It’s more than 20 years now since what Moira Merrigan describes as “a tsunami” hit Tipperary Town. Most of the young people she works with these days at Youth Work Ireland’s resource centre weren’t even born back then but the impact is still felt around a once prosperous urban centre that now ranks high on some of the nation’s less desirable statistical lists.
The closure of facilities that had belonged to the likes of Atari, hygiene products manufacturer Tambrands, Kiely’s Bakery and then, a little later, healthcare technology firm Pall stripped out most of the big employers, and the town has struggled to recover.
It is hard to imagine any community of 5,000 not being severely impacted by job losses on that scale but even now, when unemployment runs at about 4 per cent nationally, in parts of the town the percentage of men out of work is closer to 40 per cent. There are significantly higher than average rates of long-term illness or disability and other measures associated with deprivation.
If you aren’t in employment or education now it means there are other factors at play that are impeding that and I don’t think there is enough being done to support young people in that situation
— Moira Merrigan, Youth Work Ireland
There is still a substantial Tipperary Co-op that employs more than 200, as well as a handful of engineering and other mid-sized industrial facilities, but the Government, along with its various related agencies, is now the biggest employer in the locality, while retail is often the first port of call for some of those Merrigan seeks to support.
A regeneration taskforce is working with a range of agencies to address some of the issues involved and its manager, Michael Begley, points to some positives, including the planning permission just received for an industrial park he hopes will cater for seven or eight employers, the development of a digital hub and expected progress on a much-needed bypass.
In the meantime, nobody disputes the environment is challenging.
“I think people see so many jobs being advertised and think if people want to work they can work, just look at all the work that’s out there,” says Merrigan.
“I get that but the risk is we take the foot off the pedal on the issue, which would be awful, because the ones who are left behind now are so left behind. If you aren’t in employment or education now it means there are other factors at play that are impeding that, and I don’t think there is enough being done to support young people in that situation.”
Merrigan works on a one-to-one basis with perhaps 15 individuals at a time, seeking to help them prepare for, and then engage with, the jobs market. The young people she deals with, she makes clear, do not have to be there. She has no power to sanction them if they are not really seeking work “so they are motivated but often they are dealing with mental health issues or substance abuse, they might have experienced severe trauma, have family issues or be homeless”.
“Their confidence can be on the floor and sometimes you need to take some easy wins with short courses to build that up. Some of them, you could get work for tomorrow but then they might lose the job again because they are not really ‘employment ready’. That’s a large part of what my role is, getting them hooked into the various agencies and people who might help get them on track.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as somebody who has gone to college, dropped out and is a little lost. Other times, it’s a lot more complex than that.”
Some of those Merrigan has worked with are among those dropping by the centre on the day The Irish Times visits. All of them talk of having had difficulties of various types during their school years and a mix of challenges now with housing and mental health, particularly depression and/or anxiety.
Margaret Collins (23) credits her assisted return to education with having played a significant part in helping her secure a couple of jobs in retail before she moved to a housekeeping role in a local care home.
Twenty-one-year-old Chloe Hayes recently took up a job in a major supermarket chain she clearly likes a lot but says it wouldn’t have been possible before she had her son, Eric, 18 months ago. “I had bad social anxiety but I’m much better since I had my baby. There were so many appointments, so many people I had to talk to… I sort of got used to it,” she says.
Francis “Franco” O’Reilly is also happy these days, having just started in a local supermarket where managers have been good to him and, he feels, it is going well. He is 25 and previously worked in a variety of construction-related jobs, fencing and the like, but he can’t drive and, being dependent on others for lifts, was an issue, he says.
Similarly, Ernestas Gagelas was helped into a course at the local ETB Construction Skills centre, a recent enough arrival on the landscape, by Merrigan, and his employment prospects have improved significantly but many of the jobs are in Limerick and getting there is an issue.
The scheme which Merrigan works on, which is funded by the Department of Social Protection, helps many of the young people get driving licences but lack of access to a car is often a problem.
If you could take a generational view, a 50-year one, you could do great things here, there is such potential
— Shane Kelly
Public transport, meanwhile, is improving but is still a significant issue. The town has a train line – Rosslare to Limerick – but very few trains, and while Limerick Junction is just a few miles out the road, the potential to commute in that way is limited.
Accessing work or services in other parts of Tipperary is particularly challenging, Merrigan says. “Tipperary is huge. I’d get to Dublin quicker than I’d get to some places in it. There are some big employers in Clonmel but there isn’t a bus that gets you from Tipperary Town to there before 9am.”
Court appearances, on even the most minor matter, involve getting to Nenagh and adjournments can mean multiple days off, something that can inevitably cause issues with an employer. Getting to certain health services can also be an issue.
Shane Kelly, who has lived in the town for nearly 20 years and runs a pharmacy on the main street, where about 30 per cent of retail units are vacant, says there are a significant number of professional and other high-quality jobs in the area “but educational opportunities are certainly an issue”.
“If you could take a generational view, a 50-year one, you could do great things here, there is such potential, but of course things tend to be based more on the electoral cycle and Tipperary Town has been on the margins a little for different reasons.”
There is certainly potential for significant future growth, he believes, in a town that was losing people in the run-up to the 2016 census.
For the moment, though, Tipperary Town is just one of many areas around the country where people might marvel at all the breezy talk of full employment and wonder whether their young people will ever experience the benefits it is supposed to bring without having to leave the area.