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).

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.