The Old Town looks the Same

Ramelton, County Donegal is marketed as a ‘heritage town’ and with the place’s history and excellent stock of old buildings there is every reason to consider the moniker well deserved. However, as so often proves the case in Ireland a sizeable gap opens between aspiration and actuality. Ramelton has potential, but the greater part of it remains unrealised. And given both the country’s economy and an habitual Irish inability to recognise obvious opportunity, that scenario is unlikely to change any time soon.
The town’s situation is particularly lovely. The main approach is from Letterkenny further south, the road suddenly descending until it comes to a halt on Ramelton’s quayside, grandiloquently named the Mall. Across the river Lennon the land is densely wooded, a perfect counterpoise to the urban development it faces and a reminder of how the entire area once looked.
While people have been living in this part of the world for thousands of years Ramelton is essentially a planters’ town, settled by English and Scottish immigrants in the 17th century; tellingly, a meeting house dating from around 1680 (and today the local library) is believed to be the oldest centre for Presbyterian worship in Ireland. The reason for the site’s appeal to settlers is that it lies at a point where the Lennon widens to join Lough Swilly and thence flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

So Ramelton developed as a port with ships regularly travelling between this part of the country and British, French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, their holds filled with produce like corn and bacon and dairy products. A series of stone warehouses along the quays bears witness to the town’s former prosperity, aided by the regional success of the linen industry: by the early 1840s Ramelton had Donegal’s largest linen bleaching works, evident in a still-extent complex of buildings called the Tanyard at the west end of the Mall.
Decline set in soon after, with Belfast’s emergence as Ireland’s pre-eminent centre for linen, along with the silting of the Lennon and the arrival of the railway to Letterkenny. Like so many other Irish towns, from the second half of the 19th century onwards Ramelton suffered from that peculiarly indigenous combination of neglect and apathy.
The trouble is that in large measure it still does. As elsewhere, the boom years saw plenty of building work but on the periphery of the town. Here you’ll find the customary unimaginative new housing estates with names like The Elms (and, naturally enough, not a single example of the species to be seen).

Meanwhile the historic centre was allowed to slide into dereliction. On almost every street there are gaps where houses have been demolished and sites left vacant; Ramelton is a beauty whose smile reveals advanced dental decay. Typically, on Back Lane a row of old houses which could be utterly winning have fallen into such decrepitude that ‘windows’ are now painted onto boarded-up fronts.
Many of the handsome quay warehouses have fared no better; their sturdiness is being severely tested by wilful neglect. Next to one of them on Shore Road, a typically pointless public amenity has been created on a vacant site: a so-called park featuring quantities of unalluring hard grey surfaces and only a margin of grass. Except as a short-cut for pedestrians, it looks little used – as evidenced by a local farmer parking his tractor and trailer so close to the entrance gate that access was well-nigh impossible.

There is apparently a local Tidy Towns committee and no doubt the members work hard to keep Ramelton as litter-free as possible. But their efforts can only go so far. What’s needed here – and elsewhere – is an understanding of how to capitalise on Ramelton’s currently dormant charm. A similar town in France or Italy would not be filled with vacant sites but instead with visitors enchanted by the distinctive character of the place. Ramelton could be a tourist hub – and recover some of its economic viability – if only serious restoration work were undertaken. There’s no point calling it a heritage town if the heritage is then disregarded.

31 comments on “The Old Town looks the Same

  1. Henrietta says:

    Typical of so many places in ireland. Makes one sad and cross. Trouble is the county councils are only as good as their councillors. And they are normally uninterested, or unsympathetic or worse with little or no appreciation of heritage and no taste and flare…. Left to some they would PVC the windows or rebuild in concrete!

    • Eimear Logan Dawson says:

      I wish you well on your travels and I look forward to your reports. When driving from Dublin to Athlone one passes ugly towns and one comes to a beautiful small town and I cannot remember its name but you just have to stop to admire it. I think it is not far from Mullingar. These kind of villages are to be found all over Sussex and Kent but one also many unattractive towns too. I think Ramelton is in a wonderful setting and if the buildings could be improved and also improving the layout Ramelton could hold its own when compared with any other small place. How I envy you living there.

      Good wishes and a Happy New Year from Eimear Logan Dawson
      How absolutely true are your comments. I live in Hastings again set in lovely surroundings but successive Councils allowed the same kind of thing to happen.
      The town is not in a good state and now there are moves to improve it a little
      thanks to a large Government grant. For the first time in history a Labour local solicitor was elected in 1997 and was he who persuaded the Treasury to award the Grant. Unfortunately he decided to stand down at the last General Election and the Constituency went back to the old days when those with no interest in the town. So many elected do not even live in the town nor do they have any past connection with the town. I think they are just in power to receive large salaries and unbelieval expenses. I am sure you are familar with the exposes on expenses.

      Good wishes and a Happy New Year from Eimear Logan Dawson

      • Geraldine O'Neill says:

        I wonder if you are the same Eimear Dawson I met many years ago in a golf club north of Hastings. Your husband called Albert?

  2. Ramelton is one of my favorite places in the world. It is sad to see it in decline. Before I returned to Dublin 20 years ago the whole of the old town was “For sale” and I considered many properties there before been advised to return to Dublin. Such sterling conservation work was being carried out and encouraged at the time by Minta Sweeney,Honor Myles and Kieran Clarke all now sadly no longer with us.

  3. Oliver Wilson says:

    Nice to see an interest arise in Ramelton. I can agree without a doubt that trends to build outside of the town in recent years has led to a definite decline in the ‘old’ towns integrity as a fine example of the plantation town. Your ‘broken smile’ analogy is perfect,on my count around one in four of the buildings that define its streets are derelict.

    Apathy is a big part of the problem, both the Library at the meeting house and the Ancestry Centre on the Quay have shut, presumably due to a lack of budget. This is one of the most beautiful spots in Ireland, and whilst personally I feel that its crumbly decay is part of what appeals to me, I cannot help but think of how such a neglected gem would fair in a more peregrinated corner of our Island. . . .the neglect goes beyond the local realm I’m afraid.

    • Well, I think the relative isolation of Ramelton doesn’t help, but moving it to another part of the country wouldn’t either – just try walking around the area of St James’ Gate: all those hundreds of thousands of visitors to Guinness’s Storehouse see the same dereliction and neglect. The problem is collective blindness not location.
      But thanks for your interest and keep reading!

  4. Martina Williams says:

    Cf Castlemartyr, Co. Cork – a fine example of an estate village along the Midleton-Youghal road with some fine town houses, market house etc but sadly a lot of vacated buildings in disrepair on what could be (and is in parts) a charming streetscape.

    • Yes, Castlemartyr sadly neglected – but not helped by the volume of heavy traffic that thunders through on a daily basis. The misfortunes of this town are replicated by many others across the country…

  5. Seán Ó Donnghaile says:

    Having just moved to just outside Ráth Mealtain,from the North East of Scotland (Gamrie),
    i have to say i find the locals idea of culture and heritage quite depressing.
    Nothing seems to be valued of any worth unless it is new!!!!
    No one seems to want to convert or upgrade old buildings but would rather let them rot into a pile of rubble and live in some ghastly “Dallas” style monstrosity.
    Before long maybe people will realize that their heritage has gone forever and the tourists stop coming,sick of seeing the same retarded,talentless style of “architecture” that passes off as modern “style”!!!
    Ráth Mealtain is a wonderful,peaceful and beautiful place.
    Wake up people of Eire and fight for YOUR culture!!!!

  6. ramelton man says:

    One thing stopping all the regeneration mentioned above. Money. People don’thave the cash to spend on restoration projects. Most of the derelict buildings mentioned might cost twice as much to restore as a new build. I’d love to have the millions to really change ramelton(facelift only , there’s nothing wrong with the culture as mentioned in previous post. I) also some of the buildings at the quay are being let fall into disrepair as the owner doesnt want to spend on restoring them for no reason. The y w ould rather see them fall down then they just have to clear the site and sell it. So if any millionaires have some spare cash come and spend it on a town regeneration in Donegal??? I doubt it. :-).

    • Reluctant as I am to contradict anyone kind enough to follow this site, it is simply not true that the costs of restoring an old building are necessarily higher than those of putting up a new one. It is also a frequently cited fallacy that old buildings are ‘beyond repair’ and therefore need to be demolished. Any building can be rescued and brought back to life provided there is sufficient interest and engagement with the enterprise. Ultimately the greatest losers in the decay of Ramelton are the local residents who must live surrounded by decay and without the potential revenue they could derive from an influx of tourists and holiday makers who would relish the opportunity to enjoy the charms of the town were these not so neglected. Urban economic regeneration begins with the indigenous population.
      And thank you for your interest in the subject, it is much appreciated.

  7. Stephen Shanley says:

    Agree with thoughts expressed on Ramelton. Always considered it a remarkable place. Love to see it and walk around it. So disappointing to see it in decline.

    • Thank you for writing a response. One can only hope that if sufficient people notice the neglect of Ramelton that the relevant authorities (and indeed the local population) will recognise that they are missing an opportunity to generate income and improve the local economy while at the same time improving the appearance of this historic town…

  8. Ramelton blow in says:

    One of the problems that Ramelton faces is that there is a strong anti modernisation group in the village who will not allow any change to the old buildings , developers are being hampered by the need to put everything back exactly as it was. This is what make people think it will be too expensive to take on these old buildings. Also some of the current owners will not spend the money to even stop further decay. The tidy town group try their best but they are not the people who own any of the sites.

    • Thank you for getting in touch. The problems Ramelton faces are not exclusive to this town, in fact they are representative of those faced by most urban settlements at present. However, if we are to encourage both the preservation of our architectural heritage and our tourism industry, we need to tackle these problems and find solutions. I must add also that conservation and restoration are too often presented as being somehow challenging and expensive: in fact they are no more so than building on a green field site. The challenges and costs are different but in no way insuperable: it just requires sufficient will and commitment, both of which are too often lacking. It also requires the relevant authorities in the area to show leadership and foresight, and again these have been consistently in short supply.

  9. Lady blow in of Ramelton says:

    I too am a blow in to Ramelton after falling in love with it on my first drive through, and own an old stone house. It has previously been partially double glazed in unsympathetic style and I would dearly like to return the old style front door and sash windows. However there have never been any grants available to help in the smallest way, so my piggy bank very slowly collects the savings. The Heritage society are not against modernisation, they are trying to keep the old structure there so that one day they might be saved, otherwise we would now have a Tesco sized superstore on the Mall. The old practice of pulling down now and asking later, with no recall from the council also remains.
    What we need is a TV restoration programme to take Ramelton under its wing maybe, or a rich American to discover his roots and take pity, and the face of Jesus in the crumbling lime plaster, or a visitation from The Virgin Mary to get the tourist coming!

    • Thank you for getting in touch. Yes, something like a television restoration is necessary to force improvement in the state of Ramelton, because otherwise it will continue what looks right now to be an inexorable and irreversible decline. The town could be such a tourist asset if only a smidgeon of imagination and initiative were brought to its management and maintenance…

    • Unfortunately it was not the “Virgin Mary” I saw in Ramelton last week but continued decline. “The house on the Brae” a fine georgian house which was restored by The Ramelton Georgian in the 1970’s and was thriving when I hast saw it 20 years ago is now semi-derelict with windows open to the elements at the back. Nearby the dreadful development of a so called lavatory park not appropriate to the setting. Whether good news or bad the whole site which includes various derelict quayside warehouses (€70,000 each – a bargain ?), the old ‘Guild Hall’, the old restored “Donegal ancestry” building (Two buildings in face ) which would make a great art gallery,craft shop,museum telling the history of Ramelton ready to go with lift and facilities – €250,000 and the thatched “Conways Bar” etc .. Robert it is time for a revisit and hopefully draw attention once again to this so called “Heritage Town” . I certainly think “The House on the Brae” deserves one of those Irish Times (Thursday) properties at risk features as the house technically belongs to the people of Ramelton.

      • David I used to live in Ramelton until the age of 12 when we moved to Mountcharles. Ramelton was a really beautiful place back then. We lived on The Mall in the house next door to the former Parochial House and later a restaurant. We first lived 2 houses to the right and then moved to the house with the gateway which on annual visits I saw was a Bed and Breakfast establishment. There was a beautiful house called The Green which was viewed from across the bridge at the side of Hughie Whoriskey’s Cycle Shop. It was rented by a family called Turner and we used to go to lovely indoor and Garden parties there. Who lives there now? You mention The House on the Brae. Where is that? It is so sad to see and to hear about the terrible deterioration of such a wonderful place. In the summer evenings when the tide was in there were quite a few boats on the river. One family, the Mooneys, were frequent sailors and Maggie used to sing with her powerful voice “Cruising Down The River”. Lots of people used to promenade on The the evenings. It was like a town from some other country. Campbells had an excellent grocery shop on the Mall near the Bridge and Gambles had a very nice Drapery shop near the Bank of Ireland. You had to go upstairs in Gambles to the Office where they had a good selection of magazines. My mother used to take me there as a treat and would buy me lots of reading material. We used to ride our bicycles a lot and we went swimming at a place called the Boct and we took a picnic with us. The house at the end of the road had a very good orchard and we bought various fruit from them. It was an idyllic place to live. I was at school in Dublin and used to look forward to wonderful holidays. We used to go to Letterkenny to shop and we used to go to Rathmullan to swim and to enjoy their lovely beach. My maternal grandfather was born between Cranford and Carrigart so we had lots of relatives living in that area. Their family home was high in the mountains overlooking Mulroy Bay where we went to fish. I cannot think that there was anywhere better or nicer to live than in that part of Donegal. I do hope that one day Ramelton will be restored to its former glory. All good wishes from Eimear Dawson (nee Logan). My Logan family had no connection with the area. They were from Athlone. My father was a member of the Garda and was stationed in Ramelton until he retired.

  10. Twin Town resident says:

    Ramelton, what can I say, beautifull vernacular buildings lying sleeping waiting for the gentle nudge to re awaken. The potential is there for whatever it needs to be. I once witnessed the film The Hanging Gale being shot in Ramelton from a first floor barn door with winch apparatus for hauling in the bags. The poor stuntman was hung about 5 times! My point is these buildings have been spotted by film scouts amongst others, tourists, rally fans heading to the Donegal International Rally, day trippers to the beaches in Rathmullin. However …………….it takes money to restore and rejuvinate a building no matter how big the heart is and regrettably our Irish Economy has welded that safe door shut. Had the Celtic Tiger still been trotting around Donegal I have no hesitation in believing someone with money or some people would be investing in Ramelton right now. I know I would but the Tiger paw marks were washed away years ago!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Thank you for getting in touch and for your comments. However, I would propose that even during the boom era the centre of Ramelton was neglected whole large and inappropriate developments took place on the outskirts of the town. The fact is that not just money but, equally important, imagination and vision are required to ensure our historic urban settlements survive. It costs no more to restore an old building in the middle of Ramelton than to construct a new one beyond the old boundaries. Until this is properly understood the ‘tourists, rally fans heading to the Donegal International Rally, day trippers to the beaches in Rathmullin’ and so forth that you mention will continue to have greater appreciation for Ramelton and to mourn its present state than do those who are actually in a position to do something about it.

      • Eimear Logan Dawson says:

        Ramelton could be one of the most beautiful small towns on earth so I am so sad to see photographs and to read about the awful decline of the town centre, I lived on The Mall until I was 12 years old (in the house with the side archway next to the house of the Roman Catholic priest). Small towns in Ireland are mostly very dull and uninteresting, built in the days before Town Planners and decent architects. Ramelton was just so different with the beautiful outlook on to the River Lennon and instead of the usual single long street common all over Ireland, Ramelton was broken up into a number of small streets some of which had lovely houses. I remember long summer days and when the tide was in the wonderful Mooney family would travel in their boat with Maggie singing with her powerful voice. “Cruising Down The River” must have been her favourite song. Crowds of people came to The Mall to view the scene and to enjoy the music. Every year travelling groups would come to the Town Hall to present plays and concerts. The great actor, Anew McMaster, was a frequent visitor. It was a town in which something nice was always happening. There is something about Mrs Gaskell’s novel “Cranford” which always reminds me of Ramelton.

        I don’t know the answer to halting the decay. It needs some powerful Government intervention to step and to compulsorily purchase the neglected buildings. A ban on new developments outside the town centre would have to be imposed and that money would be better spent on restoring the old buildings for residential use. Unfortunately money is not available and their must be hundreds of neglected towns all over Ireland. I know that if I was able to get back to living in Ireland Ramelton would be my first choice. I would much prefer to live in one of the old buildings after restoration with views of the river than in a newly built house on the outskirts of the town. I live in East Sussex and you rarely come across a small town which has been allowed to decay. There is plenty of decay in other areas but the small towns and villages seem to take great pride in their appearance. I do not know of any small town or village which has such a wonderful outlook as Ramelton. Some of you may watch the BBC’s dramatisation of “Mapp and Lucia” which is being broadcast on TV for 3 nights from 29th December. It was filmed in Rye which is about 12 miles from where I live. It is a town of very old interesting buildings, but its location and setting could not compare with Ramelton.

        Good luck to everyone who is trying to improve Rameltom so that one day it will be at the top of the list of beautiful places to visit. The tourist industry would be thriving. Please make the year 2015 the year that marks the beginning of restoration. God Bless you all.

      • Thank you for getting in touch and for your interesting observations. What has happened in Ramelton can also be seen in many other towns in Ireland. One of my plans for 2015 is to visit a different historic urban destination each month and write about it, so you can expect to see here a lot more on this subject in the months ahead…

  11. Geraldine O'Neill says:

    It is so lovely to read people’s passionate recollections of places like Eimear Logan Dawson’s memories of County Donegal towns. Sadly despite the boom Celtic tiger times here in Ireland no attention was ever paid to restoring lovely old buildings. We are, alas, a nation of philistines.

  12. Local resident says:

    I would like to address a couple points in your article. The farmers tractor is in fact owned by the local tidy towns and the driver was most likely doing some work in the area. The park is used frequently by both locals and visitors for taking lunch or lust having a sit down and letting the world go by. Also the estate you refer to is call Elm Court and there is in fact a few elm trees planted in it.The new estates in the town do not have the luxury of having a castle or church built on them so cannot be called church street etc. Would it better to have been called Rush Court because many of there estates are built on fields that were full of rushes.

  13. Catherine Harden says:

    How wonderful to read my very dear friend from Donegal days Eimear Logan Dawson. We grew up in Donegal, sent to boarding schools in Dublin, received a fairly good education from the Loreto nuns: Eimear at Loreto Abbey, Dalkey, and I was at Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnham. This was 1950’s Ireland, light years away from Surrey/Sussex where we both live now in Surrey/Sussex. Happily through the magic of the internet we have reconnected after almost fifty years and are busily exchanging adolescent memories. Are there any more out there who may remember us and would like to get in touch? Valerie Harden nee Black Donegal town.

  14. Jim Sweeney says:

    Just coming on this site and I would like to make a couple of comments in relation to your remarks about the Dave Gallaher Park,(or as you call it in your article a so-called park!) If this person had taken the time to enter the park and take a look at the art and design of the park more closely, not only does it have a practical use, but it actually tells the history of the town from prehistoric times to present day. They demolished old public toilets which were in a derelict state and built new ones. They had to remove over 10 tonnes of rubble and rubbish as the space was being used as a dumping ground before the insight of the local Dave Gallaher Society to turn it into an amenity for the community, tourists and visitors to enjoy. There have been trees planted, lights installed, summer seats and information on the local area and a second entrance for anybody that would like to take the time to enter. As a proud Rameltonion who is involved in trying to improve local areas of neglect, I find your comments lack of understanding to what was there to the beautiful amenity we have today very uninformed. If you go onto the Dave Gallaher Facebook page you will see photos of the park before and after to see what I mean. But I do agree that there are other areas of the town that could be doing with improving and the more its discussed and brought to light might evoke more people and the local council into action in improving what is a great historic town back to a place that people would love to visit and stay.

    • Thank you for getting in touch and for your observations. I must advise that I did go into the park and walked all around it, as I did every street in Ramelton. However, if you look at the date on which I put up that page, it was in October 2012, in other words four and a half years ago, and it could be that things have improved in the town since then: I have not yet had a chance to revisit the area but hope to do so before too much longer.

    • Sophia McFadden says:

      Jim, Was Sweeney’s pub and Conways two different pubs.


  15. Thomas O Brien, says:

    Firstly, thank you for your wonderful blog – it is an invaluable resource and inventory.

    I am currently involved in a restoration project in Ramelton, and would greatly appreciate if you might consider getting in touch with me by email, as I would love to get your opinion on our proposal which we hope is a positive development in the town, and perhaps tap your memory for successful precedents relative to our own project.
    I have been trawling the internet to find similar projects with aesthetic merit and can find few.

    (you are spot on in your appraisal of decline of the town)

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