Saturday 1st November 2003
Walking around Fethard
Opinion by Margaret Rossiter
Photographed at the County Tipperary Local History Day in Fethard on Saturday 11th October 2003 are L to R: Margaret Rossiter, Clonmel; Stephen Fallon, Conservation Officer South Tipperary County Council ; Garry Gleeson, Carrigmore, Clogheen; and Geraldine Walsh, Dublin City Trust.
- Why has it taken me a half-a-life time to discover that Fethard is a charming and most interesting town? Perhaps it is that it has had to live in the shadow of the, capital of South Tipperary - Clonmel - a town which for much of the last half century has been arrogantly sucking the commercial lifeblood of its smaller neighbours.
It pleases me mightily that in recent decades Fethard has gradually and without any publicity been reclaiming its status amongst our Irish towns. And it has been doing it because of the pride its people have had in their heritage of living in a town, which has been described in the Urban Archaeological Survey of Ireland (1987) as "Certainty the most important medieval small town in Ireland."
That pride has been practically expressed in many projects initiated by its citizens - again without fuss or hype - and has earned them the dedication of: "To the people of Fethard custodians of an unique urban heritage," in the recently-published guide: "Fethard Co. Tipperary
A Guide to the Medieval Town," by Dr. Tadhg O'Keeffe. He has been carrying out a survey of Fethard for the past number of years, and his detailed study will be published in the very near future.
Fethard has been doing marvellous things in restoration and conservation. Perhaps the rescue, nearly 20 'years ago, of the Abymill and its conversion into a theatre and community facility was the catalyst for reassessing the town's heritage.
There were many towns in Ireland which had fine old stone 19th century buildings, all unused, all derelict, some dangerous. Apart from their usefulness as rubble for infill, nobody knew what to do with them. A few of Fethard's citizens had the foresight to see the building's potential, and today it is a lovely, comfortable, warm theatre, surrounded by rooms which offer many facilities to citizens. In a way, the restored Abymill was a prototype for the restoration and practical modern use for many other restorations of industrial buildings in other Irish towns. It was a first in Tipperary:
It is interesting how such a vision can also be an inspiration, The town was probably the only town in Ireland that still had its medieval walls intact: holed, falling down in places, privately owned here and there - but, nevertheless, identifiable. Now these walls are restored through a project initiated by the Friends of Fethard Town Walls.
At the present time, the 13th century Holy Trinity Church is undergoing substantial work in conservation, under the direction of Margaret Quinlan (the consultant architect for the Main Guard in Clonmel.) Along with Christ Church in Dublin, this is the oldest Irish church still in use for worship in Ireland.
The Guide, which I have already mentioned, is published by the Fethard Historical Society, and that Society has -been a major contributor to a knowledge of the town and, indeed, to an awareness of its heritage. So, here's a recommendation from this column: Buy the Guide (E3) and wander Fethard's streets. There are in all 27 sites within very easy walking distance; places like the Town Hall, the alleyways, the Augustinian Friary, the site of the Everard mansion (and the Everards were the town's most important family), the bridges, the Clashawley River.
Take a look at some of the recent housing developments which, it seems to me, respect the dimensions and character of the town, and which have a wonderful community facility in the Tirry Centre. And look at the modest memorial to Olivia Hughes, unveiled by President Mary Robinson. She, with the late O'Connor sisters, the Country Markets and the Irish Countrywomens Association, all rooted in Fethard, was responsible for what could truly be said to have been a quiet social revolution in Ireland.
I have been wandering around Fethard's streets, marvelling at the achievements, yet I am always left with some uneasy questions. A note in the Guide poses one of these questions: "Fethard today faces a challenge common to all historic towns, reconciling the needs of the future with the inheritance of the past."
From studies undertaken in conjunction with the County Plan, it became obvious that towns of South Tipperary are losing their populations to the countryside. Town centres are becoming depopulated as we increasingly build our bungalows out in the green fields. In walking around Fethard - and, indeed, any of our towns - handsome houses show their lack of occupancy by unpainted doors, crumbling plaster, broken window panes. Many of these houses have large unkempt rear gardens which offer privacy in tandem with easy access to the conveniences of urban living. Yet they are unoccupied.
In order to redress the de-population, and the allied urbanisation of our countryside, shouldn't there be some incentives from local authorities, in the form of grants and professional advice for rehabilitating and modernising these town houses. And shouldn't these same local authorities be looking at traffic management, so that our streets could be pleasant and safe places in which to continue to live?
You would imagine that the answer would be a resounding: Yes. Yet the reports of the debates at meetings of the Tipperary S.R. County Council would seem to suggest that many of our elected local representatives do not think so, and are in favour of the continued indiscriminate unplanned and unregulated development of our rural areas- If such a policy is pursued, what is the future for our smaller towns?
The future of Fethard, with its unique character, is assured. It will not only be a pleasant place in which to live, but it can sell itself to the tourists for what it is - the most compact and best preserved of Ireland's medieval towns. Its handsome wide streets and its 19th century vernacular architecture - some of it imposed on ever older buildings - would, indeed, be further enhanced if its vacant houses could be restored and lived in.
But what of other small Tipperary towns, those that do not have such a historic pedigree? Can they continue, as the planning studies tell us, to lose their populations and still remain viable places?
Those are the issues which are implicit in some of the studies carried out in preparation of the County Plan, which is now at the public consultation stage. But it seems to me that they are issues which have not yet been seriously debated by our powers-that-be. Why?