Places do not die as people do, but they often changed so fundamentally that little is left of what once they were.
– William Trevor, in the introduction to his memoir, Excursions in the Real World.
Although born in Mitchelstown in north Cork, William Trevor had a nomadic childhood. The son of a bank manager, his family went where the job took them, from Tipperary, to Skibbereen and to Youghal. It is this last setting that inspired Trevor’s short story, Memories Of Youghal, in which two spinsters on holidays on the Côte d’Azur meet an Irish private investigator named Quillan. The man is dishevelled, drinking whisky in the hot sun, as he opens up to them about his tragic childhood in the east Cork seaside town, orphaned by the sea at five months old. Despite the character’s bitter childhood, his recollections of Youghal are of a bustling port town. But that changed, and not for the better.
Growing up in the nearest large town to Youghal, my visits there as a child were surprisingly sparse. The old Midleton-Youghal rail line ran along the valley below my family home, but the trains that used to bring generations of city folk to the sea on a sunny day stopped when I was seven, in 1982. Then there were only two trains left using it once or twice a year – beet transporters and Youghal parishioners on their annual pilgrimage to Knock. I can remember picking blackberries along the tracks and having to stand aside to let the train pass, something that only happened twice in my life. Soon those trains stopped too, and the line was shut. It marked the start of an age of decline for the seaside town they forgot to close down.
Built along a steep coastal road, Youghal is a long, narrow place, with the main centre on the seafront and the residential area on the hillside above. Back in the Eighties and Nineties it had large employers in the form of Kodak, Seafield, and Youghal Carpets, but one by one they closed, leaving the empty factory units to decay. They are what greets you when you enter the town from the east, with an amusement arcade now based in one of the units.
Perks was located farther up the town, but the space was sold for one of several oversized, ugly apartment blocks built using tax incentives during the boom years pre-2008. The front of the former factory is adorned with the Perks logo and several figures taken from one of the old carousels. They stand there, in their least natural state – fixed to the spot, paint chipped along their rictus grins, staring out to sea. An old man passing tells how the little old lady in charge of the carousel used to give kids a go on it for free. ‘You wouldn’t see that in this economy’ he adds.
Inside, there are many old video games from the mid-1990s, still in perfect working order, as though time had simply stopped. They have ten-pin bowling, a large play area, a casino of sorts, bumper boats, a fast food restaurant – it is a one-stop shop for weary parents looking to tire kids out on a rainy day at any cost. No matter how I try to romanticise it in my mind into some sort of indoor Coney Island, Perks is still just a collection of amusements inside an old factory. But at least something has been done with the building. Time was not so kind to the unit next door.
William Trevor studied history in Trinity, but afterwards he became a sculptor – meaning he would be doubly saddened by the sight of a work by the great Cork sculptor Seamus Murphy over the door of a beautiful old building that is falling apart. The units behind here non-spontaneously combust from time to time, sparking fears that the asbestos roofs are going to go up in smoke and poison the townsfolk. But still they stand, a monument to the town’s loss – the first of many you pass.
All along the serpentine main street – broken into north and south – there are buildings for sale, many of them beautiful listed structures, historic properties that just need a little TLC (and, sadly, a substantial amount of investment) to bring them back to life. Some of the more ordinary buildings have already featured at auctions for distressed properties – many failed to make their asking price. Three years ago a three-storey building in the heart of the town went to auction. It had a restaurant on the ground floor, and apartments above. Its asking price was €45k. It failed to make even that. The old cinema, the Devonshire Arms, an old church, all empty, all with for sale signs – even the lighthouse keeper’s house. So why will no-one invest in Youghal? This is a town crying out to be gentrified – if you look beneath the garish ‘for sale’ signs, there is incredible potential; this town should be the Clonakilty of the east – a destination for international and domestic tourists. So what the hell happened?
As with any disaster, there is no single event to blame – the factors are outlined in an excellent documentary on YouTube, which combines local opinion with the two cents of planning and economics experts. The problems began when people stopped holidaying in Ireland, and started getting cheaper breaks overseas. The rail line closed. Then the factories closed. Then the town became what is known in urban planning as ‘a donut’ – the town centre became hollow as the Tesco opened closer to the bypass, drawing townsfolk there. The epic main street doesn’t help the hollowing effect – there are so many units along its two kilometre length, it would take a booming local economy to fill them all. But there is no boom here: Youghal has become a dormitory town – people live there, but work elsewhere; if they were lucky enough to get work.
However, it is precisely because it has been in a depressed cryosleep for decades that gives it such an air of antiquated charm. In fact, as far back as the 1950s, John Huston shot the exterior scenes of Moby Dick here because New Bedford had changed too much. Even today, the town has the feel of a landlocked Marie Celeste.
One great example of Youghal’s living relics is Tynan’s, which must be one of the most oldschool pubs in Ireland. Flagstone floors (which help give it a better pint, apparently), ornate ceilings, remnants of its time as a grocers, saloon doors, pictures of the Virgin Mary, bags of potatoes on kegs, and the sneaking suspicion that there could be some very old whiskey lurking in a storeroom somewhere out the back – Tynan’s is like a Dick Mack’s waiting to happen. What American tourist wouldn’t love to have a pint in a little piece of the old country like this?
The whole town is alive with tourism potential. But like any seaside town, the ocean is both friend and foe – just as it drew city folk looking to cool off on sunny days, it also pummels the town from time to time. Their beachfront boardwalk was open a mere three years when a particularly vengeful storm made landfall and made matchwood of it. A harsh lesson for boardwalk designers, it was since rebuilt using steel foundations.
But in the summers the beaches have been quieter than they should be: After ongoing issues with their water cleanliness (not the best PR for a seaside resort) the State is trying to build a water treatment plant, ensuring that the large sandy beaches will get retain their Blue Flag status. But as with Youghal’s usual poor fortune, delays in foreshore licences have stalled the project.
The old rail line that used to being tourists from Midleton is being reopened, albeit as a greenway; and the town has also been pushed as a likely capital for Ireland’s Ancient East, a slightly watered down variation on the breathtaking Wild Atlantic Way. With all the incredible history in the town – Tynte’s Castle, Walter Raleigh’s home Myrtle Grove, the clock tower in the heart of the town, St Mary’s Collegiate Church, the town walls, and the arch under which Cromwell departed Ireland still stands down a little side street – it should be an obvious choice. The town also hold festivals, like the Queen Of The Sea, surely one of the few beauty pageants in Ireland to also boast a crab catching competition, and hold a fundraiser in the form of a donkey derby earlier in the year. Last year I met John Harvey McDonagh of Spey whisky, who told me he had been to the (now sadly defunct) Youghal Potato Festival many years before, marvelling at how a festival celebrating Youghal (allegedly) being the site of the first crop of spuds planted in Ireland could be turned into a display of Bacchanalian pageantry akin to The Wicker Man. “It’s a hell of a place,” was his summary of the town he called ‘Yockal’.
After years of struggle, it finally looks like Youghal might be bouncing back, which is the least the townsfolk deserve. Perched on the edge of the county bounds, with its back to the yawning maw of the mighty Blackwater and face stoically turned to the sea, they must sometimes feel like the orphans of local government. There are people out there who are willing to invest in the town – a Dublin family bought the run-down Walter Raleigh Hotel and transformed it into a bright, luxurious space, and have enjoyed four years of prosperity.After decades of hardship and simple dumb luck, Youghal deserves a break. I hope that, in the coming years, Youghal’s recollections of the last few decades will be like those of the detective Quillan – unhappy memories of a nice little place.