Tidy Towns: Bringing Irish communities together since 1958

By Garreth Byrne

In 1958, the first winner in Ireland’s Tidy Towns competition was awarded to Glenties in South-West Donegal, which also came first in 1959 and 1960. The overall winner in 2017, was the village of Birdhill in Co. Tipperary. Big towns like Westport and cities like Kilkenny have also been awarded the annual prize.

The Department of Rural and Community Development guides the competition, which in recent years has been sponsored by SuperValu. This anniversary year, the Government has allocated special funding to boost the local efforts of Tidy Town committees.

There is a total of 45o possible marks awarded to each entrant, according to performance in these categories:

Community Involvement Planning – 60 marks
Built Environment & Streetscape – 50 marks
Landscaping & Open Spaces – 50 marks
Wildlife, Habitats & Natural Amenities – 50 marks
Tidiness & Litter Control – 90 marks
Sustainable Waste & Resource Management – 50 marks
Residential Streets & Housing Areas – 50 marks
Approach Roads, Streets & Lanes – 50 marks.

The competition organisers make it clear that Tidy Towns in not a Beauty Contest. Mere prettiness and a splurge of hanging flower baskets will not suffice. Indeed, the floral decorations have turned into a commonplace cliché. Town committees have to ensure that buildings, walls, signs and colour schemes of dwellings and commercial premises are maintained to a high aesthetic standard. They say; “Tidy Towns is fundamentally about doing things properly – good planning, well maintained buildings and public spaces, appropriate landscaping and respect for natural amenities.”

A good example of co-ordination in shop signage and colours of building walls is the Shop Street-Middle Street area of central Galway. The cobbled streets and the pedestrianisation have delighted visitors to the city. Continental tourists consider the aesthetics of the place to be on a par with some well preserved historic towns in Germany or Italy, but distinctively Irish in atmosphere. And, of course, Galway is the gateway to the superb natural landscapes of Connemara, which have inspired painters, poets and film producers.

The co-ordinated colours of main street dwellings and shops in Kerry and West Cork have also been admired over the years by British motorists driving off the ferry at Rosslare. Inventive sign painters enjoy creative careers in these and other parts of the land.

What makes a town good?

Ask a schoolchild: “Is your home town a good place to live in?” and if the answer is yes, the reasons given will include; family life and friends, appearance of the town and its hinterland and recreational amenities. A good town or village looks right and feels right in all seasons. It is one where there is community development spurred by civic pride. It is one where the built environment is in harmony with the natural amenities, such as canal and riverside walks, greenways, forest tracks, access to holy wells and monastic ruins. It is a place where the facades of empty buildings are painted up by voluntary labour for the summer season. It is a place where sporting organisations landscape the environs of stadiums and recreation centres thoughtfully.

Making a place a feelgood place requires thoughtful planning and lots of voluntary work. Such planning is awarded extra marks by the competition organisers, who want to see maps, plans and photos submitted by Tidy Town committees.

The input of various groups is essential – nature conservationists, architectural conservation societies, heritage groups and folklore and historical associations. Arts groups play a vital part in many places. A good town doesn’t happen by accident. It must be made to happen. Pride of place and pride of country are a powerful driving force.