The town that came in from the cold

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

Clones is a pretty town. Anyone who has sat in the Diamond on a summer?s day and looked out over the small green hillsides of County Monaghan stretching away to the south and east will attest to that. It is also a sociable town. The Lennard Arms Hotel during the Clones Film Festival (more of that later) is as cosy and lively a place as you will find anywhere in Ireland. I have a poignant memory of the town around this time of year nearly 30 years ago, with the little Monaghan drumlins covered in Christmas snow (remember snow?).

The image is appropriate, because Clones is a town that has come in from the cold. In the 19th century it had been the hub of the railway network in Ulster ? ‘the Crewe of the North’ ? with over 40 trains passing through every day on lines linking it with Dublin, Belfast, Derry, Dundalk, Sligo, Bundoran, Enniskillen, Armagh and points in-between. In the early 1920s, before the newly drawn border started to destroy its economy, Clones was described by the Boundary Commission as the most prosperous town in the region.

But then came the border, and Clones became a deserted and neglected frontier town, forgotten by the new government in faraway Dublin, cut off from its natural hinterland in Fermanagh, with most of its people crossing into Northern Ireland to work and shop. The final blow was the onset of the Northern ‘Troubles’ at the beginning of the 1970s: three of the four roads leading out of the town went into Northern Ireland and were cratered by the British Army; 45 businesses closed in the course of the conflict; the town acquired a reputation as ?a Republican town? and was twice bombed.

“Clones became, in effect, a microcosm of the conflict, exhibiting in sharp relief the experience of the Southern Border communities as a whole: loss of hinterland; waves of economic decline; disinvestment by the state; the effects of physical violence and tension arising from the militarization of the surrounding area; the fractured social connections arising from the road closures; a Protestant exodus”, wrote the authors of that excellent study, The Emerald Curtain.

How times have changed in this marvellous era of peace and new opportunities for the Northern part of this island, and how Clones has changed with them. The town has always had some remarkable citizens: people like the writers Pat McCabe and Eugene McCabe (the latter a genuinely lovely man and surely one of the unsung geniuses of contemporary Irish literature) and the Irish Countrywomen?s Association leader, Mamo McDonald.

Now those citizens have taken their future into their own hands. I have been reading a speech delivered by the chairman of Clones Regeneration Partnership, Brian Morgan ? himself a highly enterprising and socially conscious solicitor who runs a successful cross-border business with offices in Clones and Enniskillen ? to a meeting in the town in October attended by the Irish Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Eamon Ó Cuív, and the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots, a leading figure in the DUP. [Could such a coming together in a Southern border town have even been contemplated a few short years ago?]

Morgan listed the achievements of the Regeneration Partnership since its formation eight years ago: the establishment of the EU-funded cross-border Clones Erne East Partnership to revive the area’s community, business and youth sectors; a new county library headquarters for Monaghan in a landmark building designed to be the centre of a new public square; the introduction of broadband and consequent plans for a technology park; further plans for a Creativity Learning Hub with four new ‘knowledge economy’ enterprises; the refurbishment of the Diamond and Fermanagh Street; plans for the conversion of the derelict Courthouse building; ambitious plans for a high quality sports complex; the restoration of a fine 19th century building to commemorate the woman who brought lace-making to the town; the restoration of the Protestant Hall; a campaign to develop and modernise St Tiernach’s Park as the premier GAA venue in the county and province; and successfully lobbying the Irish government to get the first phase of the Ulster Canal re-opened from Upper Lough Erne to Clones. One could go on and on about the achievements and ambitions of this extraordinarily energetic group.

And Clones has a film festival too. Local woman Geraldine Zechner came back with her German husband and they set this up in 2001. She now refers to it as “our own little Cannes.” For four days last October, locals could enjoy 16 feature films from half a dozen countries, talks with film-makers, the music and ‘craic’ of the Festival Club, and a short films competition for the ‘Francies’, awards named after Francie Brady, the hero of Pat McCabe?s The Butcher Boy which was filmed in the town 10 years ago.

Other border region towns short on civic energy (including my own beloved Armagh), please note!

Andy Pollak

P.S. A postscript to the last two ‘Notes‘ on student flows across the border: The picture of rapidly dwindling numbers ? this time moving from South to North ? was confirmed by the Irish Times survey of Republic of Ireland schools’ entrants to university on 17th December. This survey (albeit not 100% exhaustive) showed that only 125 first time undergraduates went from Southern schools to the two Northern universities this autumn (40 to Queen?s University Belfast and 85 to University of Ulster). This compared to more than 1400 in 1995. It is also interesting to compare this small trickle to the growing numbers – 666 this autumn – who went to British mainland universities (in Donegal and Monaghan, traditionally the counties sending most undergraduates to Northern Ireland universities, the figure for those going to universities in Scotland, England and Wales was nearly double the numbers going North).

  • lib2016

    Nice piece but where’s this Armagh he’s talking about? Oh, wait a minute. Isn’t that the ancient religious settlement near the thriving modern City of Newry?

    Didn’t know it still existed.

  • Rory

    You clearly have a need to get out more, Lib2016. There may be more to this world than is contained within limited horizons. Trust me on this, please. Not only was I once an accountant but I met a man who swore to me that he had once been as far afield as Ballymena.

    Frightening, I know, but consider the exhiliration.

  • Turgon

    A bit off topic but I hope people will indulge me on this one.

    My wife’s family on both sides were all from South Fermanagh. Before the border and even after it they did most of their business in Clones as far as I can gather. Several relatives are buried in the CoI church in the town.

    My father in law joined the army in 1939, was a motorbike despatch rider and was captured at the fall of Singapore. He survived three and a half years in a Japanese POW camp before being sent back on a ship to Britain. His long, long journey home ended at Clones railway station where there was no one waiting for him and he had to walk the last few miles home himself.

    An irrelevant aside but I thought I would share it.

  • patrique

    Most miserable, God forsaken place in Ireland, that’s Clones. And the GAA insist on playing the Ulster final there, just to point out that Ulster has 9 counties. There cannot be any other reason.

    One road in and out, one never working hole in the wall, one public telephone.

    Even Strabane looks good compared to Clones.

  • Geraldine Zechner

    Thanks for the justifiably positive piece on Clones, Andy, and the film festival mention. You are right, the Lennard is indeed a good fun place to be on Oct bank holiday weekend. Just wanted to clarify one point – the people who set up the film festival in 2001 were actually Gilly and Larry Fogg, now living in Canada. They collaborated on the setup with the establised Clones events promoters LMB Entertainments. We just jumped on board in the second year. Anyway, the festival continues to go from strengh to strength…
    Note to patrique: there are actually 7 approach roads to Clones…