Ballyleague man has ‘energy’ for quest to replace lost jobs locally

One of the most exciting projects to gain from the Just Transition Fund, set up by the Government to support the rebirth of economic development in Bord na Mona communities in Roscommon, is being carried out by John Hanley, FDT Consulting Engineers & PM Ltd.

John is a native of the Ballyleague area and his family runs a hardware business and the busy private marina in Ballyleague. The study he has worked on was to investigate how a technology cluster could be established in Lanesborough/Ballyleague, one that might integrate with clean energy sources and focus on the bio-economy and integrating enterprises from a circular economy perspective.

This project is quite technical, but in brief, it really is all about scoping out the future of energy production in the town and is being supported by the Government’s Just Transition Fund to the tune of 101,703 euro. It also has huge potential to help rebuild the core of the economic development of Lanesborough and Ballyleague.

I’ve seen John present some of his findings on future projects that could include technologies such as energy creation by using hydrogen as a power source. One really hopes the ESB and officials from the Department of the Environment and Climate Change are going to seize on his fantastic work and move this on with a view to helping to create jobs locally. It can’t be let sit on a shelf in the Department.

There’s several hundred thousand euro more tied up in six other Just Transition Fund feasibility projects in the Ballyleague-Lanesborough area at the moment and I think it’s fair to say there is serious variety across them. A study to examine the potential establishment of an anaerobic digestion facility on lands on the current site of Lough Ree Power has been allocated 85,000 euro. Energy creation is at the heart of this project too, and while the format for the proposed Lanesborough facility is not even decided, there are lots of these digesters already popping up around the country, including one I know of in Nurney, County Kildare.

Adjacent to a connected pig farm there, Green Generation harnesses natural microbial activity to break down organic waste into biogas and an organic fertiliser by-product. Half of the biogas is used to produce renewable electricity which is sent to the national grid so there will be close interest in what comes out of this feasibility study when it is finished in Ballyleague and Lanesborough.

Down the road from Ballyleague there’s another 5-star project in the making. The ‘Cloontuskert Visitor Centre and Organic Farm Feasibility & Design Study’ is the impressive title. The Cloontuskert Bord na Mona Machinery works, located just north of Ballyleague beside the Abbey (Cloontuskert) housing estate, is at the centre of this plan. It’s a collection of industrial buildings on the edge of the bog which formed a machinery repair and storage depot for the bord and is adjoining a very historic site in the area – the old accommodation blocks dating back to the original development of the site in the first half of the 20th century which today serve as a reminder of all the men who came to work from all over Ireland (responding to those famous Bord na Mona ads in the ‘60s). These visitors lived in what locals called ‘the hostels’ or ‘the billets’ on the edge of the bog in those early years.

This feasibility and design study will explore the creation of an educational and interactive, audio visual, and virtual reality visitor experience which will bring tourists to the region. It’s really a bit of a transport museum with some fantastic local living heritage. You can picture an old bagger on the site with a few yanks asking the guide what they were used for in the bog in ten years time. Hopefully they will learn all about the first trackways across the bogs and all of the eventual industrial development of the bogs that took place afterwards. It will also educate visitors on the programme to return the bogs to their medieval wetland-wildlife habitat. 212,500 euro has been allocated to the initial stages.

Thousands of acres of the old bog itself in that area are at the centre of the next project on the list. Known as the ‘Mid-Shannon Wilderness Park Greenway’, this elaborate plan is all about carrying out a design study for what could be described as a brand new national park for the country – a vast area of peatland that is situated on both sides of the Shannon but which when combined is akin to a massive walking and nature site, making up what I would describe loosely as something reminiscent of the moors in the UK.

Another 102,000 euro of this funding is being used to do a preliminary design and environmental assessment of the possible walking and cycling trails elsewhere within BnM bogs in County Roscommon up to statutory consent stage. The cost also includes the full stage consultancy service for conversion of the old Kilnacarrow railway bridge which will presumably link the walkers and trekkers on their way from places like Clondra and the Royal Canal with Sliabh Bawn and beyond. It’s a super plan but an awful lot of money is going to be needed to complete it and link it all up.

Next we go south from the Abbey to the pier at the Waterways Ireland marina in Ballyleague where JTF project No. 88 – the Lough Ree Bay Boardwalk Feasibility Study (Strand 1 project) – is located. This project has its roots in the town of Drumshanbo in County Leitrim which has already installed a beautiful wooden structure for walking along the lake on the edge of the town. 76,500 euro has been set aside by the fund for a feasibility study for a Lough Ree Bay Boardwalk to create access to Lough Ree Bay and shoreline, including environmental assessment and detailed design to underpin the tourism potential. I know this site personally as it’s only a stone’s throw from my home. While it is definitely a beautiful walking location in the summer months, it is one hell of a windy spot in the winter – so a lot of us will be looking carefully at the engineering designs that emerge to see if it can actually be safely constructed on that site.

A lot of the projects being described here refer to just what are essentially going to be feasibility studies on paper – it is yet to be proven whether they can create jobs or not. That said, the Lough Ree Access For All Passenger Boat Centre in Ballyleague, which is receiving almost half a million euro from the fund, has already created two new positions and is advertising this very week for a third job on the project. Building on the success of the disability boat project, this project involved the development of a new centre for general and disability tourism on the north quay in Ballyleague, together with the acquisition of a second boat and the development of a new eco-tourism and heritage boat business for the area.

Ballyleague and Lanesborough have badly needed a daily passenger boat service on the Shannon for years and this project will give an all-weather feel to it – providing new facilities for tourists in a state-of-the-art building in Ballyleague, which is being constructed at the moment by James Irwin’s building team, and then hopefully creating more tourism income for the town all year around.

I am part of a group of five local people who are steering this project and we would be hopeful that a second boat will be on the waters early in 2022 – that will provide a significant tourism boost for both the River Shannon district and the Royal Canal communities. When the first boat operated for the first time last summer the area had three coffee shops open for the first time – so let’s hope that seasonal spin-off continues.

To conclude this summary of the JTF fund outputs, I must mention Stephen Dowd and the Premier Lakelands Food Hub he has been working on now for over three years. This new building will be constructed on the Longford Road outside Lanesborough in the field adjacent to the new fire station and over one million euro of JTF funding will go to it, with another million euro already put into the project by Enterprise Ireland to create up to 100 jobs in start-up food enterprises.

It’s a hugely ambitious project aimed at start-up small and micro-producers and one that has the potential to change the face of the community, when taken with many other positive projects currently on the drawing board. I am told it is now ready to go to eTender process and the appointment of a contractor – so, exciting days ahead.