By Peter O'Connell
Once the shutters are tightened for the winter months in Kilkee, it’s vamoose time. The town empties. A visitor could have the horseshoe shaped beach to themselves most days. Or if they felt like taking on the Cliff Walk, it would most likely be a solitary experience.
A shortage of people of course isn’t what keeps business ticking over. Up to four or five years ago, Kilkee business owners were more or less guaranteed that the town would be packed for the summer months. Winter was invariably quiet but if they’d had a good summer, they could handle that.
Last Thursday, the town was deserted though that was hardly too surprising given that it was mid December. What is concerning Kilkee Chamber president Johnny Redmond however is the fact that the summer season has slackened considerably.
The proprietor of The Strand Bar and Restaurant remembers a time when his bar was heaving at 10pm most Saturday nights. Not now though. Last Saturday week was the first time in 22 years that The Strand bar was not open for business on the main weekend night. Redmond feels that variable factors have contributed to a decline in business in Kilkee including the recession, off licences and changes in the drink-driving laws.
“It’s just that the people aren’t coming to the town anymore. Kilkee was the place to go on a Saturday night,” he reflected.
“With the rise of off licences and the like, you can buy 20 bottles of a certain product for €15. You can’t go into a pub and buy four bottles for the same price. This is what you’re up against,” Redmond added.
He pointed out that there are just 11 public houses in Kilkee now. A few years ago, the town had 45 licences; 1,000 public house licences won’t be renewed in Ireland this year.
Redmond says buying drink in off licences is less expensive simply because operators have less overheads than publicans.
“You walk in the door of an off licence, take your drink off the shelf and you walk out. It’s impersonal. There might be one or two staff. In a bar, you might have five or six people. You have huge rates and insurance. I paid €18,000 in insurance and rates last year before the summer. Before I opened my door I had to fork out that. That’s before I paid any electricity, PRSI, as well as all the other expenses. How do you make money around here?” Redmond asked.
“I wouldn’t mind but in the ’80s it was the revenue from drink and cigarettes that kept the county going,” he sighed.
The implementation of stringent drink-driving laws, where drivers are often breathalysed on Monday mornings on their way to work, has further eroded weekend business.
“People are afraid of their lives to come out on a Sunday night anymore. It’s very hard to argue against it but it has had a severe impact on business in rural West Clare. That’s life. You can’t argue with the law. Also people seem to be coming out later now.
“A few years ago at 10pm on a Saturday night, you couldn’t get in the door. It was a trend when the Atlantic (night-club) was going. I remember the good days of the Atlantic back in ’85, ’86. The Waterfront (night-club) used to bring 600 people into Kilkee on a Saturday night. I’d have them beforehand. They used to come in here, walk out the door and straight down,” he recalled.
In those days the town was packed, unlike most of 2010 when nighttime visitor numbers dried up.
“If you go back to the late ’90s, on a Saturday night from the Esplanade to the Thomond Hotel, cars would be parked on each side of the road. Now you won’t see one car parked there,” he said.
The summer season is gone too, he says. “I speak to the businesses in Kilkee. You can say it reflects the current climate and it probably does a little bit but the good days are gone. There’s no young people in Kilkee in the summer time. I have a business of 22 years that was aimed towards young people.
“The Strand was the place to go. I know of a lot of people that have left because of the state of the country but, as I said, even in the summer you can see that when you rely on Limerick or domestic business, that wasn’t there this year. There was a bit of it around but the spend wasn’t there. People were always trying to negotiate on prices, especially in accommodation,” he said.
“I even find that my accommodation is back this year. Anyone in Kilkee will tell you that because all of the big hotels are giving away the rooms for nothing. Where would you stay? In a five-star hotel, that are giving way the room for €50 or €60 or come to Kilkee and stay here? It’s a no-brainer,” Redmond said.
While exasperated at the decline in business, Redmond is confident that the Kilkee and broader West Clare tourism sector will recover. He cites the winning of the European Destination of Excellence Award for the Loop Head peninsula, as a significant step forward.
“It’s something that’s going to take time. It’s about baby steps. Fáilte Ireland now have an eye on West Clare. They’re looking at Loop Head and we have their ear. Now is all about development. The award is there. It’s up to people now to say ‘how can I capitalise on it?” Johnny believes.
He is adamant that business people with fresh ideas could capitalise.
“Anyone who wants to be innovative will benefit. The council are working on new signage on the area or so I’ve been told. Eventually, there will be signs leading into the West Clare area that will say ‘welcome to the Loop Head peninsula, Destination of Excellence 2010’.
“No one knows about these places. One person said to me lately that when you’re driving into Kilkee, it looks so uninviting. This will help to bring on a dream that I’ve had; that when you come off the ferry in Killimer, you keep them in lower Clare and get them out onto the peninsula,” he said.
Johnny Redmond believes that if walking routes, bird watching opportunities and the attraction of Loop Head lighthouse are exploited, it would aid the recovery of business in the region.
“Someone described the Loop Head peninsula as a sleeping giant in the ocean. It is starting to wake up. There are things starting in the area at the moment. One of the community development groups is developing walks in Loop Head. Do you know that there are 10 million walkers in England alone? If you could get 1% of those back here it would be great but we need to tell them about it,” he maintains.
Suggesting that the fable of Diarmuid agus Gráinne’s leap off Loop Head should be utilised to help attract visitors to Loop Head lighthouse, Redmond admitted that he has never been inside the door of the lighthouse, which is not open to the public.
He points to last summer’s Kilkee Maritime Festival as one of the highlights of 2010 but feels that while Kilkee has 11,000 beds, the town must increase the number of guesthouses. Another item on the long-term agenda is the re-establishment of a September music festival in 2011.
“We’ve lots to offer in the area but it’s about putting it out there,” is how Redmond encapsulates the way forward for business in Kilkee and its hinterland.
The Strand Bar and Restaurant will feature on RTÉ’s At Your Service in January.