I live in Strandhill, Co Sligo. My full-time job is working for the Western Development Commission. We’ve moved recently to becoming a fully remote Government organisation.

A big focus of the organisation is showcasing what happens when you move to the west of Ireland. If you look at Fáilte Ireland’s remit, through the Wild Atlantic Way their focus is to get people to visit here.

The Western Development Commission’s remit is to get people to look at the opportunities of living, working and moving to the west of Ireland.

Allan Mulrooney with his daughter Isla.

What we’re trying to do is get a small number or a certain number of people to potentially look at leaving Dublin, London or elsewhere and bring vibrancy back to a community in the west.

If you’re in Dublin – coffee shops, restaurants, nightclubs and live music – in your early 20s that’s probably where you want to be.

What we often find is people leave – especially the diaspora – they get to their early 30s, maybe a little bit older; they’re looking for a garden, they’re looking for a dog and they’re looking maybe to start a family. Then maybe the idea of being in a one bedroom apartment doesn’t sit that well with them.

That was my story. We moved back to Sligo at that stage, after we’d done the late nights and the live music for years in Dublin.

The COVID effect

Definitely since COVID has kicked in we’ve seen a large amount of people move to the west of Ireland – I’d imagine it’s the same for the midlands as well – who can now fully work from home.

The benefits of working from home, it depends on the industry and it depends on personal circumstances. For me, personally, I’ve two young kids, so the fact that I don’t have to be on the road is fantastic.

Shoppers and stallholders at Strandhill People's Market.

I can do breakfast in the morning with the kids and I can get out for a walk with the dog at lunch. Sometimes I’m lucky and I even get a sneaky surf in the morning because I’m right by the sea. If I was on the road like I was for a number of years, I wouldn’t be able to do that.

The challenges that brings with it is the face-to-face interaction that most people are missing and will continue to miss as COVID goes along.

Strandhill People's Market has an array of stalls.

I’ll speak for myself as opposed to the organisation, there has never been a more exciting time for the west of Ireland to revitalise itself.

There are countless stakeholders from Donegal to Kerry who spend their daily lives advocating for the betterment of the region. The reason for that is so their kids grow up in a better place or that we don’t get brain drain.

Market days

The idea for Strandhill People’s Market first came about after my father had visited my sister in Sydney years ago. He came back with this idea that we should start a market, that it would help some of the local businesses to showcase their products and give him a focus as well.

We started on the beach front, behind The Strand Bar for anybody who knows Strandhill well. I think the first week we had nine or 10 stalls. That’s seven years ago now.

We spent the first summer on the beach front and we had some beautiful days. When the sun was shining you couldn’t be anywhere better in the world.

Aoibhin Clancy of Coy Vintage, a stallholder at Strandhill People's Market.

More often than not though, you’d get a storm that would roll in from the Wild Atlantic Way and we’d all find ourselves holding on for dear life to gazebos. We realised that if we wanted to continue it, we’d need to move to a more secure location.

Up stepped the airport, Sligo airport, that’s just up from the beach front. It had closed its doors to commercial flights about three years at that stage. We started using a hanger there and that’s where we still are now.

Back stronger

When COVID kicked in we had to close down. Our stallholders and people attending the market travel from all over the country. We were closed until the summer just passed.

Like every business, especially within the hospitality sector, we were very wary when we reopened. What was really interesting was that our numbers boomed. We were probably busier than we had ever been in the six years before that.

From the moment we opened in June we saw a massive influx of people. We used to be around the 2,000 to 3,000 mark, but we’ve definitely been busier every Sunday since we reopened, which has been fantastic.

One of the really interesting parts of reopening has been the influx of stallholders from all over the country, from all walks of life.

There’s definitely a lot of the younger generation, but equally there are people who wanted a change of direction from the job they were in. Something they used to do as a hobby, during lockdown they weren’t working and had more time to paint, take photos, craft or bake.

The market takes place every Sunday and we now have 150 stallholders on the books. We’re inundated with a waiting list.

The conversation we have with a lot of stallholders is how they can use the market as a platform, because sometimes Sunday isn’t enough to be sustainable, so a lot of them aim to get stocked in shops across the country through the market.

We’ve also had quite a number of cafés and restaurants that have opened off the back of the market.

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