Published in the Munster Express, Feb 8th 2013
O’Connell Street and its surroundings have earned quite a negative reputation over the years, largely due to the significant level of public order offenses that have been recorded there. And while, yes, crimes have been committed in the area, it is all too easy to dwell on the bad press and fail to recognise the positives that the area is bringing to Waterford City.
In a city where closures of businesses are quite common, O’Connell street appears to be the one area of Waterford where new businesses are actually opening up, with a pancake restaurant directly opposite The Granary the locality’s newest venture. The street currently boasts some 39 businesses spread out along the 450 metre stretch; a Polish Restaurant, three Polish supermarkets, two hotels, a gym, a pet-shop, a nail bar, two stationary shops, a hairdressers, two takeaways, a florist, not to mention countless pubs and various other services. And, of course, the area is now home to WIT’s Architecture Department at The Granary.
The area is also quite diverse. Magda from Koliba Polish Restaurant says that, like the Polish Supermarkets, they originally set up on O’Connell Street due to the sizeable Polish community in the area. The misconception now is that the area is still primarily Polish. However, according to the 2011 Census, Poles only make up 18 per cent of the street’s total residents, with over a third of Irish decent, and a further 18 per cent from other European areas and the rest from other parts of the world. These results indicate that O’Connell Street and its surroundings are home to a mix of nationalities. Magda remarked that one night in her restaurant each of the seven tables had a different nationality seated at it.
The great success story of the area is that the WIT Architecture Department moved to the Granary two years ago. Head of Department, Maire Henry explained that the move was originally meant to be temporary while the new School of Engineering was to be built, but due to government funding cuts the department is here to stay. “It’s been a great success,” said Ms Henry. ‘The majority of students couldn’t be happier with the move.” One student told me how, when studying at the Cork Road campus his ‘triangle of learning’ consisted of the College, Tesco and home, but since the move his college life has opened out to incorporate the theatre, restaurants, cafes “and even the gym!”
Local patrons remarked how the WIT students have brought “great life and energy to the street” and safety due to increased foot traffic. Whether their businesses had been affected directly or not they all agreed that the college was a great addition to the area.
While there are a lot of positives, the antisocial behaviour of the street cannot be ignored. For example, Grubb & Co, the longest running business on the street, was recently broken into. Several of the residents also explained that they don’t feel safe walking home alone in the dark but then again, is any inner city area ever safe to walk in at night, particularly for women?
The overwhelming opinion about the street is that lights are badly needed, especially past the Granary en route to Rice bridge. All interviewed felt that the area has been quite neglected by the City Council. ‘It could do with some planting and more bins to improve the aesthetics of the area,’ suggested Daniel Wright, one resident. ‘Some of the shop fronts are actually quite nice, but some others could really do with a bit of paint.’ It might be a matter of patrons getting together to work on & promote the area, as was done in Michael Street.
It’s very easy to walk down O’Connell Street and only see the problems but one thing’s for sure, O’ Connell Street is unique. People may be reluctant to believe that an area can change and grow but for the residents the street is definitely changing for the better.