GALLERY:

Laois community takes to streets to protest closure of public leisure centre

Lynda Kiernan

Reporter:

Lynda Kiernan

Many hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Portlaoise on Monday morning, June 22 to call for the reopening of Portlaoise Leisure Centre.

They included sports club members, older people and young families with buggies.  They first gathered at the centre and marched up James Fintan Lalor Avenue to fill the front plaza of Laois County Council offices.

They chanted “save our pool” and “shame on you.”
The protest was led by the centre's assistant manager Ben Smith, one of the 30 staff who have been made redundant.

He said that local authorities in Offaly, Westmeath and Kildare spend millions on their public swimming pools.
“They think that's it ok to not give us any funding, to let the company wind up, and let 30 people of this community be out of a job, and all of you people here, be without a swimming pool, a gym, swimming lessons, places for your kids to swim in clubs, for disability groups, special learning and we don't think that's ok. Shame on Laois County Council for not funding Portlaoise Leisure Centre,” he said.

The volunteer Board of Management had announced its closure on June 15 in a shock decision, after being told by Laois County Council that it would cost €300,000 to keep it open until the end of 2020, but that there was no money available to do this.
“Other counties receive massive amounts of subsidies, of money to keep those operations going. They need it because they are expensive commodities. Heating swimming pools, air spaces, it's huge money. This is where the county council has to step up and recognise that we need that facility,” said Mr Smith, who has been covering the manager's role for the past three years.

“All these youngsters here, from six months old to 96 years, those are the people that visit our leisure centre,” Mr Smith said.

Speakers at the protest included Sharon Roche from Trilogy Triathlon Club and Sean Donoghue from Marlins Swim Club, both based from the centre.
Both clubs with nearly 250 members between them, cannot continue to exist without Portlaoise leisure centre's swimming pool.
“We should be looking forward to our return to training on June 29. We can't do that without somewhere to train,” Ms Roche said.

"We might be a landlocked county but swimming is thriving in Laois. The future of competitive swimming in Laois depends on access to a 25m pool in Portlaoise Town. The challenges of Covid 19 have hit hard but in the words of our government we are in this together. We would appeal to Laois Co Council to reconsider their decision to close the centre and stand with the almost 30,000 people in Portlaoise that deserve access to this public facility that is essential in our community," Sean Donoghue said.

Also speaking were staff members Samantha Kirwan and Tom Cooney, now without jobs.
Ms Kirwan said that she is working at the centre for eight years, covering studio classes, swimming lessons and reception.
“The support you have given has been overwhelming, we are so grateful,” she said.

She said that Laois County Council promise to try to ensure the centre’s future viability, and immediately refurbish it, “doesn’t seem so bad from the public’s point of view.”
“For us we feel that the leisure centre will never open again, as the staff have been made redundant. It’s the staff that make Portlaoise Leisure Centre. It has equipment, it has a big hole in the ground full of water, but it’s about our work ethic, our dedication, our personal interaction with you.

“Let them find a ‘viable entity’ but make it a public one. This is a public building. We want it reopened with all us 30 staff because together we are Portlaoise Leisure Centre,” she said.

Tom Cooney is a maintenance man there since last November.
“From the minute I walked in, we were nearly old friends, it’s like a family up there, I am like a cog in a well oiled machine.
“We all had to change the way we lived over Covid because the government requested it and it was common sense. Now we are asked to support our local shops and we will. Why has Laois County Council not done the same? Portlaoise Leisure Centre needs their help, it's a service we need now more than ever. The physical and mental health of our community needs it. They're the ones we're shouting for,” he said.

Taking part in the march is Jackie McCluskey who attends the centre with the Rehab group.
“I like going to the swimming pool and meeting friends, I'm going there 30 years or more, it's very disappointing,” she said.

A group of six former centre staff also came to march.
“We are here because when we worked there it was a great place, it's sad to see it gone,” said one.
“As soon as Ben Dunne's gym came in, there should have been money put into the leisure centre here,” another said.

“There's be drownings in years to come because of the amount of schoolchildren who won't be able to afford private lessons. It was the only way many children got to swim at all,” a former swim coach said.

6,000 people have now signed an online petition begun by staff to get the centre funded and reopened and restore the jobs.

See the petition here.