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Sign of the Times: How Dundalk BIDS is looking back to get ahead

Sign Restoration Dundalk
Dundalk Bids manager Martin McElligott and the first sign restored on Earl Street in the town.

Martin McElligott, Dundalk’s BIDS Manager, is taking a step back in time in a bid to secure the future of the town centre as an inviting and thriving place to visit, shop, eat, drink and admire.

While work is soon to get underway on a new project entitled ‘Facades’, which will see buildings around the Church Street area undergo a facelift in line with the new Clanbrassil Street and St Nicholas Quarter redevelopment – something McElligott says will “create an identity” for the area – he and a number of other stakeholders are working on something related, in sorts.

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The Dundalk Retail Heritage Signage project could also be classed under ‘new paint job’ but that would not do justice of any kind to the scope of the project and what it aims to achieve. It is something very different altogether.

“We are trying to replace and revive some of the old commercial history in the town through the old painted signs,” he told LouthNow.ie. “These businesses are all long gone. These are things I would have looked at even as a local here and said ‘I’d love to paint that back to what it was.'”

The first sign in his sights was one that stretched all across from Park Street to Earl Street, the length of the old E ‘Connell Wholesale Tea Warehouse, Ham & Bacon Store’ building, known to many nowadays as the building that houses the former McCusker’s Shop, the Europa takeaway and Magee’s Pharmacy.

“Darran Rafferty nabbed me one day and said have you noticed that sign on Earl Street. To be honest, I didn’t really notice it. But after he said it, it stood out like a sore thumb,” Martin explains.

“I approached the landlord of the building, I approached Declan Breathnach, a tenant, who gave me a big help and of course the local authority because most of these buildings are protected structures. It’s not something you can just go around doing. You have to work on research, you have to work on conservation.”

With the help of some financial goodwill and with Dundalk-based Thinking Cap Design, work began on restoring the now almost completely faded sign to it’s former glory.  One down, several more to go.

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The work was never really considered a one-off job, with attentions quickly turning to other such chances to restore century-old signage around the town – opposite site one at the old Dundalk Democrat building on Earl Street and on Clanbrassil Street too.

Opportunity knocked, but funding support was lacking. “The problem is I have no funding. This is where the GoFundMe comes in and I realise that there are far greater causes out there,” the Dundalk BIDS Manager said, explaining the thinking behind a recently launched online campaign which seeks contributions from the general public towards the work.

“There are kids that need help, there are people that need help. I decided to go down this route because there were no funding mechanisms for this type of thing for me, for our company. I said we’ll try this and see if the general public wants to invest in some of our history and heritage.

“I’m excited about it,” he added. “I really like the project and I feel if the general public really want to invest in Dundalk town centre in this way, we’d really appreciate the support. We’ll put the money to good use.

“These signs are protected. It’s not an easy task. There’s a lot of stuff you have to do in line with the local authority to make it happen. We have to tick all those boxes with them. It’s quite an expensive thing to do. I got a bit of a shock.

McElligott said; “It’s great to see a sign erected in 1871. The biggest comment from people on the street, and on social media, was that people had looked at old pictures of that all their lives but they have never envisaged it in colour.”

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McElligott says he is hopeful that he can soon “break the deadlock” with property owners and Louth County Council in regards to restoring the old sign at the former Dundalk Democrat building on Earl Street, citing it is “one I have always wanted to do.”

“We also have another beautiful sign on Clanbrassil Street which is the old Stewart’s Fish and Poultry sign. If you look up long enough, you’ll see it there. It’s above the Shoe Zone, at the gable end. A lot of people don’t know that one but it is the one which is still preserved in colour.

“Whereas with the other ones, we have to do a bit of research and digging and we still don’t know if we got it right. They’ve only ever been seen in black and white. This is in colour and the traces are still there so we have a great idea of what it looked like back in the day. We should be able to conserve it quite accurately from that point of view.”

Declan Breathnach, former TD, is one of the tenants of the building on Earl Street where the first sign was restored and he offered Martin help in his efforts to get the project off the ground from the outset.

“I want to compliment the work done by Martin and Dundalk BIDS to make the town more attractive for people to enjoy,” Breathnach told LouthNow.ie. “I think the hidden history of Dundalk that can and should be exposed can help to make Dundalk a thriving business town but also means people can come and understand it’s past.

“This is only part of what the BIDs are about. I believe the history of Dundalk, people need to be able to live it. It all has great potential.”

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Does the town have untapped potential when it comes to heritage? McElliogott says yes, expressing his keenness to use the town’s history and heritage to to cultivate and improve community self-esteem.

“I would absolutely agree that Dundalk’s heritage is untapped. Some of our best selling points are not talked about enough,” he said. “Town centres are more than just retail, although retail is a very important commercial element of the function of the town centre. What I am trying to do is show how the area can look different and be different. I think people want to come in to an area that looks well and is well looked after.

“Community self esteem through heritage and culture is extremely important. I think it’s invoked that in people. People feel in love with the Seek Festival last year because of its angle. Mural festivals are mural festivals but our decision to tell Dundalk’s unique story on gable buildings was its unique selling point.

“We had 100 year old stories and 700 stories. The people that live here can discover stories they didn’t know and people who visit see it and want to know more. All of this is important in how the town centre looks and feels,” he added. “Heritage to me is so important.”

The result of the work is obviously satisfying in itself but so too is the process, especially considering what can be gleaned from research and exploration of documents and photographs, many from the 19th century in order to restore the signs as accurately and as true to the original as possible.

McElligott tells a tale of a plastered plinth on the very first sign at the Earl Street building – seemingly put in place to cover up some poor brick work. He says that suggests a falling out between the building owner and the builder tasked with the brick work.

“It’s forensic heritage,” he tells us, half-jokingly.

With no state funding available, the GoFundMe fundraiser will play a vital role in whether further signage restoration work in Dundalk can take place. While conceding there are financial restraints people live with and other GoFundMe’s will be considered more worthy, the BIDS boss asks that locals consider making a small donation towards something that can tangibly benefit the town centre.

“We do realise there are many GoFundMe’s out there that are more important than this. If that’s people’s priority, it should be their priority. But if they feel they want to invest in Dundalk town centre and it’s heritage in this way, give us a try. They won’t be disappointed.”

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