Pictures: Jim Fennelly/Alf Harvey Photography.
It is easy to understand why the Royal Town Planning Institute’s independent panel of judges has selected Abbeyleix as one of the top ten great places in Ireland.
From the pristine Heritage House steeped in local history to the open community garden where anyone can take fruit and vegetables and the wonderful amenity of Abbeyleix bog that locals fought so hard to keep, Abbeyleix is a vibrant and interesting town with a strong sense of community spirit.
To be selected as one of the top ten great places in Ireland by the Royal Town Planning Institute is a massive achievement, and the town beat off competition from over 95 other nominations.
Known for its immaculate Main Street filled with blooming flowers and freshly painted shop fronts, different community groups work towards a common goal, to make Abbeyleix the best place to live in a sustainable community filled with passion and pride of place.
As one of the oldest planned estate towns in Ireland, it was built to ensure families had enough land to grow food and keep animals. This ethos to grow your own and to be self-sustainable, that started out in 18th century, is still alive today.
The lively attitude to shop local is a breath of fresh air in a country where so many small towns suffer with the plight of dereliction.
Abbeyleix Tidy Towns set the standard of what a tidy town is. They have won gold in the national competition for the last three years in a row.
Chairperson of the Tidy Towns committee, Cllr John Joe Fennelly, told the Leinster Express that while they do strive for success, there is so much more to the group.
“In fairness to the committee it’s not about winning, it's about pride in your own town and we have great community spirit.
The Entente Florale competition last year brought out more people and gelled what we had,” he said.
Anita Bonham is a volunteer with Abbeyleix Tidy Towns.
“We are very passionate about it, we have fun as well, we enjoy it to be honest, we don’t make it too serious when we come out. We have a bit of fun and if it is anybody’s party it is celebrated, we get a cake, we go wild and go to the chippers!
“We all live in the town, it is pride in our own town and our own place. We are happy to see everyone making an effort and painting up their premises it makes it easier on us,” Anita said.
While many people in the town volunteer with Tidy Towns, there are others helping out in different ways to ensure it is a great place to live.
Abbeyleix Meals on Wheels has a network of 36 drivers who rotate their volunteering throughout the year to deliver hot meals to people in the community, three times per week. They have been carrying out this vital service in the community for 44 years. The meals are cooked in the district hospital, brought to the Social Services cottage at New Row and distributed to homes by volunteer drivers.
Catherine Smith is the Secretary of Meals on Wheels and she said the demand for this vital service is increasing.
“It is a situation that is growing, more and more people need the service. We have more clients now than we had a couple of years ago.
“It is very important to the people it is delivered because they are getting three hot meals a week and they all appreciate it.
“Some of the people we visit maybe won’t have anyone [visit] all week and they will love to talk.
“There is a lovely atmosphere here where everyone is friendly with everyone else and the same with the drivers when they go out and talk to the people, they love to go out and talk which is very important.
“This is a great place here for chatting and for a little bit of conversation, a cup of tea and a biscuit and Nora Tobin supplies them with apple tarts,” Catherine said.
While it is a hugely successful operation, Meals on Wheels needs more volunteers to get involved and help out to keep the work going in the community.
Lin Moran just started back volunteering again after a break for a few years.
“I did it years ago, my father used to do it. I have time now I am retired. I like to give something back to the town, it will do me more good than harm,” he said.
Locals are proud of their town and the work they do, and they show the fruits of their labour to many visitors.
The Heritage House has had almost as many visitors so far this year as it did in all of 2017.
Two Californian tourists were treated to a guided tour of the beautiful Heritage House last Wednesday. They were on holiday and staying in Ballyfin Demesne.
Heritage House Manager, Paula Maher said the museum was established to be for the local community, but visitors come from all over.
“Last Friday we had a gang of six lads from Essex. They had tried to get research on their grandfather and outside of the country you can’t access the Irish Census. I was able to access it straight away and then I found a great uncle of theirs and where they used to live, they were absolutely thrilled,” Paula explained.
The Heritage House began as a Patrician Brothers primary school. After they left, members of the community formed a company to take it over and raised an amazing £150,000 in the 1990's, to restore it and turn it into a museum.
“People in the community bring relatives and visitors to have a look because they are very proud of showing off the history of the town.
“For Culture Night we will put out a huge amount of photographs and invite people to come in and have a look and try to identify people in them,” Paula said.
Speaking about the community spirit in Abbeyleix as a local, and manager of one of the biggest tourist attractions, Paula said there is a unique inclusivity.
“I think it is the look of the town, the feel of the town, young and old talk to each other, there is a strong community sense in the town that people don't feel marginalised, everyone can talk to everyone,” she said.
That sense of pride and inclusivity is felt now, and it was felt in the year 2000 when locals put a stop to drainage of the local bog.
Some 18 years ago a battle began between the community who wanted to keep the bog as a local amenity and those who had other plans for developments.
Hundreds of people turned up to public meetings and protested to stop workers from going in to drain the land and, after many years of negotiation, in 2009 the community signed a 50-year lease to use the bog as an open amenity for all to enjoy.
While it is a public amenity, there is more to Abbeyleix Bog than meets the eye. Chris Uys has been involved since 2000 and still volunteers on many projects.
“The primary objective is conservation, the secondary objective is to create an amenity for people to come and enjoy for physical fitness, just pure enjoyment or education.
“The project is run on collective leadership, different people take on different projects and it is all voluntary,” he said.
The bog is a Special Area of Conservation and many habitats are protected. Volunteers come from all over Ireland to learn about biodiversity and the bog project has linked in with a number of third level institutions to carry out research and conservation.
Chris said that there are no egos involved in the bog project which helps with the running of it.
“The project is bigger than anyone,” he said.
This goes for the whole town too where, Chris added, that all of the small groups working together towards one goal is why the community and the town reach so much success.
“Instead of trying to implement a project that is too big for people to comprehend, we do smaller projects that have elements of sustainability, Tidy Towns, Abbeyleix Bog, Community Garden, Community Centre, all different things that work towards a sustainable community,” he said.