As the second annual Rooskey Heritage Festival begins (July 22-24th inclusive), AUDREY HEALY has been speaking to some locals about attempts to revive a proud and beautiful village…
Heritage Festival leads Rooskey revival
“Don’t let anybody tell you that things were better in the 1980s in Rooskey village. Things were worse; we had no money, no clothes and no employment. But for all those who whinge about Rooskey today, they need to change their attitude. It’s that simple.”
So says David Cunningham, Iarnord Eireann stationmaster, based in Dromod, County Leitrim. David has resided just outside the Shannonside village for over forty years and is well equipped to reflect upon life there. While some residents may harbour a somewhat rose-tinted view of decades prior to the Hanley Meats factory fire in 2002 and fervently believe that it ended life as we knew it in a now-struggling village, David pulls no punches and believes that it can be resurrected, with a little help from its people, its politicians – and a positive attitude.
“I grew up in Rooskey and people might tell you that things were better in the early ‘70s and ‘80s but let me tell you they weren’t – they were awful, they were tough. Very few people had employment and there was a legitimate reason why,” David tells me as he watches the afternoon train leave for Dublin.
“I see so many wonderful young people getting on the train here every day and they are well educated, wonderful to look at, wonderful to speak to and full of hope, but,” he adds sadly, “they have nothing to look forward to, they have no future here and this is a far worse scenario that what we went through in those decades.”
For David, these views are deeply personal.
“I have four children and all are experiencing the curse of emigration – one is in America, one is in Spain, one is in Sweden and next year one will join his brother abroad and honestly I couldn’t expect any one of them to stay around Rooskey in the current climate. It makes me very despondent.”
On a recent visit to the region Roscommon/Galway TD Eugene Murphy said he believes that the village “has a great story to tell” and its people always show “immense spirit in the face of adversity.”
“The Rooskey Heritage Festival, launched last year, is a shining example of the hard work and resilience of the local community who have come together in unity to revitalise the area which has suffered greatly over the years,” Deputy Murphy said.
“I have high hopes that further investment in the region is imminent. Tourism and the Shannon River remain its greatest asset and I have no doubt that the area will soon reap the rewards it and its people truly deserve.”
David Cunningham agrees and does not blame the infamous Hanley Meats fire for the downfall of Rooskey.
“No, a fire can happen anywhere,” he said “and positivity is the key. We have to look at the assets that a town has and enhance them. We have the river, but unfortunately you only get a glimpse of the Shannon when you’re going to Dublin from Sligo at Rooskey and it’s not just used as a crossing point. For example Dromod should be connected to Rooskey at the river. I know there is talk of a cycleway and the more that you can promote your natural assets the more you expose the river and its beauty the better.”
David, who cycles to work every morning, says people drive to the shops and schools and they “don’t think twice” about driving to the nearest town.
“You can’t have a town with businesses in it if you’re going to just drive out of it. You’re just going to have to change the geography of the town.
“If people don’t want the local train station or garda station or post office there you’re going to have to have a town without it quite simply instead of whinging about it and adapting,” he continues.
“I was in Bornacoola yesterday and one house was more beautiful than the next, yet when you go into Rooskey the heart is gone out of the place – why? Rather than crying about the village I think if we were to develop the centre of it and give it new life it would work. We have to remember that closed-down businesses don’t look nice and you can’t force people to go in and invest in them. If they want to invest in Dublin they will and if this is the world we’re living in –you just have to accept it.
“When I lived in Rooskey first there were thirteen shops, fourteen guesthouses, two banks and four petrol pumps. I think change is possible – but only by accepting the inevitable current changes instead of making people feel guilty because they want to go and shop in a German supermarket. We should design the main area to cater for the new people and take pride in your village and that’s the bottom line. This is an ideal time for some progressive engineer to say we’re going to turn Rooskey into a modern, beautiful village and anybody that wants planning permission on the Main Street can have it and then nobody can say in ten years that this is a sad deserted village.
“The local people should ask Roscommon County Council to keep some of the more architecturally beautiful buildings in the area and where a person wants to build in the area, let them. This would help keep Rooskey on the map but don’t say things were better before, they weren’t – and remember,” he adds quite poignantly, “I have four children who would come back to Rooskey in the morning if things were different…things were terrible years ago and those young people on the train…we have to hold on them.”
Taxi man Sean Mahon has lived in Rooskey all his life and he laments what he calls the “good old days” – “the more innocent times” and the nights when the Cloudland ballroom saw in excess of two thousand revellers dance the night away.
“I have great great memories of the village on a Saturday night” he tells me with a smile. “We had wonderful nights out and I played a bit of music myself sometimes in places like Con Moran’s and the Hilltop. Times were better then and easier and there was a greater community spirit, there was no trouble…everyone would just go out and enjoy a few pints and we’d look after one another.”
Sean fervently believes that Hanley’s Meats factory was the backbone of the community and the tragedy that befell it was the catalyst for Rooskey’s downfall.
“I think the fire definitely contributed to the lack of life in the village – there were an awful lot of husbands, fathers and sons working there, and as a result the wages were being spent in the area. Maybe on a Saturday they would go to Longford but generally the money was being spent locally. That was a lot to lose and it’s never been replaced since.”
However the imminent Rooskey Heritage Festival is, he says, a definite and promising beacon of light.
“The festival is a great idea and helps to create community spirit.”
As he looks out over the Shannon, publican Peter Reynolds can recall many changes in Rooskey from over the years. In the early 1970s and into the ‘80s his bar was open day and night and thronged with a mix of locals and tourists who enjoyed live music every evening. Today the days are quiet and he waits until six in the evening to greet his regulars – it’s a far cry from the days when he first listened to the stories from Rooskey’s best-known characters, now long gone.
“To me Rooskey was always about the characters, the people and the faces, the fishermen who fell in love with the village as well as the locals. The Irish are known for their hospitality and that was a huge boost to us.”
Peter has great praise for the hard-working Rooskey Heritage Festival committee and says it has firmly “brought the people together.”
“Well we’re really a divided community in terms of the Shannon dividing us between Roscommon and Leitrim but last year’s festival was a great success and we’re hoping for bigger and better crowds this year.”
Enda ‘The hammer’ Beirne got involved in the festival committee last year he says, “to put Rooskey back on the map and try to make it a fun place for people to enjoy as it has a natural beauty and also to see if employment could be created for the youth of the area.”
“We have a school full of children,” he continues, “and nothing for them around here.”
Enda adds: “In short, this was my vision – to see a Rooskey that I remember from my youth. Last year’s festival was a huge success and I think people are nibbling at the bait. I hope this year’s is as good and attracts more business people.”
“The fire was a massive blow at the time because when you have unemployment you have nothing” adds Peter Reynolds, who maintains that “what killed the hotel and the garage was the bypass, though I’m not against progress.”
Emigration has hit his own family, with a number of his own adult children leaving these shores to seek employment elsewhere and he admits it’s doubtful that any will stand behind his bar when Peter and his wife Marian retire.
However he remains philosophical about the future of Rooskey and, like Deputy Murphy, is confident that the region will eventually recover from its current crisis.
“Well, my mother would have seen tough times in the 1940s and they are here again but I still maintain it was the individuals and characters that made Rooskey what it was and they will come again. What goes around comes around and we are still situated at the crossroads of Ireland and I feel it will evolve again. It may be too late for me but I believe it will prosper again.”