have streets like any traditional town”. Instead, the “town centre” is a shopping centre, SkyCourt, privately owned and managed by Aramark Property.

You enter Shannon by first passing estate after estate of 1960s-style houses, regimental and orderly as the US military personnel who sometimes while away the hours here as their planes refuel in nearby Shannon airport. There are flats, too: Soviet-style blocs, rising into the skies against a background of Co Clare forestland. The town “centre”, SkyCourt, is dispiriting and dull in the way only small-town Irish shopping centres can be. In the absence of real streets, its passageways have names and house the town’s services. The post office is just off Bunratty Mall, the “street” where you’ll find Sherry Fitzgerald Auctioneers.


There is an exhibition of local art hanging on the wall but the only statues in the “town” are a couple of mannequins plonked in the middle of a mall, drunkenly clutching one another’s elbows. On the day I visit, one’s trousers have been pulled down, a hand placed over the crotch area to preserve modesty. Outside you’ll find the Chapel of Adoration, where a handful of older people turn their thoughts to a higher place that, on this dreary Tuesday, feels far, far away from the Shannon Town car park, with its lone abandoned trolley, local kebab shop and tanning salon. I pass a house advertising “Reiki, Holistic Massage and Alternative Therapies”. There is the requisite Supermacs-cum-Papa John’s and a good-sized Lidl.

If Shannon has a kind of feeling of a non-place, it’s not altogether surprising. After all, it’s not long ago that it was a non-place. Shannon was Ireland’s first ever planned, or “new”, town, artificially made and built in the 1960s. Shannon Airport, which had served as a crucial refuelling point for westbound transatlantic flights, was under threat of being rendered obsolete by newly jet-fuelled airplanes that no longer required a stopover for journeys across the Atlantic. This led visionary businessman Brendan O’Regan and the Shannon Development state agency to develop the Shannon Free Economic Zone and Industrial Estate. New businesses meant the arrival of an influx of workers and their families needing a place to live, and thus the town of Shannon was born, first as a succession of housing developments, then schools, then the Wolfe Tone GAA club and, eventually, the shopping centre that to this day acts as the “town centre”.

The town “centre”, SkyCourt, is dispiriting and dull in the way only small-town Irish shopping centres can be

I ask local Sinn Féin councillor Mike McKee what it was like to live in the newly developing new town. “Horrible. Horrible. My first vision of Shannon was housing estates.” McKee, who was born in a North Belfast area he describes as “99.999 per cent loyalist”, tells me his family came to Shannon after his mother received a telephone call threatening her sons’ lives. His story is not altogether an unusual one in Shannon, where he tells me that around the third of the population of the town in the mid 1970s came from the North: “We came down as refugees.”

Someone else who moved to the town in the 1970s is Flynn, who was “brought up on the west of County Clare”. Shannon, he says, “never got that syndrome you got from the traditional town, you know, the ‘buail isteach’, or the ‘blow-in’… because really all of us could be labelled with that term”.

It wasn’t only Irish people who came to Shannon. “Because this was a new place, everybody who was living and working here came from somewhere else. So you had multicultural schools here before the term was ever invented”, Kevin Thompstone, the Former CEO of Shannon Development, remarks. McKee would agree. “When no-one had ever seen foreigners, we had them.”

Its population of new arrivals made Shannon an unusual place. Christmas, in particular, was a strange time: there was a mass exodus as everyone went “home home” to where they originally came from. It was a place without grandparents, and the town only built a graveyard in the year 2000.

It wasn’t just ordinary “foreigners” who came to Shannon, however. The apartment block that is now home to McKee’s office was once Aeroflot-controlled and so “the KGB would’ve been here”. And “you would have had the CIA here because the KGB were here. You would have had MI5 here because they were all here”.

Local Sinn Féin councillor Mike McKee came to Shannon from North Belfast in the 1970s.

Ben Morrison for The University Times

It’s hard not to wonder about integration, and how all these different people got on with one another. Flynn says that “in the early years I found it difficult to get used to the way of the Northern people from the point of view that they were loud. A lot of them had a chip on their shoulder”. As regards integration, “they were trying to integrate with the local people and get jobs here, there and every place else”. The Northerners were “qualified at everything”, he says, and that was “a total culture shock for us down here” because having been “brought up to honest parents, you only declared what you were if that’s what you were”. McKee has a different slant: “People in the South – and this is no reflection on people who are from the South – didn’t comprehend what shift work was. In the North it was industrialised a lot earlier, they were used to doing shift work. Here they weren’t.”

Both bring up jobs and employment. It’s a common theme in Shannon, though it was, admittedly, the reason for the town’s inception in the first place. Flynn tells me in the early days, “the only way you could get a house in Shannon was if you were employed by one of the employers locally … you couldn’t get a house in Shannon unless you could prove that you had a job, and you had to present that information to Shannon Development”.

Looking back on those days you get a sense of the optimism and vitality that must have been about in Shannon. After all, here was a chance to build a place from scratch, a unique opportunity to learn from the mistakes of other towns. This was the home of the second-ever Irish comprehensive school, and a progressive approach to education. The transition year programme began in Shannon, and the world’s first duty-free airport shopping was pioneered here. And, of course, there was the investment and prosperity that the free economic zone and the industrial estate brought. You get enormous potential with a new town, the potential to put a place on the map – psychologically as well as physically.

You would have had the CIA here because the KGB were here. You would have had MI5 here because they were all here

It’s hard to say exactly the extent to which that kind of potential has been realised. Shannon, by all accounts, has a very strong community. Flynn tells me it is “very vibrant, very, very good”. Shane Logan, a student at the College of Hotel Management, found the locals, in particular the local musical society, “very welcoming” when he moved to Shannon to study. Murray tells me that “if you’re into sports it’s great” and that “there’s lots of schools and a lot of places for young kids”. Renata Brulinski, who moved to the region from Poland after meeting a man from Clare, describes it as a “great business town” with lots of manufacturers. There are some lovely estuary walks recently developed by the county council. Shannon got a new crematorium a couple of years ago (McKee tells me “We have a lovely crematorium, fabulous”). And the town recently became home to Ireland’s first ever drive-through Starbucks.

But the availability of foam-topped caffeinated drinks aside, what else does Shannon have to offer? Alex Cole, who works in Dealz in SkyCourt, thinks “there’s not really much to do here”. The social scene in the town isn’t great. “There’s not a lot of social other than if you want to go to the pub and drink”, Murray tells me. The lack of a defined centre, a “natural heart”, gets to people. McKee describes SkyCourt, with its offering of shops and cafes that are almost without exception high-street chains, as “pathetic”.

Flynn feels that Shannon is starting to decline and “go backwards a bit”. There are issues with housing: Logan found it very difficult to get accommodation in the town, and some of his classmates have had to go as far as Ennis to find a place to stay. It’s 10 years since the last proper private housing scheme was built: Flynn tells me the private scheme of 47 units that was built last year has been sold over for the use of social housing. “The need that’s there for social housing, I couldn’t state enough, but equally I couldn’t state enough the need for balanced tenure as well.”

Meanwhile, Thompstone feels that Shannon still faces difficulty in integrating within the wider context of Co Clare. “You get a sense that they don’t really see Shannon – I think it’s changing, but up to now – as part of Clare because it was developed by the state body. It was a new experiment, it was something quite different and new so it’s not embedded in the local psyche.” McKee tells me he would associate more with Limerick than with the rest of Clare.

I wonder too what crime – an inevitable side effect of any new development – is like in Shannon. Logan says some of his local friends would say that Shannon could be seen as a dangerous place, and that there a lot of drugs in the area. Thompstone disagrees: “There is crime, no different to anywhere, but thankfully it’s not out of control or anything like that.” In his support are statistics from 2011 that record similar or lower levels of recorded crime at Shannon Garda Station than in similar sized towns such as Ballina or Carlow.

But McKee believes this may not be giving the whole picture. “The guards would say we have lesser crime than towns of a similar population. I disagree with that. What I would contend is that people don’t report to the Guards … but there is a very serious drug problem here.” He tells me that three houses have been set on fire in the locality in the last number of weeks. “That was drug-related and it would have been targeted at people whose children owed money to drug dealers.” Logan tells me that he knows from being in the musical society that drugs, especially weed, are a problem in the town’s secondary schools. McKee thinks the problem starts even earlier. “There’s kids here at 11 years old, 10, 11, 12 on drugs. And that is recognised by the Guards.”

Soviet-style apartments lie just outside Shannon town’s shopping centre.

Ben Morrison for The University Times

There’s a suggestion, too, that some in Shannon are quite concerned about people moving there from other places and causing trouble. “We do have people living here from Limerick that decided to come out here because they thought it was easy pickings here. But then again we’ve people from Kilrush as well doing it, the notorious Kellys [a family associated with criminal activity in Kilrush].” Logan tells me that he has also heard that troublemakers come into the town from the likes of Ennis and that the main local bar, the Shannon Knights (known locally as “Shites”), has put up a sign saying “locals only”.

Shannon was a new experiment, it was something quite different and new so it’s not embedded in the local psyche

The Knights was the site of the stabbing of 23-year-old Limerick native Jamie Higgins last March. McKee reckons Shannon was stunned at the killing, but “the fact that it wasn’t Shannon people, that they came from Limerick, would have been, not as much a blessing, but a bit of a relief”. That said, “we’ve had a couple of murders here before, and strange enough it’s all related to that pub over there. One of the bar girls was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in the housing estate across the way”.

I pay a visit to the Shannon Knights, a lounge-style bar with brown leather furnishings, and the adjacent Evolution Nightclub, a “finalist at the Licensing World Bar Awards 2011 in the Best Nightclub Category [sic]”. It is not a welcome social call. The middle-aged woman behind the bar snaps at me that Shannon is “lovely, a lovely place to live”, while the mostly older men dotted around the bar reading newspapers turn to stare. I beat a hasty retreat out of there.

Next I visit the airport: you can’t mention Shannon acknowledging the airport. After all, without it, the town wouldn’t exist at all. Two trolleys, blown about by the sea wind off the estuary, are my only company as I walk into the terminal. Inside, the airport isn’t much busier. I count just six flights scheduled for the late afternoon and evening, and there seem to be more employees than there are travellers. There’s not a single queue in sight. Flynn says: “God knows, nowadays, because of the development in Dublin, Shannon airport has lots of capacity.” The number of planes flying over “is a lot less now that it was before”.

In this light, I suppose, the ambivalent attitude I find towards the use of the airport by members of the US military is understandable. Murray tells me it’s not really an issue for locals. “We enjoy it when they come for a visit more than anything, ‘cause Americans are very friendly and open.” Flynn has a similar perspective. “We have an airport, it is there to provide a service. I’m not going out there to other countries and I’m not involved, in truth, in killing people or conflict. So I see the airport – and it might be a very simple way to see it – as a place that planes come to fuel.” He is circumspect: “Lookit, wars have been there for many, many years … sure, all my lifetime all I’m seeing is wars.”

Despite its lonely feeling, the airport controls the economic growth in the entire mid-West region, Thompstone tells me. The Shannon space is responsible for 38 per cent of the rates in County Clare. Soon, a new Jaguar Land Rover technology and research centre will open in Shannon, creating 150 new jobs. But these facts aside, the statistics are not particularly kind to Shannon. The population has failed to grow to projected figures of 50,000 or even more conservative estimates of 25,000. It hovers stubbornly just below the 10,000 mark, with an increase of just 53 people recorded between the 2011 and 2016 censuses. And while an additional 10,000 people come to work in Shannon every day, these 10,000 all choose to live elsewhere.

There is plenty of negativity towards Shannon about on the internet. It’s described on as “the most depressing place I’ve ever had the misfortune to spend a period of time”, a “cultural wasteland”, “soulless” and (charmingly) a “major shithole”, while it also appears to have been conferred the dubious accolade of “worst town in Ireland” on Reddit.

But if these damning statements are, I think, a bit harsh, it’s also probably fair to say that Shannon hasn’t been the resounding success that those who built Ireland’s first New Town souls have hoped. I wonder why.

Flynn tells me to bear in mind that “Limerick city was only across the river, and there were concerns that a large-scale town would develop in Shannon and that it would maybe detract or displace what they were about. Also, here in Clare we were surrounded by villages … so there was a lot of people that were protecting their own turf, and there was a lot of parochialism going on. So there was a nervousness about actually allowing Shannon to prosper, and prosper more than it should have. It should have prospered more”.

McKee blames Shannon Development, “because they built the place. They created it in from the airport down”. Community, social and cultural concerns were secondary for the agency, he says: the primary concern was always economic.

The responsibility for the town was passed over to the local authority, Clare County Council, in 2004. There is disagreement about whether this has been a good development for Shannon. McKee ultimately thinks so: “It’s the way it should be.” But, he tells me, “some people say that it’s gone to the dogs since Shannon Development handed across”.

The population has failed to grow to projected figures of 50,000 or even more conservative estimates of 25,000. It hovers stubbornly just below the 10,000 mark

One detractor is Flynn. “We haven’t fared well since the local authority took over”, he tells me. In his view, the council focuses too much on Ennis, and not enough on Shannon. And he sees a couple of obstacles to the further development of Shannon. Firstly, there are not enough resources available to politicians at local level. “They’ll tell you I have a little fund for secretarial, but I don’t think I could employ a secretary on €3,000 or €4,000 a year. I don’t do foreign travel either.” He is concerned, too, that Shannon’s generation of “doers” have died off. “It’s left to the third generation, and I don’t know if the third generation that we have now have grasped the nettle in a way that they should have.”

For all its singularity, I quite like Shannon. It’s got a tenacity about it, and the surrounding countryside is really lovely. But it’s not a place I would want to stay for any length: it is, to be honest, a bit depressing, and it hasn’t got an awful lot to recommend it.

The question, I suppose, is whether it ought to. After all, as the residents tell me, it may have challenges and shortcomings – but so does “everywhere else”. Do the many dispiriting, dreary, grey towns around Ireland really have any more to offer than here? As Logan – from Naas – points out, “I wouldn’t say the place I’m from is amazing either”.

I think the key difference is investment. It’s not unfair to ask more of a town that has gotten investment on a scale that Naas and other towns never have. Shannon’s industrial estates house major companies like GECAS, Intel and now Jaguar Land Rover. There is money in the region. Another difference was opportunity and potential: the chance to start fresh and do things right. Surely that does call for a higher expectation of a place than a shopping centre “town” with multiple boarded-up retail units owned by a company with a dodgy reputation for direct provision abuses.

An old promotional film for Ireland, “O’Hara’s Holiday”, has a New York policeman utter the line: “Shannon isn’t just an airport – it’s an idea.” It was probably a good one. But I can’t help but feel that there remains more than a ring of truth to a quote from Liam Ryan’s 1968 study of the town, that “it is not really a town, not even a suburb: more a suburb in search of a town”. This still feels like a place searching for itself, although with locals campaigning for a new cultural community centre, there is hope for the future. For now though, the lack of a “natural heart” still gives the feeling of a non-place. Shannon needs a centre that’s not a a shopping mall. It needs to find its heart.

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