Is there any news softer than rich, creamy advertorial? There is not, and I can write the softest, most meaningless advertorial of all. I got the chance to do some on a few businesses in Midleton, so here they are.
All hail Midleton
Midleton is a prosperous town. You can feel it when you walk down the street – there is a buzz there that many other town of similar size have lost over the past decade. Even in the teeth of the recession, Midleton was doing well. Set in a valley between the low rolling hills of east Cork, the town is surrounded by lush farmland, and has been the marketplace for their produce for centuries – a tradition carried on since the establishment of the local farmers market, the first of its kind in Ireland. Allowing farmers and smaller food producers to sell direct to the public, a visit to the market is a Saturday morning tradition for many locals, picking up delicacies from Belvelly Smokehouse, Ballyhoura Mushroom or Woodside Farm. The market reestablishes a connection between consumer and product – the producers happily chatting with the customers about the food they are offering.
Next door to the market is the town’s multi award winning SuperValu, owned by the Hurley family.
Another key to the thriving main street is the local shopping centre. Rather than locating it out of the town, as has happened in many places around Ireland, Market Green SC is a short five minute walk from the main street, meaning shoppers can easily access both for their weekly shop. This has avoided what is known as the ‘doughnut effect’ – whereby the main street becomes hollowed out as the footfall is drawn to an out of town shopping centre. Market Green sits on the site of the old town mart, and anchor tenant Tesco draws the crowds that keep other outlets on the premises alive – opticians, pharmacies, health shops, barbers, hairdressers and a large branch of Heatons.
East Cork has built a brand around excellence in food and drink – a fact reinforced by the annual food festival, which sees tens of thousands of visitors descend on the town for a day of the best Cork has to offer. One of the main sponsors of the event is also one of the town’s main employers. For the last 200 years there has been a distillery in the town, one that is currently the home of Irish whiskey, producing the vast bulk of what is now the world’s fastest growing drinks category. Jameson, although associated with Dublin, has been flowing from Midleton for 40 years, and the presence of the distillery has contributed much to the success of the region, being an excellent employer. When other towns in the region lost big companies overseas, Irish Distillers committed to Midleton, giving the town confidence in its economic muscle. It’s not hard to see the firm’s influence on the town, from the whiskey displays in the recently opened JJ Coppingers, to the counter made from whiskey barrels in the award winning Sage restaurant.
One example of the distillery’s importance in the community came at a recent auction of farmland close to their current facility. Initially offered in several lots, IDL bought the entire package and then entered talks with the other bidders and a local sports club about disposing of some of the lands to them, showing that the distillery works with and for the local community.
Close to the old distillery, now the busy Jameson heritage centre, lies the recently developed Distillery Lanes shopping complex and multi storey car park. The 30m development is home to a number of retail outlets, as well as Asian street food vendor Ramen, but the largest and best known tenant is party food specialists Iceland – an essential supplier to the Christmas season. East Cork is spoiled for food and drink – from excellent restaurants like Sage, Raymonds and The Granary, to Ballymaloe House and Garryvoe Hotel; there is something to suit all tastes. The town is also home to artisan bakers Cuthberts, and O’Farrells Butchers, a mainstay in the town for more than half a century.
As an indicator of the economic strength of a town like Midleton, their property market survived the recession better than most, with well-known local auctioneers Colbert & Co, Hegarty Properties and Cronin Wall all thriving during some lean years. A sure sign of green shoots is in the opening of Factory Carpets on the main street, while other home improvement outlets such as Lakewood Furniture and Midleton Gates are helping homeowners apply a little TLC to their abodes.
In the 1880s, a British journalist named Alfred Barnard toured the distilleries of Ireland for Harpers magazine. He was very impressed with Midleton, speaking glowingly of the vale as a healthy and fertile country, and the town’s two rivers full of salmon. Two centuries last little has changed – the whiskey still flows, the land is still fertile and the people still as welcoming and prosperous as those who greeted Barnard. The town has a perfect blend of rich countryside, excellent facilities and a population who appreciate the finer things in life: It’s a success story worth toasting – slainte!
Let there be lights
Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year – but in Midleton two years ago, there were concerns that it might not come at all. Or rather, the town’s festive lights might not. The local traders group had ordered new street illuminations from a firm in Spain, securing a 50% reduction on a market price of €120,000. However, due to a delay in the order, it was into December before they were up and running. So were they worth waiting for? According to Joe McCarthy, the municipal district officer for the region, they most definitely were. Mr McCarthy is quick to point out that the firm they used for the lights is one of the best in Europe, and many of large European cities use them for their festive illuminations.
But Midleton deserves the best: “Midleton has always been a very strong trading town – the offer in the town is very diverse,” Mr McCarthy says.
To illustrate the town’s draw, he points out that when the town was bypassed, rather than taking business away from the main street, it actually made it a more pleasant experience for shoppers, alleviating traffic woes. Mr McCarthy also says that businesses are helped by the town being in the rare position of having more than enough parking spaces in the vicinity of the street, including two large car parks and a multi storey.
The old lights were a decade old, and had endured the extremes of winter storms as well as the big freeze in 2009 and 2010, so they had served the region well. The new town lights had a similarly rough introduction to Irish weather, having endured the violent storms last January, which saw part of the town flood. Mr McCarthy says they are currently being repaired by technicians from the parent company in Spain, and are due to be in place and ready for the switching on on November 26th, with the lights outside the courthouse and along the Babys Walk already in situ. Mr McCarthy is quick to pay tribute to the town’s traders who helped make the Christmas lights a success, including Fergus McCarthy of McCarthy’s Newsagents and Rachel McCarthy of Ina McCarthy Flowers, who were both drivers of the project.
Mr McCarthy says that a key to Midleton’s success is its sizeable catchment area – stretching from Ballycotton to Dungourney, Leamlara to Garryvoe, people in the region see the town as being theirs – it’s where they go to shop, to dine, to socialise, to spend. Midleton’s economic might is such that Mr McCarthy wants to share their success – as part of the Ancient East tourism initiative, new signage at the entrance of the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town will encourage the tens of thousands of visitors there to explore the region further. Mr McCarthy is also pushing ahead with plans to reopen the Youghal-Midleton rail line as a greenway, as has been done to many rail tracks around the country with great success.
The message is clear – Midleton is a commercial powerhouse in east Cork, and as Ireland emerges from the worst recession for decades, it looks like this could be the best Christmas yet for traders in east Cork; a real light at the end of the tunnel.
East Cork owes a lot to the monks. The largest town in the region, Midleton was founded by Cistercian monks, a fact reflected by the Irish name which means ‘monastery by the weir’. Then there was the monks’ love of ale and spirits – they kept the tradition of brewing alive in the dark ages and brought the Moorish practice of distilling back to Ireland, which in turn lead to whiskey production – another factor in the success of Midleton.
Somehow it seems fitting that the place where the monastery by the weir once stood is now a bar named the Mad Monk. And if that didn’t seem serendipitous enough, it also happens to be a bar that specializes in craft beer and whiskey – two of the biggest success stories in food and drink in Ireland in the past decade.
Manager Joe Philpott is quick to point out that they can’t simply rest on their laurels – they host guest beers from around the country and around the world, and also are one of the few pubs in the town serving food in the evenings. After 35 years working in the trade, Joe has seen the changes the last 20 years have brought and know that there has to be something more than just a pint – even if people are slow to change their perceptions of what a pub should be. During the summer months they hosted live music four nights a week, and they also cater to a large Czech population living locally, importing the best beers from their home country and posting updates on social media when a new beer has arrived from Eastern Europe. They also stock many Alltech beers, and even received a visit from Alltech’s founder, agritech billionaire Pearse Lyons, at the start of the summer.
There is also a craft beer link to the town’s newest pub, located at the other end of the main street. Owned by the family behind the famous craft beer pub The Cotton Ball, JJ Coppingers is named after a local man who fought in the American Civil War, whose family owned a brewery next door to where the pub now sits. The building itself has quite a history, having been designed by Gothic Revivalist architect AW Pugin, who designed much of the interiors of the British Houses Of Parliament.
Although owned by the Lynches, Coppingers is run by the same team behind The Castle in Glanmire and The Elm Tree in Glounthaune. A surprisingly cosmopolitan bar, no expense was spared in renovating the premises earlier this year. Set for their first festive season in the town, the venue has a packed schedule of live gigs to keep the punters happy – reflecting the modus operandi of all business owners in the town; you have to diversify. In fact, Coppingers also has an upstairs space that has the potential to offer space for a full kitchen down the road.
Across the street sits Wallis’s Town Hall Bar, the other late bar in Midleton. A staple of nightlife in the town for decades, it boasts a booming daytime and nighttime trade, with the late crowds drawn in by a commitment to live music – from DJs to rock bands to string quartets on Sunday afternoons – owner Seamus Cunningham has diversified to suit a changing market and changing tastes.
Across the road is another business that has changed many times – McCarthy’s Newsagents. Originally a grocers back when it opened in the 1960s, it later became solely a newsagents and book store, but owner Fergus McCarthy knows that you cannot rest on your laurels; they branched out to offer coffees and ice creams in the shop and have seen great success. However, however they have modernised the business, the family still carry on one old tradition – that of living over the shop, making them about the only trader in the town who does so. An enthusiastic ukulele player, Fergus organised the music for the switching on of the Christmas light last year, while his wife Susan is also heavily involved in the community, as she is the local county councillor. They prove that in business as in life, the key to success is having more than one string to your bow – or ukulele.
The hills of east Cork have long been alive with the sound of music. Back in the heyday of Tony and Charlie Moore’s iconic Meeting Place bar, musical icons like Christy Moore used to come play candlelit gigs to a rapt audience. In more recent times local viral sensations Crystal Swing rocketed to fame and a guest spot on Ellen thanks to their star quality. The town also boasts a very active brass band, officially titled the Midleton Holy Rosary Brass & Reed Band at their outset in 1951, they now operate as Midleton Concert Band, and have a busy festive schedule ahead.
But there is one music group in Midleton that sums up the best in both community and festive spirit – the East Cork Music Project. Started in 2011 by youth worker Claire Seymour, the courses they run have helped more than a hundred kids in the area express their creativity through art and music whilst also building important life skills.
Ms Seymour’s background was with another socially aware music project, the Cork Academy Of Music, where she saw how young people who might not necessarily be the sporty type, or the academic type, or might struggle to fit in, were able to find their voice through music. Inspired by this, she decided to bring a project to Midleton that would offer formal and informal training to young people, to keep them off the streets and out of harm’s way. So she applied for funding – and things happened faster than she thought.
“Our funding comes from Cork Education Training Board and our sponsors are Cork Diocesan Youth Services. Before I had a premises or anything I applied for funding, so I was in for a shock when a call came through telling me I had two weeks to get a space for classes – and pupils.”
Ms Seymour started with the basics – just asking young people if they would be interested in learning a musical instrument. Soon she had her first class, and after a move or two they found a home in Midleton Community Centre. There she and other tutors teach 25 kids in two music centred programmes – a FETAC Level 4 and a Level 5 that also teach employment skills and personal development. The skills learned in these courses have helped graduates go on to study music further in Cork’s School Of Rock, Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, and to gain employment in Midleton. The project gives them a chance they might never have had otherwise – as exemplified by a recent trip to Sweden, when Ms Seymour took 25 of her students on a cultural exchange programme to a similar group of students. The two groups came together and created music and art over five days under the auspices of Léargas – a trip of a lifetime for many of the participants.
The students also share their creativity with the local community in east Cork – they recently engaged in an art project with residents of the community hospital to create a large scale mural in the grounds of the community garden. The project’s contribution to the town has not gone unnoticed, with people in the locality donating musical instruments to the students, whilst a former janitor of Midleton Community Centre donated a car to the project. There has also been fund-raising for them – An Teach Beag pub, known locally as Banners, held an all day music marathon for the East Cork Music Project, raising €2,500, while a local choir has donated €1,000 raised through concerts they held.
But for all the musical creativity the project has inspired in the participants and the wider community, Ms Seymour says that the real rewards are seeing the kids communicating: “What we do here is create a space for the students to communicate and participate in something creative. It helps teach them to find their voice – to express how they are feeling. The greatest reward at the end of each term is seeing a student who has found some self belief, who has found some confidence in themselves and their own abilities and creativity.”
The East Cork Music Project is an example of the best of community spirit – creative, inclusive, educational, enriching. Plato said “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” At a time of year when people celebrate the child, Ms Seymour’s project and its participants are a shining beacon of hope for a better tomorrow – where no child is left behind.
-To donate to the project, or to just see some of their work, you can contact them on firstname.lastname@example.org, or at https://www.facebook.com/Eastcorkmusicproject/.