Mountrath town centre in Laois. Picture: Denis Byrne
Mountrath is undergoing a big transformation that could restore the type of vibrancy it once had as a busy market town.
The town is bypassed by the motorway and has a population of 2,000, much of it very young or old. Many workers leave daily for work, or simply leave altogether. Empty shops and houses line the main streets but the community is closely knit and now has gained fresh energy to work together to revitalise the town.
A big part of the change is the old Brigidine Convent, generously given to the community by the sisters in 2017 after a century of education.
Brigidine convent Mountrath. Photo: Leinster Express
It is being converted into a community hub and enterprise centre, by Mountrath Community Forum. The forum already runs a successful Cottage Market and did a facelift on empty shopfronts.
It is backed by Síol Foundation, an Irish group of philantropic businesspeople who fund practical sustainable projects to improve communities
Other grants are coming via Laois County Council and Laois Partnership for the conversion, expected to cost €1.2million in full.
Andrea Deering from Síol has a five year plan in Mountrath, and is sourcing funding, paying for training and helping clubs set up.
“We were looking for a town that needed help, and we saw a desire in Mountrath to do things, but a lack of funding or knowledge to do it,” Ms Deering said.
She finds that already locals are taking the lead and setting up clubs having fundraised themselves.
“The more we did, the quicker things are happening. We can't believe the wealth of talent and enthusiasm,” she said.
In the convent, modern heating and thick insulation is being installed, as well as top speed wifi. The aim is to keep long term operation costs low so that the centre can pay for itself in rents.
The enterprise hub should be ready in 2019, including the church which will have open offices. The study hall already has thick floor mats and can be rented out for martial arts, yoga or other uses.
Also planned is a community gym with showers, commercial kitchens, cafés and a creche.
A Grind School is up and running, offering €15 grinds to primary and secondary students.
About 15 community clubs and groups will be moving into the convent this year, including the Men's Shed, camera club, scouts, Foróige and a new School of Music.
Below: In the convent section undergoing a transformation into Mountrath Enterprise Hub: forum members Cllr James Kelly and Eddie Phelan, with (centre) Paddy Nolan, Fintan Palmer and Joe Hearns of Joe Hearns Construction, and Siol Director of Operations Andrea Deering.
Foróige youth club reformed two years ago, and won two awards in its first year. Leader Samantha Hayes explained what it will mean to have their own permanent base, instead of renting a hall.
“It means everything. We will be able to personalise our space, paint the wall our own colour, display our awards, hang photographs and store our stuff. It will feel more like a home. You can feel a buzz in the club, we are all excited to get in and get set up,” she said.
Mountrath scouts leader Mark Robinson sees huge potential.
“We had been in an old prefab in the GAA grounds but it had reached the end of its life and of course we couldn’t camp on the pitch. The timing is perfect. Here we have a lot of wide open ground, with trees, an orchard, camping fields, basketball courts. There is a lane to the river so we can store and use our kayaks. We can host visiting scouts. We are almost 30 years in existence. Finally we have a home,” Mark said.
Mountrath & District Camera Club's talented members have won several awards. Jim Fennelly is chairman.
“It's going well, we have about 24 members, we learn from each other, we visit other clubs, go on outings, enter competitions, and do an annual exhibition,” he said.
Christina Hodgins and Mary Dunne joined a year ago. As well as club trips, every week they pick a spot in Ireland and head off themselves to take photographs.
"We both had an interest in photography, we love doing it as a hobby. It is great to learn more about the technical side and to meet like minded people," said Christina.
"They are very welcoming and very willing to share their knowledge," said Mary.
The camera club meets at St Fintan's hall every fortnight and will also move to the convent.
The recent monthly Cottage Market at the Macra hall was again abuzz with multicoloured marquees and happy customers.
Martin Meade, chairperson of the forum, spoke to the Leinster Express there about their plans.
“We aim to have the convent sustainable by 2021, then we can move to other projects in the town, we want to start developing new businesses. A big project will be working on the town plan with Laois County Council.
“We are coming from a low base here. Maybe Mountrath didn't attract the funding it could have in the past, but now with strong committees and support from the council and Laois Partnership, things will change for the better,” he said.
He believes in finding the right person to head up each project.
“I have been lucky with anyone I approach, when they see what we are about. I believe that everybody should put something back into their community,” he said.
The market is going well, says forum Treasurer Eddie Phelan.
“We have a waiting list, and a good mix of produce, the aim is to boost anyone local with a cottage business. We charge €20 a stall, everybody seems happy,” he said.
The forum's Split the Pot raffle also gives a steady income, shared with St Fintan's boys NS, Scoil Bhride NS and Clonenagh NS.
Iwona Banaszczyk from Mountmellick was selling her handmade natural soaps at a stall.
“It's fantastic here, the people are very nice, I have regular customers, it's a nice small community, very friendly and I met new friends with the other traders, we are like one family,” she said.
The new parish priest Fr Joe Brophy was at the market. The Vicarstown native was curate in the Mountrath Ballyfin parish for the past six years.
“I love Mountrath. There are homely lovely people here. There is a new energy in Mountrath now, and this market is one example, there are things happening, it’s a new beginning,” he said.
Below: Mountrath Community Forum chairman Martin Meade and treasurer Eddie Phelan. Photo: Denis Byrne
The long established Mountrath Development Association is also working hard to better the town. Brenda O'Grady is the chairperson.
“We run the tidy towns group and are delighted to recently get a €7,000 grant, that will make a huge difference to the square, we will replace seating and generally give it an uplift. We are also launching a Sli na Slainte walking route, we got funding and the signs are ready to go up,” she said.
They also maintain the playground, and run Mountrath Youth Theatre and Youth Project. They are thrilled to be awarded €12,000 to help develop a youth centre.
“We have a site and a large temporary building ready once permission is approved. It willoffer teen counselling, grinds, and an after school service,” she said.
With the forum and other groups from sport and business, they are part of a new 'town team' to advise Laois County Council on a new town plan for Mountrath.
“The plan will make a huge difference. We are quite different groups but we all work together for the good of Mountrath,” she said.
Mountrath is also home to a very special choir, forged in friendship and a love of singing.
The Cosy Café in the square has 25 strong choir that includes café owner Sinead Hanlon.
“We started as a breakfast club, meeting every morning before work, Often someone would often start a song so we came up with the idea of a choir. it sounds crazy but its fun. It's all about good friendship,” she said.
They practice every Tuesday night led by Bernie Coss, and they perform in Ballyfin house at Christmas with Mountrath Community School. Their next gig is the World War I commemoration in Mountrath on November 11.
A special song to sing is Lovely Laois, because its composer, Christy Cullen, is in the choir.
Below: Some of the choir members. Photo: Leinster Express
Mountrath has a busy historical society based at the library. They will soon launch their third photographic calendar at the WWI event, which they are organising.
Pat McSpadden is chairperson.
“We formed in 2014, our aim is to document the history of the town. When I was in school it was very vibrant, now it's operating at about 20 percent to what it was.
“A lot has just disappeared. People love the photographs in the calendars, they go all over the world,” he said.
Lindsey Cuddy is a member.
"I always had an interest in history, I joined in 2015 and have been working hard since, I just love it. I've learned a lot about the history of Mountrath, and you get a lot of outside interest, people looking for information or giving us information," she said.
They meet on the third Thursday of the month at 6.15pm in the library.
"Triona Condron in the library is so supportive and accommodating to us, and we'd love to see more people joining us," said Lindsey.
Below: members of Mountrath Historical Society