(IRISH INDEPENDENT, June 5th, 2015)
The old meitheal tradition (the old co-operative labour system in Ireland where groups of neighbours helpe each other in turn with farming work) whereby people in rural communities would band together for a common purpose is alive and very well in the lively market town of Thomastown in Co Kilkenny. And there are some interesting projects right now in this historic town 17km southeast of Kilkenny city and snuggled into a scenic stretch of the River Nore.
Thomastown (population 2,273, according to the 2011 census) is the kind of place where you will find secondary pupils from Grennan College’s craft school, and students from the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland’s Ceramic Skills and Design course, both located in the town’s beautiful Island Mill, hauling stones and painting walls alongside local tidy towns volunteers for the massive Thomastown Weir restoration project.
Or if you drop into the Bridgebrook Arms on Mill Street, or Eddie Murphy’s bar, on Low Street, you might find yourself marked down for a pub quiz to raise funds for the weir project, or some other equally worthy effort.
Nobody’s safe, which is why Luka Bloom found himself donating the proceeds from a recent gig locally to Thomastown Community River Trust for the development of the weir’s Olympic-sized open air swimming pool. And Paul Noonan, of Bell X1 fame, and Cork troubadour John Spillane have also done benefit gigs for the Thomastown Community Kindergarten on Rock Road in Grennan.
Snow Patrol, based in the town for a while in the early 2000s, also found themselves sponsoring one of Thomastown United’s soccer teams.
Building work is well underway on the community gymnasium and leisure complex at Grennan College, in Lagen, and then there is the wonderful Town of Food/School of Food campus on the site of the former boy’s national school on the Dublin Road.
Originally known as Grenan (Irish: Grianán, sunny place), the name Thomastown derives from Thomas FitzAnthony, an Anglo-Norman seneschal (governor) of Leinster, who founded the town in the 13th century at an important crossing point on the Nore.
The medieval core of the town is a square block formed by Low Street, Pipe Street, Market Street and the Quays on the west bank of the river. The streets were laid out in FitzAnthony’s time so as to maximise the number of properties with street frontage and the layout is essentially unchanged since. In other words, a planned town.
Narrow convoluted streets and sharp angled junctions give the town a unique identity.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the town established itself as a centre for milling and several mills still in good condition can be seen upstream from Thomastown bridge.
On the outskirts of the town lie the impressive ruins of Grennan Castle, and the town and surrounding areas are rich in architectural treasures, including, two miles away, the quaint deserted medieval town of Jerpoint, and the elegant ruins of its 12th century Cistercian abbey, with its sculpted lords and ladies forming part of the restored cloisters.
Of more recent vintage is nearby Mount Juliet. This magnificent Georgian mansion, and leisure complex of more recent provenance, home to the Jack-Nicklaus designed championship golf course, draws well-heeled tourists from far and wide, to golf, fish for salmon and brown trout, ride out, or just fine dine and unwind in well-upholstered luxury.
We are in horse country here also, and also located at Mount Juliet is Ballylinch Stud, while not far away is Gowran Park racecourse, which hosts 16 National Hunt or Flat Race meetings each year.
When Thomastown Weir, running parallel to the Nore at Grennan Mill, was breached back in 2008, the Thomastown Community River Trust (TCRT) was set up to restore it.
The weir’s recently opened Olympic-sized open air swimming pool is a real community venture that has seen the involvement of official bodies like the Kilkenny LEADER Project, principally,but also the blood, sweat and toil of many Thomastown residents. The result has been the restoration of a much loved – and striking beautiful – local amenity.
Of the many people involved with the project, one name keeps cropping up, that of Shem Caulfield. An artist an photographer, Caulfield would cheerfully admit the weir project has taken over his life.
“The local community here have pulled off a major coup in working together to make this project happen,” he says. “This is about a community empowering itself, making our town sustainable, not just a subservient dormer town, depending on others.
“It’s about the town supporting the community and the community supporting the town.”
In 2013 Thomastown was designated as Kilkenny county’s Town of Food. With an emphasis on promoting and using locally-sourced food, the title carried with it €775,000 in grant aid under the EU Rural Development Programme LEADER programme. Some €180,000 also had to be raised locally in matched funding as stipulated by LEADER.
Food Campus Kilkenny also houses the recently opened School of Food, for the training of budding chefs, and offers classes in everything from cheese-making and building your own clay pizza oven to “Kitchen skills for older teens”.
The Thomastown area has a vibrant craft scene. Look out for Clay Creations, on Low Street, displaying the quixotic ceramics and sculptures of local artist Brid Lyons, while Karen Morgan’s contemporary pottery shop on Market Street is well worth a browse, as is Jerpoint Glass in nearby Stoneyford.
The Thomastown GAA club is rich in hurling history and sport is well catered for in general. As well as Mount Juliet, there is also Mountain View golf club in Ballyhale, and a good course at Gowran Park.
Woodlands and attractive walkways abound, but particularly popular is the Thomastown to Inistioge trail.
In a town so committed to good food and supporting artisan producers (like British cheese awards-winning Knockdrinna in Stoneyford), eating well is only to be expected.
Sol Bistro on Low Street has the John and Sally McKenna independent food guide’s seal of approval, while the coffee shop adjoining the delightful Watergarden gallery and garden centre beside the Nore on Ladywell Street is also highly recommended
Those with a sweet tooth will find it hard to pass Truffle Fairy, on Chapel Lane, run by where artisan chocolate maker Mary Teehan. The Blackberry Cafe, on the corner of Market Street, principally uses organic and locally sourced ingredients and produce.
The Bridgebrook Arms also houses the the Red Door gig and theatre venue and every Thursday night their “Open Mic” event packs them in. Tommy Tiernan kicked off his World Tour of Kilkenny here in October 2013
There’s a regular open mic slot also at Eddie Murphy’s. It was happy hour again for punters there in 2012 when Paul Heaton, of Housemartins and Beautiful South fame, played solo there during his 50/50 tour of the UK and Ireland by bicycle for his 50th birthday.
The recent reopening of the local institution that was Carroll’s, on Logan Street, was a big event locally.
The R700 Regional Route linking Kilkenny to Rosslare via New Ross and the Dublin-Waterford National Primary Route N10 intersect at Thomastown. The town is served by the Waterford-Dublin railway route via Kilkenny and is serviced by Bus Eireann and private operators.
St Mary’s National (boys and girls) on Maudlin Street and Grennan College
Property is comparatively hard to come by, as there was little major development, even in the boom times, and little new building to meet demand. Auctioneer Sharon O’Brien does point to the sale of several three-bed semis and four-bed semis in The Greens development recently for between €60,000 and €75,000.
According to Elaine Walsh of Green Door Properties a starter house in newer estates like Dunane, The Belfry, The Meadows or The Greens would go for between €110,000 and €120,000. A four-bed property in mid-range Berkeley Lawns, for example, would fetch around €185,000, A swanky detached mansion near Mount Juliet is a different proposition, with prices often going above the magic million.
65 Maudlin Court, a four-bed semi detached, is on offer for €159,500 (down €25,500) from J David Hughes Auctioneers, Kilkenny; *Green Door Properties is quoting €188,500 for the four-bedroom detached 25 Berkeley Lawn (Green Door Properties); while the 4000sq ft four bed detached opulence of 2 The Glen can be yours for just €1.3million, through Hooke and McDonald
- Attractive townscape, resulting from the quantity, quality and diversity of its historic buildings, and its riverside surroundings
- Predominantly young population and thriving arts, crafts and cultural scene
- Plenty of good artisan food available
- Lack of new housing
- Continued emigration of young people having an effect on business in the town
- No public park
- Still a number of derelict or unoccupied sites