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.