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As a child, I Iiked to visit the Public Library in Loughrea. It occupied a room in the Temperance Hall and was presided over by Mrs Joynt, a thoughtful and benevolent woman with a soft-spoken voice. I loved to take down the large, illustrated children’s books and open them on the floor. I particularly liked books with large panoramic, aerial drawings of towns, especially those of the English High Streets with their houses, shops, traffic and people.


These pictures captured scenes of people going about their daily lives: the policeman on the beat, the postman with his parcels, the petrol pump attendant cleaning the windscreen of a red car, the milkman in his electric float delivering bottles of milk, the conductor helping an old lady on to the double decker bus, the greengrocer setting out his stall, the lollipop woman guiding the children across the street and so on. All these people seemed to be busy, and happy, going about their little lives in this bright, sun-lit world.


Traditionally towns were sociable places where people met and worked. Shop owners often lived over their premises and these businesses provided lots of employment for families and their staff.  But all that is changing now. A panoramic picture of a modern High St would be very different. Many of the small shops are gone – the corner shops, sweetshops, butchers, news agents, greengrocers, hardware stores and drapers. Many of the people are gone too – the petrol pump attendant, the milkman, the bus conductor, the bank official, the policeman. Former commercial buildings are boarded up and derelict because many of our towns are dying.


The main reasons for this decline are supermarkets, out of town shopping centres and, increasingly, buying on-line. The rise and spread of the supermarkets and large department stores, while very convenient for one stop shopping, have wiped out the traditional outlets by taking their business. Supervalu in Tuam, for example, is not only a grocery store but it is also a bakery, a butchers, a fishmongers, a newsagent, a florist, a drapery and a café. However, to his credit Joe O’Toole, developed his business in the centre of Tuam and provided hundreds of parking spaces that can be used to shop elsewhere. Similarly, in more recent times, Aldi and Tesco have also opened in the town itself. This contrasts with places like Claremorris where Tesco, Lidl and Aldi have built on the outskirts of the town and are draining business from the Main Street (as we call the High St in Ireland).


Most of these traditional shops were owner occupied or family run. They have now been replaced by multinational chains like Tesco, Aldi, and Lidl whose headquarters are outside Ireland and whose tenure in a town depends entirely on profitability. The new retailers have no loyalty to people or place, to community or locality. They are like the giant hogweed. Initially the hogweed, that can grow to 20 feet, was an exotic import brought in by people years ago to enhance their gardens. However, the same noxious hogweed is now destroying local habitats by shading out local plants, eroding riverbanks and endangering health. We seem to be powerless to do anything about either foreign invader – the giant hogweed or the infestation of superstores that are destroying local habitats. When Joe O’Toole died his will bequeathed millions of euro to community enterprises in Tuam like the new nursing home and Tuam Stadium. In comparison, what will our foreign owned supermarkets leave as their legacy?


So where will people work in the future? Farming, fishing, forestry and mining are employing fewer and fewer people as giant excavators replace the need for human labour and factory ships hoover fish out of the sea. More and more manufacturing is being relocated to low cost Asian countries.


What remains are the service industries. But they are failing to take up the slack as public services are slashed and the work force is being reduced to a limited number of highly paid individuals in finance, medicine and law, while more and more people are being forced to take part-time, minimum-wage jobs in call centres, fast food outlets and care homes. For too many young people today it’s a choice of little or nothing, no matter how well educated they are.


We need to change the priorities. In the name of a small political party “people must come before profits”. The insatiable desire for more and more profit must be deflated for everybody’s sake. Forced unemployment is soul destroying. Not only does it materially impoverish people it takes away the human desire to be a productive member of society. Forced idleness dries the marrow from the bone and the joy from life.


Ultimately, we are social beings and we need places to interact. We are creative beings and need to feel useful. For these reasons town and village life must be preserved. So, support your local shops. Support local producers. Support small traders. Support your neighbours. Meet your friends in town. Return to the cafes and pubs. Bring life back to our streets. The busy High Streets that I loved to read about as a child need to be preserved at all costs.


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