In a series of articles, The Irish Times explores five challenges facing rural Ireland – diversity and migration; poverty; rapid growth; post-recession recovery; and depopulation – and ways to overcome them.

Edgeworthstown, home town of the 18th/19th-century writer Maria Edgeworth and her family, is now one of the most multicultural towns in Ireland. Almost 35 per cent of its 3,000 or so residents were born abroad.

It has consequently become one of the fastest growing towns in Ireland. This growth could be seen as surprising. In the aftermath of the economic crash it was blighted by half-occupied estates that had been incentivised by section 23 grants.

Auctioneer Frank Greene drives me around in his jeep to show me that 99 per cent of those houses are now occupied. He shows me the factories at the edge of the town – C&D Foods, Paul and Vincent, Moulding Technology LTD. He talks about the post-boom doldrums of absentee landlords and vacant properties.

“The new communities saved this town,” he says.

Greene is also the chairman of the Edgeworthstown District Development Association. Some people here, he says, are locked into what the town used to be, before the mart left, before the town was bypassed.

Edgeworthstown estate agent Frank Green. Photo: Lorraine Teevan
Edgeworthstown estate agent Frank Green. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

“But towns change. People change. What worked for your father won’t necessarily work for you. What works for you won’t work for our children.”

The Edgeworthstown District Development Association is optimistic about the future of the town. Greene introduces me to Claire McEnroe, “a-blow-in from Cavan”, who is on a committee overseeing the transformation of the former Ulster Bank building, recently bought by the council, into an Enterprise Hub for local start-ups and telecommuters.

“We want to keep people here,” she says. “To future proof the town.”

“Market towns are not going to be about retail anymore,” says Greene. “We have boohoo.com now. People buy online. What we have to provide is services like this.”

There are other reasons for optimism. A new library will soon be built on Main Street at a cost of €3 million (the sod was turned by Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring last week), and Greene would love to see the development of an industrial park. He takes me to the local crèche which is situated next to a community centre and a national school, where 19 different nationalities are represented in the playground.

“Just look at that,” he says.

He shows me the old Edgeworth family’s dower house and the nearby walled gardens. His own offices are situated in the Edgeworths’ old porter house. Does he like owning a bit of the town’s history?

“Sure, aren’t we making it every day?”

How did this town’s population become so diverse? The way Greene and others describe it, it was an organic process. Lots of people came to work in the factories at a time when it was difficult to find workers. Then, when the property market crashed, those workers bought cheap houses and put down roots.

Quiet life

Muhammed Khan, whom I meet in his phone shop catering to the phone-cover needs of a gaggle of teenagers, says he came here at the suggestion of a friend, for a quiet life.

“In Cork and Limerick [where he previously lived] life is very busy. You can’t give time to the people. Here, everyone is going to finish work after five or six and mostly everyone knows each other.”

I visit an English-language conversation class run by Longford Community Resources, a local development company. The atmosphere is warm and friendly. Eva Halasz from Slovakia has brought some Slovakian chocolate cake in a Tupperware container.

“We love her because she brings treats,” says Brendan Fagan, a retired IT worker who helps out here as an English tutor.

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