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The men and women driving Kerrykeel’s economic revival

Staff of the Narrow Quarter, a new bistro and coffee house which has just opened up in Kerrykeel. Flanking the staff members are proprietors Aidan Friel and John McDaid with Shauna Gallagher, Laura Stewart, Elizabeth McLaughlin and Stewart McClean between them.

 

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IT is a warm, sunny May morning in Kerrykeel. 

 
The roads are relatively quiet bar a farmer unloading a trailer and a couple of tourists out for a gentle Wednesday morning cycle.
 
We pull up outside The Narrow Quarter, a recently opened coffee house and bistro that in a previous life was The Tavern pub and before that Paddy Mor’s.
 
The Narrow Quarter is the latest in a string of new businesses to spring up in a village that was decimated by the recession years. So much so that in 2015 one local newspaper ran with the headline ‘Kerrykeel – A Village Under Threat’.
 
Fast forward three years though and it is slowly rising from the flames that engulfed so many parts of rural Ireland. The recovery is sluggish but it is happening.
 
A big part of Kerrykeel’s Renaissance is down to the local Tidy Towns Committee and the sterling work it is doing.
 
The drive in to the village from the main Milford road was once tree lined and dull while today it is beautifully maintained with stunning views of Mulroy Bay. 
 
Without official help, the group has created a jetty along the edge of the bay, complete with park benches and picnic tables. The next project is the completion of a 0.5km walkway along the water’s edge. It has already been given the green light by the planners but is being held up by an issue on the part of Donegal County Council.
 
When finished the walkway will be a worthy addition to the village’s already impressive tourist appeal.
 
Ernest Stewart has run a car sales business in Kerrykeel for 30 years and is a central figure within the Tidy Towns Committee.
 

Pictured with Kerrykeel’s Tidy Towns award is local businessman and Tidy Towns member Ernest Stewart.

 
“The recession knocked us back a lot but we are starting to see shoots of recovery,” Ernest said.
 
“Like all rural areas it is a slow process but things are definitely looking better than they were.”
 
The good work of the Tidy Towns Committee has not gone unnoticed either. Despite only having been established four years ago, they last year received a ‘Tidy Towns Endeavour Award’ from the judges of the national and unnervingly competitive contest.
 
“We only entered the competition to put down a marker and lo and behold, we ended up winning a prize,” Ernest said.
 
The Kerrykeel Employment Project also plays a big role in day-to-day community life. Each morning those involved in the project can be found painting houses, cutting grass, building walls and whatever else needs done. Their handiwork is visible everywhere and shortly they will begin a project that will see an area known locally as ‘Cow Hill’ transformed into a community green space.
 
Without the efforts of volunteers and the support of local councillors, particularly Liam Blaney, none of it would be possible, according to Ernest Stewart.
 
Back at The Narrow Quarter a dozen customers are eating breakfast or enjoying a coffee. Not bad for a new business on a Wednesday morning in a sleepy Donegal village.
 

Aidan and John, owners of the Narrow Quarter.

 
So named because Kerrykeel in Irish is An Cheathrú Chaol, which translates as Narrow Quarter, the bistro is owned by Ramelton man John McDaid and Kerrykeel native Aidan Friel whose grandparents, Francie and Kathleen Friel, used to run the village post office.
 
John and Aidan spent two years renovating the abandoned pub building, transforming it from a leaky, run-down shack to a contemporary coffee house that, while undoubtedly Irish, has a distinctly European flavour to it. On the menu you have, among many other dishes, French toast, spicy chicken quiche and Falafal salad.
 
Where possible the lads source their ingredients locally, as in mussels from Mulroy Bay, smoked salmon from Carrigart, meat from a local butcher and jams made in Kerrykeel.
 
The Narrow Quarter has only been opened for six weeks but it has already proved a hit with the locals.
 
“The support from the local community has been great and that means a lot to both of us,” says Aidan.
 
“It gives people somewhere to come during the day and it provides them with a meeting spot. This is only our sixth week but it has been really busy.”
 
According to the last count there were just over 400 people living in Kerrykeel. So opening a coffee house might sound like a risky strategy. It is unlikely though that those figures include the population boom that has stemmed from the building of estates like Ford Garden, Bun An Droichead, Knockalla Close and Colmcille.
 
And then of course the road through Kerrykeel laces all the way to Fanad Lighthouse, now one of Donegal’s premier tourist attractions.
 
“A big part of our market research was around Fanad Lighthouse. And the population growth around here has been massive in recent years,” explained John as two more hungry customers wandered through the door of the Narrow Quarter.
 
Directly across the road is Saldie’s Pub, or at least it used to be. Saldie’s closed several years ago and has just been reopened as The Plough and Harrow by new owner Daniel Loughrey.
 
While the Plough and Harrow appeared closed – it was just after 10am on a Wednesday morning – Ernest Stewart said it was a welcome addition to the village’s social fabric.
 
“It is another door open and it has taken off really well,” he said.
 
As with most villages, key focal points include the local national school which was a hive of activity on Wednesday morning, and the churches, of which Kerrykeel has two – Catholic and Presbyterian.
 

A new generation smiling for the camera at Scoil Cholmcille, Kerrykeel.

 
Things you won’t find in every rural village though are a Turkish barbers and a German-owned fishing tackle shop.
 
Kus Mevlut opened his haircutting business ‘Kuscuts’ after marrying local woman, Catriona Fealty.
 
Wielding one of the razor blades he uses to provide that unique Turkish barbering experience, Kus said, “It has been very good and the local people have been very supportive. It is a big help when you are married to someone from here but the people have been very good since I opened. Kerrykeel is a nice village where everyone knows each other. 
 

Kus Mevlut who runs Kuscuts in Kerrykeel.

 
“I do things the traditional Turkish way and my customers seem to like it. I have people coming from an hour away because you can get your hair cut anywhere, but I offer something that little bit different. I love it here and I’m very happy.”
 
Next door, in what was the Mulroy Ballroom, George Bieck runs George’s Fishing Tackle, an angling and gun store. He has lived for the past five years in Kerrykeel and has noticed things picking up.
 
“When I came here first the town was really dead. Even last summer there was nothing happening, only the caravan park. But it has definitely got busier and the local people are promoting their businesses again which is a big help.”
 

George Bieck, owner of George’s Guns and Tackle shop.

 
Economically the past decade has been a cruel one for Ireland and many communities continue to reel as a result of businesses going bust, homes being repossessed and a generation lost to emigration.
 
Thanks though to the commitment of people like Narrow Quarter duo John and Aidan, Tidy Towns volunteer Ernest Stewart, National School Principal Eunan Gallagher and businessmen Kus and George, reports of Kerrykeel’s demise are indeed greatly exaggerated.
 

Beautiful Kerrykeel with the Donegal mountains looming high above it.

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