I had a bit of a moment this week – you could call it a Cider with Roisin moment – when I heard about Apple’s latest plans. The tech titan revealed that it’s going to spend £1.25bn on two massive data centres in Europe. One is in the pine forests of the Jutland peninsula; the other is in Athenry in the west of Ireland. The latter will see a 166,000sq m mega-complex develop over the next two years, costing £62.1m and sprawling all over Derrydonnell Forest. An artist’s impression shows the development as eight long, white, bungaloid structures, resembling blocks of a hi-tech penitentiary, discreetly half-hidden amid spindly, camouflaging trees.
Rugby fans know the name of Athenry as a terrace chant – “The Fields of Athenry”, a song regularly sung at international matches. It’s also the town my family comes from. My father was born there, in a farm called Ballybacka. His brother Paddy raised six children in a handsome grey house called Graig Abbey. My sister and I used to visit our uncle, aunt and cousins most summers when we were teenagers.
Hence my moment of remembrance. Like Laurie Lee in Cider with Rosie, recalling his idyllic childhood in Slad in Gloucestershire just after the First World War, the Apple news pitched me back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Five hundred miles from London, with its stoned hippies in Hyde Park and gay-bashing skinheads on Clapham Common, I found myself amazed by town life in the mystic West.
I couldn’t walk 10 yards down the street beside my father without someone accosting him to demand when he was “coming home” from alien London, as if being a GP there was a temporary derangement. The Athenry butcher and the lady in the cake shop greeted my sister and me (who’d never met her before) as if we were regulars (news travelled fast). I’d go to hurling matches at the local pitch and marvel at the speed and extreme violence of the participants. Cousins would point out the town strumpet, the town ommathawn (a step up from village idiot) and the mildly off-her-head former local beauty, with her jet-black wig and dazzling starlet smile.
Though technically too young to be allowed in pubs, I’d become comprehensively sloshed in the muttering gloom of the Jersey Bar, after which we’d go for salty chips, handed out at her front door by a local entrepreneuse called Mrs Duddy, who’d warn my cousin John: “Now you look out for this young English fecker. There’s some lads from Turloughmore [a name that translates as Big Puddle] in town and they’d surely skin him alive if they found him…”
Since you drag it out of me, yes I did encounter romance. Like Steve Earle, I fell in love with a “Galway Girl”, specifically an Athenry Aphrodite called Patricia, on a road near Derrydonnell Forest. I was on a bicycle; she was picking flowers by the roadside; her eyes were periwinkle blue; it was love at first sight. Her father had reservations about Englishmen, so it was an al fresco courtship, all woods and hills and the dusk at Carratubber Lake…
Yes, well. Forgive the hurtle down the years, but that was Athenry to me – a fabulously vivid small town full of characters. In later years, the local Women’s Group set up a heritage centre and made sure the town, with its ancient walls and noble archway, was marked as a “site of historic interest” on every map of Ireland sold in Europe. During the Celtic Tiger economy, it grew in size. But what will become of it when the data centre starts up? Will it now become “the Apple town”? Will it, in 10 years’ time, be known as Applery?
The powers in the land are right behind the project. Apple, understandably satisfied with its “Double Irish” tax arrangements, which reduce its fiscal liability to barely visible proportions, is a big employer of Irish labour, mostly at its European HQ in Cork. The Irish PM, Enda Kenny, blithely called the new initiative “fantastic news for Athenry, with significant knock-on benefits for the region”. The company promised that 300 jobs would be created for locals, although for a while this seemed to mean 300 jobs in construction work at the forest – as if the Irish locals’ only function in the development would be as labourers. Apple promises to plant loads of trees to compensate for the ones knocked down. It’s all going to be a blissful, synergic marriage of hi-tech American gloss and natural-fibre, native-Irish adaptability. In fact, it’s going to be a rerun of the film Local Hero, in which a Texas oilman tries to buy up a Scottish village. Remember the scene in which two bearded Scots ancients mutter darkly about the “strange times” ahead, before comparing notes about compensation packages and property prices and dancing a jig of greed?
I don’t really think Athenry will be changed utterly by having its new hi-tech neighbour looming on the doorstep. I doubt that the locals in Bridgie Glynn’s bar will start dressing in Steve Jobs polo necks or conversing in Silicon Valley jargon. I can’t see the mini-market in the main street replaced by a giant Wal-Mart. I expect my brother-in-law, who plays golf in Derrydonnell Forest, will be able to find somewhere else to tee-off, and that my young cousins, still living in the town, will be entranced by the prospect of a job amid the computer servers…
And so, by a process of logic and optimism, one stifles the feeling of annoyance and indignation that Apple is to land upon Athenry like a great spaceship, settling on territory that’s lived in my head for a lifetime as mostly unchanged Elysium. You may say, since you don’t live there, what’s it got to do with you? To which I reply, I’m not talking about the actual town. I’m talking about my Tir na nOg, the Land of My Youth. Somebody’s just driven into it and unloaded – like a slurry of concrete – 600 million quids’ worth of the future all over it.Reuse content