Somebody had propped a monochrome sketch in the window of one of the terraced houses on Railway Street in Balbriggan.
It was a felt-tip and pencil replica of a picture of the street done by the Manchester artist Laurence Stephen Lowry, known commonly as L.S. Lowry.
Lowry came to Balbriggan during a Dublin visit. He drew the portrait in 1970, giving it the title “In a Fishing Village about 30 miles North of Ireland”.
The scene he made was car-free. Thirty matchstick figures milling around, most on the street and only a few on the footpath. Children and pets roamed about. Adults marched to the station.
These days, the street looks different most of the time. It’s often a rat-run for cars headed to the station, say locals.
But on Saturday, the council had put up steel barriers at either end of the narrow street. Orange signs told passersby that it was closed to traffic for the day. And, by midday, a street party was in full swing.
Throwing a street party was the idea of members of Scéal, a local collective of artists, says Eamonn Donlyn, a cofounder of the collective who is also involved in Smart Balbriggan.
“When we pitched the idea, and asked, ‘Well how do we do this?’, it evolved into a climate action event,” he said.
Events like this can help the town to engage with issues like climate change and sustainability, he says. “It’s not to provide solutions, but to create conversations.”
One such conversation has been around the possibility of pedestrianising more areas within Balbriggan’s centre. Fingal County Council has said in its draft climate action plan that it will explore that.
Balbriggan is listed in the draft plan as a decarbonising zone, meaning it’s an area where there will be an increased emphasis on reducing carbon emissions through things like reducing traffic, retrofitting homes, and more greening.
That designation gives the town a chance to try things like pedestrianisation, says Donlyn. “A street party like this offers a glimpse into how we can bring a town together, and figure out, as a multicultural town, how to be a true inclusive, diverse, sustainable community.”
Fingal County Council didn’t directly address a query about where in Balbriggan they may look at for possible pedestrianisation.
As part of the decarbonising zone pilot, it will advance a range of climate action and active travel initiatives, including public realm upgrades, they said.
Just outside the train station on Saturday, a singer performed “Pictures of Matchstick Men”, a tribute to Lowry’s minimalistic style of sketching stick-thin characters, written by the British rock band Status Quo.
In the window of Around A Pound, a euro shop, artists of all ages reinterpreted his slice-of-life sketch – as a short graphic story, with a fuller palette, or layering more detail.
Elsewhere, children played oversized checkers and 10-pin bowling. Stalls along the road showcased crafts and clothing, while information desks promoted green initiatives, like active travel and biodiversity protection.
It would be nice to see that atmosphere return to the street, says Eadaoin Allen, who was strolling through the party with a friend. “We would have grown up with the factory, hearing the sirens calling everyone to work.”
Allen moved to Balbriggan as a child, she says. “When we grew up, all of these houses on the main streets were occupied by families.”
“When five o’clock came, they continued to live,” she says. “But now, because there are a lot of shop fronts, most of it is closed, and it has really become a rat-run. It’s not used for what it was originally for.”
Pedestrianising Railway Street was raised by the local independent Councillor Tony Murphy almost a decade ago, at an area committee meeting in September 2014.
He had a business on the street for a couple of years in the early 1980s, he says. “The kids would play tennis up against the wall. That is how infrequent traffic was.”
Of course, Balbriggan had fewer people at the time, he says, and the query that he put forward was if the council ever intended to pedestrianise the street. “All I wanted to do was open up the conversation.”
There weren’t any plans, said the council’s response. It was a one-way street, connecting Drogheda Street to the station, and pedestrianising it would involve significant changes to traffic arrangements in the area, it said.
A bus service runs along the street and local businesses use it for deliveries, it said.
The query led to some changes, he says. “We got some trees in. We got a widening of the footpath.”
But more changes are needed, he says. “Railway Street is the gateway to Balbriggan. It needs more investment, more trees. But anything done to the street needs detailed consultation with its stakeholders.”
As part of the Our Balbriggan rejuvenation scheme, the council has about €4 million ring fenced to reinvigorate Railway Street, the train station and its plaza.
The plan is for major public-realm improvements, to improve connectivity between the beach, station and Main Street, says an Our Balbriggan report. “This project is at concept stage with procurement of a design team anticipated to commence in 2024.”
Fingal County Council’s draft climate action plan for 2024 to 2029, which was published in October, has Balbriggan as a decarbonising zone.
In 2018, half of all Balbriggan’s carbon emissions came from home heating and energy, while transport produced more than a quarter.
Pedestrianising streets within the town centre was listed in the plan as one measure that the council could take to lower emissions.
The council’s plan said it could consider active travel options, such as “try-a-bike” schemes and “bike libraries”, and that it could look at where it could use space now given over to parking for other amenity uses.
The Fingal County Council spokesperson said that it expects to start a broader public engagement around Balbriggan as a decarbonising zone in the second quarter of 2024.
Open to new possibilities
In the middle of the street, Mwanaidi Dermany clutches a large photo-frame of cardboard, painted red and decorated with flowers.
Rat-running is a major issue on the street, says Dermany, in between photographs.
“Some people drive their car here as if it’s a motorway,” says Dermany, who is also chairperson of the Balbriggan Women’s Development Group.
Pedestrianisation wouldn’t necessarily need to be permanent, she says. “We could just have more days like this or even a market.”
The Sunday market in the town isn’t that central, she says. “If you don’t have a car, it’s not safe to walk to.”
Dan Fabris, owner of Brick Room, a wine and tapas bar on the east-end of the street says while he didn’t see a spike in customers, the bigger picture could be promising. “I’m a person with a business, but the environment is more important for me.”
Closing the road caused a few minor inconveniences for drivers, he says. “But, if it was to go ahead, I would like it. It could bring life to the area in the evenings, because after five when I close, this place is dead. It’s just taxis.”
David Donnelly, a resident of Balbriggan for 75 years, said he remembered Balbriggan’s severe traffic congestion in the late 1990s and was worried about the logistics of pedestrianisation.
“I’d be worried we’d go back to the same situation because of the influx of people moving here,” he said.
There are few streets where it could be implemented practically, he says. “Although Railway Street would probably be one of them alright.”
Donlyn says he sees flexibility as important in rolling out the decarbonising zone. “It’s not about making life more difficult for the population, by taking away or restricting something.”
“More likely a dynamic solution would be applicable to Balbriggan, than completely removing a street, unless there is a broader active travel strategy that considers a full change,” he says.
At 3pm, a crowd gathered outside the euro shop where prizes were handed out to some of the artists who had re-imagined the Lowry sketch.
Local independent Councillor Gráinne Maguire, deputy mayor of Fingal County Council, appeared and gave a brief speech.
She was delighted there were kids out playing on the street like in Lowry’s picture, she said. “And I think that’s a bit of our past that we need to bring into the future. We need to open up our streets, open up our community.”
Dermany says closing off the street for the day had delighted her daughter. “She told me that she thinks the street is supposed to be like this, because she thinks it’s safe.”
UPDATE: This article was updated at 9.15am on Thursday 26 October to add responses from Fingal County Council.