A YEAR as first citizen will conclude for PJ Ryan this week, with the independent councillor set to be succeeded by Fianna Fáil’s Tony O’Brien on Friday.
“It was extremely busy, very, very busy and I suppose that was due to the fact that the two previous years had been very quiet because of Covid. I’d say we had more Ministers visiting County Clare than in the five years before that,” said Councillor Ryan this week.
His time as Cathaoirleach of the County Council started on a low note, as he attended the funeral of Fionn O’Brien, the lifeguard who died after a surfing accident last June, within days of his election.
Also, the early part of his year with the chain of office was a time when Covid was still dominating much of life.
“In the 2021 section of the term it was still very prevalent. It did constrain us a bit and we had to be careful. And it’s still around now,” says Councillor Ryan.
However travel restrictions were lifted in advance of St Patrick’s Day, and for the first time in a few years the Cathaoirleach was in New York for the parade.
“The real high point was leading the Clare congregation down 5th Avenue on St Patrick’s Day. Normally that’s done by the President of the Clareman’s Association in New York but she wasn’t available on the day so it fell to me.”
Occasionally there is criticism that the cost of sending Clare representatives to New York outweighs the benefits that follow, but he has no doubt that it’s a worthwhile investment.
“Not every place in the world has the chance to promote what it has in New York.”
Another highlight that he identifies is the recent unveiling of a piece of sculpture at Shankyle Graveyard in Kilrush, commemorating the children who died at the Clare County Nursery.
“These little babies had gone unremembered for many years, but Clare County Council decided to unveil a plaque in their honour, I took great solace from that.”
Councillor Ryan also took pride in organising the Mayor’s Ball.
“Ann Norton and myself organised the Mayor’s Charity Ball and there was a big contribution to Clare Crusaders and Sláinte an Chláir, that was something I was very proud of as well.”
Dismal health services have long been an issue for Clare and as his term ends, he says it is the county’s biggest problem.
“The biggest issue is the hospital (UHL), that’s still a major, major issue. I’m around long enough to remember that when they took away the services from Ennis they promised us a centre of excellence in UHL, which never happened. We’re still suffering because of that.”
He says that all elected representatives hear constant complaints about the many problems in accessing appropriate care.
While Shannon Airport is having quite a good year, he says there is a very obvious need for the State to make sure that Dublin’s dominance of Irish aviation is lessened.
“Shannon Airport is going reasonably well at the minute, but there’s a need for a change of policy to distribute the amount of traffic that’s going into Dublin out to Cork and Shannon. When I started as Cathaoirleach there was an awful lot of talk about regional development and a regional spread, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.”
He is also very aware of how hard inflation is biting, and he has concerns about its impact on older people.
“That’s something that’s coming up a lot and I’d have first hand knowledge of it. I’m in the oil distribution business and now older people have to pay three weeks’ pension for a half tank of heating oil.
“A half a tank would last maybe eight to ten weeks depending on how much they use it. That’s a major, major problem. It’s only going to get worse as we get into the winter, the price of oil is going in the wrong direction all the time, it has been constantly going up for months and months.”
During the year the Council and the University of Limerick sought to progress the development of a Strategic Development Zone, which would mean thousands of jobs, but it didn’t get off the ground as yet.
“I would have thought it would have got way more support. It’s still on track though, it’s up to the Department and the Minister to make a decision on it.”
Another disappointment was that the assets of Shannon Heritage (including Bunratty Castle and Folk Park) still haven’t been transferred to Clare County Council.
“I’d like to have seen the takeover of Shannon Heritage completed. I was promised it’d be over the line by several Ministers before I left office.
“There are over 200 people employed in Shannon Heritage and they need 100% certainty, they want to know their jobs are assured. We also need it for Clare tourism.”
Twelve months on, he said he enjoyed the position, but at the same time he won’t be sorry to pass on the chain of office.
“I certainly enjoyed my term, but it has been an extremely busy year, I’m not any bit sorry to be handing the baton to anyone else. It was an honour to serve the people of Clare but you’re just about burned up by the time the 12 months is over!”