Thursday 24 June 2010

Carlow: 'If you want a life-work balance, you have to cut your cloth'

Carlow town rose to the challenges of its population explosion over the past seven years, with lots of investment in infrastructure and services, but the town has taken a hit with a number of high-profile company closures

IN 2003, Carlow town’s population had soared by a third in just six years. Commuters faced a 90-minute drive to the capital (and that’s if they left at dawn). Yet, unlike other areas of sudden expansion, it seemed up to the challenge.

Looking back, it did better than most. The schools bore up well, although the post-primary system is coming under pressure. The €70 million Fairgreen centre with its big multiplex is a success, although it hived shoppers from the town centre. The sad business park is morphing into Merck Sharp Dohme and the promise of 250 jobs. The beautiful €18 million theatre and contemporary arts centre was funded almost entirely by Carlow’s local authorities. The long-awaited €20 million drainage and flood relief scheme finally got under way in recent weeks. And the new bypass, opened two years ago, restored sanity to the town’s core.

But there were also setbacks. Hundreds of jobs disappeared with the Greencore Irish Sugar factory, Braun, Läpple and Celtic Linen. Unsold houses on estates and a swarm of For Sale signs in the centre indicate that the town is in deep trouble.

Then again, if An Bord Pleanála comes back with a thumbs-up to the proposed €85 million development on the old Penneys site, “it would make an extraordinary difference”, says Joe Watters, the stalwart town clerk.

When we last met in 2003, Carlow-born Michelle Abbey (daughter of Cllr Michael Abbey), was about to marry Limerick native, Barry Wall. Both worked for Dublin IT companies but had set up home in Carlow, in a fine, four-bed, detached house bought for the price of a Dublin suburban two-bed apartment. The price was the commute. Though Michelle was able to “telework” from home three days a week, Barry’s daily journey to Clonskeagh began at 5.30am, ending back in Carlow 12 hours later.

So what happened next?

Both had good jobs, so it seemed feasible to buy a one-bed apartment in Stepaside, for a mid-week respite near the city. The arrival of their first child made the dual-location lifestyle barely manageable but the second prompted decision time. Dublin or Carlow?

Two mortgages and Dublin’s high creche charges were big factors but in the end, it was also about quality of life. “The creche here [in Carlow] is three minutes down the road . . . Michelle’s parents are literally in the next estate and her sister is here,” says Barry of their decision to stay in Carlow.

Apart from having two small children in the past seven years, Michelle completed a Masters degree and joined Ernst Young in Harcourt Street, Dublin, for whom she works three days a week in the city and two at home. Barry managed a similar arrangement and, for a few years, they alternated their home-working days.

In recent months, however, much has changed. Barry’s employer withdrew from Ireland leading to mass redundancies. His new job entails providing contracted support, remotely, for an American communications company, “so I’m at home five days a week now”, he says evenly. How is it going? “It’s early days.”

Michelle is expecting another child, but the commute continues. The new bypass makes for a “straighter run”, getting her to Newlands Cross in 45 minutes, “but it’s another 45 minutes to get the rest of the way. The roads are full. I try to leave work at 4.30pm and get home between 6pm and 6.30pm.”

Is it as tough as it sounds? “It is difficult. I don’t see the kids before I leave and if I’m home at 7pm, I might only be seeing them for an hour or half an hour. But the two days I’m working from home, you get three hours back,” she adds brightly.

The Walls are good at counting their blessings. They broke even on the Stepaside apartment, selling it just before the crash. They’ve bought a mobile home in Ballymoney, Co Wexford, which is 45 minutes south. “In the current environment, we’re very lucky,” Michelle says. “We have a good house and we both have jobs. At the moment, we’re not going to question too much how we do it.”

“People just have to be more flexible,” says Barry. “I’m 37. I’m not of the generation that doesn’t remember the bad days. I came out of college in the early 90s and took the first job I was offered.”

In 2003, their neighbour, Berni Murphy, a native of Dublin’s Liberties, was commuting to St James’s Hospital, where she worked a three-day week in nurse education. On the road at 6.20am, via Baltinglass and Tallaght, her journey took up to two hours and often she took respite overnight with her mother.

“I couldn’t carry on,” she says now. “I work a two-day week now and I still stay overnight with Mum or my sister or I’d be like a briar next day. But it has improved. With the new road and bypasses, I can leave at 7am and get in to work by 8.30am.”

The couple of years after the move to Carlow in 2000 were deeply challenging for a Liberties girl, but Berni is well settled. “I’m still a Dub, but even if I won the Lotto I wouldn’t move back now. I can ramble down the town for company, like my mother would walk down Meath Street. Everything is nearby. Every day I go for a walk in the Killeshin hills with the dogs.”

RURAL LIFE IS NOT for everyone though, Berni points out. Her daughter, Jessica, was 12 when they moved 10 years ago and she remained a “city kid” who “couldn’t wait to get out of Carlow”. For Berni though, it’s quality of life over money. “If you want a life-work balance, you have to cut your cloth.”

Seven years ago, Oonagh Barrett, then a theatre nurse working two 12-hour shifts a week in St James’s Hospital and her husband, Renny, an English-born IT contractor, had made the move from Kilmainham, seeking better local schools and a bigger house.

Back then, Renny was cramming his week into four 10-hour days in Park West off the M50, getting the 6.30am train to work and arriving home at around 6pm. Key to this was his determination to use travelling time as work time. He still does. The car would be quicker than the 90-minute train journey (he has to change at Heuston), “but driving is dead time”, he says. But he has gradually increased his days working from home and sometimes, works from Carlow for weeks at a time.

Renny is clear about the downside: “Working from home can quickly make you a poor cousin of those in the office.” But he now gets to have breakfast with his children. “I’ll walk them to school and pick them up. If the two of us are around, it leaves the other free to do stuff.”

Meanwhile, Oonagh lost her “verve” for nursing and did a diploma in holistic health. She now works for Carlow VEC as a tutor in adult and community education. “It’s The Good Life ,” says Renny gleefully. They have chickens in the garden, tickets for Electric Picnic in the dresser and – only today — a brand new, shiny Jaguar outside the door, a delighted Renny’s 40th birthday present to himself.

Oonagh volunteers at the “really beautiful” contemporary arts centre and Renny as a maths tutor to adults doing their Leaving Cert. They love Carlow’s diversity, the booming sports clubs – “there’s about 30 kids in the seven- to eight-year-olds’ rugby team, where other towns have only eight or nine”. They have the security of knowing the children can “wander” safely outside, and that the countryside is only three minutes away. A good decision then? “Anything that could be better is better here – and nothing was worse,” says Renny.

Irish Times

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